From ‘Kenny to Cadiz, a few hours with Mick Head.
Union Chapel Islington, London.
“Up the Reds”
Michael Head and The Red Elastic Band are midway through delivering tonight’s musical sermon to an audience who greet his between song proclamation with an enthusiastic response that is divided between an affirmative “Yessssssssss” and an equally buoyant, impassioned “Fuck off ‘ya redshite, we love you”.
Did he actually say, “Up the reds, or up the R.E.B.s?”
Does it really matter? Does he even know himself? Does that even matter when the colloquial call and response from an audience heavily populated by the two tribes of the Merseyside football fraternities are happily silenced by the opening chords to Newby Street from Heads latest EP Artorius Revisited.
He points out into the crowd
“I don’t know what it is about you, but then I think, I know I love you.”
And they clearly love him too, always have and always will; Michael Head, singer, songwriter, scouser, survivor, perfectly imperfect as he flashes a grin which further anoints the faithful gathered here to sing his songs, get drunk and reacquainted with old friends. They celebrate the man whose music has been as much a part of their lives as the memories of glorious football excursions (ok maybe not so much the Evertonians) the decline and gradual regeneration of their city, missed opportunities, lovers past and present. Over 25 years of changing fashions and musical trends, the horrors of Hillsborough and now, maybe just maybe, in tandem with both teams flying high again, justice for the 96 and at the end of that particular storm, a golden sky.
“And just by chance you’re thinking of me and just by chance, I’m thinking of you”
A few days later, I’m sitting in The Brink, an alcohol free bar/club on Parr Street Liverpool, having just been met off the train at Lime Street by Mick and our mutual friend PJ whose helped arrange today’s interview. If the concept of a bar that doesn’t sell booze seems a bit of weird, I can assure you, that being met off the train by a man regularly lauded as being one of the greatest songwriters this country has ever produced, feels equally strange, yet at the same time, exactly in keeping with the man.
Mick Head may well be responsible for giving the world some of the most beautiful songs ever written on the subjects of love, loss and people you have never met, (but which he then allows you feel like you know personally) but he is certainly not a pop star and thank ‘Kenny’, for that!
Our interview doesn’t feel like an interview either, sitting round the table are Mick, yours truly and his daughter/best friend Allie, the subject of one of his most intimate and moving songs, The Prize, from 1998’s Magical world of the Strands LP,
“The prize was a song and a lullaby..”
Also present is one of Ali’s best mates the pair of them, as perfect an example of Scouse beauty and wit as you’re ever likely to find, we are then also joined by a passing fan, who is immediately invited to sit down for a coffee and a chat. On reflection, maybe he invited himself? But such is the sense of ‘family’, it doesn’t seem to matter at all. Perhaps therein, along with the body of sadly overlooked albums beautifully detailing the lives of both himself and a host of others, is the secret ingredient.
We are all invited ‘in’, through good times, just listen to Mr Appointment from 1996’s masterpiece, Waterpistol, if that isn’t the sound of a band having the time of their lives, I don’t know what is?
And not so good times…
“What’s happened to all my clothes, what happened to all my furniture?”
From X hits the spot on The Magical world of The Strands.
It’s a journey and throughout the majority of his writing you can always get a sense of that, it’s always there, the rhythms and grooves that keep you moving alongside the individuals in his songs, the characters that are probably based on people you know. They could be from The Kop, the Gwladys Street at Goodison, or indeed, such is the unifying nature of Heads songs, The Stretford end at Utd.
I ask him if he gets a feeling of the degree to which many of his fans care about him, one fan at the recent London show had actually said to me, to let you know,
“We don’t ask anything from him, just that he looks after himself and keeps writing songs.”
“Yeah, I do, in fact someone said it to me over 20 years ago and it’s always stuck with me, that no matter what happens in my life, I’m always gonna be writing. But you know, it’s not that hard, really, when you’re in the studio, like when we were doing Waterpistol, we had money and our own studio, we were in London, we just did what the fuck we wanted ”
As we’re talking, Primal Scream’s ‘Loaded’ booms out over The Brinks sound system, we both smile in recognition of that particular anthem to ‘high times’ but that subject has been well documented as far as Mick’s preferences over the years go, we continue to talk about song writing.
