The Long Read: The Housemartins - Now That's What I Call Quite Good
Words by Evan Musgrave
THE LONG READ DELVES INTO THE CREATIVE PROCESS BEHIND THOSE CLASSIC RECORDS. WITHOUT A FURTHER ADO...
Here, Evan Musgrave looks into a compilation of the best cuts by The Housemartins. He explores the underlying political and social meanings behind some of The Housemartin's best songs.
This piece of writing involves a fundamental bit of cheating. It’s an emotional review of the unthinkable: a greatest hits compilation. I sought the appropriate route and tried to decide between the band’s two studio albums, London 0 Hull 4 (1986) and The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death (1987), but found choosing one to be untrue to what the band actually means to me. The two LPs aren’t altogether that different in character. This is not at all to criticise The Housemartins for not developing in any notable way between albums, but rather to commend them on continually pursuing their own particular brand of socially-conscious music, which remained just as pertinent and under-appreciated, a year after their debut album. Fused together in the form of this 1988 post-breakup compilation, The Housemartins’ best releases during this period comprise of poignant, uniquely textured works of music situated in the anti-Thatcherite world of 1980s northern England. Both LPs are dense, mature albums with dense, mature singles. Sonically, the band have plenty in common with The Smiths: jangly guitar-pop with contrastingly acerbic lyrical content and a vocalist who seems to feel more comfortable singing when the syllables are drawn out to disorientating lengths, and who displays a tendency to verge into ballroom- and soul-inspired warbles at a moment’s notice.
However, unlike the NME-ready personalities of The Smiths’ leading two members, The Housemartins emerged as somewhat of a counterweight to the most talked about northern British indie band of the time; their image was miles from anything resembling preened for showbiz and their music never threatened to absorb contemporary trends, preferring a gospel-type approach mixed with rustic nostalgia, decades before rustic nostalgia was a cash cow (looking at you Mumfords). Their songwriting technique was much less allegory-inclined and more wrapped up brutal realism, plain-spoken with necessary immediacy. Their political views (socialism) were distinctly interwoven with their religious beliefs (an evangelical approach to Christianity). Though they would only be in the public spotlight for less than two years, Paul Heaton, Stan Cullimore, Hugh Whitaker (replaced by Dave Hemmingway for the second album) and Norman Cook (who would achieve global stardom as the trailblazing Fatboy Slim), would not quite etch their name at the forefront of British music history. Instead, they would provide conclusive proof that a band of completely normal dudes could emerge and gain respect for singing their hearts about what means most to them, and that this could be done without any pomp involved.
On a personal level this album is immensely important. Some of my fondest memories involve being in a car with my family on holidays in Florida, driving down through the tropical landscape of the A-1-A highway, with Heaton & Co quite literally on constant repeat. The simmering tones which I expect were meant as an uplifting soundtrack to the everyday mundanity of the redbrick-terraced world of 80s England felt perfectly suited to the palm tree- and white sand-lined boulevards of Fort Lauderdale, FA. The irony that the defiant sounds of a Marxist band ferried us from theme park to theme park and factory outlet to factory outlet makes glancing back in time all the more intriguing and heartening. Such are the contradictions of life. If you hide behind them, you’re living a lie. The Housemartins provide a holistic view on the world and even though their political/religious beliefs basically have an answer for everything, they’re wise enough to not profess any golden rule for society to follow. If there’s any golden rule, it’s that this idea is a falsity. Consumption can provide beautiful memories, it can define the most splendid parts of one’s life’s journey, but it is not a fast-track to any destination of happiness you can imagine.
When I went to college in Dublin, this album was my go-to eighty minute songfest during long bus rides. Countless times I would fish out a Wilde text or some printed off pages to read for a tutorial, only to give in and gorge on Heaton’s lucid portrait of the artist in his world as I watched the rolling hills of the south east of Ireland flow past; I could rarely find other words which felt so much more poetic and ultimately real than those sung on this album.
