I don’t really need another copy of my favourite ever LP – The magical world of the Strands – but it seemed only right to purchase the reissue of the Head brothers’ unforced, unrushed masterpiece, recorded between 1993 and 1995, and originally released in 1997. The reward (aside from putting a little well-deserved sterling in the bank account of one Michael Head Esq.) is once again to listen closely to the exquisite detail in the music, to hear Mick’s voice in perhaps the best nick it ever was, and to read the lovely little sleeve note from the man himself, describing the magical nature of the conditions under which the album was made:
‘Like when you were a kid sitting on the kerb, putting your fingers on the tar bubbles. A parked car pulls away and the residue of oil makes little oceans of wonder. And for that moment you don’t have a care in the world.’
If it was magical to make, it has always been magical to listen to. This is what I wrote about the record in 1999:
‘A German label had come to the rescue of Waterpistol; now it was the turn of French label Megaphone… 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.’
Soon to come is The olde world, unreleased songs and outtakes from around the time The magical world was recorded. The uninitiated should buy the latter; the initiated, the former. But I don’t need to tell them that.
Available to listen to now is Michael Head’s most recent solo outing, at the appropriately named Old Church in Stoke Newington. It’s a captivating performance, even for those of us who weren’t lucky enough to be there that evening.
New music by Michael Head is always going to create a ‘Hold the front page!’ moment round these parts. While waiting on the actual vinyl of his Red Elastic Band’s Artorius revisited EP, its purchasers have been sent advance downloads to listen to. (A CD version is now on sale for those who missed out on the vinyl.) Though 6 tracks are listed, it’s effectively 4 songs, with the opener and closer both being short instrumentals.
Of those four, ‘Cadiz’ leads the way and is the Michael Head classic you expect every record of his to be peppered with; the redemptive, liberating power of (the dream of) love paired – like the couple on a motorbike imagined by Mick – with a beautiful rise and fall of a melody. ‘Lucinda Byre’ stays at home, referencing a Bold Street, Liverpool clothes shop of that name, and positively aching with nostalgia. You can hear it in both Vicky Mutch’s cello and in Mick’s voice; the same ache with which he sang ‘Full moon’ on an early outing for the Red Elastic Band. Another Liverpudlian address, ‘Newby Street’, gives rise to a swift two and a half minutes’ chug, propelled by Andy Diagram’s and Martin Smith’s brass; it feels like it could have appeared on either the first Pale Fountains LP or the last by Shack. Finally, ‘Artorius revisited’ is inevitably imbued with the spirit or perhaps more accurately on this occasion the ghost of Arthur Lee, and is as close to being the song that accidentally got left off Forever changes as anything Mick has recorded before. I tend to like Mick’s pronounced Love moments less than when the influence and inspiration is simply stirred into the pot, but then again, who else can write songs to match or better Arthur Lee’s?
I think I’m right in saying that this is the first record Mick has made without his brother John being present on it. In his stead, Steve Powell plays lead guitar and produces, and – as you might expect of someone who has the pedigree of an engineering credit on The magical world of the Strands – he does a great job. But – and call me a nit-picking old sourpuss for saying this – he’s not John, and to these ears there’s inevitably not quite that instinctive, intuitive understanding and blending that Mick and John had developed through playing music together for the whole of their lives. Much as I love these new songs, and feel like I’m being unfair saying so, it does feel ever so slightly to me like something’s – someone’s – missing. Robert Forster and Grant McLennan had the same problem, in the years away from being Go-Betweens. And I wonder too, if there’s not a little bit of what Alexis Petridis identified in his recent review of Macca’s new album: ‘Perhaps therein lies the paradox of Paul McCartney’s latter-day career. The one thing he really needs is the one thing that he can’t have, because it doesn’t exist: an equal.’
That said, it’s great to have Mick back, and hopefully this is just the start of a run of releases nurtured into being with the same care and attention to detail as this first one from Violette Records.
