SHACK Waterpistol (Marina)

MICHAEL HEAD The Magical World Of The Strands (Megaphone)

The Mick Head story is a Greek tragedy of one man (more precisely, one genius - and I’m as guilty as anybody of overusing the word, but this time I really, really mean it! - Scouse singer/songwriter/guitarist) and his travails in, around and outside the music industry. A tale of tin-eared producers, combustible master tapes, collapsing record companies, copious chemical intake and commercial indifference, the only constant, through his work as/in The Pale Fountains, Shack and The Strands, is Michael Head’s beautiful, shimmering music. It might make a great film someday. Until it does, buy these albums.

"Waterpistol" was recorded by Head’s then-band Shack in 1991, with producer Chris Allison (who had worked with The Wedding Present on their breakthrough "Bizarro" album) supervising. Just after they’d finished it, their record company’s offices burned down, destroying the master tapes. When Chris Allison was contacted, it dawned on him that he’d left the only remaining DAT of the album in the glove compartment of the hire car he’d recently been driving across America in. By the time it had been recovered, Shack’s record company, Ghetto, were no more. Their labelmates The Lightning Seeds you may have heard of. Sadly, no enterprising talent scout worth his expense account would’ve taken a chance on a jangly Scouse guitar band in the early 90s, and so "Waterpistol" languished in obscurity, only to be released on CD by the German label Marina in 1995.

Enough soap opera already, what of the music? Think The La’s, if The La’s had ever actually been as legendary as rock legend suggests they were. Imagine The Stone Roses bereft of ego, but with a lyricist possessed of a jeweller’s eye for detail. How about a House Of Love with a little more, y’know, guts?

Shack at their best were all these things, and "Waterpistol" is an album that, with a modicum of luck, could’ve been mentioned in the same breath and on the same terms as the first Stone Roses long-player. Like that album it demands repeated plays before the true beauty of the songs it contains seeps into your consciousness. Because this is beautiful, mesmerising music that takes the idea of voices, guitars, bass and drums into hitherto uncharted dimensions and does it so subtly and effortlessly that for the first couple of listens it sounds ordinary, and you’ll wonder what all the fuss (I’d say hype, but Head has been about as hyped as Nick Drake ever was) is about. Possibly even more than the Roses, Mick Head creates music that unfolds. Something here will snag you, be it the jazz cadences of "Stranger", the charming choruses of "Neighbours" (first "Are you scared of the neighbours/Was it something on telly?", later "Let’s get rid of the neighbours/Let’s get rid of the telly"), Mick Head’s thick Scouse delivery and the way he incites the band into an instrumental frenzy by yelling summat like "Go ‘ed" or "Build!", the seemingly endless roll call of characters that populate these tracks (Wanda, Philip King, Siobhan, Michael, Queenie...whoever they are). For me it was the opening lines of "Mood Of The Morning": "My baby loves Happy Mondays/My baby drinks leftovers in the morning" - and yes, the ‘H’ and ‘M’ are capitalised in the booklet. Impeccable.

I could go on, but I won’t, because I have an even more important Mick Head work to draw your attention to. After Shack disintegrated, Mick and John Head became part of his heroes Love (yes, that Love) for a few European dates, a sideline only curtailed when Arthur Lee was imprisoned for twelve years for firearms offences. Financed by an obsessive French fan, Mick and John began recording an album as The Strands, overseen by Oasis engineer Mark Coyle. That became "The Magical World Of The Strands", finally issued in Britain earlier this year after import copies stunned in-the-know music journalists in 1997. And if "Waterpistol" was as good as guitar rock deserved to get in the 90s (as good, if not better than, The Stone Roses) "The Magical World Of The Strands" is more akin to as good as popular music has been this century.

A few issues ago I suggested that the latest Verve album could’ve been recorded at any time in the last thirty years. There are parts of "The Magical World Of The Strands" that might’ve surfaced at any time during the last hundred. All that roots it to its own space and time is the sleeve design (very late 60s typography and acres of brown; even the gatefold construction makes it look like an early Groundhogs album) and the occasional sporadic outbursts of John Head’s almost acid-rock electric guitar. Try a few of the songs titles: "Queen Matilda", "And Luna", "It’s Harvest Time", "Hocken’s Hey", "Fontilan"...what on earth are they on about? The lyrics are equally as mysterious -sadly they aren’t reprinted on the sleeve, and Head’s diction isn’t the clearest, but they seem to evoke a sequence of fleeting baroque images, floaty, folky stuff about ships and er, harvests and queens (you can tell I’m grasping at straws here, can’t you?)

