Monday, 17 September 2012
87 Now That's What I Call Quite Good - Housemartins
Purchased : May 1988
Tracks : I Smell Winter / Bow Down / Think For A Minute / Always Something There To Remind Me / The Mighty Ship / Sheep / I'll Be Your Shelter / Five Get Over Excited / Everyday's The Same / Build / Step Outside / Flag Day / Happy Hour / You've Got A Friend / He Ain't Heavy He's My Brother / Freedom / The People Who Grinned Themselves To Death / Caravan Of Love / The Light Is Always Green / We're Not Deep / Me And The Farmer / Lean On Me / Drop Down Dead / Hopelessly Devoted To Them
This was bought as soon as it came out, I can't remember where from.
This one was very much a percentage purchase influenced by the fact that Go Discs issued it at £5.99 for a double LP. Since their commercial breakthrough a couple of years earlier I'd either loved or loathed their singles ( more detail below) and my ambivalence about the band was heightened by my friend Sean's worship of them.
This compilation, clearly influenced by Hatful Of Hollow ( check out the similarity of the sleeves ) was released after the group had decided to go their separate ways early in 1988 after just two albums. The band occupy a strange position in pop history ; despite considerable success in their short lifetime they are mainly remembered as a launching pad for two very different pop careers that have only recently run out of steam. When did you last hear someone mooting a Housemartins reunion ? This LP contains all the singles, some LP and EP tracks, out-takes and the odd session track recorded for John Peel. The title is typical of Paul Heaton's ( to me laboured ) post-modernist irony. The inner part of the gatefold sleeve has a little commentary on each track
So we have a weighty 24 tracks to look at here, quite a daunting task given the band's relatively restricted musical range - Norman Cook for one never rated himself as a bassist - and lyrics usually reflecting an unsophisticated Christian Socialist worldview. They emerged from the mid-eighties UK guitar music revival on independent labels as captured on the NME's C86 compilation tape although they weren't actually featured on it. Their breakthrough came with third single "Happy Hour" in June 1986 , helped by a humourous claymation video ( which also had the dubious distinction of introducing the world to Phil Jupitus ) . Thereafter they seemed to thrive as a self-conscious antidote to the likes of Bros and the SAW acts filling the charts what with their Oxfam chic and jug-eared drummer Hugh Whittaker and guitarist Stan Cullimore ( vying with The Communards' Richard Coles for the sickliest looking nerd in pop ) two of the unlikeliest candidates for pin-up status. The contemporaneous demise of Madness also assisted them. As an indie guitar band they were always somewhat in the shadow ( though not commercially ) of The Smiths and it's perhaps surprising that they didn't stay in the field longer when the champs had retired.
Compilations normally begin with a big hit if they're not following a strict chronological order but this one starts with a B-side from the 12 inch version of their fourth single. " I Smell Winter " appears to be about a luckless down-and-out and has an interesting arrangement with Cook's simple doleful bassline carrying the melody while Cullimore scratches out the rhythm. The chorus explodes with two separate vocal lines and all in all it's pretty good for a B-side thoroughly justifying its appearance here.
The second track is even better. "Bow Down" is from the second LP "The People Who Grinned Themselves To Death" ( and thus features Dave Hemingway rather than Whittaker on drums ) and is superior to any of the singles taken from it. It's a school song starting with the toddler's apprehension, then moving on to the pupil's feeling of powerlessness before moving into political territory with the observation that the middle class always do best out of school - " a flying start for the briefcase crew". Musically it's based around a rolling piano riff supplied by jack-of-all-trades Pete Wingfield and uses trumpeter Guy Barker's melancholy motif as a chorus until the St Winifred's School Choir ( making their pop comeback ) take over to devastating effect. Having recently completed a first full year at work this was just when school memories and concerns were beginning to feel like a long time ago ( despite the fact that my last school was on the bus route to work ) so the song made a big impact on me. I'm not so keen on the last few bars where Paul Heaton's receding ghostly wail gets a bit too close to Morrissey for comfort.
