Michael Head & The Strands – The Magical World Of The Strands
By: Nick Southall
Published on: 2003-09-01
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.