With The Housemartin’s debut album just over 30 years old, Getintothis’ Del Pike looks back at the album’s importance and the wonder of Hull’s Fab Four.
“For too long the ruling classes have enjoyed an extended New Years Eve party, whilst we can only watch, faces pressed up against the glass”
A Christmas message from The Housemartins (inner sleeve of London 0 Hull 4)
Hull City of Culture, oh really?? To any visitors to that most awkward to reach outpost in the 1970s, the primary memory would be a smell of fish, and I speak from experience. The 80s still felt bleak but the smell of fish was slightly less permeating due to a decline in the fishing industry.
Hull however has re-created itself, and its new found ranking in the world of culture is justly deserved. Another city that has clearly dragged itself out of darker days and presented itself as a centre of music, art, drama and nightlife. The good folk of Hull should be proud.
If we travel back 30 years, it was a very different story.
The Hull Truck Theatre was one of the few artistic bodies that shouted loud to let the rest of the country know there was life and creativity in Hull then, like most Northern towns, in the grip of Thatcher’s crushing fist. The arrival of unemployment and social decay to a once thriving place helped shape the political content of their plays.
Everything but the Girl were providing solid proof that there was a musical voice in the city, but then, seemingly out of nowhere, sprang The Housemartins. For a time, they drew unprecedented national attention to Hull, and placed it firmly on the musical map.
The most unlikely of successes in many ways, far from fashionable, not very sexy, incredibly spotty and spouting Marxism and religion. So how did this oddball group of lads manage to conquer the charts and almost land a Christmas number one?
30 years ago, The Housemartins’ debut long player, London 0 Hull 4, was one of the most popular albums among students, kids and even mums and dads. It was released near the end of 1986, but the steady stream of singles, TV appearances and that hallowed Christmas hit, Caravan of Love made 1987 a special year for the band.
They proved that as cool as Terence Trent Darby may have been, and as alluring as Madonna actually was you could still top the charts with NHS specs and an M&S jumper.
After a few line-up shuffles the finished product (for a while) consisted of vocalist, Paul Heaton (aka P.d Heaton), whose Christian beliefs and Marxist leanings led to the legend on the inner-sleeve of their debut album, “Take Jesus – Take Marx – Take Hope“, a sentiment that had the potential to turn some listeners away, but with a sleeve this damn cool it was never going to happen. Heaton appears as a slick soul boy on the cover in a Smiths-like green wash, despite wearing a cardigan straight from a knitting pattern.
Guitarist Stan Cullimore was the other half of the duo (with Paul) who started the band, a skinny bespectacled figure, an image of whom would probably appear next to the word geek in a childrens’ illustrated dictionary. His guitar work would provide that distinctive sound of the band, never more prominent than on their breakthrough single, Happy Hour.
On bass was Norman Cook, later to evolve into Fatboy Slim. During his time as the arena filling DJ/producer it was impossible to imagine this was the same dweeby member of The Housemartins, but even then, his love of dance music and deejaying would shape the outcome of some of the band’s more upbeat moments like the ridiculous Rap Around The Clock.
Hugh Whitaker was the Ringo of the band with his large nose and drum kit. Often the butt of jokes in their music videos, he provided exactly the right sound for their early work, only to be replaced on the second album by Dave Hemingway, who was more handsome, and could sing.
Their 1985 debut single, Flag Day criminally failed to chart. Maybe it was too politically charged for a first outing. Their socialist lyrics acted as a template for the rest of their career “It’s a waste of time if you know what they mean, try shaking a box in front of the Queen / ‘Cause her purse is fat and bursting at the seams.”
The left-wing posturing didn’t stop however and their second single Sheep, charting at number 56, dealt with the lethargic attitude of the masses and the need to stand up for your beliefs. A vital prerequisite of surviving in Thatcher’s Britain.
“Don’t try gate crashing a party full of bankers – Burn the house down!” (Sleevenotes)
Ironically, it would take a commercially produced slice of radio friendly pop to hurl The Housemartins into the public eye. Happy Hour with its danceable tune and sing-a-long lyrics, thundered into the charts reaching number three and became the undeniable feel good hit of the summer of 1986.
The song remains an evergreen classic and party favourite, but as the bowler hatted gent on the single cover suggested, this was another social comment, this time on the male dominated city folk who work all day then hit the pub to leer at the barmaids like they own the place. Hypocritical sexists were also in The Housemartins’ line of fire
October 1986 saw the release of both their fourth single, Think for a Minute and their debut album. The album was more of a statement than a release and the title alone was a two fingered statement to the South, a modern day version of The Mouse That Roared. The theme of the North-South divide would continue with the archly titled The Beautiful South, Heaton and Hemingway’s spin-off band.
The nation-pleasing Happy Hour kicks off London 0 Hull 4, making it feel like very much the party album, and Get Up Off Our Knees provides further apparent jollity for those not really listening, but it is another clarion cry to the lethargic. The sentiment of not accepting the fact that “Famines will be famines, banquets will be banquets / Some spend winter in a palace, some spend it in blankets”, rings even louder today. Bring back The Housemartins.
