Like many people, my top 10 albums always change too often to pin down properly, but this album is right up there as the one I always come back to and means the most.
The songs on Waterpistol are universally great and can easily transcend their context. But they are definitely songs from a Liverpool band. The place where certain forms of music just seem to soak into the skin of their song writers, with a confidence and a world view of their own. They look out to sea rather than in land, and follow the psychedelic ship out to sea.
I was lucky enough to live in Liverpool for 6 years and there is no doubt a connection with music there that may not exist elsewhere. Some of the best writing about this can be found in Paul Du Noyer’s 2002 book ‘Liverpool- wonderous place – music from the Cavern to the Coral.’ ( the book also covers Shack in a number of places).
I certainly experienced my most memorable gigs while there ( all time favourite has to be Arthur Lee and Love at the Lomax in 2002). Coming back from the city centre I was always struck by some graffiti I saw on a wall near some derelict buildings near Toxteth – ‘Captain Beefheart’ was sprayed in large red letters. Where else in the UK would you see that? I knew I was going to like it there! (I also enjoyed this article about Liverpool’s links with the Captain and a mention of the graffiti too). Influences like Beefheart, Love had uniquely soaked into Liverpool and Shack was the place I saw them soar and take flight in amongst songs that told their own unique stories.
Shack are very much part of this Liverpool journey.
There’s no doubt Shack are well connected to the family tree of musicians that you can track through so much of the last 30 years in Liverpool. Ian Broudie was their producer on the first album, Zilch, Pete Wilkinson the bass player in Waterpistol went on to join Cast. Mick Head is rumoured to be releasing an album with Bill Ryder Jones ex of the Coral. According to Paul Du Noyer, Mick was inspired to form his first band, the Pale Fountains, watching the Teardrop Explodes on Top of the Pops.
Even though I was working in an indie record shop in 1995 Waterpistol completely passed me by. We had a shop policy of listening to every new album and single we stocked and I can’t recall it. We were selling shed loads of britpop at the time and sadly this never registered.
I first heard of Shack a few years later in 1998 when Michael Head’s album ‘Magical world of the strands’ started to appear in some end of year lists. I loved the spooky acoustic songwriting and 60s influenced production which never fell into the trap of the falling fast britpop scene. To me the album fitted alongside the Beta Band’s three EPs as the standout record of the year. The track that really got me hooked was ‘something like you’.
I remember mentioning to a friend ( thanks L!) and she said I had to hear Waterpistol and made me a tape. I recall that it took some time to track down a CD, possibly in Liverpool.
Searching online I can’t find many examples of reviews from 1995 of Waterpistol – the most quoted is from Music Week, who positively referenced a comparison with the Beach Boys. Of course many plaudits have come since then but the album is now out of print and commands big prices for the LP and CD.
The album took many years to complete, it was started back in 1989 and went through many producers, a studio fire and the only remaining tapes being lost in the US, then found again, before coming out in 1995. Shack also rarely played live and this has always been the case (I’ve seen them twice – in 1999 and 2003, the latter was the highlight as it was a headline show in Liverpool).
Before discussing the album it is worth watching this great piece of footage from a 1992 film about Shack. The footage of Mick playing ‘Hazy’ from Waterpistol sums up how great the songs already were. There is great confidence in their song writing but also a sadness as they take the film makers around Liverpool. By 1992 they must have wondered whether they would ever make it. The other great moment is the way the two brothers harmonise on ‘Undecided’.
Waterpistol and what makes it stand out
Paul Du Noyer describes Mick’s songwriting as ‘tuneful, bruised but optimistic’. This really chimes and you see all of this in Waterpistol. The songs tell stories of people, places and situations that leaves you guessing but wanting to listen again. Some of the lyrics just cut right through.
This is ‘Time Machine’:
But first you can stop
Sticking a stake through your heart
Gets to one when you’ve started
Your old reason why you’re falling apart
Your time machine needs a new heart
In terms of influences on the sound of the album the Stone Roses are definitely there and the band did cite them as an influence, but the album would have been done before Oasis were in the public eye. The 60’s west coast influences are definitely key, without sounding derivative. I often hear the Doors, in how the drums sound and the rhythms – Hey Mama really has that feel. Love are obviously the other key influence, on the lyrics as well, and Shack acted as Arthur Lee’s backing band for a short tour in the UK in 1992 (there is a live album that is worth a listen but probably doesn’t do it justice as the sound quality is quite poor).
The orchestrations in places have the feel of the Beatles circa Revolver. Best of all is ‘Walter’s song’ – with Mick signing ‘hush my little one hush’ and the orchestration rising to a crescendo then falling away to just a cello.
I love the brothers’ harmonies on all the Shack albums and particularly on Undecided, Neighbours and Hazy on Waterpistol. John Head’s harmony and interwoven vocals are also a key part of the Shack sound.
Alongside the harmonies the lyrics in Undecided really ache:
Undecided, make your mind up
There she goes, then she goes
Everyone knows she goes
There she goes, then she goes
Everyone knows she goes
And you can meet somebody
It’s got to be like sticking a needle
In your arm when you’re sleeping
And then you can be somebody
There’s a bit in the 1992 documentary that I mentioned above where Mick talks about heading back from London and that feeling of coming home when he sees Runcorn Bridge (and some other chemically induced imaginary…). That feeling of being nearly home. This maybe fed into the last track on the album, London Town, a ballad that is a perfect closer. Looking back at the Industry scene in London they’ve left behind.
I’ve also loved the other albums that followed, including the last one – the 2017 album by Michael Head and the Red Elastic Band, but none can beat Waterpistol for me. It also reminds me of exploring Liverpool for the first time and this was the soundtrack for both of us. It reminds me of people and places as well.
There is talk of a reissue at some point, perhaps with extra tracks, demos? Domino Records now own the rights and when I dropped them an email last week to ask about a reissue they said ‘Domino are still hoping to release the record but it is not on the schedule just yet.’ A glimmer of hope. Pete Pephides also mentioned on twitter that his Needle Mythology reissue label has been interested in the 1999 album HMS Fable but that now sits with Because Music.
***update*** After publishing the blog a few people have highlighted some other information. @Chrismorland mentioned the possibility of a full alt-version waiting to be heard, alternate mixes of most songs… Groovy Sgt Major, the full band playing London Town, unreleased song UP.
Chris also highlighted this excellent Soul Kitchen blog from France, that had extensive interviews with the various producers, label managers and Pete W. Some great recollections of recording tracks such as London Town. Also some doubt cast on the studio fire as well.
I was also sent this useful bio from football voice as well.
The Shacknet twitter feed is well worth following – lots of archive photos, set lists etc. John Head and Pete Wilkinson are also on Twitter. Pete’s band Aviator have an album out this month. Review coming shortly.
Thanks also to Pete for the ace comment about the blog as well – made my week.
Next up in this series – the album ‘Bed’ by Five Thirty, from 1991.