Something Like You
X Hits the Spot
Glynys and Jaqui
It’s Harvest Time
MY FAVOURITE ALBUM : THE MAGICAL WORLD OF THE STRANDS BY MICHAEL HEAD AND THE STRANDS, THE GUARDIAN, OCTOBER 2011
If the last album I paid tribute to in the Guardian was the sound of my life running away from a small North West town, then this is the soundtrack to me arriving in London; crashing and banging into as many self-created emotional traumas as I could manage. I’d play this album at home in the wee small hours, coming down off drugs, telling whoever I’d managed to convince to come back to my flat that it was the best record ever made.
I still believe that. It is music that has the power to calm the savagery of your own soul turning on itself and transport you into a world where everything is peaceful and wistful and strange. Like all my favourite albums (Take As Needed For Pain, Ladies & Gentlemen…, Revolver, the list goes on), it has a defined mood and aesthetic that runs throughout the artwork, instrumentation and lyrics. It is not just a collection of songs knocked out for the sake of going on tour and making money.
These songs are like a pastoral, Merseyside take on the Velvets, the Byrds, Simon & Garfunkel and Love. Songwriter Michael Head was battling heroin addiction at the time and their sound seems to approach what some people describe as the overwhelming sense of beauty and calm that taking heroin can sometimes give you.
I befriended Michael Head and his brother John through the writer Ted Kessler, who mentored my first few years in London at the NME. They were then performing under the name of Shack and managed by Nathan McGough, son of the Liverpool poet Roger McGough and ex-manager of the Happy Mondays. Nathan was godfather to Anthony H Wilson’s children and also the man who made the decision to take the Mondays to Barbados to get them away from drugs, only to find out that it was the crack cocaine capital of the universe.
Anyway, Nathan had convinced London Records to splash a large amount of money into the recording of Shack’s HMS Fable on the grounds that everyone would surely propel the band into the pop charts and turn them into national treasures, a la Oasis. At a playback of the album, which was accompanied by all the party favours that late 90s album playbacks would come with, Ted and Nathan had the following exchange:
“You know what this song’s called Ted?”
“No Nathan. What’s it called?”
“Well Ted, this song is called ‘What Colour Is My New Yacht?'”
Nathan was alluding to the fact that HMS Fable was bound to go on to become a worldwide trillion-selling smash hit. But it barely made the charts. The general public were too fickle to look past Mick’s broken teeth, his dirty trainers and the old stories about drugs and misbehaviour.
I’d heard the “What Colour Is My New Yacht?” story a couple of days before Ted and I went to see Shack/Michael Head play at the NME Brat Awards show at the Astoria. I remember vividly walking through the doors of the London Astoria venue to see Mick singing Something Like You, the second track from the Magical World of the Strands.
It is one of the most perfect love songs ever recorded by anybody.
Violins and cellos pass barely noticed through the ballad’s three-chord progression. Mick’s vocals are like a bruised and broken choirboy who’s fallen purely in love with a feeling, or somebody, or something. I’ve never had somebody that I’ve forced to listen to it come away without saying: “Wow that actually is amazing. Now please can I play something?”
The intensity of the beauty of Something Like You increases over its 3 minutes and 46 seconds, building up to its climax, with Mick singing: “I believe in you … forever”. It’s a lyric that’s been sung a thousand times in other songs but the way that it’s delivered here just kills me every time.
There are lots of other beautiful, amazing songs on this sorely overlooked record, but that one is my favourite. It was the soundtrack to falling in love with somebody very dear to me and listening to it now we are apart breaks my heart.
On Second Thought : Michael Head & The Strands – The Magical World Of The Strands
By: Nick Southall
Published on: 2003-09-01
For better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That’s why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
The spectre of Jason Pierce haunts second-hand record shops on Berwick Street or in Oxford or Reading or Cambridge, 12 years ago, gaunt, wan, dishevelled, fucked-up, hawking copies of his own records in order to fund his habit, selling copies of Taking Drugs To Make Music To Take Drugs To so he can… buy more drugs to take to make music to take drugs to…
Michael Head is worse. Michael Head sings, no, whimpers, “who can buy my lederhosen”, or something, not hawking his records but reduced to offering his dirty underclothes, begging Confucius for wisdom, his broken scouse burr faint and- no, not uneven, so low that it becomes even again. Didn’t you have potential, boy? Years ago? Weren’t you in a band once? Brought low by a woman… the most callous woman of all, the one with the soft brown hands, the mother superior, the womb-maker, the one who cradles grown men like children…
Shack’s debut album was lost when the studio burnt down with the masters inside it. The head of the record label had a DAT, but where’d he put it? In the back of a taxi somewhere in the US. Michael Head had tried once before with The Pale Fountains and failed and he was doomed to fail again, not by his own mistakes but by fire and misplace and whisper it fate. For three short nights you get to play music, on stage, with Arthur Lee. Arthur Lee! Love! But nothing else. Nothing, nothing else. Until much later when the DAT has turned up, but the boat by now has surely sailed away and the moment, the chance, has gone, Arthur Lee is in jail and you should be too by rights. A German company, Marina, see fit to release the record, only four years after it was finished, presumed lost, and nobody cares about these two scouse brothers, Michael and John Head, and their two mates and their dozen songs. So what do you do?
