This is the incredible story of the Head brothers, Mick and John and their group SHACK. The elder brother, Mick, has been described in the NME as a lost genius and among the most gifted British songwriters of his generation. John is the prodigious guitarist who breathes wonderful life into the songs as well as the odd gem himself. It’s about a group who’ve battled repeatedly through awesome adversity to create some of the most affecting music of the decade and who now, in 1999, are finally equipped to spread the message.
Great claims are easily made and regularly on behalf of musicians, not least in record company biogs. But listen to Shack’s records, listen to HMS Fable. It’s the best record you’ve heard in ages. How could you not want to know what made that voice or where the foundations for those beautiful songs were dug.
The Head family moved from their estate in Everton to Kensington, a tough working-class area in north Liverpool, in the mid sixties. Mick and John’s dad had quite a few rock ‘n’ roll records, and stuff like Patsy Cline too, but Mick’s musical flame was first lit in the early ’70’s by David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane.
“I played it constantly on a tape recorder my dad bought me. I loved the songs, loved the words, loved it all”.
When he saw a local group, The Teardrop Explodes, performing live on telly, that flame burst into fire. He didn’t know how, but somehow he was going to get a group together.
“The next day I saw the drummer in a local record shop. So I went and told him that I really liked what they did, and we started chatting about music and stuff, and I thought, ‘he’s just like me. You know, what’s stopping you?”
The year was 1980 and by now seventeen year old Mick was working on the government sponsored Youth Opportunity Scheme. One day after work he followed a friend, Chris McCaffrey, into McCaffrey’s cellar and found himself – on instruments that McCaffrey had bought from a grant cheque – playing guitar with McCaffrey on bass and another couple of lads on keyboards and drums.
“We did it for a while, just all playing different little melodies because we couldn’t really play. I knew I had good ideas in my head, but I couldn’t get them out. One day Biffa ( McCaffrey ) says we should all go home and write some lyrics. I was like ‘okay!’ “So I go home and write some lyrics and the next day they ask me if I’ve done some and I say yes. None of them have though! I was shitting myself but I sung them. The keyboard player said ‘what do they mean?’ I’m like ‘I don’t know!’ And Biffa just goes ‘sounds alright to me’. So that was that, I was the singer.”
Those days in Biffa’s cellar are among Mick’s happiest memories.
“They were great times, learning to play, learning to write. At the time in Liverpool there were two schools that bands came from: you were either similar to the Bunnymen or similar to the Teardrops otherwise you didn’t exist. We didn’t sound like either. We were called The Love Fountains and Love were our favourite band, but we threw in little bossa nova rhythms, little jazzy bits, all sorts. I don’t think we sounded like too many bands anywhere”.
After a couple of distinctive singles for a Belgian independent label, Les Disques Du Crepescule, and a name change to The Pale Fountains, they found themselves in the midst of a bidding war and eventually signed to Virgin for an unheard of sum because Virgin’s A&R man, Rob Collins was the only one they liked. Within two weeks of signing the band, Collins left Virgin. Sadly the rest of The Pale Fountains’ career was one of constant battle fought on two fronts: they fought against a label who had no idea what to do with this expensive and difficult purchase, and against a recording industry who couldn’t understand why you wouldn’t want to use drum machines and synthesisers
“We just wanted to record our songs using instruments we’d written them on, “says Mick. “We weren’t allowed to do that. Technology in the 80’s just went right up its own arse. Maybe we weren’t strong enough. It took the La’s to kick down that door for everyone else”.
They recorded two albums as The Pale Fountains, Pacific Street and …from across the kitchen table, and a clutch of vital singles, Something On My Mind, Jean’s Not Happening, with the teenage John Head adding his guitar to Pacific Street and joining the band full-time for the second album.
“There’s a bit of backward guitar that John did on the second album”, recalls Mick, “and you’d never guess how hard we fought to get that on there. The engineer thought we were taking the piss. It just felt like an exhausting battle the whole time, in the end we’d had enough – it was exhausting”.
They split in the middle of that desperate decade, and McCaffrey tragically died from a brain tumour. “Losing him was… he was my best mate, my bro’. God rest his soul”
SHACK were formed from the ashes of The Pale Fountains by Mick and John Head and with it was born something much harder, driven by John’s now exceptional guitar playing. Live they unveiled a sound that pre-dated the Stone Roses’ by several years, but fronted in Mick by a singer who could crack the stoniest heart with his thick, perfect Scouse pitch. They signed to Ghetto, the label set up by their publisher Dick Leahy, and felt fresh and excited…. And went into the studio to record their first album Zilch.
It was neither an artistic nor a commercial success – although songs like Emergency and John Kline were still deeply affecting – and SHACK dipped from view for the next few years. It wasn’t until 1991 that they felt ready to return to the studio, settling on producer Chris Allison after a few trying sessions with a clutch of engineers in the Ghetto demo studios.