I can scarcely think of an album with a more fitting opener than 'I Smell Winter', by all means a very summery sounding song. It’s concerned with the bleak circumstances of an alcoholic (“Losing at the tracks / Loosens all his taps / I smell winter on his breath”), but it’s also a song to blissfully stomp one’s boots inside one’s brain. A brain teaser (what can be done for people like this?) and a smile-bringer, in the effect of the jaunty treble of the guitar and the harmony-laced, call and response drive of the chorus on the listener. In 'Bow Down', the narrative voice turns inward, as Heaton delivers line after catchy line about his fears of growing up and the harsh nature of life in the working world. “Today I have been / Moulding Plasticine / And I made a little man who looked / Just like me / His limbs were so weak / And he couldn’t move his mouth to speak / And I could mend him into any shape / I wanted him to be” – it’s a wonderful evocation and warning message of the path from child to fully-formed, malleable adult product. Heaton returns time and time again to pick apart the notion of career as fulfilment, as a politico-social calling, versus career as a cog in the wheels of the system.
Much of The Housemartins songwriting palette is laid out in these two songs: heart-on-one’s-sleeve calls to tackle social misery alongside personal reflections on what it means to be a mature, involved citizen of the world, with some personal vindications of having taken the road less travelled – all of it carefully laced over full-bodied, easy on the ears tunes. Passing through my teen years, growing up, having an album like this with such subject matter so consistently at my side felt immensely formative and comforting. The Housemartins are one of those bands that describe growing up so eloquently and so effectively that they don’t exactly make growing up easier to manage as such, but they make feeling warped in that generalised sensation of confusion feel less lonely.
One thing that made the album feel a whole lot more mystifying and personal was that I never came across anyone else who liked them (a simple glance on Wikipedia would have revealed to me that they obtained critical and reasonably commercial success during their time). A few years later I would discover with complete surprise that a person I suspected of fast becoming my best friend was an avid fan. My disbelief in his love for the band constituted itself in utter scepticism at every word that was coming from his mouth. My previous joy of feeling like Waterford’s biggest Housemartins fan was only bettered by the sensation of meeting Waterford’s other biggest Housemartins fan.
If I wrote about every song on this album that feels scandalous to leave out it would simply head into the heights of indulgence – not that this piece isn’t already lodged firmly on a mountain of indulgence – so I’ll skip on to 'Build', their magnum opus and, save from some serious contenders from the pen of Andre 3000, my favourite song. I find it fascinating because it appears to formulate around a central theme of being self-aware in regards to one’s political beliefs. It’s an intriguing respite in an album of mostly straightforward political songs and gives some greater insight into the complexity of Heaton’s mind. On one level, it’s a five minute ballad which laments – in Heaton’s characteristically glib manner - the relentless pace of urban sprawl and the reckless attitude to both the environment and social cohesion that typically comes with it: “From Meccano to Legoland / Here they come with a brick in their hand / Men with heads filled up with sand / It’s build”, “It’s in with boots and up with roots / It’s in with suits and new recruits”. The tone during the verses is just as staunch and iron-fisted as any of their most overtly political statements (e.g. 'Sheep' and 'Freedom'), yet the backing vocals, with their upbeat, even romantic, colour seem to reflect the concerns of people moving into these new houses – “It’s build a house where we can stay / Add a new bit everyday / It’s build a road for us to cross” – it’s the earnestness of those pursuing The Suburban Dream. Once again, there’s a personal dimension within the political edge of the song that locates the humanity behind the social reality; this is one of Heaton’s great skills as a writer. 'Build' picks apart the desire to establish oneself on the ladder and the accompanying knowledge that such an embrace typically heralds the bell toll of conformity - “they build us up and knocked us down”.
