Suppose two years ago you were sat in a Liverpool bar surrounded by local musicians and media folk and you pulled out £100 to bet that in 1999 Mick Head of Shack would be selling out gigs and releasing one of the year’s best albums. Believe me, the queue of takers would have stretched down Lime Street. Fact is, at that time, Mick Head was seriously out of sorts. His life was dorninated by drugs, his career to date littered with mistakes and situations that bordered on the surreal and the comedic. Mastertapes to albums had gone missing, great songs ruined by producers and prestigious gigs blown through wilfully irresponsible behaviour.
As Mick seemed more interested in chasing the dragon than furthering his career, the news that Shack were now preparing to record a new album entitled HMS Fable was of little interest to anyone, let alone Liverpool’s cognoscenti.
There were only a few who believed that, if Head could free himself of his addictions and focus on the task in hand, then there really was no reason why he should not receive the kind of recognition that musicians such as Lee Mavers or Noel Gallagher had been enjoying for years.
Yet even his supporters couldn’t deny the growing feeling that maybe – just maybe – Lady Luck had selected Head to be the songwriter the world left behind. Only thing is, Mick himself was having none of it. He always knew the real question concerning his success was not if but when it would arrive. And this is the story of how he was proved right.
He is a nervous, restless creature with a winning smile and quick temper. He finds talking about songwriting unpleasant because he is afraid that to do so is to interfere with the magic. So he settles down instead to provide details, offer clues.
Mick Head was born in Kensington, part of the Everton area in Liverpool. It was considered an affluent area until the serious drug dealers moved in and turned it into heroin central. He would not escape that drug’s claws. Two of his best songs, X Hits The Spot and Streets Of Kenny, deal with these experiences.
He has a younger brother, John – Shack’s guitarist, occasional songwriter and probably Mick’s biggest fan, having starred in both of the latter’s groups. Their religion is Catholic, as was their school. One Christmas, Dad bought him a cassette player. A copy of David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane was stuffed inside. This is where the music bug truly starts. “I consumed that album,” recalls Mick. I didn’t and wouldn’t listen to anything else.”
A chance encounter with Dave Balfe of The Teardrop Explodes occurs at a record shop. Mick’s in awe, having seen the Teardrops on TV’s So it Goes and loved them. Balfe mentions a band at his rehearsal studio who are looking for members. The next thing you know Mick is a member of a band called Ho Ho Bacteria. (Yeah, he laughs at that name now as well.) But he soon left, didn’t like the music, far preferring the band he was listening to now. As far as Mick’s concerned, he’s never heard anything like the songs of Arthur Lee and his band, Love. He becomes obsessed with Love and he remains so until this day. Mick knows of a local lad, Chris McCaffrey, nickname Biffer, who plays bass. One night he takes a copy of Love’s Forever Changes to his house, delivers it to the lad just like you would a pizza. The next day they meet up, talk, explain themselves and become the closest of friends. They decide to form a hand, with Mick writing the songs. One problem: money. How do you get it for nothing? Simple, la. You become a student. The boys apply for a college course and duly receive a grant. They blow all the money on equipment and then forget they were ever students. Now they bring in Jock Whelan, drums, a guy called Mossy on guitar, and call themselves The Pale Fountains. Later on, Mick’s younger brother, John, joins, a quality guitar player. Mick remains adamant that his group should avoid aping the sound of successful Liverpool groups such as Echo or the Teardrops. Too obvious. So the band dress bohemian. Arran jumpers, caps, wellington boots even – just to fuck off the macho Scousers. They begin the search for a musical identity. Head has already noted in his obsessive study of Arthur Lee how that unique songwriter went out side of standard rock influences (towards Burt Bacharach, towards orchestration) to give his music an individual edge. He aims to achieve a similar synthesis, and starts checking out South American music. “The way they were using the brass was spot on,” he says, “plus you had this weird percussion and orchestration. But it all sounded good.” Finally, a spark goes off in the young songwriter’s head. Mix pop experimentation with Latin rhythms. What a concept. And it is. Because very soon Mick is being offered a quarter of a million pounds for his efforts.
