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Shack Live in Liverpool
By Graham Ennis and Dave Wiggins
Special thanks to John Johnson at Juanito photography
A rainy night in Croxteth, as I make my way up past the Showcase cinema, passing through estates and streets that will never be reclaimed. Not too far away, a sea of blue and white flowers - a tribute to an 11 year-old boy - gets wetter and wetter, and the scent of dried roses pervades the air still.
Croxteth and Croxteth Park, two separate areas, in fact, but still as close as - well - miles apart. I spot Wayne Rooney's old house, but give Rooney barely a thought. He wouldn't know Shack from Shakatak, so he can stay at home (in his very big house in the country), listening to 'soft rock' and pretending to be into hip hop.
Down the East Lancs; passed the flattened Crown. Up Walton Hall Avenue.
A darkened Goodison Park is on my right, and the first frisson of excitement courses through. Maybe because, even with the lights off, I can smell Everton FC, or maybe it's because I'm off to see my other love, I don't know, but it's not a school night, and it's a rare live outing from a band that Mrs Wiggins still sometimes calls 'The Pale Fountains'. Which I think is rather sweet.
I’m early. Always am. To eat up time, I take a long-cut, an intentional detour along Oakfield Road, smiling grimly at the juxtaposition between the LIVERPOOL FC MEGASTORE, and the likes of Towson Street, Hartnup Street and Venmore Street, opposite Anfield, making Crocky look almost des res.Onto Sheil Road, and the guys are there like they always are. Understudying Johnny Cash, these particular men in black are clad in Lacoste and Lowe Alpine, and they walk their own idiosyncratic line through a world where spitting on the floor, and posting a picture of yourself with a fake firearm, on YouTube, is king.
Take a right, at the end, and I'm there. The fabled Streets of Kenny. My own Kensington Field(s) of dreams, those streets where I was raised, amidst a choppy sea of what we now call 'deprivation'. To us, though, it was just home. Thirty-odd years on, some of the shops are still there. Ralph's DIY, Mike's Newsagents, the Golden Mermaid Chippy. Augmented now ("Kensington Regeneration '08", it's trumpeted as), though, by a Wetherspoons and a shiny happy McDonalds. I want to pause, but I'll miss the support act (I always like to check them out even though they are almost invariably hopeless - except for Joy Division in '79, blowing Buzzcocks off stage. But that's another story), so maybe I'll come back this way later . . . . .
I arrive at 8.15, and the venue is worryingly underfilled. In fact, there's a story doing the rounds on the very wonderful www.shacknet.co.uk that the Norwich date of the tour has already been pulled due to abysmal ticket sales.
'The Orange Lights' stroll on at 8.30, and their short set is sufficiently edifying for the watching 40 or so. A little bit James, a little bit Starsailor, a little bit thingy, they may make something of themselves, in fairness. Or they may not.
Between 9.00 and 9.30, to my relief, the venue fills up impressively, and, by the time Shack (Mick, John, drummer Iain Templeton, and newish bassist Martyn Campbell) take to the stage, it's the fullest I've seen since Half Man Half Biscuit sold it out in 2005.
Mick Head is in fine fettle – amazing really because only a couple of hours ago at an instore signing in HMV in Bold Street he looked ropey to say the least. But, here he was, button-bright, smiling and ready to go. He’s has had a haircut and looks about 16 again.
John Head hasn't, and looks like, well, John Head, fretwork genius. Dispensing with his normal opening line of, 'Hiya, we're Shack from Liverpool', Mick starts with, 'Hiya, we're from all around town, Kenny and Huyton', before the seminal 'I Know You Well’ kicks off 90 minutes of classic Shack.
Even seasoned Shack watchers are blown away. Honestly. Truly. Over the years, we’ve all learnt to accept the rough with the smooth with Shack. And sometimes the rough is very rough, chaotic even. But, if there’s a band that can soar higher when on blob then I’ve never heard of them.
Tonight was one of those nights. A Bayern. A night you will tell your grankids about. A night when, for me personally, after years of banging on about the virtues of the band to anyone who would listen, I felt vindicated. One hundred per cent.
The set was the promised ‘greatest hits’ (most of which you will find on the current 'best of', Time Machine, available in your local music emporium. Go and buy it now, not tomorrow, not later, but NOW). But this was no easy run-through of crowd-pleasing tunes such as Neighbours, Streets of Kenny, Butterfly, Miles Apart, Al’s Vacation, Comedy (now with extended coda), an extended Cornish Town (still, to these ears, the greatest song ever written), Pull Together, and Cup of Tea. For each song was shot through with renewed vigour and passion that had the partisan crowd eating out of their hands.
The final (pre-encore) song, Meant to Be, which is rapidly becoming the Shack anthem, was notable for (in the absence of a formal brass section) the magnificent vocal input of the self-styled 'Shacknet Horns' - a load of old(ish) blokes, and a couple of ladies, na, na, na-ing, and ba, ba, ba-ing, for all they were worth. Quite brilliant. Indeed, the 'horns' carried on after the band had left the stage, and, by the time the group came back on, the whole crowd had joined in, and it was like being in the middle of the Street End, at an Everton game in the early 80's.
Andmoreagain. As the chanting subsided, Mick came on to the stage alone to deliver a breath-taking Daniella. There he was under a solitary spotlight, quietly strumming to an enraptured audience and as he sang “your mother she’s not afraid anymore, she’s in the cemetery” he glanced upwards. The poignancy of the moment was keenly felt by all those who know Mick, his family and his past.