The Strands take Shack’s traditional four-piece guitar/bass/drums blueprint and add a string quartet and flautist. And that’s half the reason they can send their music to the places it travels through, the other half being down to Head’s songwriting skills, even better than those he demonstrated on "Waterpistol". Musical reference points might include Tim Buckley, Nick Drake, Love and Simon & Garfunkel, but really nothing else on earth sounds like what’s going on in The Strands’ magical world. This is beautiful, fragile music that, just like "Waterpistol", needs your care and attention if you’re going to make the most of it. Even then it doesn’t always hit the spot, but when it does, you’ll wonder what all those other records are doing, cluttering up your lounge, wasting space.

Try to listen to "Something Like You", the album’s best track, wisely just released as a single (even though everybody who’s going to buy it probably has it already). Hazy lyrics, Mick Head’s perfect, languid, opaque delivery, a tune from heaven and the best string arrangement I’ve heard since the Massive’s "Unfinished Sympathy". On reflection, perhaps the key to this album’s lush, comforting ambience is the way that Helen Caddick’s orchestrations treat the string quartet as a lead instrument; maybe that’s what makes it so timeless. The other standout track is John Head’s "Loaded Man": the lyrics are too fuzzy to decipher, but they’re not important. What counts is the tone, and John Head makes it sound like he’s the most desperate man in the world. And perhaps he is. Whatever, a spiritual cousin to Nick Drake at his darkest (e.g. "River Man" and "Fruit Tree").

The Mick Head story is not over. With a new bassist, The Strands have become Shack Mk 2, and have recorded a new album that, fingers crossed, will be released by London later this year. As far as I’m concerned, it could be "Be Here Now" recorded on a Dictaphone and it wouldn’t affect the fact that, for me, Mick Head is one of the greatest songwriters of the modern age. If you honestly care about music, you should try to listen to these albums.

SHACK Comedy (London/Laurel)

SHACK H.M.S. Fable (London/Laurel)

SHACK Natalie's Party (London/Laurel)

I don't really know where to begin here, there's such an embarrassment of riches contained within these CDs. As the Prestwich Prophet Mark E Smith once predicted, "The North will rise again", and with the resurgence of the Liverpudlian Head brothers (Mick and John) and their quality-assured Shack franchise his words have been proved entirely correct. To say that "H.M.S. Fable" is the bestest Shack album yet would probably mean nothing to you, to demonstrate that this quartet have crafted some of the finest guitar-based rock music since John and Paul called the lawyers in is something of a disingenuous claim for a genre that's been sullied by the likes of Oasis, Embrace, Ocean Duller Scene, Reef and Paul Weller. To do so suggests that Shack are some kind of retro act; as soon as somebody starts rambling on about the songwriting craftsmanship these days people's ears glaze over to blot out the caterwaul of yet another bright young beat combo bludgeoning their way through yet another rewrite of "Hey Jude". There's nothing nostalgic about Shack's music, unless you feel that songs that appeal on more layers than a Black Forest gateaux died with Steely Dan, or the electric guitar had the last notes of worth plucked out of it around the time of the second Summer of Love.

Yes, you might hear echoes of Love, Big Star, Nick Drake or any number of critically lauded but commercially doomed artists in these songs, but that's surely because Shack are a band whose genius travels by word of mouth rather than hype and bluster - note that the two singles released thus far, "Comedy" and "Natalie's Party", fabulous songs both, seem to have sold about six copies (mainly to me, apparently). There's absolutely nothing derivative about Shack's music: from Mick Head's oblique storytelling manner (like the last proper Shack album, "Waterpistol", these songs are peopled by a role call of characters - Jimmy Mac, Joe, Benny, Joyce, Jason, Daniella, Jack, even Dustin Hoffman gets a look in at one point - that makes them read like excepts from some great unfolding novel) to the heavenly melodies and the verve with which the band attack them, "H.M.S. Fable" is utterly original (well, almost: "I Want You" plays a little like a remake of Shack's own "Mr Appointment"), totally contemporary, unmistakably timeless.