A revised version of Flag Day is up next to keep the red flag flying, followed by Anxious, a re-reading of the manifesto laid out in Get Up Off Our Knees but with an even more militant position, forming a congregation and battering all the sinners to the ground. Sitting On A Fence is a warning to the masses that if you sit there long enough you’ll get a splinter up your arse and little else.
Side one of the album alone places The Housemartins much higher than their famous claim as being “the fourth best band in Hull”, behind Everything but the Girl, The Gargoyles and Red Guitars.
Side two kicks off with the already familiar Sheep and leads to Over There, a song that imagines another fence. This time it’s a fence that is almost impossible to get over to compete with those on the other side. Anxiety and hopelessness are themes throughout the album, reflecting the working classes at that time, pinned down with the deafeatist lyric “It seems I’ve given all that I can give”.
Think For A Minute appears in a slightly less commercial form than the single, and its pared down approach makes the lyrics about the sadness of the victims of Conservative rule stand out much more. If apathy feels overplayed on this album, then it is the result of years of being punched in the face by the government. The lyrics reach out to those people, offering both sympathy and in many ways a sense of hope.
We’re Not Deep is a love song in some ways to those ordinary people. They may not have the creativity of Hull’s Fab four, and they may spend half the day “tucked under the sheets”, but there’s potential if they only “give themselves a break”. The fact that “early Monday morning is losing its appeal” is down to the lack of jobs, not necessarily the lack of ambition.
The problem is never really resolved in the song but it’s a true reflection, as they say “on the way young people feel”. From Under The Covers from 1989’s Welcome to The Beautiful South album is almost a direct sequel to this track.
Album closer Freedom provides a much-needed upbeat finale, but delve deeper and there is disenchantment in politics of both colours. Labour may have been offering a level of freedom, but it appears that their “differing points of view” simply turn out to be just “different shades of blue”. The handwritten lyric sheet (by Paul) includes the closing lines which do not appear in the recorded song; “F.R.E.E.D.O.M / They locked us up once so they’ll do it again / C.H.A.I.N.E.D / They locked up my friends, now they’re coming for me”. A bleak coda to an album that is equal parts hope and despair.
The album, released around the same time as Red Wedge, a movement that found left wing politicians standing side-by-side with musicians like Paul Weller, Billy Bragg and Jimmy Somerville, is a perfect companion piece to albums like Our Favourite Shop by The Style Council, The Smiths’ The Queen is Dead or The Communard’s self-titled debut.
It was an age of accessible agitprop-pop. What made The Housemartins so accessible beyond all others was their ability to blend in with their fans, famously sleeping on their floors when on tour rather than booking into hotels.
Liverpool loved The Housemartins as gigs at The Royal Court and The Playhouse proved with incredible scenes of admiration. They were never destined for the arena circuit and their music was probably best enjoyed over a cup of tea and a digestive on a rainy Tuesday morning.
In a time when MTV was in its infancy, BBC2 devoted a whole Saturday in 1986 to promoting visual music. It was called Rock around the Clock and included a video jukebox where viewers could phone in and vote to see their favourite promo.
The day’s highlights included the premier of Derek Jarman’s Smiths project The Queen is Dead, New Order performing The Perfect Kiss in a special Jonathan Demme-directed video, and a half hour film entitled London 0 Hull 4.
The film showed The Housemartins at work and play in their hometown and saw them in the pub, playing football with local kids, buying cakes, making toast and taking a boat trip under the Humber Bridge. This glimpse into their lives felt honest and VHS copies from that day were duly worn away by fans. It remains one of the simplest and most effective music documentaries of the era.
A sequence which sees Paul ridiculing Norman Cook for scratching and mixing in the back room of his house foreshadows his later career as Fatboy Slim, and a gig at Hull’s Tower Nightclub sees them receiving the homecoming welcome they deserve. It plays out like a mini version of A Hard Day’s Night, but for real.
Their second album, the acclaimed and polished The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death continued to pour acid onto the still-reigning Tory government, the Royals and the middle classes. It’s an excellent album but didn’t quite capture the zeitgeist in the same way as their debut.
It was refreshing for fans that after their demise, Paul and Dave’s next project The Beautiful South would continue to fly the flag. Phenomenal chart success and international acclaim found through an easier sound did not stop the barbed lyrics of Heaton, and some of their b-sides and album tracks contain the most venomous of messages.
Heaton’s solo career and collaborations with Beautiful South vocalist Jacqueline Abbot continue to challenge, and from day one it has been apparent that Heaton is one of the most decent all-rounders in British music.
London 0 Hull 4 was a landmark album and one that unfortunately we don’t see the like of too often. Bringing left wing politics right into the living rooms of the nation and affecting the minds of the disaffected youth; dragging them from their beds and giving them something to fight for. It would be nice to think that The Housemartins contributed in some way to Hull becoming a City of Culture.
2017 is the perfect time to dust off that old copy of London 0 Hull 4 and give it a spin because it is more relevant now than it has ever been.
There is still hope. I think.