The Quest for King Arthur
Somewhere, out in the ether, there is omnipresence. A lithe, phantom figure once again holds court at the mock 17th century Venetian palazzo that was once his Castle in the late 1960’s. He prowls the gold leaved corridors and navigates the arched colonnades. He is a poet, an iconoclast, an imposing spectre. When the ghost of Arthurly speaks, Michael Head listens. Artorius Revisited…
Michael Head has been listening ever since that fateful day in 1979 when Dave ‘Yorkie’ Palmer introduced him to the West Coast Psychedelic sound of Love. Michael’s eyes glazed over and a switch went off in his head. He had apparently seen the light. For Head it was an instantaneous crystallisation of both a musical vision and a calling to create a new West Coast sound. He became a self appointed apprentice; however, Michael Head’s journey was always going to be one that was well and truly conceived on the Western banks of the River Mersey, as opposed to the Pacific Ocean coastline.
A sound and vision that was first manifest in The Love Fountains in 1981, in honour of the maverick Arthur Lee, whose musical alchemy was filtering through the decades and across the Atlantic Ocean to a second spiritual home in Kensington, Liverpool. This was the beginning of Michael Head’s musical evolution. With fellow soul brother Chris McCaffrey who lived on the opposite side of Kensington’s Bruised Arcade, he began to construct his new Mersey sound. The Love Fountains seamlessly transformed into The Pale Fountains, a minor graduation but one that picked up a new group of influences that have followed Michael through the intervening decades. Burt Bacharach, John Barry, Simon & Garfunkel and then the bossa nova inflections of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Sergio Mendes & Brasil ‘66. The Head manifesto was aspiring to classical status from the very beginning.
The beautiful sound of The Pale Fountains was certainly far removed from the vast majority of music being produced, not only in Liverpool, but also the UK as a whole during the post punk period of the early 80’s. They were an out of kilter band with a clear vision; to bring a slice of sunshine to their lives and anyone with the inclination to listen to them, in a city which was struggling to cope amidst a political climate that appeared to be doing its utmost to bring it to its knees;
“And in the morning when you rise, be sure to know your destiny, ‘cos it’s all worthwhile…”
Michael’s songs from this period flirted with numerous musical styles and escapist titles. An early entry into the songbook, Folklorica was inspired by a poster for a Spanish festival adorning the wall of Liverpool’s Everyman Bistro. This theme continued with Realization, a song that he would record in 1988 for Shack’s debut LP Zilch, drawing inspiration from a Fry’s Chocolate Cream metal advertising at The Palies favourite haunt. Michael’s music was also to become very inclusive, picking up numerous band members along the way. Les Roberts would be discovered improvising flute to the jukebox in the basement of the Casablanca, a club down the road from the Everyman on Liverpool’s Hope Street. For a short period he would become The Pale Fountains’ Tjay Cantrelli. Additionally, an impromptu appearance from Dislocation Dance trumpeter Andy Diagram during The Pale Fountains first major London gig, would start another long lasting association. The use of lone trumpet became part of Michael’s musical blueprint and introduced a whole new series of jazzy reference points which he would happily absorb. Herb Alpert, Miles Davis and even Don Cherry started creeping into the brew. Michael’s composition Spanish Tragedy for the band’s first LP suddenly became epic in its sound and scope with an intro from Andy that played homage to Miles Davis Gone, Gone, Gone from Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess. Better known as Beyond Friday’s Field, this song still stands as testament to his brave and daring approach to song writing. Michael however, was able to transcend something else that went beyond the music. There appeared to be an abundance of literary and film reference points to his work. From the apparent take on Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn in the Thank You promo video where Michael & Marina Van Rooy are cast in Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher roles, to the Fin Costello photo shoot at Bluebell Railway which conjured images of Edith Nesbitt’s Railway Children. They are all in there if you look close enough, De Niro’s Mean Streets, Steinbeck’s Of Mice & Men, Sillitoe’s Saturday Night & Sunday Morning and Ransome’s Swallows & Amazons. Classic, in every sense of the word.
The end of the 80’s heralded a temporary move away from escapism and into realism for Head as he released the first album under the name Shack. Michael cleverly linked the imagery of Bert Hardy’s post war black and white photographs with his take on social realism. While lyrically being firmly rooted in the present the songs were still able to retain a classic element by utilising brother John Head’s majestic use of the Rickenbacker 12-string. However, at this point Michael Head seemed like a dislocated figure in the music industry. Refusing to conform to current trends or fads he steadily continued to write and record music of simple and often staggering beauty whilst largely going unnoticed by the general public.
