Oh no I hear the readers cry! The Housemartins were a national treasure, just think of all those wonderful pop songs they released. Like, err, Happy Hour and Caravan Of Love. All of which is a little cruel, as London 0 Hull 4 was a genuine pop gem released in that nadir of musical years, 1986.
Paul Heaton might have gone to bigger commercial success with The Beautiful South, but did he ever again sound so endearing as on this album? Writing three-minute pop songs with guitarist Stan Cullimore and original bassist Ted Key, Heaton’s vitriol sugar coated in a sweet melody blueprint is given its first airing here, and it is surprising how fresh and uncynical this album sounds in retrospect.
Happy Hour opens the album and remains the band’s finest moment, an acerbic swipe at the UK’s drinking culture from a lyricist still remaining true to his youthful Marxist and Christian beliefs. Compare this track with The Beautiful South’s Ol’ Red Eyes Is Back to see how quickly Heaton descended into red-top preaching as his career progressed.
It is to this album’s enduring credit that much of what follows comes close to matching Happy Hour. Get Up Of Our Knees, Flag Day, Sitting On A Fence and Sheep are razor sharp clarion calls from the wrong side of the class fence, and did Heaton ever write a better lyric than “Don’t shoot someone tomorrow/That you can shoot today.”?
Unfortunately, The Housemartins were largely ignored as chancers by indie fans in thrall to The Smiths and the leaden soul-pop of The Style Council. They have gone down in history as a pop curio, with their woollen sweaters and the quirky video for Happy Hour the lasting memory for Kate Thornton and co to reminisce about on TV shows about the ’80s.
Heaton and bass player Norman Cook would grow into musical maturity with, respectively, The Beautiful South and Fatboy Slim, but there is an enduring charm about the basic guitar pop on London 0 Hull 4. True, every song sounds suspiciously like the last but over the album’s short running time this is forgivable.
What drags this reissue down is the need to bloat a perfect little album out with B-sides, cover versions and rehearsal tracks that add little to the band’s history. Weighing in at 22 tracks, the second disc will be given a perfunctory spin by most listeners and then never played again.
Of most interest is a version of He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother, which originally featured on the CD release of London 0 Hull 4, purely as an indication that the band’s interest in a cappella predated their chance Christmas hit with a cover of The Isley Brothers‘s Caravan Of Love.
Dig out your vinyl copies of London 0 Hull 4 and The People Who Grinned Themselves To Death and remember a perfect little band before all the 80s nostalgia shows consigned them to a pop grave.