I was at one of Shack’s early gigs, when their first LP Zilch came out in 1988. It was “neither critically, nor commercially successful”, at least according to Wikipedia. It was, however, brilliant.
The gig was at the Bluecoat Arts Centre, just behind Church Street shops, an oasis of old school charm, not the Uni or Poly, not the Royal Court, not those regular venues with good PAs and a bar. Shack like to make it interesting, so a beautiful Victorian arts building that usually showed art house films, that only sold French bottles of lager. That was more Shack’s territory. This was the only time I ever saw anyone play a gig there.
The songs where like all the best bits of the Pale Fountains’ album From Across The Kitchen Table; catchy, driving, but clever, made for sing-alongs, but not like Cast, more cerebral somehow. They rocked the place, finishing with Love’s A House Is Not A Motel And I fell for them hard.
I took to going every gig I could, a little crew of us driving up to Blackpool for a blistering set in a tiny basement club, where we were made to wait a fucking eternity, as we watched another crate of ale disappear back-stage. Mick in his voluminous kecks, and mini mohawk, singing as if looking for something up above him.
At their gig at Liverpool’s Flying Picket gig, Mick was on the door and we chatted for a bit, it was a small turnout so I stood down the front, lapping it up.
Widnes, Mick was on the door again, and let me in for free, saying “you’s are always coming the gigs la, nice one, just ask for me if you coming and I’ll let you in no problem, alright” Nice one!
At some point they played Macs, that basement club off Bold Street, only about 50 in the place, no stage, Mick looking fucking blasted, big grin on his face as he tore through a new set of songs. I pissed him off by being drunk and shouting for Emergency and other Zilch faves all night, until he stopped and told me the band hadn’t rehearsed the old stuff, so they can’t play it, but that “You should pay attention cos these new songs are fucking boss, best stuff I’ve ever written”.
This was the first outing for the Waterpistol set. Doh!
Not long after I left home, got into techno and kind of forgot about Shack. Then in 95 Waterpistol finally dropped. The album however was recorded back in 91, it’d taken four long years to get it out.
Mick had finally written his perfect LP, Lee Mavers would be seething with envy over the lush analogue sound, chiming with ’60s warmth. Finally everything was right, the masters sounded great, perfecting the quest for stoned heaven.
This was Mick’s fourth LP, after the uneven Pale Fountains first LP but often brilliant second LP should have scored a hit with Jean’s Not Happening but failed to find an audience big enough to satisfy Virgin. Then Shack’s debut Zilch, with Mick’s social commentary lyrics, backed with catchy as fuck tunes, ‘polished’ by Ian Broudie’s shiny ’80s pop production, that however only did cult level business.
Waterpistol will surely chart, finally after years of struggles with labels, after your best mate and bassist dying, breaking up, forming a new band with your brother, scraping by on the dole like everyone else, living the life. Finally Shack can make it into the charts, play big gigs on tours with hotels, not floors and cold vans, get some cash in the bank. Madchester is fading, Oasis are on the rise, Shack just need the world to hear these songs and the manager will get his yacht.
After all this, to finally get a decent producer and studio, out with ’80s pristine punchy reverbed-to-death sheen, this time the label get them the sound they want, classic, big warm guitars, drums punchy soft, clean, good room, recorded with top notch equipment, surely all they had to do was to simply sprinkle a bit of magic on it all for that lush sound.
Mick has the tunes of his life, the usual salubrious everyman everyday tales finding poetry in the mundane, this time done justice, with a more focused Mick they’ll finally be doing some business. The songs written and sung from the rainy treeless backstreets, an overview from the gutter, some talk of the neighbours, and what’s on the telly, Mick shouts out ‘Go ed’ to accent a tempo change, all the while backed by anthem making guitar solos from his brother John.
Taking his influences from The Notorious Byrd Brothers, intricate layers of melody weaved into rhythmic cosmic harmony, some of Love’s raw west coast beauty, Lou Reed tales of scoring, feeding the need, throw in plenty of Scouse black humour. All his classic inspirations.
