Indie Music

‘I hadn’t thought about a drink. Then I saw the pub. Game over’: singer-songwriter Michael Head on beating addiction – again

Michael Head is re-enacting the moment he thought he was about to die. In 2019, the beloved Liverpool songwriter “fell off the wagon on a grand scale”. The 62-year-old, who had beaten heroin addiction twice, had been sober from alcohol since 2016. But by 2020 his drinking was so severe that he was getting regular seizures. One looked as if it would kill him.

Sitting on the couch in the cramped back room of Yawn studios in West Kirby on the Wirral, he sits bolt upright to indicate the panic; he flashes his hands across his face in a blur, making a whirling, thudding noise. “Like in the movies,” he says. “I said to myself: ‘Mick lad, this is it.’”

A remarkable chain of events has led not just to Head’s survival and sobriety, but one of the most prolific periods of his 40-year career. Brilliant new album Loophole rapidly follows 2022’s Dear Scott – Mojo’s album of the year and Head’s first UK Top 10 hit – and was written alongside his forthcoming autobiography, Ciao Ciao Bambino. “It’s about mindset,” he says. “I’ve had time to decide to be focused.”

Now 62, the teenage Head decided music was his future in 1979 after watching the Teardrop Explodes on TV. The very next day, he met the band’s keyboardist Paul Simpson at Probe Records in Liverpool, who introduced him to a local scenester named Yorkie, who in turn altered Head’s mind by playing him Love’s psych-folk classic Forever Changes. Thereon in, Head only ever wanted to write songs. “The young Mick had big, massive plans,” he says.

He has since amassed a remarkable songbook with the Pale Fountains, Shack, the Strands and, since 2013, the Red Elastic Band: 11 albums of softly psychedelic, Love-inspired, Byrdsian bittersweet beauty. Head has admirers everywhere from Manic Street Preachers to the Coral and his current producer and Yawn owner Bill Ryder-Jones; Noel Gallagher is such a fan he released Shack’s last album, 2006’s The Corner of Miles and Gil, on his Sour Mash label. His following may well have been bigger were it not for a litany of far-fetched myth-making misfortune, including label mismanagement, death of band members, studio fires and missing master tapes. The phrase “lost songwriter” has ended up attached to him. “If I was lost, where would I have to go to be found? I’ve never been far away,” he says.

But in 2020, he was nearly lost for good. Head exudes a happy if nervous energy, but when he talks of his struggles, he folds into himself, his voice lowering to a whisper. He speaks of his relapse in the same poetically Liverpudlian, direct yet vivid language that populates his songs. He was in Anglesey with his then-partner. “I hadn’t thought about a drink. I wasn’t grinding my teeth. I walked into this little idyllic village and I swear, man, it was beautiful … kids, kites, a lovely little bay. I had a little fatty [joint]. Then I saw the pub,” he says, trailing off. “Game over.”

The results were catastrophic. He was unable to stop drinking, he and his partner split. Worse still, his distraught daughter Allie Beaudouin, scarred from dealing with Head’s on-off addictions, packed her bags and left for Canada. “It hit me so hard because I never thought he’d drink again,” Beaudouin says. “He’s two different people; all the worst traits come out. I’ve always put my dad first, but I had to be selfish.”

“Everyone was at the end of the tether,” Head says. “I don’t blame them. I was putting them through hell.”

Head stopped functioning. In winter 2019, he tried and failed to record songs from Dear Scott. When lockdown hit, Head was living alone, “a mess, fucked up”, drinking a cocktail of spirits and super strength Special Brew (“if I’m having a drink, I’m having a drink”). The Red Elastic Band’s guitarist Nathaniel Laurence checked in on the phone regularly. “There was an apologetic tone even in the dark spot,” Laurence says. “He’d say, ‘I promise you I’m gonna sort this out, we’ll finish that record because the songs are amazing’.” But Laurence was increasingly concerned. “Conversations were getting repetitive. He wouldn’t let us see him. We really thought we were gonna get a call to say he’d gone.”

After Head was hospitalised, his sister Joanne booked him into Hope Centre rehab in Liverpool. Previous rehab stints “felt like a prison”: here, he was at least allowed his guitar. Still, confined to his room aside from mealtimes, his mentality was: “Feeling sorry for yourself. Guilt. This is hell. How long do I have left?”

Then one afternoon, Head was approached by someone “in a Liam [Gallagher] hat, bouncing around, king of the trainees [trainers]. He said ‘alright Mick! I love Shack. Off for my dinner. See you later’.”