Personally, this boy’s knees went.
Even now, days later, typing this the hairs still stand on the back of my neck. The full band returned for Sgt Major, and a show-stopping cover of Love's A House is not a Motel, before the house lights came up, leaving Mick stood centre stage, shouting, 'I reallly love yers all'. The feeling was indisputably mutual.
The release of a ‘best of’ or ‘greatest hits’ often marks a pause, a time for reflection in a band’s career. Yet, I sense no let up here. If anything Shack are moving forwards and gathering pace. As you read this Shack are in the studio recording their follow up to “…the Corner of Miles and Gil” and next year both Mick and John have solo projects lined up. Mick’s even done the soundtrack to a film – featuring in part, his daughter Alice.
Still, can we pause a moment and reflect on the story so far? Please? Even though I’d guess that almost everyone would claim to know something of the band’s history – after all tales of heroic misfortune and salacious drug use (and the new one famous fans) are wheeled out every time someone is asked to write about them. Well, it’s a bit of cutting and pasting and its half your copy done. But what about the music?
Eight proper albums and two compilations. Granted they’re hardly pulling up trees on the productivity front but as a body of work it is mighty impressive.
Put it this way, had Waterpistol come out around the time it should have done in 1990/91 then it would undoubtedly be as revered as the Stone Roses debut. Maybe, just maybe, then we would have been spared some of the Madchester flared pants bollocks and focused instead on bands 30 odd miles west like Shack and The La’s and even the Real People, Top and Rain.
And when you consider Noel Gallagher built his reputation off the songs from Definitely Maybe, then how famous would he be if he had of penned a tune as good as “Pull Together”. And that’s my least favourite track on HMS Fable.
I could go on and maybe I should because as both Mick and John have said time and time again its “always been about the songs.”
But I won’t. Incredibly its over 25 years ago since I first stumbled across Mick Head and his band, the Pale Fountains supporting Orange Juice at Plato’s Ballroom in Pickwicks in town. (John was still at school and hadn’t yet joined the band.) I can remember it as if it was yesterday, me and Neil Cooper stood right at the front. None of the songs they did that night ever got recorded and released and now only exist on an arl bootleg copy from the mixing desk. Just over a year later the single “Something On My Mind / Just A Girl was released and to this day whenever I hear Mick’s teenage voice sing “Turn around let me look at you” I’m smiling all over my face.
You see, in all honesty you can never properly describe what it is that makes you love music. Never trust anyone who claims that they can. Music to me has to be heard and only then can you truly demonstrate by way of example. “It’s this bit … it’s that bit …”.
For instance - the way John’s backing vocal comes in on the second verse of Comedy … the stop in the middle of Wanda … the lines “My baby likes happy Mondays / She’s loves leftovers in the morning” … the quickening pace throughout Cornish Town … the badly strummed note when Mick sings “learning to play the guitar” in Byrds Turn To Stone … the young Julie Christie line in 24 Hours … the cracked vocal towards the end of Reinstated …
Stop, this could go on a very long time.
In the wider world, Shack will never get the success their music deserves, I think everyone accepts that. Then again, perhaps we’re not looking at it right. Success in the music business today is all about sucking the corporate cock. Even those bands who claim to rebel (rock) against the system only do so by not swallowing. Everyone who wants success is told what to release and what to wear. Everyone commits to 14 hour days ‘selling the product’, working their manufactured arses off to bolster record company profits.
For Shack to sit outside this, releasing records they have nurtured independently, brimful of artistic excellence for over almost twenty years is surely a true measure of achievement.
After all, it’s always been about the songs. Tonight they proved it. Beyond any doubt.
So I set off for home, up London Road, and via Kenny. The area where I'd had a bad dream that lasted 13 years, four months, and 17 days, but also the best of times. I wondered about everyone who'd lived in Fitzroy Way, along with me, Mick and John. Where were they now? The likes of Dave Horridge, Peter Malally, Paul Cannon, Ian Haskell. Would they have heard of Shack? Paul would have, 'cos he was a Pale Fountains roadie in the early days. Ian would have, too, as they were in Pale Fountains-lite, 'Candy Opera'. The others, maybe not; nor would the hard lads (read psychopaths) who terrorised us, and were dealing smack before anybody had ever heard of it, or my lovely old nan and grandad Nellie and Peter Kevan (RIP again - I love you, nan).
And as I travel up Kenny, the ghosts of 1982 seem to emerge from out of the shadows. There's Fountains' bass player Chris McCaffrey (RIP) taking his little brother Peter for sweets at Mike's store. And, hey, there's that fit girl who lives next door to Chris. If only she knew that she would be married to me in seven years time! Quiet man, Ken Moss, is trudging through the snow, guitar slung over his shoulder as he makes his way to a Candy Opera practice session over the Lord Seldon pub, whilst, as Kenny bakes in the July sun, loads of lads are going into Bert Jackson, barbers, for a 'fountains-head' (shaved at the back and sides for 50p). I crack on to the ghost of Palies drummer Jock Whelan, in the chippy, and, as I walk through Fitzroy Way for the first time in years, Michael and John Head, early 80's version, pass me, and we let on. There are whispers in the shadows, though, and Kenny can still be a more than moody place, so I force myself out of 1982, with some reluctance. I say a silent prayer of thanks to my Shack mentor, and muse, Graham E, who showed me that there could be life after the Pale Fountains. It's 2007, it's raining, Shack are the best band in the world, and it's time for me to go home.
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