The band dissolves. A French fan with money and time offeres to fund a second record, but the band doesn’t exist anymore, so it can’t be a Shack record. Step forward Michael, it’s your songs he loves, your vision he’s bankrolling. And so, and so…
“Hey what’s happened to all my clothes / what’s happened to all my furniture? / I know it can’t just disappear / and I could of sworn I left it there… / …and x hits the spot / when you’re not around / and you’ll find your way / when you’re not around…”
The Magical World Of The Strands is the record that resulted from that French fan’s conviction and financial commitment. What did Michael Head do? Step up to the podium and construct a pure, forthright album of zeitgeist-grabbing Britpop optimism, four-square guitar pop with a side order of nostalgia? I mean, if Cast could have a piece of the glory, surely the former Shack could too? That long-lost debut, Waterpistol, had at least 12 more wonderful, uplifting slices of post-Beatles-Anthology-revivalist guitar bliss than Cast, Ocean Colour Scene and Northern Uproar added together and times two. And The Boo Radleys, scouse as they come and certainly guitar pop, were too caught up with trying to destroy the spectacle of being popular by deconstructing Lee Perry and Dinosaur Jr. at the same time to join in the fun properly. The door was firmly open…
“I saw Connie / she is running free / I saw the ships / sail in to sea / and my queen looked at me… / I paint the sails / it’s the job for me / I made the whales / they’ll come with me ./ and my queen smiled at me / yeah Matilda looked at me… / Ah but you / you went away… / What would you do / if the sun hits the ground / and the trees poke through beneath the sea?”
Mick Head recruited his brother on guitar, a drummer and a bassist, and augmented them with a flutist and a string quartet to record his songs, and the result is (excuse the hyperbole) one of the most precious albums ever recorded. The sound is strange and timeless, yet the complexity and space within the arrangements betray its modernity. Mick’s quiet, forlorn voice floats in the mid-ground, flanked on either side and underpinned by his own acoustic guitar and the bright but hushed figures of his brother’s lead playing. Bass guitar and kick-drum are felt rather than heard, characterised by depth and lack of form, active at an almost impossible distance beneath the melody lines while John Head’s backing vocals exist at one remove from his brother’s voice, the familial relationship unhindered by vocal legroom. The string quartet is used almost as a lead instrument, sometimes symbiotic and sometimes juxtaposed with the guitar, oceans of harmonic space between the two exploited by the almost imperceptible droning melodies acted out by the flute which becomes textural rather than linear.
The unusualness of this production space allows the record to assume an identity of timeless chamber pop, “Queen Matilda” and “And Luna” more medieval than mid-nineties, at least until the latter dissolves in wave upon wave of distorted electric guitar and beautifully distanced strings and vocals. The reference points are plain to see, Love, Nick Drake, The Beatles, ageless British folk… If The La’s were half as good as people made them out to be they’d still only be a tenth as good as this… If The Stone Roses had pursued a thread of whimsical British pastoralism rather than aggressively masculine heavy metal Second Coming might have sounded like this… Oh, what is there to say? It’s wonderful; “Glynys And Jaqui” meanders like some country-fair folk standard before it melts the solos from Love’s “A House Is Not A Motel” and The Byrds “Eight Miles High” in an eruption of John Head’s spectacular acid-drenched guitar. But even that’s not an obvious climax, as The Magical World Of The Strands studiously avoids cliché and bombast, steering clear of lazy choruses and already-familiar hooks, the songwriting open and fluid and the instrumentation skilled but never extrovert, creating a subtlety and femininity that allows songs to unfurl over repeated listens, that places faith in the listener and asks the listener for faith in return.
