Michael Head: Adios Senor Pussycat - Album Review



There are certain writing gigs that are a challenge, that stretch your patience in terms of an expected objectivity and a desire to approach it without pre-existing agendas influencing the outcome - the reviewing of the most recent Sting LP for this very organ springs immediately to mind. But on this occasion, the karmic Gods who control BTM have smiled favourably on me, and I can unequivocally rejoice in sharing with you a long-awaited record that I'm convinced will entrance and enrapture you as much as it has me, over the three listens I've given it in advance of this piece. Full disclosure: as some of you may know, I do have a pre-existing 'relationship' with Michael Head, and as a bit of necessary contextual prologue, I'll restate it here… Michael Head is a genius. Admittedly, not of the brand that self-proclaims it or that points to such fleeting indicators as sales for necessary reinforcement. Those types are ten-a-penny in The Information Age. No, Michael Head is a reluctant and hidden genius. The best kind. The kind that requires you to undertake a dedicated journey of self-discovery, regardless of what you might discover, in order to reach such a conclusion. I first became aware of Michael in 1982, a pivotal year in my life for several reasons. I left school; or to be more accurate, was invited to leave. I drifted from YOP scheme to demeaning job and back again. I lived an ordinary suburban working-class existence punctuated only by weekend gigs, hangovers and ridiculous dreams of playing for Rangers or winning the pools. I also met the person with whom I'd share my life. And I heard two records which - in different ways - changed my hitherto narrow-minded outlook on music. Both originated from the same northern city streets, and to these ears at any rate, had similar DNA; the same sense of hope and optimism amidst the early 80s societal rubble. One was Wah!'s 'The Story of the Blues'. The other was the less-eulogised 'Thank You' by the Pale Fountains. I'll return to its personal significance later, but suffice it to say, 'Thank You' stopped me in my tracks. It was a song out of nowhere, I'll-fitting with the cultural context. It reminded me of songs my mother had loved. It was Glen Campbell and Bobbie Gentry; Jimmy Webb and Burt Bacharach. It sounded like a Eurovision Song but from a time when that was a good thing. A scheduled Top of the Pops appearance, which would have surely propelled them to the heights of the Radio 1 A-list was scuppered by strike action - and the surreal 'sabotage' of Orville the fucking duck - and its moment was gone. A couple of years passed, and nothing followed or at least nothing I was aware of. Was 'Thank You' simply a glorious one-off? A sylvan, pastoral summer breeze in the midst of the soulless solipsism of the New Romantics? And then the Pale Fountains resurfaced, supporting Echo & The Bunnymen at a fantastic gig I felt privileged to be at. Two coruscating LPs emerged and the world that was beginning to belong to The Smiths was surely theirs for the inheriting. Michael wrote timeless songs that ached to be sung by the likes of Shirley Bassey or Dionne Warwick. But once again, it didn't happen.

Ten years disappeared like snow off a centrally-heated dyke. A friend bought an LP called 'Waterpistol' and it circulated around our Glasgow office. My turn to take it home, and there's something immediately familiar about that voice, those peerlessly melodic songs ... that addictive mix of hope and yearning. Stories of common people; common people like me. And I'm back in love; totally fucking head over heels again. It's a far better LP than 'The Stone Roses' in my opinion but, perhaps inevitably, the fates had conspired in ludicrous fashion (this time involving a burning studio, master tapes being lost and then found having been left in the back of an American hire car) and by the time it finally appeared, others less deserving had stolen the spotlight. De facto, it was largely lost. Lost genius.

More than any other, 'The Magical World of The Strands' was the record that prompted me to write. The night after I listened to it for the first time, I had a dream so vivid I wrote it down thinking it would make an interesting novel: The central protagonist - a recovering addict - searches for something very personal and important to him (we will never exactly find out what it is) which he has lost, or has had taken from him. His uncoordinated search forces him to confront the challenges and temptations he faces, the decisions he has made, the broken relationships, the places he somehow can't leave ... but also the joy and hope in things previously taken too much for granted; a necessary catharsis. The time sequence is uncertain and the story could be taking place over a year, rather than a day. There are four phases - morning, afternoon, evening and night - each with a different weather, reflecting the protagonist's changing emotions. The story is about transformation and seeing things - his relationships, his city, his life - with a new clarity, but not always with the positivity he had assumed that would bring. He ultimately concludes that, although he knows it will soon kill him, he preferred the anaesthetised life of an addict where he doesn't have to deal with, or confront the pain he has caused others. I got all of that from a few lines on one life-changing record. One of these days, I'll get that book started. In the event, I wrote a different book. It was about a Scottish indie band set in the early 80s. A story of hopes, dreams, outrageous talent, and inevitable failure. When I asked my friend Bobby Bluebell if he might write a new song for my fictional band, the only brief I could give him was for it to feel like 'Thank You', the song that captured my imagination over thirty years ago and has never quite let go since.

Michael Head's masterpiece LP '...The Strands', is Pele in the 1970 World Cup Final; all nonchalant poise and effortless balance. It's Muhammad Ali dropping George Foreman in Zaire and knowing ... just knowing that he didn’t need that final punch. Arrogantly brilliant. It’s one of the greatest LPs ever made. So, how do you follow one of the greatest LPs ever made? Well, you wait a while. Eleven years to be precise. As Michelangelo was fond of saying of an evening down at the Ponte Vecchio: "Perfection isnae somethin' tae be rushed, coviello..." ‘Adios, Senor Pussycat’ is a truly fantastic thing to listen to. I may as well tell you that right now. There is no such personal conflict over this reviewing impartiality. The new LP is beautiful to look at ... a smiling, happy Michael Head sitting on the steps of a building in Liverpool's Baltic Triangle which is in the process of regeneration and creative transformation; a metaphorical rebirth even in the record's artwork. It has the urban feel of the Salford Lads Club doorway, and could perhaps - with this astonishing collection – someday become as iconic. He looks content, and with songs like the 13 I'm about to briefly comment on within the grooves of the record inside it, he has every right to be. It's a full band and the collaborators - including his sister, Joanne on backing vocals - number around ten. As could be expected from that, the whole sound is deep and lush, especially on vinyl.

