Shack’s HMS Fable at 20: a folklore masterpiece

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Shack – HMS Fable

Twenty years ago Shack released HMS Fable, Getintothis’ Kevin Barrett looks back at one of most iconic albums to hail from Merseyside. 

Sometimes you have to travel through the darkest of places to find beauty in its truest form.

Shack, like The Pale Fountains before them, forged a career based on hope, anticipation, expectation, and an undeniable outstanding talent. All this surrounded by a cloud of pain and heartache in the shape of a self-inflicted drug and alcohol addiction.

The late 90s was a peculiar time in music.

We had just come off the back of one of the biggest faux feuds ever created in the industry.

Whilst Oasis & Blur were lowering their Britpop batons we found ourselves in an age when mainstream music was starting to pick up pace in churning out over-produced, over-sexualised, talent-lacking garbage, much of which built the framework that the charts are still littered with today.

This is not to say there wasn’t anything decent being made at the time. Far from it.

It just seemed this was a telling point in history when the screw started to turn from major record labels lack of desire to push for exposure of working bands, and ultimately a resulting a plummet in record sales.

So much so that real talent took a back seat, replaced by an artist that looked far better on screen than they sounded on record. Yes this was a time when the reality show era was now starting to take its stranglehold.

Shows like MTV’s The Real World, and videos of pop stars prancing around school halls in uniform were now the order of the day in a complete shift of modern youth culture, now tragically embedding its roots into the mainstay of todays music industry.

Michael Head – Photo: Kevin Barrett

So why take us off on this tangent here? What brings us to talk about Britney Spears and the MTV era anyway.

Well, around this time, June 21, 1999 to be exact, Shack released HMS Fable.

For many who follow the mainstream juggernaut this will mean absolutely nothing at all. But for those who have picked up this album, and listened to it in full will feel a sense of warmth in this statement, a sense of belonging, a spine tingling excitement that only a handful of records will give. 

So now seems about the best time we can drop the mainstream comparison here and concentrate on the music.

A lowly 25th place in the album charts tells you a hell of lot more about the buying public at the time than the quality of this album.

HMS Fable was the third LP released from Shack following 1988’s Zilch, and 95’s Waterpistol.

But this time it was different. As history will tell, there were no burnt down studios now, and no lost tapes turning up years later in New Mexico in rental cars.

What Shack had delivered was a collection of majestic storytelling in guitar form, a body of work written by two extraordinarily talented brothers, Michael & John Head; songsmiths who were truly blessed with creativity to gift poetry in their music so pure, so sincere it stopped you in your tracks and automatically embedded itself in your subconscious jukebox.

So good was the songwriting on HMS Fable, the NME plastered a now infamous headline onto its cover in October of that year, with the strap ‘This Man is our Greatest Songwriter’. A weary looking portrait of Mick Head staring straight down the camera lens accompanied this, the boldest of tag-lines, direct from the critics choice music publication at the time. 

But before we get overly carried away with a glossy review here we need raise the glaring white elephant in the room to allow us to draw some sort of structural context.

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Read any reviews from the time of HMS Fable and critics will undoubtably have an outlook very differently to most other releases of the day.

Its no secret that there were issues with drugs, notably heroin, within the band around the time leading up to the making of this record. These are more than well recorded, and can be read in almost every book or online page featuring Shack, The Pale Fountains or The Strands to date.

But let’s be clear on this, the drugs did not provide an ailment in the making of this album. Nor did it have a profound opposite effect, where the haze filled mystique of dabbling in drugs heightening any creativity in the work. 

What the abuse and addiction gives this album is an outlet, an outlet to document, a hauntingly exposed narration that just wouldn’t have worked in any sense had it been written by anyone other than the Head brothers.

Streets of Kenny being the obvious choice to highlight, lyrics such as; “I’m searching for the caz again, Through the Streets of Kenny, I’m looking for our joys again, Can’t get shit get any” is about as painfully desperate as any line written in song, but what Shack did is create a beauty in the rawness, the sincerity, the misery of the lyrics.

Likewise in Lend’s Some Dough, lyrics such as “I’ve got a sore back and I’m itching” conjures visuals of the body’s natural rejection of the drug, to only be brought back to elated euphoria later in the song after scoring with “I just got up I’m still dreaming, Sleeping, drifting, dreaming, Of a big blue ocean”.

These are not lyrics that romanticise drug use. It is documentary songwriting from the soul that paints a terrifyingly bleak painting, but that painting is a work of art, a masterpiece of sorts.

As with the elevated NME headlines, and a re-found notoriety following release of this record you would have expected Shack to be catapulted into the upper echelons of the business.

The album was in fact handed the number 2 slot in both NME and Uncut’s critics album of the year polls, only missing out to The Flaming LipsThe Soft Bulletin in both.

John Head – Photo: Kevin Barrett

This was sadly not the case, inward problems persisted.

Only a single release in Oscar was brought out in the four years leading up to the next album, the equally impressive, Here’s Tom With the Weather, this being on the back of bassist Ren Parry departing the band.

A further three years ensued until 2006 when Shack released their fifth and final album to date in  On the Corner of Miles and Gil.

So what have we learned when we look back over past 20 years since the release of HMS Fable?

Whilst the physical and psychological scars will undoubtedly still pain the band, and anyone who was around them during those darker times, the musical legacy will always outweigh and outlive the torment.

What we have now is folklore, reminisce, understanding.

What Michael Head, John Head, Ian Templeton & Ren Parry gave us in HMS Fable was music that will last an eternity with unfathomable joy.

An outlet not just for the band, but equally for anyone who has been acoustically blessed by these troubled chords, and absorbed these bittersweet kaleidoscopic lyrics.

With Mick now enjoying a renaissance in his career playing and releasing new music through his own label Violette Records, and John also very recently playing his first gig in over six years that pleasure is still very much in rebirth and re-growth.

Will we see the band reform once again? Well that’s not for us to discuss here.

This is a time for reflection and celebration of an album that has brought a wealth of emotion in its delivery during these past two decades; tears, sorrow, heartache, beauty, power and fulfilment all in equal dose.

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