The stars aligned to produce an alchemical magic mixed in with Mick’s soul to produce a wonder. Out of poverty and hedonism came chaos and loss, beauty, truth and love. The sound of drinking a couple, rolling up a nice one, and sinking, cushioned all the way in with chiming guitars, waves of bliss rolling along with the melodies, lush, timeless qualities.
Those other lads taught him well about what it is ,that thing we crave; losing yourself in a good tune, switch off your mind and float down stream.
Undecided is the highlight for me, the one I ache for, longing for bliss in beer and dope soaked nostalgia, it takes me into its warm glowing embrace, but then pokes a hole with “what’s it like to be somebody, when you stick a needle in your arm”
The duality of the perfect high, the moment the craving kicks back in, the longing for the lost bliss, undecided if you’ll get loaded again.
Sargent Major opens with those 12 string guitars washing over you, riffs building into a harmony soaked bridge, the chorus pleading ‘yeah there’s time, come with me.’
Neighbours offsets a gentle intro with tales of dealers living next door, domestic strife, building to a the muffled scream of release. Stranger gets hazy in the city, before a ‘go ed’ from Mick signals making room for John to add some heady lines
Dragonfly ups the tempo but keeps the hazy vibe, dense layers of guitar chime , mini crescendos build the tension that is never fully released. Mood Of The Morning reminds me of that girl, the 6ft skinny moonfaced model I met down the pub who drove me crazy, loved a dab of speed and some left overs in the mornings.
Time Machine, with its huge guitar riffs, building chorus, reaching into an epic end where you can see Mick, bent over his guitar, hammering his soul into the strings. Mr Appointment is catchy from the off, tales of a characters disappearance, in service to the tune that build and builds, again ending in some more grimaced strumming. This nears perfection as well as any classic band is ever going to record.
And then the studio burnt down with the master tapes in it. The manager has the other copy, but he leaves it in a cab in New York. Mick turns to smack and the band falls apart.
Somehow Mick records The Magical World of the Strands LP. It’s astounding, a deep haze that threatens to descend into mush but somehow never does. The melodies play with murky blissful imagery, illuminating the darkest depths of smacked out bliss. Some good reviews, but it goes largely unnoticed.
Then finally a German Indie Marina manages to track down a copy and release Waterpistol. The reviews are positive, but no Wonderwall moment materializes, and it sinks without bothering the charts. Mick is seen busking on Bold St
Then, all flush with Britpop cash, finally all those 4/5 star reviews gets him signed to a major label, told to become the new Oasis, leaving just the small matter of writing another set of tunes. So he does and books a big fuck off studio with strings, the full works, to record the brilliant HMS Fable.
Radio one don’t play the lead single Comedy and the good ship HMS Fable sinks after shipping 30,000 copies, despite the NME declaring him ‘our greatest songwriter on their front cover.
He got another two LPs out, largely thanks to Noel Gallagher’s millions, but Mick Head has not had an easy ride with his music. It has demanded despair be brushed off, his self belief remaining intact so that he can keep writing tune after tune, to put out another great LP recently with Adios Senor Pussycat to a big fat nothing from the radio and a few more 5 star reviews in what’s left of the music press. While Waterpistol hailed by critics as a lost classic, it’s out of print, not on Spotify, and unknown to the millions who would love it.
Shack and Mick have developed a decent, if small following, but ask your average punter down the pub and you’ll get blank looks. They ain’t The La’s, The Coral, or The Bunnymen.
The last time I was home I saw him play without John for the first time, the all new The Red Elastic Band played at Sefton Park, he played with the guitarist from Love for a few, he was sober and looking great, the new set rocked as much as anything he’s done, the crowd of a few 100 middle aged blokes sung along, shedding a tear for Biffa during Comedy, the gigs these days are like a mini kop, that scouse vibe I tune into, singing the songs, that we all know, Mick and his band are the realest of deals
Word is there’s a new LP in the can, but then he sacked off the label and is starting something over, so who knows with Mick when it will be out…..soon, dead soon, honest!