Hugely chuffed and honoured to discover that a piece I wrote for Tangents a long, long time ago (1999! The prehistoric days of the Interweb!) has been used on the freshly launched website for Michael Head to tell in part his story. Along with his brother John, Mick Head recorded The magical world of the Strands, my Desert Island Disc. So that big an honour. Even more exciting than this though is the raison d’être for the new website – finally, a new record. Well, a release date at least for the Artorius revisited EP by Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band. I’ve been waiting for this since around about the time I posted ‘Full moon’ way back in 2009. This year has also seen Mick back performing live, with his Elastic Band, and on the new website you can see evidence of this in the form of a video of ‘Meant to be’ from the Night and Day café in Manchester. The rest of that night’s set is available here. Sadly no ‘Full moon’ but the new songs make me think there’s plenty of life left in the old dog yet. And Mick’s wearing an English settlement-era XTC t-shirt, making explicit a link I always felt in my bones, although thinking of ‘Love on a farmboy’s wages’, maybe it’s Mummer rather than that earlier LP which is the closest tie.
Geoff King’s introductory piece for the new website, above mine, is well worth reading. He reveals that ‘for The Strands album, Michael composed the songs after studiously spending day after day in Liverpool library reading renaissance and baroque era madrigals.’ I never knew that, but of course it figures, thinking of ‘Queen Matilda’, ‘And Luna’, ‘Hocken’s Hey’, ‘Green velvet jacket’, and the sheer timeless beauty of ‘Something like you’.
After every album, I always think we’ve heard the last of Michael Head, and I count myself grateful for what we have. And yet he keeps getting back up for one more go around the block. One more round in the ring. Long may he continue to do so.
- At the time of posting, there are still copies available of the limited edition Artorius revisited EP by Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band
Photo of Mick Head, Liverpool, December 2012 by Fontilan.
Its name was always going to tempt me to investigate, but I’m glad I did, because Fontlian is a site worthy of the song it honours. First, it’s visually striking, down in no small measure to the great photographs. Second, its words intrigue and amuse. And third, you get a choice and varied selection of tunes. Well worth adding to your regular bus route round the blogosphere.
And for those of you who don’t know the song in question, Fontilan has posted the demo version here.
What a spread. If you’re a fan of Shack, Michael Head & the Strands, the Pale Fountains, or John Head as a slowly emerging and wonderful songwriter in his own right, then accept the Captain’s invitation and sit down for a dinner that would have satisfied Admiral Lord Nelson himself – downloads of live performances, sessions, and demos dating from this year all the way back to a live performance by the Paleys in 1981. I’m working my way through them from either end, and there are treats aplenty. That Paleys show – at Plato’s Ballroom in Liverpool – is as gloriously ropey as it is historic (they dared to start with a flute solo! In 1981! Five years after punk!); Mick bellows like a bull at times.
John Head’s solo performance from the Port Eliot Festival earlier this year shows that sooner or later he is going to produce a solo LP to match all the wonderful albums of song writing assembled by his brother over the years. It includes a great song, ‘1967’, reversing the usual point of view about meeting your hero – in John’s case, Arthur Lee of Love.
Then – now somewhere in the middle of the story, and the downloads page – there are the legendary Shack Kitchen demos (more accurately recordings or run-throughs, I would say), throughout which the Head brothers prove themselves just as adept as XTC at donning sixties garb, and – most exciting of all – the demos for The magical world of the Strands. Inevitably somewhat plainer than in their final, perfected forms, the demos nevertheless exert a fascination of their own. You can see why the man behind Megaphone was willing to risk his money on a musician who in 1996 had fallen out of favour.
It’s like Andy Partridge’s Fuzzy warbles, except online and gratis. Shacknet, we salute you.
While we’re on the subject, here’s a 2003 Stylus article by Nick Southall about The magical world of the Strands which pretty much perfectly captures what makes it one of the greatest records ever made.