Waterpistol was the result of these sessions and for the first time in their recording history, the results lived up to expectations. It’s an amazing album: a smoky, lushly psychedelic mood powered by Mick’s rich and honest delivery and his brother’s intuitive playing.
“Just after we finished recording it,” remembers Mick, “Ghetto burned down and most of the tapes of the album were destroyed.”
There was one DAT of the album left though, with Chris Allison. Unfortunately, he’d just set out on a trek across America and was out of contact for several weeks, when he got back to England and heard about the fire he realised he’d left the DAT in his hire car in LA. Or somewhere.
A frantic search for the DAT followed and six weeks later, just as Allison had given up hope, it turned up in a battered envelope having been driven around America in someone’s glove compartment in the interim.
It was too late, though, because by now Ghetto had folded. For the next four years this ground-breaking record was homeless because nobody was willing to take a chance on it.
Shack disintegrated. Bassist Pete Wilkinson left to join Cast and the head brothers fulfilled a life-long dream by joining Love, the influential 60’s San Fransisco group they’d loved since childhood. They played a few dates with them and for a while put the trauma of Waterpistol behind them.
“It was amazing”, says Mick. “You know how people say that meeting your heroes is disillusioning? Not with Arthur (Lee, Love’s mad genius of a songwriter) and he was chuffed! We were doing songs that he hadn’t played in twenty years. He said to me, ‘Michael, it’s great to be home!”
Meanwhile, a German label, Marina, finally picked up the rights for Waterpistol and released it over there and across Europe on import (earning rave reviews including a 9110 in NME and VOX). The Heads had moved on, though , and with funds funded by an enthusiastic French fan, Stephane Bismuth, were recording a new album called The Magical World of the Strands under the name of The Strands. The record they finished that year was a breathtaking leap on from Waterpistol. It’s a record that lives in the same world as Nick Drake or Tim Buckley, but it takes it to a new galaxy. It mates beautiful folky melodies with jazz structures, winds wonderful Judy Garland-ish string arrangements around Mick’s bittersweet singing, mixes magical fables with stark lyrical realism, it’s baroque and enchanting, yet totally natural. In fact it’s one of the decade’s best albums.
“It just turned out to be a beautiful piece of work” admits Mick.
It was also released initially on import in 1997 – earning another 9/10 in NME and also making various album of the year lists (Johnny Marr told Mojo it was the best thing he’d heard all year) – before being afforded a domestic release in ’98 to much further critical acclaim.
Mick and John, though had already demoed some new Shack material and signed a deal with Laurel Records.
Soon afterwards, SHACK (featuring Mick and John, plus lain Templeton who drummed on The Magical World …. and bassist Ren Parry ) took their new songs into the studio. First Rockfield with Hugh Jones, and then to Townhouse with Youth and Hugo Nicholson. HMS Fable is the astonishing, lavish result.
It’s a sleeker record than their previous two records, something that Mick puts down to one of the people they worked with.
“I think for the first time we let someone into the temple”, he says. “We let Youth in, we let him suggest we do things in a certain way. In the past that would have caused big problems and we got through a lot of people that way, but with Youth, you can tell he’s only doing it because he thinks it’s best for the music. And he feels a lot for the music. I really trusted his ideas”.
But as with all of Heads’ work, it’s not really about the production or any of the peripheral details, it’s simply that these are beautiful, addictive songs.
There’s a searing honesty about the twelve songs (ten written by Mick, john weighing in with Beautiful and Cornish Town) that’s absent from practically all other contemporary songwriters.
It’s there on Comedy, a song about the end of a relationship where Mick admits when you cry it pulls me through; it’s there on the wonderful Dionne Warwick-esque Re-instated when Mick implores a loved one by singing ‘I remember when you made me feel so good just to be near you, ah you’ve let me down so much, I fear you’; it’s there on the redemptive rousing Pull Together; on the desperate Streets of Kenny; there throughout. Listen to Mick on Daniella and try and think of another modern British songwriter who can paint such a dramatic and moving picture armed with only their voice and an acoustic guitar. He stands alone.
And in a way, HMS Fable is like a resume of Head’s career so far. There are musical atmospheres present that you recognise from their previous work as Shack and the Strands, even the Pale Fountains on Natalie’s Party , but you’ve never heard them sound quite this lush either.
“There’s this kind of person they breed in Everton”, says Mick, “who isn’t exactly bitter, but pretty cynical. And my cousin is that person all the way and he’s, like, my biggest critic. Now he reckons it’s like a cross between Waterpistol and The Magical World…, but I don’t think that’s right. I think it’s the next step on from those records. For a start, it isn’t easy being my brother. I’ve always been the songwriter,the leader. But John’s writing great songs, songs that blow me away. And the band play so beautifully… I dunno. It’s not across between any thing. It’s the next chapter”