Evan Jones says maybe
IN 1992, FOUR years before he was sent to prison for “negligent discharge of a firearm,” the near-forgotten Arthur Lee arrived in the UK with a new album to promote: Five String Serenade. It would be a good decade-plus before successful reissues and a reunion tour with his band Love jogged the world’s memory. And Five String Serenade is not his most famous work, nor a particularly solid record—though the title track has been made more famous by Mazzy Star and The White Stripes (the former’s version the better of the two renditions).
Licensed by French label Last Call Records – home in the 90s to seen-better-days figures like Alex Chilton and Mo Tucker – Lee came into contact with a promoter, Stéphane Bismuth. Bismuth arranged a few tour dates and connected Lee to a Liverpudlian songwriter who had been sending him demos—Michael Head. Since 1979, when he first heard Revisited, a compilation of tracks from the band’s Elektra heyday, Head had been crafting Love-esque pop songs. Head formed his first band, The Pale Fountains – né The Love Fountains – in the early 80s and had released a couple of albums on Virgin, neither of which sold well. He was now operating under the moniker “Shack,” with his brother John Head on guitar. But Shack had problems: their first album, Zilch (1988), hadn’t sold well. And the second had been swallowed up in a sea of misfortune: their record company folded, the recording studio burned down, the mastertapes were lost and found in New Mexico. (Waterpistol was finally released in 1996.)
Shack signed up as Lee’s backing band and support act, opening shows in Paris, London, and, naturally, Liverpool. It was a meet-your-hero situation, but the Head brothers came out well. They impressed Lee with their knowledge of his back catalogue—although at a later point when they met again the always confrontational Lee went at John Head with a bowie knife in a hotel room. “It was a test,” Head insists.
With the tour behind him and Shack in disarray (bassist Peter Wilkinson left to join The La’s’ John Power in Cast), Michael Head returned to the studio, this time with a completely different project—Michael Head and the Strands. Bismuth provided the funds. Recording took place over two years, though in typical Shack fashion an album took even more time, during which Waterpistol was released and Shack reformed to record their best album, HMS Fable (1999). When The Magical World of the Strands was finally unleashed on the world by Bismuth’s Megaphone label in 1997, there was no band to support it. Well-received in the music press, the album sank like so many of Head’s recorded efforts to the depths of the Mersey.
Now, after years of public tributes and backroom praise, all has surfaced. Since its initial release, The Magical World of the Strands has developed a sort of legendary status, a treasure amid other treasures that the Head brothers have hidden in the unlistening world over the past two decades: a lost classic of the 60s resurgence, whose referents include the Byrds, Love, Simon & Garfunkel, chiming, warm guitars, and soaring, sweet melodies. Megaphone have re-issued the original album on CD and LP, with two bonus tracks plus a second CD of outtakes, unreleased recordings, and alternate mixes, The Olde World. Taken as a whole, the effort is a fine, gorgeous 1990s pop album, which few in the 1990s wanted to hear.
Let’s remember the pop world in 1997. In the UK, Oasis and Blur were on top; Pulp were withdrawing from the public sphere via the unlikeable This Is Hardcore; Norman Cook, when not working on his own material, was remixing “Brimful of Asha,” which would shortly be heard in an episode of Friends; The Beta Band’s The Three EPs hadn’t yet shaken up guitar pop. These were the days when clubs and concert halls resounded with “Woo-hoo,” “I want to live like common people,” “You’re my wonderwall,” and, “Everybody needs a buxom for a pillow.” That was the strength of all those Britpop hits: you could sing along. But those anthems have since become punchlines. Here’s one: “My girlfriend asked me to stop singing ‘Wonderwall,’ it was driving her crazy. I said, maybe.” The earworm settles in.
It was into the middle of that world the not-so-singalong The Magical World of the Strands appeared. Yes, there’s a place for it in the history of Britpop. It is of that magisterial era—but in a more sublime way than Oasis or Blur were ever capable of. Firstly, it’s a quiet record, full of acoustic guitars. There are some Love-like hooks and refrains, but none of that band’s frenetic energy. Good Lord, half the songs are in ¾ time. And while Oasis was releasing overlong singles in the nineties, the centrepiece here, a seven and half minute acoustic number written by John Head, “Loaded Man,” is a kind of even more bittersweet take on Love’s “Signed D.C.” —a tale of addiction and failure. That the track after it, “Hocken’s Hey,” opens with banjo and acoustic guitar is equally telling about the album’s reception.
In the 1990s, while audiences were out buying “Man my dog’s been itchin’,/ itchin’ in the kitchen,” played on electric guitars through Marshall amps, Michael Head was writing rain-addled Liverpudlian waltzes with a string quartet—that describes the album’s best song, “Something Like You”. Included on The Olde World is a heart-breaking recording of the string quartet’s part of that song. Can anyone imagine Oasis releasing just the cello bit from “Wonderwall” as a track?
Head was on an artistic roll in the 90s and from an ideal perspective his sixties-inspired introspective songs couldn’t have asked for a better, more receptive decade. But the 90s weren’t ideal: they were, in the record-selling world, laddish and boorish (listen to anything by Weezer to see what I mean). Worse, perhaps the timing for Head’s songwriting has never been right. There are moments on The Magical World of the Strands that are sweet, in multiple senses of that word. How many Britpop albums can you say that about? But then Head is more Nick Drake than John Lennon, more “Northern Sky” than “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey.”
Shack meandered through the noughties, releasing two very good albums – Here’s Tom With the Weather (2003) and The Corner of Miles and Gil ( 2006) – but these just aren’t as formidable or rewarding as the earlier work. The Magical World of the Strands, now complemented with The Olde World, stands out in a curious, sort of sad, and often hard to follow discography. Perhaps, like his hero Arthur Lee, whose Forever Changes took decades to catch on, Michael Head is someone for whom only the future can offer an audience.
EVAN JONES is Partisan's foreign correspondent. His most recent book is Paralogues (2012). His work has appeared in The Guardian, TLS, PN Review, and elsewhere.