1988 : SHACK - SOUNDS, MARCH 26

Let’s play Housey Housey!

Legs eleven, number eleven. Two fat ladies, 88. Bingo! The winner is Michael Head and his prize is an accidental concept album.

Mike Head, the man who should’ve but didn’t with ‘Pool prodigies The Pale Fountains is back with a new band. Shack, and a new album Zilch.

He gave us fair warning when the final Pale Fountains incarnation included a bruising cover of Love’s A House Is Not A Motel in their live repertoire but, from Shack’s name inwards this is a band with a substantial interest in bricks and mortar – more songs about buildings and more buildings.

High Rise Low Life, Who Killed Clayton Square?, Someone’s Knocking and Realization are songs that set the scene for a House music that originates not in Chicago but on Merseyside.

To call this a bona fide concept would only reveal the journalist’s brain is in need of a major structural survey, but that’s not to say this theme is accidental – it’s just reflecting what’s been happening in Head’s neighbourhood recently.

“The housing situation in Liverpool over the last 30 years has been ridiculous. The redevelopment of the heart of the city has been a mess. I mean, in Liverpool the sense of being in a community is an essential thing. Y’know how people in Liverpool are meant to be friendly. Well, I don’t know, but that feeling seems to have been fucked up.”

Pardon my conspiracy theory, but are we talking conscious anti-community planning?

“Sometimes I think so, but then sometimes I think it’s one of those things that you’re living through and therefore can’t analyse. They were building this stuff in the 60’s and they thought concrete was the thing because it was cheap. In Liverpool there’s two cathedrals, one built 100 years ago and the other built 15 years ago. The one built 15 years ago should be knocked down.”

Who Killed Clayton Square? deals with one corner of Liverpool that suffered just that fate.

“In Liverpool, Clayton Square was, like, where the gay community lived. Now it’s been demolished, just like that; taken out of the city and replaced with a new shopping centre. Clayton Square was beautiful.”
Now it gets to take part in a concrete-conurb concept?

“Ha ha. Nah, it’s no real conscious thing. On The Pale Fountains albums the lyrics were like, vast. Now, it’s more homing in on specifics in an observational way more than in a way that makes statements.

Mike considers that his sharpening of lyrical focus makes Zilch, his first real album. Whereas The Pale Fountains words clearly look second place to songwriting skills of monumental proportions, Zilch overcomes this imbalance.

Even so, it’s still Mike’s massive melodic structures along with his brother John’s guitar work that makes Zilch compelling. The boy who would’ve been Bacharach and/or David is still hanging in there.

“With The Pale Fountains I was just writing songs because I thought other people could sing them. I got this idea that I was a songwriter and I was so made up with this idea that I probably got a bit carried away with it over the first Paleys album. The Bacharach and David… Yeah, the first album was taken to extremes with the orchestration. The Shack album’s been written for a band and it’s the better for it.”

With the Fountains’ grandoise themes with Latin tinges the band clearly pre-empted the vision of Sade et al. Not that being an uncredited herald is anything new to Head. He was making references to 50’s. Northern social realism long before Morrissey.

This fascination coloured the name Head chose for an aborted post-Paleys musical venture. The name was the L-Shaped Room, the title of a book by Lynne Reid Banks. A name that fits squarely with Alan Sillitoe, Tom Finney and post-war Britain.

It’s an interest that shows on the Zilch album sleeve: two young men in suits making a pass at a couple of girls on a lamplit Northern street corner. Post-Morrissey, it’s an image that’s almost a cliche.

“The thing about that social realism is that it’s fundemantal, isn’t it? It’s there and that’s why it’s so interesting. I don’t think it’s a cliche – people are just more used to things nowadays. If you were watching The Hound of the Baskervilles ten years ago and you the bit at the end where he says, Watson bring me the needle, it wouldn’t have meant anything. Nowadays your little brother’ll know what it means.”

Television is another facet that crops up throughout Zilch like a place name through seaside rock (Brighton Rock, of course):

What do you think of MORI polls?/What do you think of Bill Cosby? (Emergency).

Like a joke on Countdown always brings the house down. (The Believers).

The obvious connection for the London-based music hack to make is Merseyside equals unemployment equals TV consumption.

Head admits, “I’m a pure telehead. It’s no problem – I just love it. At the moment I’m a pure Easties fan – I’m not into Brookside at the moment (disloyal but realistic). I like afternoon films and programmes like Open Air.”

“Derek Hatton was on the other day. It was brilliant – there was this bloke, who could’ve been from Nebraska but was really from some Yorkshire village, and he was completely missing all Hatton’s points. It got pretty embarrassing when Hatton’s PR man got going, saying how Derek was going to be a film star. I like stuff like that.”

Along with Head’s fondness for post-war prole art, he’s been something of a satorial frontrunner.

Five years ago The Pale Fountains were wearing the hiking boots that are now high street fashion. Similarly, if you examine photographic evidence from the period, you can clearly make out shorts and sandals and compile a case for prosecuting him under the recently passed Undue Assistance To Anorak-Wearers Act (1987).

Mike isn’t pleading guilty. Well, not quite…

“Yeah it is true I suppose. In the early days the press were there with their cameras and one of us might have been wearing shorts and then at the next gig we might have been wearing firemen’s helmets. It was one of those things where the camera was there and that image was then escalated ’til it seemed that we dressed like that all the time. Maybe we did it for a few days if we couldn’t get to the laundrette, y’know what I mean?”

Why Zilch though?

“We wanted to call it Armitage Shanks Better Bathrooms but they wouldn’t let us. After that we had to call it Zilch, because it means nothing.”

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Zilch (1988)
1. Emergency (listen)
2. Someone’s Knocking (listen)
3. John Kline (listen)
4. I Need You (listen)
5. Realization (listen)
6. High Rise Low Life (listen)
7. Who Killed Clayton Square? (listen)
8. Who’d Believe It? (listen)
9. What’s It Like… (listen)
10. The Believers (listen)