A picture of an unknown, battered-looking, late thirty-something former heroin addict on the cover of NME in 1999, declaring ‘This man is our greatest songwriter. Recognise him?’
The resounding answer was, of course, no. Perhaps this time, Michael Head, and his younger brother John, may earn the renown they have long deserved. Here’s Tom With The Weather is the fourth album by their band Shack – a tiny output, considering Head’s first band released their debut single 21 years ago. But it may even be their best.
Lush with harmonies and angelic orchestration, Here’s Tom… once again takes as its home turf Liverpool’s neglected district of Kensington (aka ‘Kenny’), where the Heads were raised. The ever-changing moods of Kenny play a big part in Shack. Head’s songs offer glimpses of complicated lives eked out in its streets.
But more central to Shack is their dedication to a scuffed magnificence; to beauty. There are graceful love songs here, vistas framed by both the faraway eyes of the besotted and the thousand yard stares of the lost.
‘To a Liverpudlian extent, it’s like the blues,’ muses Mick. ‘Beautiful songs are written out of life, out of hardship. You can be a single mum in a high-rise, with three kids, into crack, and still dream.’
‘Beautiful’ is one of Head’s favourite words. Time and again, his talk turns to it. Comedian Bill Hicks is ‘one of the most beautiful people ever to be born on this fuckin’ earth,’ he says.
The album’s title is taken from a Hicks sketch, in which he imagined an alternative to the diet of misery on the news. ‘He’s going on about an LSD story, but that’s not important,’ Mick says. ‘Regardless of whatever’s going on in the world – “here’s Tom with the weather”. It could’ve been, “5,000 people have just died”, and then, “here’s the fuckin’ weather”. It says everything about life, in a way.’
Life has been less than kind to the Heads. They started as The Pale Fountains, a jangly pop group, unfashionably consumed by Burt Bacharach and – in a Liverpool of dour music and long coats – strikingly attired in short trousers and straw hats, like Huckleberry Finn. ‘It was more of a First World War One, but it did verge on Deep South,’ says Mick. ‘But it were just… boss togs! We used to sign on like that.’
Signing to Virgin for the then unprecedented sum of £150,000, they left in 1986 after two unsatisfying albums. Mick Head’s best friend and fellow Fountain Chris McCaffrey – ‘Biffa’ – died in a bike crash around this time.
Shack came out of the wreckage of the Fountains. Their sound prefigured the soft Northern psychedelia that would eventually immortalise the Stone Roses. But back then, Shack’s unsympathetically produced 1988 debut, Zilch, failed to set the world alight. The next album, Waterpistol, promised much, but the 1991 recordings were stillborn when a fire destroyed the master tapes and closed their label, Ghetto. The remaining master was lost for months in a car the producer had hired in America. The Heads were cast adrift; their bassist left to join Cast. Mick Head swapped the mind-expanding substances that fuelled Waterpistol for heroin.
John Head interjects, uncomfortably: ‘I just want to make it clear that I never did drugs.’
‘I did the drugs,’ says Mick. ‘I’ll take the rap.’
Things picked up when Mick and John became the backing band for their idol, Love’s Arthur Lee, throughout the mid-Nineties.
‘Everyone was saying, “Oh, your illusions are going to be really shattered, meeting your hero,”‘ recalls John. ‘Me and him were going, “No, you’re wrong, he’s gonna be cool”. And he was.’
‘He’ll lower his glasses and look you in the soul,’ adds Mick. ‘He’s a beautiful man.’
Lee was jailed in 1996 on firearms charges, and the Heads were out on a limb once more. (When Lee toured at the start of this year, he rang the Heads to ask if they’d join him when the tour hit Liverpool. But it never happened. ‘We were definitely jealous [of his band],’ notes John).
The ‘lost’ Waterpistol album was finally released in 1995 on Marina, a tiny German label. But weary of Shack’s misadventures, Head changed the band’s name and recorded their finest album to date, 1997’s heady, gossamer Magical World Of The Strands, for an even more obscure French label, Megaphone. Bucolic, addled and elegant, it was the finest example yet of the Heads’ mystical sound.
‘For me, we were The Strands of Beauty,’ Mick explains. ‘ The Magical World… was the perfect title for it, because it was a magical time. I was bang into heroin, but The Strands was… a different world.’
The cult of the Heads had gathered pace by the late Nineties, and they recorded their most commercial album, HMS Fable. Mick detoxed, the music press declared him a genius. The songs were stunning, even if the tinny production let them down. Shack headlined a tour of supposedly new bands, Coldplay opened for them. And then? Their label folded, pulling the rug out from under Shack once again.
Mick and John Head are sanguine. ‘You just go along, don’t you?’ says Mick.
Most would feel bitter.
‘We had a strong ma,’ counters Mick. ‘ She gave us all this knowledge and it’s held us in good stead. You just gotta go forward. You’d be a nervous wreck if you dwelt on it.’
With so many to choose from, you wonder what their bleakest hour was.
Mick doesn’t hesitate. ‘When our ma died. She died halfway through Fable, of a brain tumour.’
They didn’t think of packing it all in, even then.
‘I find it quite painful not to play guitar,’ says John quietly. ‘Even if we packed it in, half an hour later, we’d be at it…’
If the Shack story reads like a tale of misfortune, the reverse is just as true. Ultimately, Shack’s is a tale of difficulties surmounted and chances grasped; of gorgeous music somehow slipping around massive obstacles and finding a way out.
This time, Shack’s rescue came in the form of Simon Moran, of concert promoters SJM. He bought Shack seven weeks in a studio to make Here’s Tom… , a record that unites the romanticism of the Stone Roses, and the mariachi-horned psychedelia of Love. Once again, the climate is favourable. Bands like the Coral have turned the nation’s gaze towards Liverpool and past fashion. Could this finally be it?
‘I’m not sure what success is,’ muses Mick. ‘I feel totally lucky. For 20 years, I haven’t signed on. In the meantime, there’s been albums,’ he pauses, ‘There’s been beauty.’