[sic] Magazine

Shack – Waterpistol (1991)

In 1999 perennial outsiders Shack found themselves thrust into the limelight. Singles ‘Nathalie’s Party’ and ‘Comedy’ had both charted narrowly outside the UK Top 40 pushing the Liverpool act onto national TV, radio and into peoples lives. Their album, HMS Fable was also a hit, finding favour with many critics and garnering award nominations. Shack were public property at last but commercial success had been a long time coming for the cult Merseypop band. Theirs was the unlikeliest tale of redemption imaginable, especially as we come to learn the bizarre and astonishing backstory to the groups previous release, Waterpistol.

Shacks second album, is an oft overlooked masterpiece, a record that all music fans should really hear. Yet, as you will come to see, Waterpistol very nearly never saw the light of day.

Before founding Shack, brothers Michael and John Head were in The Pale Fountains, another band who garnered the acclaim of select critics as the hits kept eluding them. The Pale Fountains were one of a minority of Eighties artists looking back to the Sixties for inspiration. A love of John Barry, Burt Bacharach and The Beatles wasn’t especially fashionable during the early part of that decade and The Pale Fountains never quite got sufficient traction. They eventually split in 1987, with the Head brothers going on to found Shack. Two years later their peers The Stone Roses exploded into the UK mainstream. Shack, however were not swept along by the burgeoning ‘Baggy’ scene. And while it’s easy to draw a ‘through line’ from the Roses celebratory psychedelia to the birth of Britpop, Shack remained perpetually on the periphery. Their breakthrough wouldn’t come for another decade.

“My baby loves Happy Mondays
My baby drinks leftovers in the morning”

The debut Shack album, Zilch had done little to raise the bands profile. However Mick Head felt that his own songwriting had gone to another level when he wrote the songs that would eventually comprise its follow up:

“The stuff I’m working on is far more humorous … better stories on it. It’s a great challenge to put a story into a three-minute pop song. It’ll still be very melodic, though, but with a more straight guitary vibe than before. It’s gonna be a great album when it’s finished”

John Head

As alluded, Waterpistol had a somewhat chequered history. It was recorded at London’s Star Street Studios in 1991. Not long after its completion the studio suffered a devastating fire and the Waterpistol master tapes were lost in the blaze. One copy of the DAT remained. This was with album producer Chris Allison who was travelling the USA at the time. When Allison returned to the UK he came with the chilling news that the DAT had been left behind in a hire car. The last remaining Waterpistol recording was… lost.

You couldn’t make it up, honestly.

Weeks later the elusive recording was discovered in New Mexico. However in the intervening time Shacks label Ghetto went bankrupt leaving the band without a distributor for the recovered album. Devastated by this run of bad luck, Shack split. Mick fell into depression and addiction. Peter Wilkinson (bass) left to form Cast while the Head brothers eventually joined their childhood hero Arthur Lee (of Love) on tour. Waterpistol finally saw the light of day four years later when it was released by independent German label, Marina Records.

If Waterpistols bizarre backstory hasn’t captured your imagination, hopefully the music speaks for itself. Shacks key strength is their songwriting. The Head brothers make no bones about their influences. They love Merseybeat (‘Mr. Appointment’ is a veritable love letter to The Beatles.) but they also adore the Californian folk rock movement. For Shack, ‘West Coast’ can mean anything from Birkenhead to The Byrds, yet what they create is uniquely their own. ‘Mood Of The Morning’, ‘Hazy’, ‘Sgt Major’, Dragonfly…these could only ever be Shack songs. True to his word, Mick Head’s urbane humour is often to be found lurking behind Shacks wonderful melodies. Perhaps their inability to fit into various ‘scenes’ has helped this music stand the test of time because Waterpistol doesn’t sound dated at all. It sounds timeless.

After the delayed release of Waterpistol, the Head brothers made The Magical World of The Strands with the NME citing Mick to be “among the most gifted British songwriters of his generation” as well as a “lost genius”. I can only concur. The man seems almost dysfunctional without a guitar in his hands. The pair re-emerged as Shack in 1998 and their breakthrough finally came with HMS Fable right at the arse-end of a Britpop scene they’d arguably helped predict. Yet the band never truly fit the Britpop stereotype. There was none of that strutting, laddish hubris with Shack. More melodic, more acoustic leaning and certainly more humble than their contemporaries, they must have felt as though they were men among boys. Mick, after all, had been a heroin addict. Somehow ‘Sorted for E’s & Wizz’ just didn’t quite have the same gravitas.

The band made two subsequent LPs after HMS Fable, the last of which, 2006’s On the Corner of Miles and Gil was issued on Noel Gallagher‘s Sour Mash label. Though it isn’t the subject of this article I would certainly recommend getting HMS Fable. Loaded as it is with anthems HMS Fable makes a perfect entry point to Shacks music. You can’t really go wrong either way, although Waterpistol is the one that’ll make you look smart at parties. If you only hear one Shack song make it ‘Undecided’. Think of it as their Wonderwall. John Head’s wistful, yearning backing vocals work in perfect contrast to Micks scouse vernacular as the song gently lilts and spins. Once you reach its soaring climax ‘Undecided’ will surely …make your mind up.

Mick has twice beaten alcoholism and heroin addiction. He is currently active with latest vehicle Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band.