Listening on the bus, this one always felt especially powerful. Passing through Tolkien-esque towns with Celtic Tiger monstrosities and shifting from windy, cantankerous road to brash, breezy motorway provided an aesthetically-pleasing but socially-concerning backdrop to the song. It also provided the comforting presence of routine on one’s own terms. My journeys weren’t as contrived as playing certain songs during certain parts of the journey but I would often switch over to certain ones when a particular mood would strike; the album felt so close to me, it felt like there was always some part of my soul that struck a chord with some part of it, some part of I’d heard a couple of hundred times before that could make me feel like I was experiencing it for the first time again. All in all, Now That’s What I Call Quite Good has felt like a close to friend to me since I discovered it; it has that uncanny ability of being able to pleasantly surprise you at almost any juncture, something a close friend can provide. Unlike a human close friend, a ‘close album’ (note: solely using that cringe worthy phrase for the purposes of this discussion) is friendship pretty much on your own terms: it doesn’t change its tone, as it is recorded material; you can shut it up or make it repeat itself as you desire; you can pour your own personality into it and redefine it as you like in a way that you can’t force a human being to do; it is potentially constantly present and there for you to experience (provided you have battery on your device or are near something that can play it). Maybe this omnipresence means that the music we love is more like a religious force. When I did my confirmation, aged twelve, I believed that when we received the Holy Spirit, we were each given a distinct Holy Spirit with its own personality, who basically hung out with us at all times and was incredibly wise without necessarily being infallible. I went back to my seat after being confirmed by the bishop with my first ever, Catholic-themed, imaginary friend in tow. No word of a lie. I suppose I just wanted a person who was completely relatable as a person and was singularly devoted to painstakingly imparting wisdom to me (aren’t we all). Unbeknownst to me, at that time, having a weird imaginary friend probably had the effect of confounding the process of relating to other humans better. This is also the approximate time I first heard Now That’s What I Call Quite Good on that highway in Florida. I’m not going to go much further into the imaginary friend/Holy Spirit thing but it fizzled out quite amiably between us. I didn’t realise until years later, but this Housemartins compilation ended up, in a way, being my imaginary friend. That probably sounds quite trite, and even potentially stretched as a point given the band’s pronounced religious beliefs, but music, as experienced in its most powerful moments, is nothing short of a spiritual experience, isn’t it? Indeed, Kurt Vonnegut, a stalwart humanist, is known for the simply-put (almost Heaton-esque) quote: “Music is, to me, proof of the existence of God. It is so extraordinarily full of magic, and in tough times of my life I can listen to music and it makes such a difference”.
All this reflective talk isn’t at all to claim any sort of harsh rearing or an exceptionally troubling time fitting in among peers. This is not at all to claim I had any real identity-related damaging psychological crises during my college years. I’m a heterosexual, Caucasian male born into a middle class family in a first world country: it pretty much doesn’t get any more privileged than that in pure demographic terms. When I’m talking about moods on buses and all that, I’m just talking about the general existential thoughts that flit around even the most silver-spooned (stainless steel spooned?) upbringing. Added to this, some all-encompassing “she likes me, she likes me not”- and “this college essay likes me, this essay likes me not”-type thoughts for good measure.
That’s what’s so beautiful about The Housemartins. They’re evidently quite middle class guys from a middle England upbringing. Their songs about personal anguish normally have to do with the treachery of a nine-to-five job. Their lyrics about social disenfranchisement seem to be written from the point of view of the onlooker - the concerned, privileged one. Just because you’re born with laurels around your crib-side, does that mean it’s acceptable to rest on them for your life? Often the way privileged people consider others seems to suggest yes to that question. But it shouldn’t be so.
If enough straight, Caucasian males, born into middle class families stood up for the rights of those who aren’t born with this particular concoction of demographic attributes then the world would be a much better place. I don’t even do fractionally enough to better this situation, but I am regretful of this and retain a purposefully naïve attitude that trying harder can make a difference. What’s so beautiful and admirable about The Housemartins is their unwillingness to rest on their laurels. Their existence as a band is tied to a mission, and even their embrace of dogma is appealing. They’re a Christian-Marxist band. Their identity is in your face and they even perform awkward, but sort of mesmerising, jigs because they’re proud as punch about it (see the video for 'Sheep', above). They have the incredible appeal of being both unusually unconventional and very comfortable in their own skin. This is one of the complete joys of loving a band like The Housemartins – they’re practically immune from accusations of cliché, because they seem blissfully unaware that the word “naff” exists. Polo shirts are mono-coloured and buttoned to the top. Denim jeans are light blue and the cuffs are rolled up. Sunglasses are Raybans but not intended to be cool. Hair is cut short, Heaton sports a skinhead, but it’s probably because it cuts down on towel drying time after the shower or something. Their debut album is written in the style of a football score, etc.
Their lyrics are similarly unassuming, for the most part (though they opt for impressive metaphors from time to time). e.g. “Too many hands in too many pockets/ Not enough hands on hearts” ('Flag Day'). A cynic - or someone who hasn’t heard just how melodic these lines are sung when they interact with the guitar’s minor chords - would denounce this as a childish attempt at writing about politics. The Housemartins’ songs are littered with innocent lines like these, lines which would be plain naïve, if they weren’t plain-spoken truths.