Like all great records The Magical World Of The Strands is equal parts light and darkness, joy and beauty shadowed by essential and human faculties of weakness, greed, bitterness and foolishness. Only Mick Head can sing the words “it’s harvest time” over acres of elliptical acoustic guitars and make it sound like some distant historical profundity rather than something you grow out of after autumn term at infant-school. The darkness is all too clear though. The reprise of ’s “Undecided” may be shorn of the lyrics (“gotta be like sticking a needle in your arm / when your dreaming / and then you can be / somebody…”) but there are plenty of other references, both oblique and clear, to the weakness of the Head brothers. Heroin hangs over this record like an unshakable spectre, the concentric circles of sadness and grief buried within the simple chords of John Head’s lone song, “Loaded Man”, almost too much to bear as his voice strings out a confession for seven long minutes; “do you think / do you feel? / Do you know / where you are / or where you’ve been? / Loaded man… / …Golden heart / hidden deep / raggedy skies / that you were / to deceive / I regret / every day / what I done / didn’t do / what I’d say / loaded man…” The maypole banjo twangs of “Hocken’s Hey” may toast cavaliers and Jericho during the verse, but the chorus is the insular daydream of an addict, “sometimes I think about the world / sometimes I think about the world outside…” These two brothers have struggled and succumbed and climbed out again and it’s written through the heart of this record.
There isn’t a great deal left to say… After the critical (but not commercial – you try finding a copy now) success of The Magical World Of The Strands, Shack reformed and recorded the over-eager and disappointingly straightforward HMS Fable for London Records, which NME nearly made their ‘Album of the Year’ in 1999. London then promptly dropped Shack, and the merry-go-round of misfortune and misery continued. Mick and John are scheduled to release a new Shack album, titled Here’s Tom With the Weather in August this year, but to be honest I’m hardly on tenterhooks. The Head brothers have already made their classic. The Magical World Of The Strands is, to my ears at least, one of the greatest albums ever recorded.
THE MAGICAL WORLD OF THE STRANDS, Q, APRIL 1998
It always seems as though Michael Head’s 15 minutes of fame are imminent. Over the last two decades, this unfairly neglected Liverpudlian has written much fine music, but, as this delectably tasteful set proves, his eye isn’t on the bouncing ball of chart domination.
Recorded in the early 90’s, but now only achieving UK release, these subtle delicate, lovely and meandering songs with their sensitive and insightful lyrics take several listens to percolate properly into the subconscious and, given the attention span of the average hit-single victim, that’s several too many. Besides, there’s nary a dance beat or mindlessly bludgeoning hook to be found. Chances are Head is doomed to continued cult status, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from buying this. **** (excellent, definitely worth investigating)
THE MAGICAL WORLD OF THE STRANDS, NME, NOVEMBER 1997
In 1984, Michael Head released his first album. Back then, his band were called The Pale Fountains and were better known for their voluminous shorts than their frequently lovely music. In the intervening 13 years, Michael Head has released four more albums, including this one. The last two haven’t even secured a proper British release. Hits? Don’t be silly: his highest chart placing was Number 48, a good 15 years ago.
It is, when all’s said and done, not much to show for a short life’s work. Yet Head deserves much, much more than a mere jotting in the margins of rock history. For The Pale Fountains, Shack and Head’s latest incarnation, The Strands, are the sort of bands who give lovingly-crafted recidivist rock a good name.
Head’s last album, Shack’s Waterpistol, was recorded in ’91 and eventually released, after a tangled and traumatic history too numbing to go into here, two years ago on the tiny Hamburg label, Marina. The Magical World… has had a similarly complex gestation, recorded in the mid-’90s and belatedly released now by the Parisian Megaphone outfit. Nothing, evidently, is ever simple where Michael Head’s involved; nothing that is, apart from the enduring proof that astonishing music will out, no matter what the adversities.
The Magical World…, then, is a further refinement of this fragile but prodigiously gifted muse. A Liverpudlian contemporary of Lee Mavers (and, incest fans, former Shack bassist Pete Wilkinson currently figures in Cast), Head’s gift is to invest simple acoustic reveries with a depth and melodic resonance that so many rock artisans claim as their own and so few genuinely possess. Here, he draws on similar influences to, say, Belle & Sebastian – Nick Drake, Simon & Garfunkel, his abiding guru, Arthur Lee – but with radically different results. If the admittedly beguiling Belle & Sebastian are studiedly ingenuous, The Strands make bruised, ruefully reflective music.
It’s a record for the aftermath, for the times when you blearily stumble on beauty in the wake of disaster, when you catch a great dawn – and realise how great dawns can transcend cheesy clichés – at the end of a particularly desolate night. The defining moment comes at the start of the slyly jazzy X Hits The Spot – thematically kindred of The Drugs Don’t Work and Spiritualized’s Ladies And Gentlemen… – when Head opens his eyes, locates his brain and sings, “Say, what’s happened to all my clothes?/What’s happened to all my furniture?/You know it can’t just disappear/Could’ve sworn I left it here,” before admitting, X hits the spot when you’re not around. His voice is a little like premium Ian Brown, only with a fathomless sensitivity and all the arrogance long beaten out of him. It is tragically, incredibly affecting.