A Snog on the Rocks

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In the late '80s, before Massive Attack, Portishead, and Tricky put Bristol on the global music map, Head was making a very different noise, one that had nothing to do with the genre that would be known as trip-hop. But just as the sound of Bristolian trip-hop was shaped by a multicultural history dating back to the city's time as a major Atlantic port, the warped, post-pub rock sound of Head was no less-rooted in its immediate environment. Fueled by the infamously potent local cider and drawing inspiration from the region's seafaring and farming traditions, A Snog on the Rocks suggests an electrified West-Country translation of the Pogues, shot through with the bluesy eccentricity of Captain Beefheart. This debut album remains the group's finest moment, the defining statement of an improbable local-color approach to alternative rock. Head's concoction of sea shanties, wonderfully puerile innuendo, drinking songs, and good old-fashioned punk attitude stands in stark contrast to the dark and austere beats and grooves for which Bristol would become famous in the 1990s. A Snog on the Rocks marked a change in direction for guitarist/keyboard player and principle songwriter Gareth Sager. Credited here as Hank Sinclair, Sager had been a member of the influential Bristol acts the Pop Group, Rip Rig & Panic, and Float Up CP. Although Head jettisoned the politics and dissonant funk of the Pop Group, as well as the fragmented jazz experimentation of Rip Rig & Panic, its sound retained the anarchic flavor of both, albeit within a more conventionally melodic and accessible format. A crucial component of Sager's arrangements on A Snog on the Rocks is the vocal performance of Rich Beale. Appearing on this album as Clevedon Pier (the name of a local Victorian landmark), Beale delivers the band's chronicles of drinking, animal lust, and the high seas with an entirely appropriate measure of camp theatricality. Drunkenness, sex, and livestock, in various combinations, are at the heart of the shambolic rock of "Out on the Natch," "Let's Snog," and "Sex Cattle Man." On "I Am the King" and "I Can't Stop," in particular, the band's harder edge is enhanced by the guitar of Candy Horsebreath (otherwise known as Nick Sheppard, formerly of the Cortinas and the Clash). However, the centerpiece of this album is the nautically themed "The Captain, the Sailor & the Dirty Heartbreaker," a mini-epic sea shanty complete with accordion, whistling, and interpolated choruses of "What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor?."

Despite the overwhelming silliness of much of A Snog on the Rocks, the strength of the (at times) complex arrangements and the quality of the performance always stop the album from descending into musical cabaret. The apparent throwaway, introducing-the-band number "Crackers (Fer Yer Knackers)" is a case in point. Cartoonish samples, vocal approximations of Woody Woodpecker, and curious character sketches of the band members notwithstanding, the song oozes a tight, funky swagger that makes it completely addictive. And therein lies the paradox of Head. A Snog on the Rocks provides incontrovertible evidence that the group could have been huge. But the album also suggests that the band members perhaps didn't care, preferring to please themselves with idiosyncratic songs that often came across as impenetrable in-jokes, rather than fully focusing their talents on significant commercial success.

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