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I first noticed The Housemartins when Happy Hour came into the charts and I saw the great video that went with it. They looked like four ordinary blokes quite geeky looking, in fact and they came from Hull, about an hour away from where I lived. I fell in love!
I wrote to them and received a signed photo and a handwritten letter from Norman Cook. I went to see them live in concert in Nottingham, I bought all their albums and I was really upset when they split up.
Some twenty years later, The Beautiful South is my favourite group, led by Paul Heaton, formerly of The Housemartins. Dave Hemingway is also in the band. Norman Cook is now better known as Fatboy Slim. Stan Cullimore is a childrens author. Hugh Whittaker did a brief spell in jail and Im not sure what hes doing now.
When I saw there was a new Housemartins album out, I had to buy it. Its also really cheap, it only cost me £4.97 from Amazon for a brand new one. The album came out this September and contains twenty four tracks, so its well worth the money.
The album seems to be Stan Cullimores project, so at least one of the original guys is involved. There is an interesting article in the sleeve notes, written by Phill Jupitus, who is now known as a comedian. He worked for Go! Discs (The Housemartins record company) in the mid-1980s and was also a support act for the band.
The tracks on the album are taken from four sessions with John Peel (1985, 1986 and 1987), two with Janice Long (1985), two tracks from Saturday Live (1986), two from Glastonbury (1986) and six from their concert in Nottingham (1987). I was especially pleased to discover the concert tracks were included, as it was around this time that I went to see them live and it might even have been this actual day that I went. It certainly brings back some lovely memories.
So we begin with three tracks from the first John Peel session. It begins with a gospel feel, as the Christian influence in their music was evident then. The music sounds quite raw here and very overtly political. I think Paul Heaton must have mellowed somewhat over the years, as The Beautiful Souths sound is more polished and melodic, rarely religious, not so political but quite cynical and scathing.
Drop Down Dead is the first track, which is catchy and a good one to begin with. This is followed by Flag Day, which is slower and showcases Heatons fabulous vocal range. Although his voice has been altered over the years by rather hard living (and too much drink), he has one of the best voices in music and it is always a delight to hear him. The lyrics of his songs are very witty and often profound, even though their message is often hidden under a catchy tune and good beat.
This set concludes with Stand At Ease, which is quite a frantic track and not one I am very familiar with. Hugh Whittakers drumming is particularly prominent here and very toe-tapping.
Track four is Reverends Revenge from a Janice Long programme. It is very short (1 min 36 secs) and entirely instrumental, which may put some people off, but it is a great piece of music and fits in very well with the bands style.
Shelter and People Get Ready are taken from Saturday Live and two of the few tracks not written by Heaton and Cullimore. Im an atheist and Shelter is a religious song, but beautiful nonetheless. Heatons voice is stunning in this, but the live backing vocals are slightly suspect at times and I think it would have been better as a Paul Heaton solo. Its cute to hear them trying to suppress their giggles though.
People Get Ready is also written by Norman Chambers and is another acapella version, which the group was very skilled at. This isnt as beautiful as Shelter in my opinion, but it is still worth listening to. In fact, I dont skip any of the tracks, theyre all good really.
The next John Peel session is Over There and Caravan of Love. I am very familiar with both of these and enjoy listening to them. They provide a contrast too, so you can see the bands versatility. Over There is very fast paced and has quite a simple sound to it, with Heatons passionate vocals over Whittakers rhythmic drumming.
Caravan of Love hit the coveted number one spot in December 1986 and is a special song, being a rare acapella hit. (The Flying Pickets had another.) This live version is slightly quicker than the single, but very recognizable. Again Heaton seems note perfect, while the backing vocals dont always sound to be on pitch. (I think its Norman most of the time!)
Tracks nine to eleven are from a John Peel session some two months later. This set features the huge hit Happy Hour as well as two new tracks to me Heaven Help Us All and Pickin The Blues, which is their version of the John Peel theme tune.
Happy Hour is the acapella version, so it is slower than the single and you can make out almost all of the words! I really like this one, its refreshing to hear something new from a song you know so well and have heard so many times. Its hard to believe this was in the charts twenty years ago. That makes me feel so old!