The band play a few shows around town and then secure a London gig. Soon after, they move into a squat in Hackney. At that show two things happen. First, Mick is so impressed with the support band’s trumpeter. Andy Diagram. that he steals him away. Second, at the same gig. two French people arrive. They want to sign the group to their label, Les Disques Du Crepuscule. Mick is agreeable and soon a single, There’s Always Something On My Mind, is released.
A week later, a major A&R man arrives at the squat. He flatters them to death, buys them a meal. Then it’s back to his spacious flat where he plies them with spliff, porno films and drinks served by his flirtatious, busty girlfriend. The next day he hands them keys to a pre-paid flat on the Edgware Road. Other companies now hear of his interest. The consequence? A bidding war breaks out. Arista table the highest bid but, in the end, Mick accepts Virgin’s offer and less money. Why?
“All these guys were called Lucien and Tarquin but the Virgin lad was called Rob and he knew what he was talking about. Plus, he liked football.” Tottenham Hotspur to be precise.
“I wanted to sign them simply because I thought the band were fantastic,” recalls Rob Collins, “but I remember being stunned at how much Virgin offered them. Basically, the deal went over me because Branson got involved. I remember the band going to his barge and being told they could have anything they wanted.”
When the MD of your company shows such interest it really should signal the start of a brilliant career. Instead, things almost immediately go wrong With work about to start on the album, Collins suddenly leaves Virgin and even though the musical climate (as evidenced by acts such as Blue Rondo and Everything But The Girl) is perfect, no one in the company knows what to do with these bossa nova nuts with the Arthur Lee fixation
The Pale Fountains should have been the leaders of the pack. Instead they gradually, over the course a two albums – 1984’s Pacific Street and 1985’s From Across The Kitchen Table faded away into very minor cultdom “We had a flat in Golders Green”, remembers Mick, “and it was in my name. Don’t know how I fell into that one, but all the bills were coming in and I was responsible. So I was like ‘C’mon back to Liverpool.”‘
Virgin quietly forgot about The Pale Fountains, Mick went home to discover marijuana and then real tragedy struck. Biffer, his close ally, developed a brain tumour and was rushed into hospital, placed upon a machine. Mick would bring his guitar in and play to him. All to no avail. Within the month, Biffer had passed away.
“He didn’t have a harmful bone his body.” Mick softly states. “He was always looking out for me, always the voice of reason. He was my brother. A devastated Head hid from view. “He turned weird,” opines Bernie Connor, DJ on Liverpool’s Crash FM and close friend. “Quite understandably so. He and Biffer were very close. I didn’t see him for ages and to be honest with you he hit something of a trough. He moved back to Kenny and it was the wrong place at the wrong time. Biffer had died, his band had died and there were all these drugs around.” Finally, Head roused himself to form the short-lived group, The L Shaped Room, a band named in honour of director Bryan Forbes’ classic film (Mick is a huge film fan, loves directors such as Powell and Pressburger, Martin Scorsese, even dreaming up scripts in his spare time). He also moved into a flat with one Ian Broudie and later changed the band’s name to Shack.
In 1988, their first album, Zilch, appeared on Ghetto Records. It was produced by Broudie. Consensus is great songs, shame about the production. That’s Mick’s opinion as well. And the public’s.
Sales of the record matched the album’s title but to the few who saw through the shiny surface, they still swore that Mick Head was a talent in waiting. With Shack’s next album, Waterpistol, they were proved right.
Written in the studio that his publishers, Zomba had set up in Willesden, London, Waterpistol is the breakthrough album, the one where the talent thrillingly exerts itself for the very first time. It happens to every great songwriter and usually with an LP that opens up all before them. But with Mick Head success was proving mightily elusive. The album would not be released in Britain. Waterpistol contains 12 songs, seven of them great. They are riddled with haunting melodies, sublime choruses, unexpected musical twists and surprises. Head’s style is never obvious, but it is deceptively simple. Waterpistol is undoubtedly a major work but it nearly never saw the light of day when the studio it was born in was burnt down and all the tapes destroyed, including, incidentally, various original Syd Barrett masters. Fortuitously, the producer, Chris Allison, had taken a copy to drive through America with. But somewhere on Route 66 he misplaced his copy. The album was lost.