"Think For A Minute" was their second hit in autumn 1986, taken from the first LP "London 0 Hull 4" but substantially re-worked and it's the single version here. I started out thinking it was too insipid but then connected the lyric attacking apathy in the face of Thatcherism to a much more parochial ( in more than one sense ) matter and it became a favourite. The then-vicar of the central Littleborough parish Rev. Barry Pettifer had arrived as a seemingly conventional young cleric in the sixties but had gradually used his charismatic qualities to displace the original congregation replacing it with generally well-heeled outsiders from miles around. As he insisted on a literal interpretation of the tithe from his new flock ( based on gross income ! ) he had become a local property magnate by the mid- eighties and had an interest in a local building company and a financial services operation. As I am a Catholic none of this should really have concerned me but there were two reasons for my interest in his activities. One was civic because Pettifer was completely uninterested in local history or the general community; despite the wealth he was accumulating he couldn't be bothered even to keep the church clock in working order. The second was more personal ; as my savings had been almost completely wiped out by my last year at university I got into the habit of paying any spare change I had at the end of the week back into my Alliance and Leicester savings account on a Saturday morning. This was possible because acting as agent for the Alliance was one of the services offered by the Pettifer - associated financial services company which had a shop you could call into on Church St. And behind the counter was an exceptionally nice girl ( I do know her name but it wouldn't be fair to disclose it ) . She wasn't anything special to look at but conducted my rather pathetic transactions with faultless courtesy and full eye contact and as the weeks went by she started to make tentative personal enquiries of me. I twigged right away that she was one of "the flock" and this was later confirmed by my friend Michael ( who had been out with her briefly ). Pettifer was alleged to have said that "Catholics are only playing at religion" so there was a seemingly insuperable barrier to developing the relationship further. Hence the song ( hope you've followed this ) became for me an indictment of the people of Littleborough for letting this cuckoo flourish in their midst.
Even by 1988 this passion had cooled. She had left the job early in 1987 ( her younger replacement was nice enough but not of interest ) and I only bumped into her infrequently after that. Now it seems rather amusing that I got so worked up about it. In the late nineties the C. of E. finally became embarrassed enough to eject Pettifer but that only applied to the church and vicarage they owned. He's still in Littleborough operating his independent Christian community ( I suspect he might have deliberately provoked his defrocking to free himself from the last vestiges of civic duty ) from one of the houses he acquired. I'm surprised there's not a bit more about him on the web. As a consequence the song now once more seems a little feeble on the musical side despite Barker's trumpet break and the lyric is awkwardly phrased particularly at the end of the second verse which again calls Madness to mind ( specifically non-Barson songs like House of Fun or Cardiac Arrest ).
Next up is a John Peel session version of their farewell single "Always Something There To Remind Me". I can't spot much difference to the finished version which peaked at a surprisingly lowly 35. There is some evidence that the public don't like these staged farewell efforts. The Jam's Beat Surrender and S Club's Say Goodbye did well but those from Madness, Teardrop Explodes, Soft Cell, A-ha and Squeeze were poorly received. It might be just that the band's split is down to the well of inspiration running dry and the last record reflects that but there may also be an element of punishment for desertion involved. Probably both factors applied in the Housemartin's case. They were splitting up less than two years after breaking through and this song is a weak effort. In sound it's not too far away from one of The Smiths' lesser songs namely Sheila Take A Bow and lyrically it's an unfocussed stream of gripes about school with the unsubtle chorus chant of "I've more than you" alarmingly predicating Keith Allen's ghastly Vindaloo.
"The Mighty Ship" provides a welcome break from Heaton's nasal bray , wearing on an album of this length. That's the best to be said of this two minute harmonica-led instrumental originally on the B-side of "Happy Hour" which sounds like a poor attempt at Groovin With Mr Bloe grafted on to the A-side's backing track.
The first side of the first disc concludes with "Sheep" , Cook's debut with the band and their first brush with the charts reaching number 54 in the autumn of 1985. Musically it's an inoffensive indie guitar busk with Cullimore only switching to electric for the spiky middle eight but lyrically Heaton falls into the Paul Weller / Roger Waters trap of turning his anger at the Thatcherite hegemony onto the general population - "I count humans jumping onto trains". It's unattractive and raises a question mark about the humanitarian sentiments on some of the tracks to come. As long as they're not Tory eh Paul ?
