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.

mhplatosA 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…”

mh3Michael’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.

mhThe 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.

mh2In 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.