The lyrics veer wildly between tales of happy, exuberant debauchery ("Natalie's Party"), drug addiction ("Lend's Some Dough", "Streets Of Kenny", "Pull Together" possibly), bizarre underworld crime stories ("Since I Met You") and stratospheric love poetry ("Beautiful", "Reinstated"). The whole shebang closes on an even more desolate note than "Waterpistol"'s melancholic "London Town": the almost unbearable final lines of "Daniella" (maybe a foggy recollection of lost childhood innocence?) read "Your mama, she's not afraid anymore/She's in the cemetery". Arthur Lee, John Lennon and Syd Barrett are present and correct in the roll of thankyou credits.

"H.M.S. Fable" is an incredible album. It's not quite as good as the admittedly far-out last Flaming Lips long player, but in terms of taking a traditional medium like guitar rock and polishing and refining it, showing just how perfect it can be when done properly, it has no peers. Imagine if The Stone Roses wrote proper songs, rather than petty art school whinges, or The House Of Love had real rock chops. Or Noel Gallagher was a poet and grew up listening to West Coast bands instead of The Beatles. Or Nick Drake was still with us. There's an encyclopaedia of possibilities and "What if?"'s contained within Shack's music, and even if, just like all the times before, the good ship Shack sinks quietly below the waves again, with "H.M.S. Fable" the Head brothers have proved their greatness once more, and it will be popular music's loss, not theirs.

If you like Oasis, Ocean Duller Scene, Weller, or any other of the hundreds of other retro guitar merchants clogging up "Shine" compilations these days, buy this album. Or if you don't believe me, hunt out one of their singles (all of which are worth buying in their own right, incidentally, containing b-sides of such quality that they would dovetail seamlessly on the album itself) for an easier acclimatisation. Give "H.M.S. Fable" your time and trouble and it'll reward like almost no other disc I know - I'm playing it for the 16th time as I type this, and I'm sure I've only scratched the surface of its excellence. This is a wonderful, cherishable work: let it into your life and you'll be evangelising about it too.

SHACK Waterpistol (Marina)

In a blatant attempt to cash in on the Shack hysteria sadly not sweeping the country following the release of their amazing new long player "H.M.S. Fable", German label Marina have reissued their almost-as-fantastic previous album "Waterpistol", now available (briefly, as only 1,000 of them have been pressed) on vinyl for the first time in its tortuous eight year history.

The differences between the vinyl version and the original CD amount to the loss of printed lyrics (although as those in the CD booklet seemed to have been transcribed by somebody for whom English wasn't their mother tongue that's no real loss) and some photographs on the former, and also the disappearance of the traffic noise from the closing seconds of "London Town". And also tracks 5 and 11 have been transposed on the vinyl version, presumably to equalise the amount of music on each side, which is a Good Thing technically if not artistically.

Otherwise "Waterpistol" remains the same as it ever was and always will be: a great lost album, a landmark showing just how passionate and intelligent guitar rock can get, a talisman that reveals the likes of Oasis, Ocean Colour Scene and Cast as tuneless second-rate chancers…all qualities that "H.M.S. Fable" possesses, in equal or possibly even greater measure. One of the greatest albums of the decade, essentially…just like everything else Michael Head has put his name to over the last ten years.

SHACk/LES RYTHMES DIGITALES/CAMPAG VELOCET/COLDPLAY Cardiff University Student Union 25 January 2000

Tonight was a product of the NME's annual Premier Tour phenomenon, in which four disparate bands are crammed into a bus and sent out to spread exciting new music about the countryside. No prizes for guessing the main draw as far as I was concerned, with the mighty Shack playing their first headlining dates outside London or Liverpool since the beginning of their current resurgence, but great things were expected from all of the bill, and happily nobody disappointed.

Coldplay were already on stage when we arrived at the partially curtained-off Great Hall as soon as physically possible after the doors opened - with timing like that no wonder affable Rolling Stones t-shirt-wearing singer Chris Martin was heard to complain about having to play to empty venues on other dates of the tour. On stage were an electric piano, an acoustic guitar and an illuminated schoolroom globe, which made for three more ideas than is usual from bands who haven't even released their debut album yet, and Coldplay's pleasant (in the positive, rather than damning-with-faint-praise, sense) Gomez-meets-Radiohead angsty balladry might debatably have qualified as a fourth. For now twenty minutes - all four bands played short sets tonight, an inevitable consequence of the logistics involved - of Coldplay might be enough, but one day it won't be.