Heaven Help Us All begins with a pretty impressive impression of a preacher from Paul. I know some people might have found their mixture of Christianity and Marxism a strange one, but how could you dislike a group who were happy to put across their views, but did so with wit and humour? This particular track is pleasant but a bit dull. It goes on for a bit too long too.
Pickin The Blues is certainly different and sounds like they had fun with it. Another acapella track and very short, at less than a minute long.
The Janice Long session from November 1985 provides the next three tracks. Mercy shows off Heatons great soul voice, but is unremarkable otherwise. So Glad is much better and one song where the backing vocals are excellent, complementing Heatons vocal gymnastics perfectly.
He Brought Me Out is another religious song and not one I had heard before buying this CD. I dont know if Heaton ever had aspirations to be one of those black American priests who get his entire congregation up and singing, but this shows how good he would have been.
The final Peel session is from November 1987. The Housemartins sing two tracks here Sunday Isnt Sunday and Build, again providing a contrast between the two. Sunday Isnt Sunday is very quick, a real foot-tapping head-nodding affair and has a feel-good sound to it. Theres a very catchy mouth organ solo in the middle too. This song was new to me and I really like it, but I do prefer Build, probably because I remember it well from its days in the charts and I loved it then and still do.
Build was written by Heaton and Cullimore, as so many of The Housemartins best songs were. This has quite a lilting quality to it, a sad feeling overall and clever lyrics. This live version is simpler than the hit release with Heatons vocals over a single guitar. It is beautifully done and one of the best tracks on the album, in my opinion.
The following two tracks are from their Glastonbury set in 1986. Both are album tracks that I know well and like. Were Not Deep is a song it seems natural to shout rather than sing. It is fast and quite angry and defensive, but as usual, the group brings a humour to their cynicism. This song contains some of my favourite lyrics too and is still very political, but without such religious undertones.
Me And The Farmer is another fast-paced and bop-along song with sing-a-long lyrics. Heavy on guitars and drums, it still has the raw sound associated with the band, but seems more polished than some of their earlier tracks. Its a nicely written criticism of capitalism too.
The final six tracks are all taken from their concert in Nottingham in September 1987. This is my favourite part of the album, mainly because I was there, but also because some of these are really wonderful pieces of music.
The first one here is The People Who Grinned Themselves To Death, the title track to one of their albums. This is a frantic and angry track again, but Paul Heatons vocals are definitely up to the job and he keeps up well with the increasingly manic pace. More mouth organ solos here too, which are rarely heard in contemporary music, but work well with the bands style.
The Light Is Always Green slows down the pace and the audience begins to clap along. This is a beautiful song with more thought-provoking and clever lyrics. This is one of the highlights of the album for me.
The Worlds On Fire is up next and begins with a distinctive drum rhythm before launching into another high-speed rollercoaster of a song. This is good and a solid track, but not their best.
Were Not Going Back is of a similar style and tempo, with good use made of each members vocal skills. Paul Heaton gives his all (as always) and seems to be completely passionate about everything he sings.
Johannesburg is my favourite song of the whole album and I can well remember watching this live. The audience was completely silent until the end; it was just a spell-binding performance. Paul Heaton singing his heart out with just a guitar accompanying him. Truly beautiful and moving.
The final track on the album is Five Get Over Excited, which finishes it on a high with a familiar song sung at a characteristically fast pace. I really liked this as a single. I was at Sixth Form and my best friend was called Fi, so we used to especially like the Fi Fi fun fun fun bit and would sing it very loudly!
I enjoy this live version especially, as the audience join in then the band sing their own individual bits. You get to hear a bit of Fatboy Slim here with Norman rapping and its all great fun and something very different. This was how they finished the concert, dismantling their instruments and carrying them off stage. It was very clever and provides a great end to a wonderful album and a tour down memory lane for me.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Drop Down Dead
2 Flag Day
3 Stand At Ease
4 Reverends Revenge
6 People Get Ready
7 Over There
8 Caravan Of Love
9 Happy Hour
10 Heaven Help Us All
11 Pickin' The Blues (Peel Show Theme Tune)
13 So Glad
14 He Brought Me Out
15 Sunday Isn't Sunday
17 We're Not Deep
18 Me And The Farmer
19 The People Who Grinned Themselves To Death
20 The Light Is Always Green
21 The World's On Fire
22 We're Not Going Back
24 Five Get Over Excited