Time Machine : The Best of Shack (2007)

1. I Know You Well
2. Comedy
3. Cup Of Tea
4. Al’s Vacation
5. Pull Together
6. Meant To Be
7. Butterfly
8. Sgt Major
9. On The Terrace
10. Undecided
11. Cornish Town
12. Miles Apart
13. Streets Of Kenny
14. Shelley Brown
15. Neighbours
16. Holiday Abroad
17. Wanda



While Mick and John Head plan the reunion of their first band, the Pale Fountains, this compilation is testament to the brothers’ towering achievements in their subsequent endeavour, Shack. Only one of Shack’s singles, 1999’s Comedy, ever reached the top 40; this is a 16-track guide to what the world’s been missing for the past two decades. Shack’s psychedelic Merseybeat pre-dates and outshines the Stone Roses on I Know You Well, and the band take an equally lovely mariachi-influenced direction on Meant to Be. Acoustic guitars and strings give each of Head’s wry observations a swooning melancholy, apt for a band whose studio once burnt down. Two spirited new tracks, Holiday Abroad and Wanda, bode well for Shack’s future; this album should enshrine their legend.

TIME MACHINE, BBC REVIEW (Chris White) 28th September 2007

Whenever Shack are mentioned in print, invariably it’s not long before phrases like ‘criminally underrated’ and ‘lost classic’ raise their clichéd heads. Formed in 1988, the Liverpudlian four-piece have always been lavished with critical praise in inverse proportion to their meagre record sales, but perhaps the best way to summarise their career to date is ‘very unlucky’.

After an unremarkable first album, songwriter Michael Head and his band knew they had a potential hit on their hands with 1991’s Waterpistol. Falling somewhere between the classic Merseybeat of the La’s and the fluid, Byrds-influenced melodies of the Stone Roses’ eponymous debut, it seemed perfectly placed to catapult Shack to stardom. But a series of disastrous events, including a studio fire that destroyed the master tapes, meant Waterpistol did not see the light of day until 1995, by which time the music scene had moved on. After a four-year split, 1999’s HMS Fable emerged boasting a host of Oasis-like big choruses, but they jumped on the Britpop bandwagon just as it was grinding to a halt and the charts remained untroubled.

Unperturbed, Head and his sidekicks have continued to release great music ever since. Time Machine is a fine retrospective of their significant talent, featuring some of the best tracks from their four albums from Waterpistol onwards as well as several rare and previously unreleased songs.

The highlights are many, but the delicious yearning harmonies of “Undecided” and “Neighbours” are probably the pick of Shack’s earlier work, while their evolution towards a more textured, orchestrated sound on 2003’s Here’s Tom With The Weather is emphatically captured on the epic “Meant To Be”, which employs scintillating mariachi brass and strings sections that would not be out of place on Love’s timeless masterpiece Forever Changes.

Although new tracks “Holiday Abroad” and “Wanda” are rather disappointing, the hitherto obscure “Al’s Vacation” stands out as one of their best compositions, a quirkily tuneful little jaunt bringing to mind the lazy psychedelic folk of Pink Floyd’s oft-overlooked post-Barrett, pre-Dark Side Of The Moon albums.

If you like Shack, you may already own much of what’s here and decide you don’t need this collection. But if you’re an admirer of intelligent, imaginatively arranged guitar pop that’s yet to discover their charms, then Time Machine is quite simply an essential purchase.


To those who’ve not heard it, the story of Shack can’t help but sound a little bit like “Great Expectations”. From humble beginnings, a band has some interesting adventures, and endures some hairy moments. A promise of great wealth seems it will emerge from one source – but in the end, their salvation comes from a surprising, but generous benefactor. If there weren’t drugs involved, you could almost see it being serialized at Sunday teatime, on BBC2.

As it is, a different kind of domesticity pervades the work of Mick and John Head. For the twenty years that the pair have made music as Shack – they were once part of the fragile, bossa-nova-centric Pale Fountains – they have specialized in wringing amazing beauty from the humdrum. Lyrically, their songs take their starting points from experiences as everyday as having a cup of tea (“Cup Of Tea”), picking up dry cleaning (the great single “Al’s Vacation”), or being spooked by the television (“Neighbours”). Where the band take them from there, however, is where their magic lies.

“Time Machine” collects some hugely strong examples of their transformative art. “Cosmic Scousers” is a rather demeaning epithet, but Shack’s talents – which stylistically pay a homage to the works of Love and The Byrds – is for creating a poetic, indoor psychedelia. The resulting music, propelled by Mick Head’s soft mumbling and rich with his brother’s impressive lead guitar is empathetic, at times (like 1998’s “Pull Together”) anthemic, but without any kind of bombast.

Instead, the songs here feel as though they’re less being performed, more being shared. Worthy contemporaries of The Stone Roses in one era, and Oasis in another, Shack remain now as they have for years: a band you’d hope more people would know about.

