My first memory of The Housemartins is, somewhat predictably, that claymation video for Happy Hour. After the excitement of Sledgehammer, it was a joy to behold. Mind you a little clay Jackie Wilson kept Caravan of Love off the Christmas number one spot, such was the clamour for clay pop stars in the 80’s.
For a band with Marxism, Jesus and beer close to its heart, The Housemartins had some pretty catchy tunes. They were quite unlike any other band at the time, close harmonies and some of the catchiest British pop tunes since Ross MacManus and his son came up with that R Whites lemonade advert.
This collection certainly highlights the more pop friendly side of the band, so as you might expect Happy Hour is here, as is Five Get Over Excited and Me and The Farmer. Jumpy and excitable pop songs all, with the additional bonus of some cleverly disguised social comment in the lyrics.
It wasn’t all pop tunes delivered with an almost fatal grin though, the a cappella Caravan of Love also features. It’s a song that can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up while you mourn the lack of a cappella songs in the charts these days. Whatever happened to The Flying Pickets?
The Housemartins split up in 1988 leaving a fine body of work, which is slightly under-represented in the collection. Mind you if you have to share room on a compilation with the Beautiful South then you’d probably expect to feature a little less than you might like. After the split, Norman Cook went off to become Fatboy Slim, while Paul Heaton and Dave Hemingway formed The Beautiful South with roadie Sean Welch.
The band only hit the number one spot once with A Little Time from their second album Choke, but the chirpy pop tunes they wrote, coupled with Heaton’s dour and unflinching lyrics, struck a chord with the British public. When they released Carry On Up The Charts, a compilation of their first five years, it sold to such an extent that is now estimated that one in seven people in the UK owns it.
It’s easy to see why the band was so popular. Few others could relate the steady decline of an alcoholic with an impeccable pop sensibility and such pathos. Few others could sum up the reality of relationships with such dead eyed accuracy in the way that Paul Heaton managed (check out the brazen honesty of Don’t Marry Her for example).
In 2001 they released a second compilation, Solid Bronze, and it is perhaps slightly telling that all the songs on this collection bar one, can be found on Solid Bronze and Carry On Up The Charts. For fans of the band this album offers no surprises at all. Admittedly the track listing is impeccable, but then choosing great songs by The Beautiful South is rather like shooting fish in a barrel.
The inclusion of The Housemartins material feels a little like an afterthought but will prickle the interest of the look back bores (as Mark E Smith would put it). You can’t fault this album in terms of songs because every one is a classic, but with two compilations already out that cover all the greatest points of The Beautiful South you would have to question the relevance of this release.