Zilch (1988)

Someone’s Knocking
John Kline
I Need You
High Rise Low Life
Who Killed Clayton Square?
Who’d Believe It?
What’s It Like…
The Believers


Zilch, the first album released by Shack, was a brilliant but unfulfilled promise of great things to come

Following a comment on a previous post suggesting I never listen to any music after 1989, this week’s is dedicated to an album from 1988. Zilch was the first album released by Shack, a band created by Liverpudlian singer/songwriter Michael Head out of the remnants of his previous band, the Pale Fountains.

To say Michael Head has had his share of bad luck would be an understatement. Things started off well enough. The Paleys’ take on the guitar ‘n’ trumpet pop of Bacharach and Love sparked a bidding war between labels. They finally signed to Virgin for £150,000, but despite some fantastic singles, including the anthemic Jean’s Not Happening, their biggest hit, Thank You, still stalled just outside the Top 40, at No 46. The band finally split following the death of bassist Chris McCaffrey of a brain tumour in 1986.

Zilch was meant to be Head’s big comeback. Now with brother John in the fold, Shack took the West Coast harmonies of the Paleys and relocated them to the English council flat. Again, the band garnered rave reviews. Again they failed to strike it lucky.

After Zilch, the story descends into farce: follow-up album Waterpistol disappeared into the ether amid comical tales of burnt-down studios, lost mastertapes and the more serious spectre of heroin addiction. In the meantime, the 90s Britpop boom stole their thunder. By the time their third album proper, HMS Fable, arrived in 1999, they were already being spoken of as the forgotten men of English pop. Songs like Comedy encouraged the NME to hail Head as the country’s greatest living songwriter, but by this time they were middle-aged men who’d missed their shot at the big time.

Which perhaps explains why there’s been such a spate of nostalgia for the band of late. There were a couple of Pale Fountains reunion gigs in February and, after a Japanese reissue in 2005, Red Flag records finally rereleased Zilch at the end of last year, meaning their entire back catalogue is now available to the public.

If you’re new to Mick Head’s talents, I’d strongly recommend you get yourself a copy of The Magical World of the Strands, a spin-off album from 1997 that consisted of three-quarters of Shack along with Michelle Brown on bass. It’s an album full of classic, whimsical English pop; the sound of perennial Likely Lads growing up with a sense of resigned fatalism. Then, once you realise what the fuss is all about, get yourself Zilch to hear the beginnings of a magnificent band.

ZILCH, NME, 28 MAY 1988

“It’s like a joke on Countdown, always brings the house down. “If Shack were on Telly Addicts they’d win hands down: judging by the lyrical content of Zilch the brothers Head have spent much of their spare time since the demise of The Pale Fountains stuck in front of the box.

Zilch marks the progress from the abrasive sound of late-period PF to a softer, more acoustic sound that is not a million miles away from where they began in the early 80’s. Yet there is a tangible difference between an old and a new Michael Head song: as well as the numerous TV references there are titles like High Rise Low Life and lines like The Town Planner’s coming, so terraces run for your life. Throughout the LP the lyrics are redolent of routine day-to-day existence. TV Times by your side living in places where the water doesn’t come with the tenancy. In fact not a Southbound Excursion in sight!

Like The Claim’s current LP, Shack’s debut is overwhelmingly kitchen sink in atmosphere. Songs like Someone’s Knocking are like Play for Today miniatures and the Hulton Picture Library cover is straight from an Alan Sillitoe novel, but all the rain washed Ian Broudie productions and intriguing lyrics can’t hide the comparative lack of substance in the tunes: disappointingly, Head only stretches his talents on the single Emergency and the ambitious Realization (a corking Broudie arrangement). Then again maybe I’m being harsh. Shack have quite a past to live up to and by most people’s standards Zilch is an assured and very enjoyable LP.


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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)