The first track on side two is the first to highlight their Christian leanings ( something that none of them appear to have taken into their future ventures ) - at least for the majority of the song. "I'll Be Your Shelter " is largely a cover of a 1972 US hit by soul singer Luther Ingram. The original is a smooth piece of seventies soul that you would swear was Al Green if you didn't know better. This version starts off as a piano ballad with Heaton accompanied by the rudimentary work of guest Jeffrey Wood which actually emphasises the song's debt to Bridge Over Troubled Water . It also demonstrates Heaton's over-confidence in his vocal abilities ; Art Garfunkel he isn't and the pauses for breath and periodic attempts at a gospel growl are almost endearing. The rest of the band come in at 1:24 - Whittaker far too loudly - then , in an odd predication of Madonna , Heaton introduces an uncredited gospel choir to sing the refrain "I will see you through". Then, after a meandering half minute with the band obviously unsure where they can take it, comes a last verse added by the band themselves which culminates in the staggering exhortation - "Don't despair he'll be there with his loving and his care, Marx will work for you right around the clock". Leaving aside the twelve million dead Russians who might dispute the assertion, were the band unaware of Marx's dismissal of Christianity ? Incidentally, the line is delivered in an eerily perfect impersonation of Erasure's Andy Bell.
After that way-too-ambitious effort we're back in the band's comfort zone with "Five Get Over Excited" the lead single from the second LP which saw Whittaker substituted by Dave Hemingway. His departure was amicable and he appeared in the video with his replacement. Musically it's not too far away from "Happy Hour" although there's more sophistication in the harmonies, the "Fun ! Fun ! Fun ! " refrain an affectionate homage to The Beach Boys. The breezy vibe belies their most direct diatribe against the Tories and the young toffs ( characterised as Jeremy and Fifi ) presumed to be supporting them although some of the lines - " I am Leo and I'm hilarious", "I'm really into early Motown" - are just as apt for their own student audience. The last verse aims at Thatcher directly although since she chalked up her third General Election victory during the song's chart run she probably wasn't too bothered. The single peaked at 11.
The sleevenotes dismiss "Everyday's The Same" , one of the last tracks they recorded in the autumn of 1987 as "lyrically vague and musically unadventorous" which is about right though it's not the worst track. The harmonica and backing vocals make this proto-slacker anthem sound very like The Bluebells but it's acceptable enough.
Then we come to the infuriating "Build" , their last Top 20 hit from December 1987 which marries one of their most gorgeous plaintive melodies to their most cack-handed lyric - "They work so fast it makes you sick", "Build us lots and lots and lots and lots". There's an impressive ambivalence at the heart of the song with the verses mourning the loss of childhood haunts and the chorus celebrating the hope of improved living standards ; you just wish they could have expressed it competently. Other plus points are another telling piano contribution from Wingfield and the first ( and for this band last ) co-vocal from Hemingway whose breathy diffidence recalls Colin Blunstone.
"Step Outside" is a track from the 12 inch release of "Me And The Farmer" and only features Heaton and Cullimore on acoustic. This time the lyric, expressing the mundanity of life on a benefit estate, is quite impressive but musically it's too insipid with Cullimore's limp guitar line soon becoming monotonous.
The first disc then concludes with their crowning glory, "Flag Day". It was their first single and the only one to feature original bassist Ted Key ( who co-wrote it ) . It remains an impressive piece of daring for a fledgling band to record a song attacking the charity culture within days of Live Aid and it's unsurprising that it didn't get the airplay for success but the point needed making. The lyric is almost perfect - "So you thought you'd like to see them healed ? Get Blue Peter to stage an appeal ! " - and brilliantly framed with Key's plodding bass carrying the melody, Cullimore's spiky chords jabbing at the conscience and Whittaker's rimshots marking time until the ferocious chorus where Heaton lets rip. Barker's trumpet and the mournful backing vocals emphasise the futility of the donation as a lasting solution. A decade later Manic Street Preachers would appropriate the same elements ( rocked up a bit ) for their own greatest moment, Kevin Carter.
Side Three brings us to "Happy Hour" which put me in the rather strange position of disliking a single that had the approval of both my indie-loving friend Sean and Lloyd-Webber - worshipping mother ( at least when accompanied by the video ) . The best part of three decades on I still don't like it much with its tinny approximation of The Smiths' I Want The One I Can Have guitar riff and the bilious student rant at normal working males seen at the pub - the line "It's never really happened to me" neatly sums up the spirit behind the song. In mitigation there's some Ben Elton - anticipating concern at these character's attitudes towards women but also another classic clunker - "If you don't win then you've lost" ! It still amazes me that it got to number 3 but that was 1986 for you .