Why they don’t (a blend of tragicomic misfortune, lost tapes, self-inflicted obstacles, and what must simply be bad luck) is something we can only hope that this great record, released on Noel Gallagher’s own label, might help re-address. Whatever, you suspect the trappings of fame wouldn’t particularly turn their heads – Shack have already seen so much, without even leaving the house.

Q and A: Mick Head

UNCUT: How did the association with Noel Gallagher come about?

MH: Noel turned up at a gig in Birmingham, and we had a chat, and we got on from there. It was like: “Let’s try and do something one day”. And when we were looking round, he said did we want to do something, and we said, “Yeah, definitely.” He’s a total kindred spirit, he’s a beautiful man. I’m his brother – we played with them: if we were fucking up, they’d pull us aside and say like, “behave yourselves”.

UNCUT: There’s nothing from “The Magical World Of The Strands” album on there?

MH: Is that a fact? Oh d’you know what, I thought there was. Bloody hell! Oh, I know: it’s because we were The Strands. It was a very different thing to Shack, a different time of our lives: it started off as a solo album, but I needed some guitar, and I thought, “Why not ask our John, he’s the best guitarist in the world?”


There’s nowt so tragic as an underachiever. We’ve all met that kid at school that, come exam results day, teachers shake their heads at sadly, sighing “Ah, but he showed so much promise…”. Scouse outfit Shack are undoubtedly the musical equivalent of this unfortunate kiddie, as this ‘Best of’ album chock full of could’ve beens and should’ve beens demonstrates.

Brothers Mick and John Head formed the basis of Shack’s ever-changing line-up having previously spent time in cult ‘80s folk rockers The Pale Fountains and in the backing band for Arthur Lee’s Love. As Shack, though, they’ve released five albums which all garnered critical praise and a plethora of today’s leading lights cite them as huge influences – Shack’s gentle harmonies, wistful arrangements and touching lyrics were all clearly absorbed by the likes of The Coral, The Thrills, Elbow and The Zutons. Hell, they’re even on Noel Gallagher’s Sour Mash Records label, so why in the name of frick haven’t they acquire the same sort of status as contemporaries The Stone Roses or Oasis?

It’s certainly a toughie, especially given that this album kicks off with all that’s great about Shack. ’I Know You Well’ features Beta Band-esque production over an ever-present bass riff, while ‘Comedy’ combines lush harmonies with piquant chord progressions that build up to a triumphant string-soaked guitar solo finale. ‘Cup of Tea’ has the endearingly quirky lyrics that singer Mick Head made his trademark (“My cup of tea doesn’t taste the same when she’s with me”) while ‘Pull Together’ has Ian Brown-like verse vocals that give way to a howling, affecting chorus.

So with all these riches to be found, why are Shack punching so far below their weight? As with much of Shack’s output, at times it sounds like they’ve been overplaying their Beatles records like good musical Scousers. ‘Meant to Be’ and its Beatles-esque melody is nothing compared to the outrageous thieving of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ in ‘On the Terrace’. There’s also a noticeable drop in momentum towards the end of the record, one track tends to blur into another in a happy summery haze. Nevertheless new tracks ‘Holiday Abroad’ and ‘Wanda’ suggest that the Shack tank is still full of enthusiasm and a knack for a catchy tune. With a tour to support the release also in the offing, we can but hope that the wilderness years might be coming to an end for Shack, so shout it from the rooftops, give it some onions and generally get this record heard.


In a nutshell…

Band justifies two decades of critical praise with ‘best of’ compilation.

What’s it all about?

Not so much a ‘time machine’ as a time capsule, chronicling the best of Shack.

In an age when acts are releasing ‘best of’ albums after just a few years in the game – three-album Jamelia springs immediately to mind – it’s refreshing to have a band put together two decades worth of material for the first time. Tracks are taken from all five of their albums, including four tunes off Waterpistol, finally released in 1995 after most of the master tapes were lost four years earlier when the recording studio burnt down. Tagged on at the end for good measure and for added value are two new tracks, Holiday Abroad and Wanda.

Who’s it by?

Since Scouse brothers Michael and John Head formed Shack out of the ashes of 80s also-rans The Pale Fountains almost 20 years ago, they have consistently garnered praise for their jaunty pop tales of everyday life.

Despite the admiration of both the music press and their peers – Oasis, the Coral and the Zutons are among the contemporary bands citing Shack as an influence – poor record sales saw them temporarily disband, with the Head brothers finding alternative employment touring as the backing band to Arthur Lee’s Love as well as releasing tunes as the Strands.

The group reformed in 1998, signing to the Sour Mash label owned by fan Noel Gallagher, though again critical acclaim has continued to far out-weigh commercial success.

Likelihood of a trip to the Grammys

While the critics know they’re good and the band’s self-confidence has never been in doubt, just as gold discs have continued to elude the group, so too has industry recognition in the shape of awards.

Perhaps it’s due to the fact that the music they produce breaks no moulds or explores any territory outside of story-telling psychedelic guitar pop but this fact looks unlikely to change.

