/ Emergency, Ghetto Recording Company, 1988
There was only candidate for B/w 13. It had to be Shack, with their well-rehearsed tales of lost master tapes, hard times out of the sun, and battles with addiction. But Michael Head’s gift has repeatedly drawn in people keen to help resurrect the status of the former Pale Fountain. And who but a lucky man ultimately finds his music bankrolled by a fan (one Noel Gallagher) very much in a position to help?
Michael and his brother John have earned their ‘Best of’, Time machine. No songwriter has done a better job in terms of reflecting the time in which he has lived and his own personal journey through it than Michael Head. He has travelled from brassy eighties optimism and youthful exuberance to political grievance and Liverpudlian pride, and then on again from the resignation of ambition and acceptance of his lot to renewed belief in his own talent – a periodic regeneration that puts you in mind of another recently revived time traveller. Perhaps inevitably Time machine gives a picture of their music that’s not quite complete, even before you set to debating whether Noel Gallagher picked the best songs from each represented album. There is nothing from the first LP, 1988’s Zilch, but that’s reasonable, given Ian Broudie’s archetypally nasty eighties production job. The clattering artifice of the drum sounds ruined what could have been one of the best albums of the decade. I would love to see some of Zilch’s songs redeemed by an acoustic or live re-recording. ‘Someone’s knocking’, ‘What’s it like’ and ‘The believers’ stand fair comparison with anything Michael Head wrote subsequently.
A more serious omission is anything from The magical world of the Strands, which despite being credited to Michael Head & the Strands could still stand as a Shack release, given that John plays on it and contributes the first of his songs to be recorded. No doubt issues of space and licensing come into play but it is a pity that new admirers won’t immediately get to hear the liquid beauty of ‘Something like you’ and ‘Fontilan’, or the timeless folk of ‘Queen Matilda’ and ‘Hocken’s Hey’. Their absence means justice isn’t quite done when it comes to indicating the range of mood and mode of which the brothers are capable.
Time machine does rescue from the past two very different but essentially psychedelic Shack singles which chronologically appeared between Zilch and Waterpistol – the baggy scally swagger of ‘I Know You Well’ on which the Scousers embraced the sound of Madchester, and the chimerical, shape-shifting ‘Al’s Vacation’, a peculiar hybrid of a song ripped near its end by the searing sound of a record being scratched. But there’s no space for any of the many fine flipsides Shack have turned in. On this front the expanded version of HMS Fable, The Fable sessions is worth obtaining for the handful of less overtly produced B sides it includes. ‘Uncle Delaney’ presents Michael Head in the guise of an untroubled Syd Barrett fronting Love playing ‘Can’t explain’, while ‘Solid gold’ also leans swooning towards the psychedelic and away from the terrace chanting of HMS’s ‘Pull together’. The anonymous sleeve notes go to the heart of it: ‘The songs recorded with Hugh Jones are both more turbulent and subtle, but buoyed too with… a surging, restless energy and a musical delicacy, all, as ever, steeped in that gentle, plangent, inimitably graceful Northern psychedelia that Shack have made their own.’
Yet even The Fable sessions weren’t quite complete, as for some inexplicable reason ‘Comedy’’s best B side, ‘24 hours’ got left off. Just another Shack mystery. It’s a great, upbeat song, with an admittedly rambling but joyful lyric which seems to celebrate 24 hours in the company of a girl who looks like ‘a young Julie Christie’, eating breakfast, strawberries, going to a fair, to bed. And music to match.
If it had been me rather than Noel Gallagher(!) stowing songs on the Time machine I would have found a way of bringing Zilch-era Shack on board in the form of one or other of the two self produced B sides from the ‘Emergency’ twelve inch. In ‘Liberation’ and ‘Faith’, Shack placed two of the most profound political and philosophical concepts side by side; not so surprising at a time when Michael Head’s songwriting was at its most socially aware. The pairing gives you an idea of how great Zilch could have been. With fake tales of the Doors in Memphis and a second-hand copy of Death in Venice, ‘Liberation’ rattles along, its cartoon-like folky chug echoing ‘September Sting’ on the Pale Fountains’ … from across the kitchen table and hinting at what was to come in the form of ‘Hocken’s Hey’. Whose liberation, which walls come tumbling down is not clear, but the blending of acoustic and electric guitars, of Mick and John, is crystal.
‘Faith’, a cover of the second and final single by Manicured Noise, strides out defiantly, wearing its chiming guitars with pride, turning the angular funk-punk of the original into something approaching the perfect pop song. Though written by Londoner Steve Walsh, one of the few people who by Jon Savage’s reckoning swam against the tide and headed north to Manchester after punk arrived, Shack’s reading of ‘Faith’ evokes for me the open stretches of the Mersey beneath brick terraces painted red, and the contrast between Liverpool’s two cathedrals – the massive red stone solidity of the Anglican connected by Hope Street to the unexpected mix of modern materials and stained glass that is the Catholic, its circle of aluminium spires forming what might be the basket of a giant pagan torch.
But Steve Walsh’s song is about survival, about a kind of faith that is taking one step and then the next, thinking no further ahead. Michael Head is also a (social) realist. And in the end, no matter how firm the faith, he has to echo the concluding sentiment of ‘Faith’ and sing ‘you know it all boils down to nothing’.