"You've Got A Friend" is a straightforward cover of the Carole King school assesmbly classic. Heaton takes the opportunity for some more showboating, holding some notes to no real purpose and it's a relief when Hemingway joins him on the chorus and Cook's bass moves things along nicely.
Then we have their a cappella version of "He Ain't Heavy He's My Brother" which heralded a remarkable renaissance for this half-forgotten late 60s Hollies hit as 1988 progressed. It was recorded in 1986 at Capital Radio in a session for the eternally annoying Gary Crowley and there's not much more to say about it really.
"Freedom" is a Janice Long session version ( recorded when Key was still in the band ) of a track which ended up on the first album . Interestingly Cullimore had a writing credit alongside Heaton and Key for that version but not here ; the guys seem to be going an extra mile to be fair to Key who has an equal-sized picture to the others in the inner gatefold despite only featuring on three tracks. Key provides a Northern Soul bassline ( not too far away from Needle In A Haystack ) on which to hang an unsubtle blast at pro-Conservative bias in the press. The result is an unremarkable song sounding very much like NME house band The Redskins ( who had already shot their bolt by this point ).
"The People Who Grinned Themselves To Death" , the title track of their second LP , is a blast at the patriotic working class for their enthusiasm for the queen despite their poverty.
Musically it's very close to "Happy Hour" with added harmonica and a clumsily phrased chorus.
The third side concludes with their number one single "Caravan Of Love" an a cappella doo wop version of a minor hit by the truncated Isleys in 1984. The harmonies do sound a little studio-assisted ( though not nearly so much as on The Flying Pickets's Only You ) but it's an effective deconstruction of the sludgy plastic soul original. Clearly aiming at the Christmas number one spot it was ultimately foiled by a plasticene Jackie Wilson, a case of " those who live by claymation..."
"The Light Is Always Green" is a track from the second LP recorded, as the sleevenotes unwisely point out , at the same session as "Bow Down". I say unwisely because it sounds like the same song slowed down. The lyric is another resentful whine about other people who have somewhere to go moving too fast and it strikes me that Heaton at this point may have been the inspiration for Frank Gallagher. Wingfield's piano is again a treat.
"We're Not Deep" from the first LP is a more jovial take on slackerdom. The pace and sunny "Ba Ba Ba" harmonies recall The Barracudas's Summer Fun although Cullimore once again appears to be playing the "Happy Hour" riff and we may be getting an insight into why he quit the music business for children's literature.
"Me And The Farmer" was their sixth single in August 1987 and appropriates the guitar riff from The Rods's Do Anything You Wanna Do for an anti-capitalist tirade using an extended agricultural metaphor for uncaring employers. Despite the clumsy sister/blister rhyme in the chorus it's likeable for the call and response vocal interplay , Hemingway's brisk drumming and Cook's cheeky little bass sign-off.
"Lean On Me" is neither the much-covered Bill Withers song nor the Red Box classic but a Heaton / Wingfield original which only features the writers. It's a slow gospel ballad with the sort of quasi-religious lyric the title would suggest but no tune to speak of and if you don't like Heaton's voice much it's a bit of a trial.
"Drop Down Dead" is the third and final track to feature Key recorded for John Peel in the autumn of 1985. It's a call for political militancy with the title presumably aimed at someone who doesn't want to get involved. Despite the rudimentary production it's an interesting arrangement with a Byrdsian extended drone intro and Hugh Whittaker's drum solo on the third chorus.
The final track "Hopelessly Devoted To Them" is a little gem, rather wasted on the 12-inch of "Five Get Over Excited ". For once Heaton and Cullimore show some sympathy for those actually in work in this breezy lament for the lost chunk of life in wage slavery -" I know I lost someone dear but I didn't see him disappear". According to the sleevenotes it was originally written in 1984 and it's rather odd that the oldest tracks have the best lyrics. Hemingway again proves his worth with on the harmonies.
So it's not "Quite Good" unless that's the arithmetical mean quality of an album that ranges from excellent to fairly dismal. It's rather disappointing chart performance peaking at its number eight entry position then rapidly dropping suggested their time had already gone but for the individuals ( at least of the final line-up ) we know their stories had only just begun.