Campag Velocet were next up, and in a return of the occasional series Friend Of The Stars I can reveal that I actually saw their singer Pete Voss in the foyer before the gig. (This was diminished somewhat by the fact that when our spy from BBC Choice Wales arrived she revealed that she'd spent the day interviewing Coldplay, Campag Velocet, Les Rythmes Digitales and Shack. Doh!) Campag Velocet might sound a little like skunk rock leftovers Earl Brutus on vinyl, but for about two songs - specifically "Pike In My Life" and "To Lose La Trek" - on stage they were Happy Mondays, The Stone Roses and the end of rock 'n' roll all rolled into one. Pete Voss' barely legal bowl cut cements the Shaun Ryder comparisons, he has the kind of maraca manner that can only be obtained from religious study of videos of great leader Bez at work (he plays tambourine as well - versatile!), and he's blessed with an Ian Brown foghorn blare of a voice with which to sloganise on as few notes as possible with. They also have cryptic back projections, a rhythm section that sound like machines with groove (a compliment, naturally) and a guitarist who can unleash sheets of cacophonous noise with jaw-dropping intensity.

Three songs in and a detectable mid-set sag arrives (a mid-set sag in a half hour set! It's not a fantastic sign, is it?) but they regain complete control with a chiming version of "Vito Satan", their subversive idea of what a big pop hit sounds like in Nadsat, a ripped up barrel through "Bon Chic Bon Genre" during which Voss abandons the mantra-like lyrics (chiefly the title repeated ad nauseum) and takes up screaming instead, and the astonishing mind meltdown of "Drencrom Velocet Synthemac". As they leave Voss hectors the audience impenetrably, and the back projection reads "The performance is over". Make what you will of that. Live, Campag Velocet are amazing: you may have seen their aloof cool thing before, but you won't have seen it dripping with so much venom.

The performance, however, has only just begun. Les Rythmes Digitales (two keyboard players and a drummer) take the stage in a flurry of Beastie Boys boilersuits, Mike Flowers manmade hair and even more cheese than a cheese shop. What's more, to paraphrase Mr Garrison, they have choreography! Lots of carefully co-ordinated jumping around and robotic hand movements that went the way of the dodo around the same time as breakdancing. Sometime around now it occurs to me that LRD are the Bjorn Again of dance music: I have a feeling that serious technoheads wouldn't be caught dead with a Les Rythmes Digitales single polluting their record box, but the LRD live experience seems destined to go down a storm at student unions (including, it must be said, this one), weddings, parties, anything, up and down the land. And should you ever get bored with the flashy showmanship you can entertain yourself by spotting the cheeky 'references' that populate their music - I logged direct quotes from De La Soul's "Me Myself And I", New Order's "Blue Monday", Third World's "Now That We've Found Love", Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" and Hot Butter's "Popcorn".

None of which, of course, was adequate preparation for just how terrific Shack would turn out to be, especially compared to their seemingly lacklustre (for reasons that were nothing to do with the band, in my opinion) appearance at the Manics Millennium experience. "We're Shack. We're from Liverpool. We rock", advised the saintly Mick Head, arguably the best songwriter in Britain today (especially when Paul Buchanan's indulging in one of his seven year between-album layoffs), and you have to admit that three out of three ain't bad. They almost self-destruct immediately by opening with an unfamiliar number, but it’s nevertheless pure Shack in its chiming guitar lines and elliptical lyrics.

Then the serious business of the evening begins, rattling through a selection of the perfect four minute wonders that burst forth from the band's "H.M.S. Fable" album. They play the ravaged tale of failing to score, "Streets Of Kenny", and a shimmering "Natalie's Party" in the now familiar 'middle-eight first' formation (brilliant, brilliant, brilliant, naturally). Mick's brother John takes over vocals on the delicate "Cornish Town", which just about survives in this sweaty atmosphere despite (or possibly because of) the tempo being wound up to a moshpit frenzy towards the end. And "Comedy" is still fantastic, even without a string section, "Pull Together" astonishes once more with its bleary-eyed desperation. And there's another new song, which is great, if a bit overburdened with syllables, and may or may not be about Howard Marks, you decide.