Then, in 1992 there was a glorious twist to the tale. Michael was able to meet and play with his hero, Arthur Lee, as part of his backing band Love for some selected European tour dates. It is no mere footnote to Head’s story, however, it conveniently brought things full circle. The master being introduced to his apprentice. Michael and brother John knew and played the Love back catalogue better than some of the original band members, meaning this brief acquaintance provided a validation of sorts. Michael Head could now clearly stand proudly as a songwriter and performer in his own right. He would never stand in anybody’s shadow.
In 1999, he suddenly appeared on the cover of NME with the headline “This Man Is Our Greatest Songwriter, Recognise Him?”. It provided a veneer of comfort that finally on the back of Shack’s third album HMS Fable, Head was finally receiving some recognition. However, between Zilch and Fable, and apparently underneath everybody’s radar, Michael Head had managed to record two of the greatest albums of the modern era in Waterpistol and The Magical World of The Strands. In between these albums Michael found time to produce and appear on an Autour de Lucie recording Island. It was a re-recorded version Paul Giovanni’s Willow’s Song from the cult horror movie Wicker Man. Sonically, Michael Head had never sounded better. His approach to song writing was now projecting more earthy, folk elements and drawing inspiration from the unlikeliest of places; For The Strands album, Michael composed the songs after studiously spending day after day in Liverpool library reading renaissance and baroque era madrigals. Once again he was ahead of the game, out of synch and ahead of his time.
Shack proceeded to produce a couple of mind-blowingly beautiful albums, Here’s Tom With The Weather and …On the Corner Of Miles & Gil which only further enhanced Michael Head’s reputation as a songwriter. Soldier Man could have been written for Astrud Gilberto’s Beach Samba LP and Meant To Be with its mariachi trumpet began to take on legendary status at live performances. Seeing Shack in the flesh had become almost like a religious experience for many of Head’s faithful followers. Like visiting Goodison or Anfield, Head’s music is ingrained in the fabric of their being. No people in the world have an understanding and appreciation of football and music like they do in Liverpool. It is the city’s heartbeat. And while listening to his intelligent, melodic observations and delivery of pocket vignettes it appears that they have been personally hand delivered to his disciples across the Mersey breeze tied in a red elastic band.
Which brings us to the present; The Red Elastic Band. Michael Head’s latest venture, or, “The third coming of Michael Head” as one esteemed fan recently put it. It is a project that has been brewing for a number of years now with some early live performances around 2008 and a couple of radio sessions being aired. The concept is ingeniously simple; a fluid, inclusive collective that has no borders or boundaries – a collective of people able to channel and present the new songs of Michael Head. But it is not all just about the music, it encompasses the whole package of delivering this new musical vision in the most appropriate way. As Michael once said, “anybody can be in The Red Elastic Band.” There does however need to be real clarity and sense of purpose to achieve this goal, and maybe that is why it has taken five years to finally reach this point of take-off. Fluidity and freedom can ultimately lead to chaos, but for this concept to work it needed to be true to its title; elastic by name, elastic by nature. Yes, the band can twist and form and move in a multitude of directions, but ultimately it must never snap, with an inherent need to reform and relax back towards its one central, defining constant; Michael Head.
Musically, Head is still pushing boundaries. Where his peers from the eighties may have lost their relevance and ability (or will) to continue to write music of real value, he continues to produce new material that still has the ability to captivate and surprise his ardent fan base. They have been aired in public to critical acclaim, with a stripped down, classical line-up that latterly included Les Roberts (flute) and more recently, and more cohesively has included Andy Diagram and Martin Smith (trumpet), with Vicky Mutch adorning these new gems with some beautiful and often haunting cello. The songs are out there for people to judge; American Kid, Cadiz, Winter Turns to Spring, My Pretty Girl, Amy, Josephine, and some (I Don’t Know What It Is About You, Gorgonzola) with titles that will no doubt change through the course of time. These are songs that have taken decades of experience to conceive and nurture. From standing on Everton brow as a youngster, and looking out across the Mersey and letting the faintly salty air permeate his soul, to hearing You Set The Scene for the first time, or recollecting people and places that have passed through his life during the last half century. These are his songs and his sound, a one-of-a-kind modern day Mersey Folk music.
