Mick Head can remember the exact moment when he decided to start taking heroin. “I was looking out of a window, he says without emotion, “and I saw two bottle banks outside. One said ‘brown’ and one said ‘clear’. I chose ‘brown’.”
The Jazz Cafe, Camden, North London, 15 April 1996. Shack are on stage, and they are falling apart. Their music is sluggish, the tunes lost in a mush of guitars. Many of the songs appear to have no structure. The singer, Mick Head, rambles incoherently between songs, and often during them as well. At one point, Mick leaves the stage. He returns, several long minutes later, looking – as if this were possible – more phased and disorientated than before. His semi-detached guitarist brother John is at his side. He looks out at the blur of faces staring back at him with resigned weariness. The audience in the small club, mainly record industry and music press, have been drawn by the recent surprise release of Shack’s album, Waterpistol, over four years after it was recorded. This from a band who many thought had long ago succumbed to their own demons, like their Liverpudlian peer and kindred spirit Lee Mavers of The La’s. It is whispered that Shack are in discussions with record labels again.
But the gig is a disaster. It is apparent that the Head brothers’ long history of drug abuse is an ongoing story. This is not a band returning from the dead. This is a band still wrapped in the ghosts of its past. Not for the first time in their 18 years in music, Mick and John Head have surprisingly come back to life. And then, just as surprisingly, collapsed again.
The Astoria, Central London, 21 January 1999. Shack are playing the NMEs ‘Premier’ series of showcase gigs. They are second on the bill, above Regular Fries and below Add N To (X) and Mercury Rev. Despite sharing an age-range – thirtysomething – and a fraught history – drug use, health problems, band splits – Shack have little in common with Mercury Rev, far less the young indie bucks on the stage. They look out of place, these slightly wizened and thickset Scally Dads. Their short set, meanwhile, is the sound of an urban folk work-in-progress. A bit Byrds, a bit Verve. It’s a patchy affair, but in songs like Streets Of Kenny and Natalie’s Party there are the makings of greatness.
In the bar afterwards, one of the rumours doing the rounds tells how Shack closed their deal with their new record company: the brothers Head were presented with their contract while ensconced in a toilet cubicle. An arm poked through the door, holding a pen, and the document was duly signed. Another more heartening tale has it that Shack have nearly finished their new album. The general consensus is that it is astonishing.
Of Shack’s earlier incarnation, The Pale Fountains, Echo And The Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch says: “The Paleys were basically the prototype for The La’s – and they had more than one song.”
Of their first album, 1988’s Zilch, Shack say now: “The Eighties for a band like us was the wrong time. Technology went up right up its own shitter. We were a fucking psychedelic folk band!”
Of their second, 1995’s Waterpistol: “It excelled musically because we had a big load of E and charlie, man.”
Of their heroin-fixated ‘side’ album, 1997’s The Magical World Of The Strands: “We all drifted. Maybe it was the environment or the state of consciousness or whatever – but we slid into the gear, big-style.
And of the new album, Mick Head says:
“This could be our last chance, yeah. We’ve had a couple of problems in the last few years. We did a photo session the other week, and I’d just had half me teeth smashed out. In January I broke me wrist, just when we found out we’d got the support slot on the Catatonia tour. But, y’know, I’m always gonna write. So you might have to put up with me until I’m 65.”
Shack are back, again, and this time it’s permanent. Addiction, death, broken limbs, smashed teeth, a recording studio burnt to the ground, an album “murdered” by producer Ian ‘Three Lions’ Broudie, another album believed lost forever, a record company debt of £750,000- all of this is behind Mick and John Head. Their new album is called, fittingly, HMS Fable, and it is all of Liverpool’s pop history rolled into one shining 12-song set.
This, then, is the ballad of 36-year-old Michael William Head and his 32-year-old brother John Joseph Head – together, according to Ian McCulloch, “the most overlooked group in the history of Liverpool”.
Just after lunchtime on a leaden-skied April Tuesday in the centre of Liverpool, the Head brothers, bass player Ren Parry and drummer lain Templeton park themselves at a table in The Lisbon. This, they say, “is the best-known gay bar in Liverpool”. The brothers are genial, if initially wary, and speak in a low Scouse burr. As the afternoon wears on and the glasses empty, however, things loosen up.