01: Picasso The album begins with a very brief 'seaside' soundscape, a bit like Gruff Rhys's 'Hotel Shampoo', and then works its way quickly into a folk-pop shuffle straight out of The Strands era. The lyric is blackly comic, and hints at a stalker viewing his subject obsessively with the same awe as he would having stumbled upon a blue-period Picasso. "It's not like it in the movies, there may be police involved' is one of my favourite lyrics on the album. 02: Overjoyed Recalls the exuberance of songs from Shack's 'HMS Fable' LP - the one that really should have propelled them to Oasis levels of adulation. I'm ultimately glad it didn't, although more of that selfish perspective later. 03: Picklock A song in praise of the wine, this is as luxurious and beautiful as a glass of Chilean Malbec. It starts with Barry-esque strings; a James Bond theme if David Morrissey or Douglas Henshall was a northern 007. 04: Winter Turns To Spring Perhaps my favourite track. It's sparse, raw and very personal. Just Mick and a piano, it has a vibe that is reminiscent some of the most recent Paul Weller songs on 'A Kind Revolution'. 05: Workin' Family A classic 'Shack' pop song, in the vein of Oscar, or Comedy. It describes the travails of a family employed in the sex business, like 'Bread' set in The Reeperbahn. It's witty, and fundamentally human. A great song. 06: 4&4 Still Makes 8 Perhaps the song that most references Michael Head's established adoration for Arthur Lee, this song has a central guitar break 07: Queen Of All Saints A lovely recalling of a schoolboy crush on a teacher, delivered in a Liverpool sea-shanty vibe. The central protagonist's pride at working out a teacher's first name from only her initial, to gain a kiss, is a mix of schoolboy elaboration and the often-tall tales men tell when recalling a different era. 08: Josephine Josephine with the first song I heard from this new body of work, being released as an I-tunes single earlier in the year. Michael Head's ingenuity with string arrangements has always lifted him above many contemporaries who've tried similar approaches, but it can be best evidenced on this song.

09: Lavender Way This is just beautifully mellow. Another that has its reference point amongst the folkier, shuffling tracks of The Strands LP. 10: Rumer Rumer - another advanced release as a single – and another beauty. Judge for yourselves:

11: Wild Mountain Thyme As a reimagining of the traditional Scottish folk-song, this has its roots in a younger Michael Head's wonder at the jangling emotion of The Byrds. (It perhaps directly references 'Byrds Turn To Stone', an earlier Shack song from 'The Corner of Miles & Gil' LP) When I saw it listed in the running order, I was intrigued as to how it would be played. It's 'hairs up on the back of the neck' wonderful. 12: What's The Difference A song which starts slowly, and then works it way through different tempo changes. There are phrases and musical shifts that remind a bit of elements of the two Pale Fountains LPs. "She's in love for the first time, but she doesn't know his name." 13: Adios Amigo A fantastic closing song. It is truly joyous and has a circular riff that I could happily listen to until the end of time.

There are many influences at work here - pop, 60s psychedelia, Nick Drake-infused folk, indie beat - but they are all blended harmoniously into something coherent and immediately memorable. This record cements Michael Head’s reputation as one of the country's greatest songwriters. I saw Michael play live in Glasgow a few weeks ago. As I had expected, the gig was great. There were no songs from this record played that night, which was a bit of a surprise, but it lends hope that his live appearances - if not recorded output - might become more regular with the new material to promote. I hinted earlier at a selfish aspect about my relationship with such music earlier in this piece. It's something that Stuart Cosgrove refers to when he writes brilliantly about the exclusivity and belonging associated with the musical love of his life, Northern Soul. I experience that quality with an artist like Michael Head. It's that indefinable feeling that a discovered music is yours and yours alone, and that such a discovery is exclusively personal; like you've uncovered a magnificent truth that only you know about. It becomes precious and valued because it's not widely accepted as a truth. You find perverse satisfaction in the fact that others don’t get it; that they can’t see it. I often wonder how artists like Michael Head feel about the paradox of universal fame, especially when it would have been so richly deserved. Had Shack reached the level of Knebworth-sized euphoria of those they have influenced, it’s unlikely this record would have been made, in fact as unlikely that Michael Head would’ve been around to make it at all. Yet contrast its vibrancy with the mediocrity of the recent output from Noel Gallagher. Perhaps this record answers that conundrum, in the way he sits on the cover photograph's steps, in the more stable and contented way his life is now being lived. In his ability to craft songs of such peerless beauty. All at his own pace. As a comparative indicator, I could see parallels in the equally magnificent 'Crimson/Red' by Prefab Sprout ... another timeless record by a mercurial northern genius who knows that the creation of real lasting artistic beauty takes time. 9/10 'Adios, Señor Pussycat' by Michael Head & The Red Elastic Band Released: 20th October, on Violette Records Michael Head's truly is a magical world. If you haven't done so already, experience it for yourself. You won't regret it.