Out in the ether, the omnipresent ghost of Arthur Lee hears the Red Elastic Band. No longer a wide eyed apprentice, Michael Head has graduated. When Michael speaks, Arthurly listens. Artorius revisited…
© Geoff King, June 2013.
The New Folk Sound of Michael Head
Do you remember how you first came across a great group, a certain songwriter, an infectious collection of rhythms? I do, usually, though my memory doesn’t stretch, as one Pop Trivia King’s does, to being able to name exactly which shop he bought any particularly record in. Sometimes I read between the hyped or prejudiced lines of a review and think I see something I like the sound of, sometimes Peelie or Peterson will play something that metaphorically makes me pull over to the side of the road with tears in my eyes, as the former literally did when he first heard ‘Teenage Kicks’. But more often it’s been friends consigning a tape to the post, shrewd guessers of my taste and passionate about their own. They keep their ears and noses to the ground, and I’m very grateful.
I first heard the Pale Fountains on a tape a school friend did for me. Tibor Pinteer put ‘Pacific Street’ on one side, and Prefab Sprout’s ‘Swoon’ on the other. Songs Written Out Of Necessity soon became songs listened to out of necessity. I used to sit next to Tibor in maths; he was of Hungarian origin, and his family ran a restaurant in town called the Silken Tassel. I don’t know what became of him. There were some rumours of hard drugs and Norwich, but only rumours. Paddy McAloon, he’s apparently working on some epic ‘story of earth’ concept, occasionally filing a sugary album to keep his record company happy. And the Pale Fountains’ Michael Head, who from the moment ‘Reach’ launched itself from the speakers showed himself to be another gifted Liverpudlian with a bagful of self-belief? Let me tell you a little of what became of him.
Liverpool has had so many underrated heroes in among the McCartneys, McCullochs and McManamans we all know about. You couldn’t be more unsung than the McHellfire Sermons, more defiant of the industry than the La’s Lee McMavers, or more flirtatiously subversive than Bill McDrummond. But Michael and John Head have never really had their due, despite creating some of the most stirring and intimate pop music of the ’80s and ’90s. Until now, it seems, with the new Shack single, ‘Comedy’, having received the Radio 1 play list treatment (two months before it was actually released), and journalists who’ve been looking the other way for ten years busy helping London Records’ marketing department do its job. ‘The greatest band you never heard.’ Ha. And whose fault is that?
The Pale Fountains released two LPs. The ambitious if uneven ‘Pacific Street’ blazed with guitars and brass, softening occasionally into folksy acoustics and sweeping strings, while Mick’s wordy couplets were sung in a pure, fragile and proud Liverpudlian. ‘… from across the kitchen table’ was packed with more hit singles than a cricket scorecard. In theory, at least. Songs like ‘Jean’s Not Happening’ were full of Merseyside swagger, and younger brother John’s virtuoso Love-inspired lead guitar. Perhaps Mick’s singing had become a little histrionic in his search for soulful expression, but it was an implausibly upbeat album full of memorable lines: ‘in a cheap hotel room the miraculous way you bucked up when I said you were incredibly beautiful’; ‘and when I met you in the subway station, you looked as though you hadn’t seen the queen’s face for a while’. But away from the studio, there wasn’t much to be optimistic about. All the money Virgin had thrown at the group was being spent on a little, then a lot, of what you fancy, and the hype was failing to recoup that money in sales. Bassist Chris McCaffrey pulled his plug, and that was the end of the Paleys.
In an interview with Emmanuel Tellier for the French music magazine Les Inrockuptibles in 1990, a point in time when British journalists were falling over themselves to resuscitate his talent on behalf of the nation, Michael Head had a chance to tell his story.
‘I almost never went to school, I couldn’t stand the rules. At school, everybody got on my wick. So I played footie or stayed at home with me mam. She liked the company. We sang together. Mam had a fantastic way with the old songs. She made me work on my voice. It was also her that encouraged us to form a band. So we’d have three or four guitars in the living room, and mam would make us tea. Then we’d trash our six strings. …
‘I didn’t know how to conduct myself. Should I be very strict and preserve the purity of the songs, or should I profit from the possibilities offered by Virgin? Can you imagine what it was like for me to find myself at twenty in front of a thirty-piece orchestra? I wasn’t a conductor. Even if it was all very exciting, I was definitely ill at ease.’
The interview finished with Mick apologising to all their French friends for messing up, and Emmanuel told me that it was the best interview he’d ever done.