“People misunderstand the plight of the junkie,” Mick will ass’ert. “They don’t realise that 95 per cent really want to fuck it off. They just can’t face that turkey. I still say to this day, whatever drugs I’ve took or used, I’ve used them. There’s only one drug that got the better of me, but now I’m the don on that one.”
To outsiders, Toxteth, scene of the 1981 riots, has earned a lasting reputation as the hardest council estate in Liverpool. But to locals, Kensington, or Kenny, a failed Sixties prefab experiment built on the fringes of the city centre, is known to be the most volatile housing scheme on Merseyside. The Head brothers grew up there, and it is the Streets Of Kenny, on HMS Fable, that Mick marks out as prime scoring territory (“I’m searching for the cars again/Can’t get shit, get any”).
Their memories of Kenny feature “cardboard doors that you could put your fist through” and bouts of early-Seventies gang warfare. “We used to go and watch the big fights, ’cause it was like going to the match,” says John. “It was Braveheart – the gangs would square up, then two fellas would start knocking shite out of each other in the middle. If you were a kid, you didn’t get touched.”
The brothers learned to play their dad’s guitar and hoovered up the noises emerging from Liverpool’s colourful post-punk scene. In 1980, Mick Head accosted Teardrop keyboard player Dave Balfe in a record shop. Balfe introduced him to a local muso with a huge record collection – Yorkie, now the bass player in professional vaudeville scallies Space. The 17-year-old was duly introduced to legendary Californian Sixties group Love.
“From that,” recalls Mick, “I started getting into Astrud Gilberto and Burt Bacharach and a bit of a jazz…”
“At the time,” John interrupts, “there were two trains of thought for bands in Liverpool -you went down the Teardrops avenue or the Bunnymen one…
“And then I thought,” says Mick, “‘I’m a songwriter, I can play what the fuck I want..
In “a split instance of self-confidence” in 1981, Mick formed The Love Fountains in honour of his favourite band, later renaming the band The Pale Fountains. Their first gig was supporting Aztec Camera. On bass was Chris ‘Biffa’ McCaffrey, on drums Jock Whelan (John Head would join later). The Pale Fountains were a maverick blend of West Coast American psychedelia and bossa nova. They wore matching neckerchiefs and shorts with bonnets and lumberjack shirts. They stuck out like a sore thumb.
“I remember I got arrested one night,” Mick recalls. “I was thrown in the cell with me fucking cap on, me white Arran jumper, me keks tucked into wellies with white socks over the top. I’m sitting there with a pair of pissed scallies and thinking, ‘Please don’t wake up.”‘
The Pale Fountains signed to Virgin in 1982 and were given an advance of £150,000, a ridiculously large amount for the time. Three weeks later, the A&R man who had signed them resigned. The incoming team suggested that three Pale Fountain songs could be bolted together to make a “potential hit”.
Two albums, Pacific Street and From Across The Kitchen Table, were released. They were commercial disasters, the sound of delicate, pastoral pop turned saccharine and fey by production excess. In 1986, the band were dropped, leaving behind a record company debt of £750,000. Not long afterwards, McCaffrey was diagnosed as having a brain tumour and died. He was 28. “We were playing Paleys songs to him when he was in the coma,” Mick whispers. “Cried my eyes out, man. Still think about him loads.”
Amid the wreckage of The Pale Fountains, and after a friend in the Merchant Navy showed him how to roll tobacco-free spliffs, Mick “bought a big telly, a couch, a big bag of bush and stayed in for about four months just writing and listening. I could tell you the weather in every part of the country and if there was any traffic jams anywhere. I’d be going down the road on my bike and everything would be different. It sounds dead simple, but it changed everything.” Soon, through 1986 and 1987, Mick Head was taking heroin too. “For me personally, it was more of a romantic thing – being Thomas De Quincey or Coleridge or Miles Davis. I thought, ‘So this little flower is messing around with their creativity, is it? Let me have a little blast of that and I’ll make me own mind up.”‘ Mick Head’s music gradually began to evolve. He formed Shack in 1987 with his brother and three local musicians and developed the sound of an otherworldly Merseybeat that predated and, arguably, heavily influenced The La’s. Not that you can hear much evidence of this on Shack’s debut album, Zilch. The producer was Ian Broudie, and they blame him for the album’s excess of drum machines and programming. “Obviously, subconsciously, he was getting all Lightning Seedsed-up at the time and experimented with Zilch,” says Mick, only half-joking. “He murdered that record!” In terms of its sales, Zilch was well named.
