‘Dear Scott’, the much-anticipated album from Michael Head & the Red Elastic Band, is out today. Teeming with characters and places, its songs are essentially short stories, writes Kevin Pearce.
This is in many ways such a special record, and it fills me with joy to write about it. I admit sentiment plays a part in this. Why not? It’s like ‘Dear Scott’ wrote: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”. It’s impossible to shake off history, the fact that it is pretty much exactly 40 years since Michael Head and the Pale Fountains recorded their debut 45 for Operation Twilight, Philip Hoare the Leviathan man’s label. What a revelation that single was: a cool breeze that refreshed the pop scene, with cool being very much the operative word. My God, they looked wonderful. They really did. I always thought that worked against them, but there you are. Who knows?
Back in the summer of 1982 the idea of a new Michael Head record 40 years on would have seemed absurd. It would be like, oh I dunno, say a new Mel Tormé LP back then: just something meaningless, completely irrelevant to a teenager. But here we are, still here, somehow, and Mick is still one of my very favourite songwriters. While listening to Dear Scott I’ve been trying to pin down what makes Mick so good. And I think a huge part of it is Mick’s way with words.
There are so many of his lines which rattle round in your head unbidden as you blunder through life. Maybe Dear Scott features some of Mick’s best lyrics, ones we’ll be quoting for many a day. The opening lines of ‘Grace and Eddie’ are particularly striking, about it being hard to see, so let’s pull over, ‘The Tracks of My Tears’ on the radio. ‘Grace and Eddie’ makes me think of Grace Maxwell and Edwyn Collins, and I can just hear Edwyn singing this one. Aww, it’s that very specific, so perfect choice of song, ‘Tracks of My Tears’, which is just so spot-on. Anyway, I always loved the fact that one William Robinson was playing violin on the Pale Fountains’ debut 45. Or have I just made that up?
The songs on Dear Scott are rich with smart observations and great anecdotes. Mick has the ability to pack in an extraordinary amount of detail within a few minutes, and he is at his best when singing about the little things of life, like at the start of ‘Kismet’ he refers to somewhere to get something to eat and charge your phone, a lovely line, for sometimes that’s all you need to save your life.
To illustrate how Mick is strong on detail, just check out ‘American Kid’ and its wealth of movie references. It’s lovely. I’ve joked in print about this before when talking about ‘Bicycle Thieves’: “And has anyone written a detailed essay on the film references in the songs of Michael Head? It’s the sort of thing we want to read, not the same old biographical rubbish”. I’m no expert on films, but I can really appreciate the line linking John Garfield and Ida Lupino. Even the title of ‘Kismet’, the opening track, makes me think of old films on the black and white TV in Mum’s front room on a wet Sunday afternoon.
With Dear Scott, while it’s striking how Mick’s songs are essentially short stories, sometimes I find myself making up tales inspired by lines in Mick’s songs. Being slow on the uptake, listening recently repeatedly to The Jimmy Campbell Album the same thing struck me: here’s a collection of first-person tales, so strangely vivid and moving. Oddly, around the same time, I read Patrick Modiano’s novella In the Café of Lost Youth and among the habitues seeking refuge with Louki & co. at the Condé in Paris was the English singer Jimmy Campbell. Kismet, indeed. Jimmy Campbell and Patrick Modiano: so, did they know one another? Jimmy Campbell and Michael Head: did their paths ever cross in a Liverpool pub? Two romantic Merseyside figures. Ah life!
Mick’s songs teem with characters and places. Surely someone among the legion of Michael Head fans could come up with an illustrated map of Liverpool with all the people and locations mentioned in Mick’s songs. I dunno. Maybe someone has already gone into business leading guided tours around the city.