Anything else? Well, their wonderful-beyond-words ravaging of Love's "A House Is Not A Motel" should have nominally closed their set in blistering style once again, but finding themselves with a few minutes spare we were also treated to the chilly edge-of-psychosis acoustic terror that is "Daniella", a thumping "Sergeant Major" and, wonder of wonders, "X Hits The Spot" from Mick Head's nominally solo album "The Magical World Of The Strands". Bliss.

I seem to have concentrated on the facts of Shack's performance, rather than going for the emotional jugular of what these four men can cook up on stage (and on record, of course) with just two guitars, bass and drums, but you probably don't need another lengthy dissertation on how this too-long-neglected band can render just about the entire history of post-punk Lennon-and-Weller-deifying British guitar rock irrelevant, substituting something battered but optimistic in its saggy, self-indulgent stead. Buy their albums, go see them play, give them a little (or even better a lot) of your time. In most, if not all, ways, they are the greatest treasure our country's addled 'music industry' possesses. We've almost lost them many times before now, and we really should ensure that it never happens again.

SHACK Oscar (London/Laurel)

More incontrovertible evidence of Mick Head's position as British rock's poet laureate arrives in the unexpected form of Shack's first release of the year. "Oscar" was one of the unidentified new songs I heard when the band played Cardiff as part of the NME's Premier Tour in January, and it's about what else but the Dutch government's scheme to provide, erm, sexual healing for the country's disabled. Obvious, really. Mr Head's taboo-scaling lyricism naturally arrives welded to a tune that boasts more jingle and jangle than a Byrds box set and such addictiveness that you'll be singing along before the end of your first listen. The fact that "Oscar" isn't number one in the singles chart as you read this proves only that the mighty Shack are too fantastic to be famous.

Other wonderment spread across The Man's usual buy-one-then-buy-the-other CD single scam includes semi-acoustic Radio 1 session versions of "Streets Of Kenny" (subtly censored for family listening), "Queen Matilda", "Captain's Table" and "Daniella": exquisite tunes, admirably performed - you can frequently hear Mick joyously urging his fellow musicians onward and upward. A rich seam of marvellousness is here for the mining: if, as I keep saying, you enjoy the outpourings any of the conventional post-Britpop mediocrities (Stereophonics, Travis, Oasis, Ocean Duller Scene, Weller) prepare to be blown away.

SHACK ACCOMPANY ARTHUR LEE Live At The Academy, Liverpool 1992 (Viper)

On paper this album stakes a claim for being one of the greatest of the millennium. In 1992 Arthur Lee's then manager Stephane Bismuth hooked him up with a between-engagements version of perennial Scouse victims of the right-place-wrong-time phenomenon and lifelong Love obsessives Shack. A handful of gigs were arranged in Paris, London and Liverpool, and it's the latter, held in the building that now houses the phenomenally successful uberclub and logo Cream, that is documented on this album.

So, here we have some of the greatest, cruelly undiscovered songs of the 20th century played by their author, backed by one of the most criminally ignored bands of modern times. Speaking as a Shack-deifying Love enthusiast, how could things go wrong?

The disclaimer on the back cover hints at what distances "Live At The Academy" from greatness: "Every effort has been made to capture the spirit of this important live performance using the only original source recordings". Judging from the results, those original source recordings stem from the camcorder footage that provides the sleeve artwork, being boomy, hissy, compressed and generally of AM quality: in fact at times audience discussion swamps the music. It's not the most badly recorded album in my collection, but it's comfortably in the top five. To compound the problem, several of the tracks are faded out - "A House Is Not A Motel", for example, currently the closest it's possible to get to an official release of the raging Shack live favourite, is cruelly halted mid-guitar storm.

As far as it's possible to tell, Shack seem to be on their usual cracking form - "My Little Red Book" sounds positively kinetic, once Lee and the band have settled down into the same key, and "Signed D.C." crackles with venom, despite Lee's jokey lyrical asides. And it takes more than appallingly ropey sound to crush the greatness from classics such as "Alone Again Or". Still, "Live At The Academy" remains an interesting curio, an essential purchase for anybody who rightly regards Lee and/or Shack as the totems they are, albeit one that probably won't get played too often.