It was another three years before Shack attempted to make their second album. By now, the Shack line-up included current drummer lain Templeton and bassist Peter Wilkinson, now of Cast. The two have alarmingly similar memories of the record. “It’s all a bit… hazy,” Templeton says falteringly. “What exactly happened I can’t remember…”
“You know what,” Wilkinson decides, after a moment’s thought, “it’s all a bit of a blur.”
During the album’s recording, the band enthusiastically consumed large amounts of coke and E. Mick and John attribute Waterpistol‘s cohesion to their drug use.
John: “[Drugs] can bring people together as a unit. But it’s when you start having to do it to make the unit that you start getting problems.”
Then the Star Street studio mysteriously burnt down. Inside were the master tapes of Waterpistol. There were no copies. Pete Wilkinson left. “Everything had gone a bit weird,” says Mick. The fire brigade “didn’t find anything wrong” but there was talk, they say, of the blaze being an insurance job.
At the time, the band were on stage in London as backing band for Love’s near-mythic leader, Arthur Lee, who was playing three rare shows in Paris, Liverpool and London. Via a mutual management friend, they were gigging with their hero and inspiration. Reassuringly, Lee lived up to his legend.
Mick: “You’ve heard people saying, y’know, ‘When I met Judy Garland, it was a big let down.’ But he was more than what he was to us as we were growing up.”
John: “He’s mad, in the way that he doesn’t trust anyone. He has been fucked over so many times…
Mick: “If he wanted to look into your soul, he’d lower the shades a bit. He freebased good-style. Like that – bam bam, spoon… ammonia… The fastest – dead quick.” Having resigned themselves to the fact that the record would remain their great lost work (“You just get on with it, don’t you?”), producer Chris Allison returned from a long driving holiday in America and said that he had a DAT of the album – but he’d left it in the glove compartment of an American hire car. After a frantic series of phone calls, it was mailed back to the UK.
Waterpistol was eventually released in 1995 on a small German independent label. The reviews were ecstatic. At the time, the Heads had already begun recording beautiful, folk-tinged, “ancient psychedelic” songs. These would be released in 1997 as The Magical World Of The Strands. But the dreamlike qualities of the record revealed another truth: Magical… was a heroin album.
“Unfortunately, it got a grip,” Mick admits bluntly. “Then I got a grip of it.” Part of his personal detox programme involved tracking down Lee Mavers. He knew that the elusive La’s frontman – who had long cast himself as victim of overzealous producers and whose whereabouts and activities since 1990 have been shrouded in their own mythology – had a rehearsal room in Liverpool. “So I went round and I pressed the bell, he came down, we went eye to eye and it was like, ‘Come in.’ We just chatted and it was amazing, personally. He said, ‘I know how you feel. You’re like a fucking dog chasing your tail, aren’t you?”‘
Notre Dame Hall, central London, 26 April 1999. Shack are on stage, and they are playing songs that will light up the summer. Having signed a new, major label record deal in 1997, Shack have spent the last two years writing and recording their new album, HMS Fable. Tonight, songs like Pull Together, the John Head-penned Cornish Town and ‘comeback’ single Comedy are, simply, a revelation. Sparkling, soaring, starry-eyed pop songs, they are the West Coast psychedelia of America’s Sixties rewritten by ‘classic’ Liverpudlian songwriters and given an elevational Nineties sweep – all strings and brass and layered harmonies – by producer Youth. If you ever wanted Love and The La’s and Crowded House to collaborate on a song, this one’s for you. At last Shack have the songs to match their remarkable history.
“Everyone knows how either we fucked up or the companies fucked up, or just about the fuck-up that’s gone on,” Mick had concluded, to nods from his brother, as Shack headed off for a final pint after a day’s rehearsing and revisiting. “What’s the point in dwelling on it? There’s no point thinking about what could’ve and should’ve been. There’s no point in thinking, ‘What if?’ ‘Cause it all comes round.”
Enough tales of losing, then. Heads, you might still win.