The Return Of Mick Head

Very shortly I'm going to point you in the direction of the greatest pop song that anybody has written in the last ten years but first there needs to be some back story...
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Very shortly I'm going to point you in the direction of the greatest pop song that anybody has written in the last ten years but first there needs to be some back story...

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Photo: Mark McNulty

At the height of BritPop NME ran a cover story; a close up of the face of a man in his early thirties and (if I recall correctly) the following question;

Who is this man?

Easy, I thought, it's Michael Head. Why are you asking me daft questions?

The feature inside stated that this was 'the greatest songwriter that you've never heard.'

Don't tell me who I haven't heard, it's Mick bloody Head. Of course I've sodding heard him.

Mick Head had been present as a force in a Liverpool since the early 80s leading an ever changing line up of musicians that went under the wonderfully Liverpudlian name of The Pale Fountains (Liverpool bands in the 80s had the best names in the history if music). The 'Paleys' as they are routinely referred to by fans made joyous classic pop that nobody bought. Mick was quoting Burt Bacharach as his main influence over a decade before Noël Gallagher's love for that writer would make him credible with the indie kids once again. Noel won't mind that point being raised, Noel knows how good Mick is; he released an album and a greatest hits by the man.

In my more hyperbolic moments I have been known to claim that The Paleys first album 'Pacific Street' is as good as Mick's other major influence, Love's majestic 'Forever Changes'. It's not that but it is a work of maverick wonder that managed to combine The Clash,The Byrds and 'The Girl From Ipanema' into 40 timeless minutes.

The public didn't bite. Nor did they bite for the glorious singles 'Thank You' and 'Palm Of My Hand'. They failed once again with the brilliant 'Jean's Not Happening' single and parent album '.....From Across The Kitchen Table' (the public that is, the band never failed)

And then the Pale Fountains were no more.

For most young bands this would be the end, the low point of their story.

It wasn't and it quite definitely wasn't.

Mick's colleague and close friend Chris McCafferey died in 1989, two years after the band folded. If you believe the legend it was at this point that Mick made a conscious decision to turn to heroin use to dull the pain and in order to walk in the steps of the great romantic poets of the nineteenth century. It's almost impossible to establish the truth behind such artistic myths but Mick has had well documented issues for over two decades now.

With his guitarist brother John Mick formed Shack, a band as mighty and special as The Pale Fountains had been. And as commercially unsuccessful. Their first album Zilch was a fine opening statement on a label that almost immediately went out of business. There were two acts on the label, the company that bought up the roster kept the other one - The Lightning Seeds.

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A second album was recorded. The studio burnt down with the master tapes still inside. The producer had the only other copy of the finished work; a DAT tape that he left in the glovebox of a hire car in the States. Finally tracked down, Waterpistol was released very quietly but with a stunning review from the NME three years too late. It is, of course, a masterpiece. And of course nobody bought it.

There was a solo detour; the beautifully somnambulant 'Magical World of The Strands'. Between the aching drowsiness of the sound and the bare statement of the title 'X hits the spot' the heroin connection was taken to be self evident

Quite brilliantly Mick achieved his dream in this wilderness period; a tour acting as Arthur Lee's backing band - Mick was, genuinely, in 'Love' (the band not the emotional state)

BritPop gave Mick his best chance for wider commercial success. The times chimed with his tastes, the world was ready for him. Except, once again, it wasn't. HMS fable shimmered and rang in all the right ways; it was big, it was pop, it was filled with guitars, it was intelligent. It should have been a number one album. It wasn't. Lead single 'Comedy' is as good a song as you will ever hear. You probably haven't heard it, most people were never given the chance.

And that was the moment; the band went on, a new album every couple of years, the occasional gig, a couple of one offs as The Pale Fountains revisiting their early material again before seeming to fizzle out altogether.

Then, a couple of years ago, there was a small amount of renewed activity; first John Head reappeared with a handful of solo gigs then Mick popped up again with a new line up 'The Red Elastic Band'.

A solo show in Liverpool's only 'dry' bar was arranged. Mick was, according to reports, taken ill half way through; the issues appeared to have raised their head once again.

Two appearances this year give the lie to this though; a set in Manchester followed weeks later by a triumphant return at Liverpool's Kazimier. The latter saw a clearly healthy though initially exceptionally nervous Mick dig into the depths of the Shack songbook while introducing a wealth of new material.

That new material is finally here in the shape of the 'Artorius Revisited' EP. As ever, it's the work of a claccisist, the work of a man who outs his life into his work. The overarching feel is of the psychedelic orchestration of Love and the pastoral beauty of Nick Drake. The songs pass in a dream; the title track is an escape to sunnier climes, Cadiz is a love song for togetherness, Lucinda Byers is a pleasantly hallucinatory walk through Liverpool's Bold Street and probably the only song ever to mention the city's dance specialists 3Beat records.

And in the middle of all this is the greatest song written by anybody, anywhere, at any point in the last ten years;

Newby Street is as pop as pop can get, it's a thing of acoustic guitars and trumpets that you knew had to be there from the second the song started but were still shocked when they came in. It's Beatles and Byrds and choruses that hit a perfect 'la-la-la' moment. It's so good that you're convinced that somebody must have already written it. It's a song that existed in your soul long before you heard it.

You'll look for comparisons; you'll imagine that you can hear a touch of 'It's Not Unusual' in its rhythm, argue that it's 'just a bit like' 'The Concrete And the Clay' before telling yourself that you're talking rubbish and that this sits in a line of great pop but stands alone in a quite thrillingly brilliant way.

Michael Head is back. Please pay attention this time, you'll thank me.