SHACK …Here's Tom With The Weather (North Country)

"Morning paper's soaking from the rain", observes Mick Head on the first line of the first track of the fourth Shack album, and it would be churlish to hope for a better example of how they are not as other bands. Solidly grounded in the everyday, but in love with the marvel and minutiae of it, "…Here's Tom With The Weather" mixes the melodic certainty of 1999's wondrous "H.M.S. Fable" with some of the ethereal mystery of "The Magical World Of The Strands", the Head brother's solo project (a Shack album in all but name) that immediately preceded it. It's a concoction that, emphatically, will not turn the band into the nation's favourites that they so achingly deserve to be - they've been close enough, with the aforementioned "H.M.S. Fable" album grazing the top 30 - but as long as the passenger on the Clapham omnibus prefers to listen to her or his Oasis, Starsailor, Paul Weller or Stereophonics albums Shack will have to derive what solace they can from being the unsung titans of modern British guitar rock.

Here's what's wrong with "…Here's Tom With The Weather", just to get the caveats out of the way first. I could have happily retitled "Soldier Man" as "End Of The Season", the song's most prominently repeated hookline. The packaging mixes up "The Girl With The Long Brown Hair" and "Carousel" in the track listing. I'm not enthusiastic about the hallucinogenic "I'm Only Sleeping" daydream of "Kilburn High Road". And it's a shame that the vinyl version arrives bereft of printed lyrics.

Otherwise, from cover art inwards - an astonishingly detailed inner city streetscape snapped by Harry Ainscough in 1967 that still seems shockingly fresh and modern - "…Here's Tom With The Weather" (title drawn from a Bill Hicks sketch) is a delight. "Soldier Man" could be a hangover from the "Waterpistol" sessions, sounding far jazzier than the Shack of (comparatively) recent memory. Imminent single "Byrds Turn To Stone" is joyous, a delicate, chiming thing blessed with all the subtlety of its titular subjects at their finest. Documenting the beginnings of the Head brothers' musical partnership ("Who'd be the first one to learn/All the tricks by Mr Lee?"), it's utterly beguiling - the rolling acoustic guitar and drum breakdown in the middle is a thing of wonder. Of course, it's doomed to sink without trace as a single, because nobody will play it, nobody will hear it, so nobody will buy it. None of this matters.

The John Head composition "Carousel" charmed me from the first line when I accidentally bumped into it on an Uncut cover CD and thought, "This sounds so much like Shack…". Blessed with an unemphatic but definite 60s vibe, think Dusty Springfield without the blare and brass. Another John Head tune, the wistful "Miles Apart", bowls along on a near-"Superfly" string score. As ever on this album, its subtlety is its strength. These songs might appear reserved compared to the big, swelling choruses found on "H.M.S. Fable", but therein lies the key, the reason why this album will still be growing in beauty and stature years hence. (Much like everything else the Head brothers have been involved in during the last dozen years.)

The album's epic, "Meant To Be", is orchestrated in blatant admiration of and tribute to Love's "Forever Changes", emboldened by a trumpet-soaked Latino centre section. No copyists, these boys - after all, they backed Arthur Lee for a time between engagements during the early 90s - it only makes the song an even mightier thing. After all, they've got a right. "Happy Ever After" is a big, elaborate Hollywood musical number to end on, the slight tinge of doubt that permeates its lyrics hopefully not being as prophetic as the literal sentiment.

Another brilliant, treasurable Shack album, then. Fourth in a row, following "Waterpistol", "The Magical World Of The Strands" and "H.M.S. Fable". Having advanced the game by burrowing far beneath the obvious, I can't think of any band with the musicality, depth of experience or heart-warming knack of dripping melody like butter off toasted crumpets to knock them from their perch at the apotheosis of British (un)popular music. (Well, apart from The Blue Nile, obviously, but having been missing in inaction for the last six years I feel they should be excluded from this particular competition.) Cherish their honesty, integrity and ability, and make them stars in your eyes.

Michael Head

Manic Street Preachers/Super Furry Animals/Feeder/Shack Millennium Stadium, Cardiff Arms Park 31 December 1999

Pale Fountains