His name was Lee, and he was no casual Shack fan: he and his wife Amanda had their first wedding dance to the band’s song Comedy. Lee would drop biscuits and yoghurts at Head’s door; Head began looking forward to mealtimes, when they’d chat about music and football. When Lee left, Head wrote out the lyrics to Comedy as a parting gift and wished him well.

Head finished his stint under duress. “You have to be ready [for rehab]. I couldn’t wait to leave.” He went home and started drinking again: within a week he was back in hospital. When he woke on the ward, groggy, medicated and “probably still smashed”, there were two people by his bedside: Lee and Amanda. “They came like angels,” he says. “That’s what I call them – angels with boss trainees!”

They took Head back to their house in Litherland – when he got upstairs, there was a sign on the bedroom door that read “Mick’s room”. Yet when he woke up, he had no idea where he was. He stepped on to the landing and bumped into the couple’s teenage daughter. “I’m there looking like the wild man of Borneo and she just says ‘alright Mick’, completely unfazed.”

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Initially, Head felt uneasy. “I only vaguely knew Lee; I wasn’t sure what was going on.” But he soon “felt part of the family. Respect kicks in. You’re in someone else’s house.” Amanda, a nurse, eased Head back to health, giving him medication to decrease on alcohol and pills to sleep (“I’d been an insomniac for 10 years”). He and Lee, his own recovery still fragile, went on daily walks along the Leeds and Liverpool canal, talking about “everything from The Water Margin to the footy”. It was restorative: Head stayed for weeks as he sobered up and regained his sense of self.

Even when Head returned home, he met Lee for daily walks. “It keeps it ticking over, the positivity, the familiarity, the arms around the shoulder.” Moreover, Head would often answer the door to find Amanda had delivered a homecooked pan of scouse or a roast dinner. He’d never experienced this level of post-rehab aftercare. “It’s not in the pamphlets. But it’s the most important part.” They remain close friends. “Sometimes you meet people who don’t expect to meet, and they’re going to be there for the rest of your life.”

Songs started flowing, too. “He said: ‘I’m back and I’m ready if you’ll still have me’,” Laurence says. “We were waiting for him.” The band then contacted Beaudouin, still in Canada, to help run Head’s website and social media. She organised Head’s comeback gig at Liverpool Arts Club in August 2021, and flew back, the first time she’d properly spoken to Head since 2019. “He’s my dad and we’ve got this amazing bond,” she says, “but obviously there was a lot of hurt that needed repairing. And it took a while. But he apologised. And I said, ‘We’re good – just don’t do it again’.” Head asked Beaudouin to become his manager. “I had no nerves around managing my dad – I feel like I’ve managed him my whole life.”

“It’s a beautiful thing,” Head says. Head, Beaudouin and the band are “like a family”, Laurence adds. It made the success of Dear Scott all the sweeter.

Around the same time, Head found love. He’d known Saida, a French linguist, sporadically for decades: he’d written a song called Saida in the 90s. “Every time I saw her I thought, ‘I’d love to get know her more.’” They reconnected and married last November – “we’re really in love, it’s an amazing feeling” – completing the unlikeliest of life turnarounds. “For the first time, everything has aligned for him,” Beaudouin says.

This momentum played into Loophole, another superb, beautifully melodic mix of baroque balladry, chamber pop, psych and jazz. While his new circumstances are reflected – the gorgeous Tout Suite! is a “big fuck-off love song” – many songs were influenced by writing his memoir: “They both bounced off each other.” Ambrosia is a wistful reminiscence about Shack, written shortly before the death of drummer Iain Templeton in December 2022. “When I first played it in rehearsals I broke down.” Writing about his admiration for Aztec Camera’s Roddy Frame prompted Head to finally master a jazz chord Frame tried to teach him in 1982, and it forms the basis of You Smiled at Me, about a chance encounter leading to love, written before he re-met Saida. “I finally had a face to the lyric.”

The uplifting, anthemic Coda brings Head’s career full circle. The song revolves around a riff Head played at the end of Comedy during Shack gigs in the early 90s: a song written in 1986 and released in 1999, which now has an epilogue in 2024. “I’ve subconsciously finished Comedy,” he says. “It’s had a beautiful life”.

Head is determined to keep his own life that way. Of his addiction, he says: “I know now it’s all or nothing. There’s no little IPA on the idyllic beach. I’ve proved that’s not a goer.” But he says sobriety allows him to “put my money where my mouth is and do the things I want to do – keep writing, keep the reconnection with my family. It’s too much to lose”.

Loophole, by Michael Head and the Red Elastic Band available on Modern Sky UK. Ciao Ciao Bambino will be published next year by Nine Eight Books

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