However, it seems pretty clear that Michael Head has never actively sought any official approval and is most probably happiest to hold onto his band’s cult status – songs about a girlfriend’s tea-making abilities are never likely to win a Mercury or Brit, after all.

What the others say

Mick Head is “a lost genius and among the most gifted songwriters of his generation” – NME”Time Machine squanders the opportunity to showcase Shack’s very best material. It is a very good record, but not the must purchase it might have been – 4 out of 5.” – Manchester Evening News

So is it any good?

Indeed it is, though it works better as an introduction to one of England’s finest bands than as a release for their established fan base to enjoy.

Given that the band have achieved little in the way of chart success – with the exception a Comedy, Time Machine’s second track, which reached the heady heights of number 44 back in the day – track selection has clearly been a rather arbitrary affair, meaning many Shack aficionados may be left perplexed if not disappointed.

For example, Natalie’s Party and Daniella, among the highlights of the HMS Fable album, are left out in favour of less obvious examples of the Heads’ writing skills such as Al’s Vacation.

The tracks that have been given the nod by the band are, however, without exception three-minute masterpieces, both musically and through their wry and witty observational lyrics.

Perhaps the best thing about Time Machine is that it serves as proof that Shack are still very much with us, ongoing record label pressures and heroin troubles aside, with new track Holiday Abroad showing that the future is bright.


Bleary eyed romantics who showed a generation of scousers how to do it release a collection of their best work.

I loved Shack before they were Shack. I was and still am an ardent Pale Fountains fan. Here were a shamefully underrated band whose romantic imagery and luscious musical stylings seemed to be sheer genius to me at the time. In the same way that devotees of U2’s first album ‘Boy,’ looked at them subsequently with a distrustful eye I largely ignored Shack thinking they couldn’t possibly match up to the heights of their previous incarnation. I didn’t want to debunk the myth. So here I am faced with an album that is supposedly the best of their back catalogue and a brief to try and review it without bias.

Released in 1990 and with the immaculate production of the time is the moogy ‘I Know You Well.’ It sounds like George Harrison singing ‘If I needed someone.’ I’m in familiar territory here. ‘Oh the awful title belies the quality of this unusual ‘Comedy,’’ they sing as familiar fluid strings loop round and round.

I doubt anyone could write a song that embodies simple Englishness more than ‘Cup of Tea,’ from 2006’s album ‘From the Corner of Miles and Gil.’ It’s like Trumpton on acid where the milky is whistling and the postie is dancing. Surely only Michael Head could pen the line ‘She’s all bike and bike in front of me. Hair’s beautiful, baskets of frogs you see.’

With ‘On the Terrace,’ you can see why Noel Gallagher loves them. They sound like Oasis before they lost their imagination. On ‘Cornish Town,’ John Head’s vocals are a nice surprise as they bring to mind the warm burr of Martin Stephenson. Equally I don’t think I’ve heard a lovelier song for a while than ‘Miles Apart,’ from 2003’s ‘Here’s Tom with the Weather,’ which reminds me of Midlake and as such of early seventies acoustic rock. As the song says, ‘beautiful moments they’re caught in fleeting time.’ ‘Shelley Brown,’ is a marvellous arrangement of sound with synths that sound like trumpets. While ‘Butterfly,’ flutters about in a psychedelic haze.

Honesty resounds through their work. Their well documented problems with drugs are served up on a platter. ‘I don’t want a bag I wanna big one,’ declares Head on ‘Streets of Kenny,’ and manages to give this desperate trawl melodious charm without glorifying it; Bacharach does crack perhaps. New tracks are ‘Holiday Abroad’ on which his words sound scouse as you like. This is followed by the bright and bawdy ‘Wanda.’ Throughout the guitar work is stunning and the vocals have lost none of their sunny warmth even when terrible misadventures are being recounted.

So I’ve survived the process and how wrong could I have been.

Although I’m sure they could have filled a double album and still have had no complaints from Shack fans the most obvious omission to me would be ‘Natalie’s Party.’ Forget the Coral, Shack have shown other Liverpudlian bands how to build on the late sixties sound of Arthur Lee’s Love without it sounding hackneyed. These days The Heads favour realism rather than romanticism and I’m now truly a Shack as well as a Palies fan. Long may they continue to purvey their ‘truth and beauty’ wherever their turbulent musical journey may take them.

Also :




Established in 1998, Shacknet is an independent website dedicated to the music of Shack & The Pale Fountains.

The website is entirely funded by the generosity of its subscribers.

If you've got any information, cuttings, photos, films, recordings then we'd love to hear from you.

Shacknet also has a Facebook group. You can sign up here.







Zilch (1988)
1. Emergency (listen)
2. Someone’s Knocking (listen)
3. John Kline (listen)
4. I Need You (listen)
5. Realization (listen)
6. High Rise Low Life (listen)
7. Who Killed Clayton Square? (listen)
8. Who’d Believe It? (listen)
9. What’s It Like… (listen)
10. The Believers (listen)