In quiet despair, Mick retreated back to Liverpool to forget songs, discover Ecstasy and start DJ’ing at Liverpool’s Earthbeat club. “I’m never ever,” Head firmly states, “going to stop writing songs but at that time I just thought, bollocks to it.”
Incredibly a whole year later, an American car hire company rang up Allison and told him that they had found a tape of his in the glove compartment of the car he had hired. It was Waterpistol and was finally picked up by a German company, Marina. As copies slowly trickled into the country, Arthur Lee’s management unexpectedly got in contact with Mick Head. They were looking for a hand to back Lee on some European shows and had heard of Head’s passion. What do you think? Of course, he accepted.
“And you know what,” says Mick of his hero, “he didn’t let me down. He was everything I thought he would be.
From their time spent together, Mick would write And Luna, his achingly beautiful tribute to Lee. The gigs were similarly outstanding.
“That was the first gig,” says the music writer John Reed, “that got me back into going to gigs by old musicians. It was brilliant.”
Revitalised by the experience, Head now received an offer from France to write a solo album. “I’ve always had an affinity with France,” he muses, “Anyone who’s been banished always ends up there.”
He decided to use the LP – Michael Head introducing The Strands – as a chance to work and showcase a number of talented but unrecognised musicians. Using Mark Coyle, Noel Gallagher’s closest musical companion, as producer, Helen Chadwick to orchestrate the strings plus his brother John and current Shack drummer lain Templeton in tow, Mick produced another set of exquisite songs that moved away from rock and into a more reflective area in which echoes of folk styles, Gershwin and French pop were given space to breathe.
The first six songs of the album are untouchable, great songs about loss and desire, about heroin, about Arthur Lee. Head’s touch with melodies remained supreme and his ability to weld together unlikely influences gives the album a feel like no other. Yet for all its brilliance the LP lacks anger or wired-up energy. The reason was simple: it’s creator was now deep into heroin addiction.
“I got into it on a romantic level,” is his straightforward rationale. “All the people I liked were into it and that fascinated me. I’m inquisitive. And it is an amazing feeling, but then I became the person I’m not, cos sometimes you have to do things you wouldn’t normally do just to get sorted. So I had to get to grips with that.”
“I think the final and radical change in his character,” says Bernie Connor, “came when Nathan McGough started managing him. Nathan had been through it all with the Mondays and also I think Mick now realised that either he gives up the heroin or the heroin gives him up. Also, a close friend of Mick’s had managed to come off it and that was another factor.”
Two years ago having signed to Laurel Records, work began on HMS Fable. Producer Hugh Jones, who’d worked with Echo and the Teardrops, was enlisted. He knew of Mick’s addiction but wasn’t bothered: “I’d worked with loads of drugs bands and thought my shoulders were wide enough. The agreement was to record in residential studios because if we’d worked in a city then we’d never have seen Mick.”
At the album’s start, Head was in buoyant mood, unveiling great songs, such as Comedy and Natalie’s Party, which unequivocally showed that he had lost none of his talent. Yet, by the time they reached Ridge Farm studios in Surrey, his health was so ravaged he was forced to go into detox. He emerged clean and the sessions now moved to Rockfield. But Mick couldn’t help himself and he fell back into usage, which frustrated his brother, John, so much that he broke his hand, smashing it against a wall in a drunken fury. Again, the LP was put on hold; again, Mick went back into detox.
Then Hugh Jones fell out with John Head and the producer resigned, admitting that “heroin abuse is unmanageable. I just didn’t realise that until then. That said, Mick Head is an amazing talent.”
Youth was quickly drafted in to finish the album with Hugo Nicholson mixing. The result is up there with Waterpistol and Strands. HMS Fable – a recent Uncut Album Of The Month – is brimming with deft melodies and striking lyrics.
To support the album, Mick Head was interviewed in Liverpool. He was asked how he would celebrate after HMS Fable sold, as it inevitably would, a million copies. For a few seconds, Head was totally speechless, as if for the first time he now realised the world was ready to open up to him. Finally, he told the interviewer what he would do.
“Make another one, mate.”