After the first of numerous periods out of the spotlight Michael Head had already been quite successful at dodging, the brothers returned as Shack, the name conjuring up the spirit of Love, whose ‘A House Is Not A Motel’ the band had turned to covering in the last days of the Pale Fountains. 1988′s ‘Zilch’ was an angry album, a document of the mid ’80s in two senses: Michael Head’s protest on behalf of his city against the havoc wreaked by Thatcher, and Ian Broudie’s heavy-handed production, the clattering artifice of the drum sound ruining what could have been the best album of the decade. (Broudie also helped to take the edge from what should have been a classic Bodines record the previous year.) That it’s still listenable is testament to its directness and dry humour. Scour the second-hand shops, and you may find a copy of the 12″ of ‘Emergency’ from the same year. Its two band-produced B sides, ‘Liberation’ and ‘Faith’ give you an idea of how great ‘Zilch’ could have been. Each rattles along, ‘Liberation’ echoing the folksy chug of ‘September Sting’ on ‘… from across…’ and hinting at ‘Hocken’s Hey’ on the later Strands album, and ‘Faith’ striding out defiantly, wearing its chiming guitars with pride.
The next Head-turning moment was the baggy scally swagger of the 1990 ‘I Know You Well’ single; yes, the Liverpudlians had embraced the sound of Madchester, albeit with a McCartneyesque bass line driving through its psychedelic rain of effects-laden guitar. It was an isolated moment though – years were to pass before an album called ‘Waterpistol’ crept unannounced into the shops.
‘Waterpistol’ has an uncanny parallel in ‘The new folk sound of Terry Callier’, the majestic Chicagoan’s first LP, recorded one Saturday afternoon back in 1964. The producer was so moved by Callier’s fusion of jazz, soul and folk that he skipped off to an Indian province in Mexico with the master tapes, there to sample the local mushrooms. The LP was finally released in 1968, with Terry only learning about it when his brother saw a copy in a second-hand bookshop. The studio containing the master tapes of ‘Waterpistol’ burnt down, and producer Chris Allison, who’d done a consistently good job, disappeared to the States with the DAT copy. On return he realised he’d left it in a hire car. The DAT was tracked down, but by this time Shack’s record company had folded. Four years on from the date of recording, the honourable Marina came in to save ‘Waterpistol’ from the dust it was gathering. It was a small step in the long haul that seems finally to have saved Mick Head, as Terry Callier before him was saved by the enthusiasm of Gilles Peterson and Kevin Beadle, from an indifference as surprising as the talent of each is unique.
A German label had come to the rescue of ‘Waterpistol’; now it was the turn of French label Megaphone, who offered Mick a small sum to make an album for them. ‘The Magical World Of The Strands’ was the result, and it underpins this whole story, making it worth the telling. If ‘Zilch’ was Mick at his most socially concerned, then ‘The Magical World Of The Strands’ sees him in about as other-worldly a state as it’s possible to record. The echoing, raining, hollow sonic quality is matched by songs that come from another age, and tender singing that is without a trace of vanity or self-reverence. That it’s a record apparently made in the sub-aqueous depths of heroin is a fact that you shouldn’t hold too near the front of your mind when you’re listening to it. ‘The Magical World’ is beyond the substances that sustained it. It’s an instrumentally beautiful record, totally idiosyncratic, rightly titled magical – alluding to a fantasy world beyond reality, or of heightened reality. Songs such as ‘Something Like You’ and ‘Fontilan’ are liquid, sleepy, and impressionistic. Others – ‘Queen Matilda’, ‘Hocken’s Hey’ – are folk songs in the truest sense, mythical and timeless; they give you a notion of the Head brothers hanging out with Robin Hood beneath the canopy of Sherwood Forest, or standing with their noses to the breeze off the Mersey long, long before there was a Liverpool to give birth to them.
It sounded like the last we would hear of him, but it wasn’t. April 1999 saw Shack take the stage of the Notre Dame Hall in London, a new set of songs under their arms. Michael Head was nervous before the circular dance floor’s sea of faces. Adrenalin mixed with stuttering jokes as the first song ended and the second began. A short way into the set, there was a change. A look of total pleasure replaced the nerves, and the many years of obscurity, the rejected and wasted talent, the lost recordings, none of it counted any more. Playing vital songs to an audience so fully on his side, Michael Head was back where he belongs.
© Daniel Williams, June 1999.