Oh, to be witty. Coupled with an endearing accent and a fey demeanour, one is surely destined for success. If one is a talented singer, musician or songwriter, that is. But still, it seems like the most crucial component for success in the British music scene is not explosive instrumental talent or envious compositional genius but rather the ability to issue droll quips with the ease of a droll quipper or to assure that biting social commentary is just a pen stroke away. The best of the bunch - Billy Bragg, Morrissey, Shane MacGowan, Roddy Frame and so on used their lyrical skill to veil debilitating musical deficiencies - often rousing comments along the lines of, 'he may not be able to sing, but hey cool lyrics', much in the same fashion a female Mark E. Smith look-alike might get overly complimented on her personality. Greatly inspired by these first-generation ugly-girl-syndrome sufferers of the British indie music scene, singer and lyricist Paul Heaton entered the picture in 1984 as the leader of indie pop group the Housemartins. Wielding an untoward accent and a discomfortingly odd syllabic pronunciation, on paper he hardly seemed a likely candidate for success. Even odder, Heaton greatest influences were not Joy Division or David Bowie but rather the great R&B, doowop, gospel and Motown singers of the 50s through 70s like Marvin Gaye and Al Green and even moreso the blue-eyed soul artists like the Righteous Brothers, Elvis Presley and the Everley Brothers. Coupled with the peculiar Marxism and born-again Christianity mosaic he preached, Heaton was just odd enough to be an 80s rock star.
Joining forces with drummer and future axe-wielder Hugh Whitaker, guitarist Stan Cullimore and bassist Norman Cook (undoubtedly more recognised as a member of Beats International and as alter ego of Fatboy Slim), Heaton and his motley gang flitted onto the indie radar with their 1986 debut London 0, Hull 4
. In a year that saw the release of such landmark British albums as the Queen is Dead
, King of America
, it is no wonder that this album would unjustly slip through the proverbial cracks. While London 0 Hull 4
does not overshadow these stellar albums, it does deserve its fair share of praise.
Mainly down to Heaton's sharp lyrical observations, this album is an engaging listen, though it doesn't have to be. Simply enjoying the aural adventure and call-back to earlier musical forms is fun enough. Each approach to the album is as equally interesting and unpredictable as the other, regardless of how seemingly conflicted Heaton's heavy criticisms might appear when combined with generally upbeat and light-hearted music. Take opening song 'Happy Hour', in which Heaton laments having chosen a dull evening out with his employer and co-workers over doing anything
else. Throughout his night out, Heaton recognises his contempt for everything his contemporaries represent. Continuing, he also launches into a scathing tirade condemning chauvinists, those who willingly indulge in mindless excess, the insipid middle class, and so on. All this set to a bouncing pop jaunt that could just as easily be about any old hackneyed topic were Heaton a more conventional writer. The incongruities do not end there, far from it. On 'Get Up Off Our Knees', 'Freedom' and 'Sheep', the Housemartins similarly set catchy, breezy music next to literate observations of politics, social inequities, and endless grumblings about day-to-day life in Thatcherian England that might seem more at-home next to equally despondent music. 'Get Up Off Our Knees' features the enviously brilliant couplet 'why shoot someone tomorrow/that you can shoot today?', cynically mocking both the heartlessness of murder and the ridiculous move-move-move mentality of modern society. On highlight track 'Freedom', Heaton particularly emphasises the blight of Socialists living in a heavily Conservative-era, politically. 'They pretend they're differing points of view/but it's only different shades of blue
' protests Heaton, referencing the blue colours of the Tories, and the bias toward the right that British publications carried during this era. On 'Sheep', one of the Housemartins' most renowned efforts, Heaton lambastes the 'herd' mentality in the plainest of words, and though he approaches the sheep metaphor perhaps a little too literally, it is still a fitting observation of the bandwagon effect. 'When you see a crowd I see a flock/it's sheep we're up against
' indeed. Another lyrical highlight is 'Sitting on a Fence', wherein Heaton ridicules wishy-washy centrists who 'see both sides of both sides
'. While his ramblings can become grating after incessant listening, especially if you disagree with his viewpoint, it is not enough to deter from enjoying the album nor from appreciating his lyrical ability.
Songs which focus more on humour and less on depth comprise the second core of the album. 'We're Not Deep' pleads with staunchly conservative elders to stop berating young people who simply enjoy sleeping in. 'Now it may be a sad reflection of the way young people feel
', concedes Heaton, 'but early Monday morning is losing its appeal. I open my curtains at 7am, just so you think I'm up with the men
'. It isn't a heavy subject, but it is relatable and told in a humorous fashion which makes it endearing whether you agree with him or not. Many of the more overtly political songs feature many humorous passages and could be argued to be tongue-in-cheek throughout, and as such also fall comfortably into this category.
The third style present on this album abandons the upbeat indie pop aspect and instead channels harmony-centric Motown and gospel music Heaton proclaimed to be so fond of (affirmed with the blunt 'I'm really into early Motown
' lyric from later single 'Five Get Over Excited'). These songs emphasise the vocals and harmonies and the music is often subdued to let the singing shine. Here, the lyrics often focus on peace, love and understanding (to paraphrase fellow quip-master Elvis Costello), rather than angry scolding of whatever is pissing Heaton off while a pen is in near reach. These songs, among them 'Lean on Me', 'Think for a Minute' and 'I'll be Your Shelter (Just Like a Shelter)' do not often feature note-worthy lyrics but are still musically endearing. Hollies-cover 'He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother' also falls in to this category, alwhile emphasising Heaton's communitarian and egalitarian leanings. Not fit for being described in print, the Housemartins' first-rate use of vocal harmony to add an extra layer to their music simply has to be heard. None of them are superb vocalists, but it is an integral musical technique that is all too often neglected in modern music.
London 0 Hull 4
is a varied, tuneful and captivating listen which is as equally enthralling musically as it is thought-provoking lyrically. While you may not necessarily agree with Heaton's leftist views, at the very worst this album will cause you to consider what you believe in and at best encourage you to actively develop your own personal ideology. Or you can close your left-brain for the night and just enjoy the music. London 0 Hull 4
is not an essential album, and not even the best in the Housemartins' slim catalogue (that honour falls to the 1988's post-split compilation Now That's What I Call Quite Good
). Still, the album is arresting and worth a listen should the opportunity arise.