“Zees ees most eenteresting“, exclaimed Hercule Poirot, stroking his exquisitely manicured moustache, “‘ere, we ‘ave a man, not just an ordinary man, but a supremely talented one – oo KNOWS what ‘e is capable of? – yet commercial success ‘as once again…eluded ‘im“.
Poirot never did solve this mystery before he died, and it has left most of us baffled too, for the past four decades – Why has Michael Head never become a household name? Two very minor top 100 albums with The Pale Fountains, some insanely catchy singles (see ‘Jean’s Not Happening‘ for a start, which was released six months too early and tragically overlooked in favour of The Housemartins, who mimicked the style of the latter release and built a whole – admittedly great – album around its sound). Then there was his critically lauded work with the more mature, classic songwriting of nineties projects Shack and Michael Head and The Strands. Plaudits aplenty yet no sign of a hit record. Not even close.
August sees the re-issue of ‘The Magical World Of The Strands’ as well as ‘The Olde World’, which includes new takes on five of the former album’s tracks, and another handful of long lost songs that could, and perhaps should, have made the cut first time around.
Just over halfway through ‘The Magical World’ in its initial conception, ‘It’s Harvest Time’ had more in common musically with the breezy nuance typified by Cat Stevens, whereas the fresh version kicks off the upgrade by basking freely in the midday sunshine of The Stone Roses. It’s impossible not to level this comparison still further on the archival find that is ‘Fin, Sophie, Bobby and Lance’, the early Silvertone sound being effected convincingly in the hushed tones of Head’s vocal and the understated instrumentation.
Vaughan Williams would appear to have been something of an influence on the update of ‘Something Like You’, searing violins evoking pastoral images of smiling children running through endless cornfields on a lazy summer’s evening. As befits such imagery, this time around, it is an instrumental piece.
‘Hocken’s Hey’ was previously a real stress reliever, a cheerful banjo led rustic knees up around a campfire, but now it incorporates a flute and as a result sounds oddly like Barclay James Harvest. It’s an interesting curio and retains its cool, calm exterior, but give me the original any time.
Of the “new” old tracks, ‘Poor Jill’ has the merry jangle of something The Hollies or perhaps even The Byrds might have released in the sixties, while ‘Lizzie Mulally’ is a meaty slab of garage rock psychedelia in 5/4, the kind of thing The Seeds were so good at, whereas ‘Wrapped Up In Honour’ has that drunken, ever so slightly off-key aura of The Smiths‘ ‘That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore‘. The title track, meanwhile, sounds like it never got much further than its demo state, but just proves how strong Head’s voice is, with no effects on it whatsoever, yet it carries what is arguably the most infectious song here magnificently.
It’s more of an artefact of fascination for longstanding fans than anything else, and while I am not sure Michael Head is QUITE the genius that all the critics say he is, it’s certainly always a pleasure to listen to him.