“It’s like a gift, not ‘god-given’ or anything like that, it’s just something I can do, if I couldn’t do it, I would try. It’s always been important that the musicians in the band have an understanding of all types of music, I mean, personally I hate the expression ‘sea-shanties’ but I accept there is that element to a lot of my songs, there’s some folk in there, some of the timings are like a waltz. I’ve said it for years, I never think of the drums or bass as the rhythm..the bass is like an extra guitar as far as I’m concerned. I like bass-players to have balls, but Pete (Wilkinson) is like the bass players from Tamla-Motown and they all said that ‘Macca was the best in the world, ‘cos he played melodies”
“So I’ve always chosen drummers that are a bit diverse, who can play a little bit of jazz or whatever, but with the songs I write, I always give them licence to go a bit nuts if it needs it, but they also need to have an understanding of different rhythms like waltzes and bossanova.”
I suggest to him, that many of his songs remind me of Nick Drake, particularly ‘Cello Song’ which also has that sense of ‘movement’ to it.
“I didn’t know it, but as I was was learning…I am quite a rhythmic guitarist, the most recent songs I’ve been writing, I’ve done in such a way that I can play the song acoustically and it still works, but even if I’m with the band and they are all doing their thing, I can keep the song in time.”
I mention the Van Morrison live album, ‘It’s too late to stop now’ and the way in which Van pretty much dictates what’s going on from the front of the stage.”
“Yeah, ‘cos he knows the song…if I was gonna follow someone, I’d follow the guy in the fuckin middle too (laughs) but you know, it’s good on stage with the band now, we’re all looking at each other…”
In the 1992 documentary ‘You’ll never walk alone, you say you don’t want to be famous, you were obviously much younger then, do you remember why you felt that way?
“I just didn’t buy into all that, I didn’t really want to be famous by the time I’d started Shack. I’d always said it was just about the songs. Before that, when it all started, with the ‘Paleys’ (The Pale Fountains, Mick’s first band formed in 1980) me and Biffa, just ‘sorta fell into it from ‘Kenny (Kensington Liverpool, where he was born)
For the first few months, we literally couldn’t play anything at all, at first, but after about 12 months, people began to get interested, We got signed and got a lot of money and maybe, back then I’d have enjoyed Top of the Pops and all that…I don’t know really. But after seeing what happened to lots of other bands that got on their once and then disappeared. I began to see what all that was about and actually, maybe not for the ‘Paleys, but certainly for me as a songwriter, the best thing that happened was NOT getting on Top of the Pops? What actually happened was, that me and Biffa were still living at our Ma’s, we went back to his one day and his Ma, Marge, says that the BBC had been on the phone wanting to know our ‘stage positions’ for TOTP’s, we didn’t even have a fucking manager, but we did want to use an orchestra, they (the BBC) didn’t seem that keen and ‘cos Keith Harris and Orville were at number 47 and we were at number 48, they chose him, I fucking love Orville, I swear to god man. But I think the BBC had a real problem with me after that though!”
So you genuinely didn’t want that to be famous?
“I’d seen The Teardrops and Bunnymen on the telly, but honestly, it really didn’t appeal to me, I could see them anytime in the clubs here in Liverpool, or see Mac (Ian McCulloch) with his cello-taped glasses on the ‘footie pitch.”
Who was the better football player you or him?
“Me, all day long, in fact I had a game the other day, someone said I reminded them of Maradona, but they meant now, rather than back then I think!”
When I tweeted that I was coming up here to talk to you, I got asked by some fans to ask you a few questions, is that ok?
Who were you referring to on the track Comedy, when you say, ‘When you cry it pulls me through’?
“It was about my relationship at that time, I guess what I’m saying is that if you’re showing that level of emotion, I guess we’re on the same level..I dunno?”
Are Shack going to get back together and if so, would you tour the Waterpistol album?
“Shack have never split up, we’re just having a breather, if everyone’s up for it, but it took us 20 years to do the ‘Paleys thing. It’s got nothing to do with money or anything like that though. It was juts, like, let’s get The Paleys onstage again. I can’t see Shack doing a tour, but maybe a one-off thing, yeah. ”
How did you feel when Noel Gallagher called you the best songwriter in the world?
“I don’t really know, it’s really nice, but, I think I find it hard to take compliments from people to be honest.”
What if Arthur Lee had said it?
“I’d have told him to behave and grow up.”
Would you ever consider having a book written about your life?
“I actually intend to live to be 100, but one day, maybe yeah.”
You can find out more about Mick Head and The Red Elastic Band as well as the rest of his career at
This article is a small section from an ongoing interview that, in keeping with all things Mick Head, will see the light of day, as and when it feel right.
Simon Mason is the author of Too High, Too Far, Too Soon (Mainstream)
Justice for the 96.