I once read an interview with Heaton who was by then way beyond his Housemartins days and even beyond his Beautiful South days. He explained that how he writes lyrics goes as such: he taps out snippets of lyrics and thoughts into draft entries on his phone, then, when he feels the time is right, he grabs a boat from Hull to The Netherlands, books himself into a drab hotel in a seaside resort during off-season and puts together all his lyrics in the lobby of said hotel over the course of a few slow pints for several days.
I don’t know why I feel this is an appropriate way to lead into the final section of this piece of writing. But it’s something I’ve never read another songwriter say in an interview and for some reason it feels to fit very well with his writing style: the ostensibly lonerish bystander with pearls of wisdom about the workings of society at his disposal, and who is actually a very affable guy, which permits him to render his thoughts in a brilliantly colloquial style. He is one of British music’s great everyman personalities, up there with the likes of The Proclaimers. His combination of having a bookish, curious mindset towards the world around him while remaining committed to dressing just like any Average Joe is one of his great assets as a song writer and popular music figure. Bowie was a brilliant personality, but does the image of him in a sequin jumpsuit and bright red hair really tug on your heartstrings when you’re staring at the silhouetted landscape of rural towns in the duskland of a bus’s route through County Kilkenny? It’s moments like these when one craves a music hero who doesn’t appear to know how great he is.
This position allows Heaton to pen successfully subversive critiques of an everyday element of society while sounding like he comes precisely from there. 'Happy Hour' is just such a tune. Its jangly guitar lines and brash sounding vocals perfectly enact the scenario of lairy white collar men wrapped up chauvinistic quote unquote banter. It’s probably a song many after-workers have sprung their weary, Ale-limbered limbs to (the song reached #3 in the charts), despite the lyrics going as such:
Night out with the boss
Following in footsteps overgrown by moss
And he tells me
That women grow on trees
And if you catch them right they will land upon their knees”
Heaton's lyrics are centred on universal social and political problems but his language is more often than not expressed through particular aspects of contemporary English life. In 'There Is Something Always There To Remind Me Of You', he lists his reminders in the chorus, “a tattoo on a shoulder in a queue / The shouts across the street at Molineux”. Why is it significant that he’s referencing the football stadium of Wolverhampton Wanderers’ F.C.? I have no idea. I suppose it’s maybe the sensation as when a rapper mentions a peculiar but apt brand name or an off-key analogy and I think “excellent, entertaining; not sure why”. It’s the combination of the particularity and the peculiarity of what the speaker’s saying – being so overly particular displays the personality and hence humanity of what they’re saying. It feels, in a word, authentic.
Just like Alex Turner’s 'Mardy Bum' or the prostitutes of Sheffield he describes, phrases like these allow you to vibe along to their accent, tonality, frame of reference, and in presenting things in such a localised manner show how these are thoughts and problems that keenly relate to almost every community in the world.
Somewhat different to Turner’s Sheffield, Heaton’s Hull contains more of a wistful air than the former’s gritty vision of the present. In describing Heaton, and his pride in Englishness, I’m drawn to thinking of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind and The Willows – written at least partly as homage to the author’s beloved Thames Valley. Much of the Housemartins’ work seeks to capture the everyday beauty of English life with a wide-eyed vision of the common man’s earnest approach to the passing of time: the muted bounce of a plastic football on a concrete expanse where children are playing; the sweeping uniformity of a glance down a terraced street, a soft trail water flicking of a postman’s bike as he pedals in the rain.
To generalise massively, Heaton is in tune with a type of Englishness (which is also an Irishness, for that matter) which sees humbleness as a outright virtue (this is why Bowie really seemed like he came from a different planet). In The Housemartins, we see this cultural trait brought subtly to artistic levels. They continually referred to themselves as “the fourth best band in Hull”, a statement which was probably as much tongue-in-cheek as it was actual embarrassment at being asked to perform on Top of The Pops. Unless you’re some sort of cantankerous bat, it’s an endearing statement either way. Perhaps nothing best encapsulates their humbleness at their contribution to musical history than the titling of this particular album. It’s a nice image, thinking of the band settling on such a name a year after they’d gone their separate ways, it’s not a ‘greatest’ hits, their songs are, in their own words, ‘quite good’.