The other big thing about Mick’s songs, here and elsewhere, is the way he plays with melody. This may not be a great mystical revelation, but he makes it seem easy. It’s not. It’s a gift, a craft to be perfected, an artform. There is little in the way of surprise, music wise, on Dear Scott, and not too much in the way of embellishment beyond the basic guitars and drums. There’s some nice Pacific Street trumpet, some strings and things, some piano, a bit of ‘Snoopy in Love’ flute, some lovely West Coast folk rock harmonies. But no shocks. That’s fine. Here. For the melodies make it all work.
There is something timeless at the heart of Mick’s melodies, something ancient and spiritual at times, though perhaps that’s just me, and what comes of listening to so much ‘early music’. Yet with Mick’s songs you see connections in the oddest of places. Or rather you hear them. I keep hearing echoes melodically of his songs when listening to Brazilian sounds of the early 1970s, thinking there’s a connection to Mick in the work of Milton Nascimento, Marcos Valle, Erasmo Carlos, Lô Borges, and so on.
Nevertheless, there is a traditional, dare I say rock, aspect of the sound on Dear Scott which is not really my cup of char. It’s normally something, musically, I avoid. It’s really not for me, but it works here, just as, conversely, we all know records which on paper or in theory sound perfect but just leave us cold. Logic doesn’t come into it when you listen to music does it? Don’t get me wrong: I love this record. And Bill Ryder-Jones’ production is excellent, leaving plenty of space for the music to breathe. It’s just, oh I dunno. I do get slightly uncomfortable, I guess, because I imagine the music’s appeal to conservative types who I suspect will find reassurance in the frequently familiar sound of Dear Scott. Does it matter? Presumably not. Anyway, Mick must like working within this context, rather like an author who writes what is classed as crime fiction or thrillers and still comes up with something startlingly fresh.
Me, I like to start the day with a mug of tea and Radio 3, and when Petroc Trelawny plays a new choral composition or piano piece does he worry that it is entrenched in a very specific tradition, William Byrd or Chopin, or whoever? I doubt it. Anyway, it’s not like this Dear Scott record is simply by a bunch of old codgers treading water. I get the impression the Red Elastic Band are young kids (it’s all relative) who I like to think hold Mick in reverence but tease him mercilessly, while he in turn feeds off the reinvigorating energy of their youth, like you might see a clip on YouTube of a venerable jazz player or singer onstage with a group of youngsters giving new life to old sounds, classic compositions.
Talking of the Radio 3 breakfast show, Petroc & co. have a habit of playing the occasional old folk recording, often with a strong regional flavour, and I think again we can be bold and link Dear Scott to that folk tradition. There’s something striking about Mick’s singing, the way it’s developed, with his increasingly strong accent giving a unique sense of place. Who else is singing like that, really singing with a feel of where they’re from? It’s the way he throws in phrases, or whatever, which sound like something you’ve overheard on the bus or in a café, like in ‘Broken Beauty’ where he sings: “I think I know him. I think he’s alright.”
‘Broken Beauty’ is, I think, the best song Michael has come up with. It’s, oh I dunno, a whole world in one song. It’s incredibly moving. I’ve been lucky enough to spend a lot of time with Dear Scott and this song gets me every time. And when I say it gets me, I mean it in an emotional sense. It is, I guess, an internal conversation with someone you have probably never met but have been rooting for at a distance. Something I am sure we all do: quietly observe and cheer someone on. The song tells a simple story, yet it makes me cry for all sorts of reasons you really don’t want to know about. It’s a slow-burn soul composition, a form Mick has specialised in down all the days, in the tradition of ‘(Don’t Let Your Love) Start A War’, ‘Realization’, and so on.
So, yeah, 40 years. How on earth did that happen? Ah to hell with it. Instead of sitting here brooding on the old, unknown world, I’m going for a walk round the park, and I betcha some of Mick’s words and melodies from Dear Scott accompany me on the way. Oh, and by the way, Mel Tormé in 1982, he recorded a great live LP with George Shearing, or Old God as Dean Moriarty had called him a long time before. It was just voice, piano and bass, Now, that would make a wonderful thing for Mick to do next.