Icon, legend, greatest of all time, these platitudes are thrown at musicians with increasing regularity, but how many get to be called National Treasure? Paul Heaton, vocalist with The Housemartins, The Beautiful South, Paul and Jacqui and now solo artist is deserving of this title.
He is a singer and songwriter whose appeal spanned generations and social classes and whose lyrics perfectly encapsulated the struggles, pleasures and nuances of British life. It was his first band however, The Housemartins that brought Heaton to national attention, and also introduced us to the young Bass player, Norman Cook, who later via an MDMA epiphany, would reinvent himself as Fatboy Slim. Formed in 1983 by Heaton and guitarist Stan Cullimore, they formed their song base around the strange bedfellows of Christianity and Marxism. The group then went through multiple line up changes before cementing Cook on bass and Dave Hemmingway on drums. In 1986, after recording a couple of live sessions with John Peel, the band broke into the mainstream with their third single Happy Hour. The song hit number 3 in the UK charts and was closely followed by debut album London 0 Hull 4. The albums title is a reference to their belief they were the fourth best band in Hull. However, London didn’t have any good bands.
The Housemartins were initially dismissed by critics as a poor man’s The Smiths. Sure, Cullimore didn’t have the riffs of Johnny Marr, but he had jangle guitar by the cartload and Heaton’s sharp edged lyrics gave Morrissey a run for his money and have stood the test of time. Strongly influenced by Gospel music, Paul Heaton is one of the best white soul voices ever to emerge from Great Britain. Listening to the album today, the lyrics written over 30 years ago in the Thatcherite social decay of 80’s England are just as relevant now as they were then.
The opening track has a catchy jangle while Heaton skewers the subject of office sexism rampant in the 1980’s (and sadly today). Its happy, jovial sound is in strong juxtaposition with its lyrical content. Get Up Off of Our Knees is a wonderfully soulful call to arms with the band’s gospel influences clearly on show. The lyrics of “Don’t point your finger at them, then turn and walk away” demonstrates the band’s appetite for direct action and distain for the ineffectual ‘Red Wedge’ movement of Billy Bragg, Paul Weller et al,. That sentiment continues into the next track, Flag Day, “Too many Florence Nightingale’s, not enough Robin Hoods” Heaton sings over this piano driven tune. If you’re not totally taken with his vocal ability by the first chorus please check you’ve still got a pulse.
Anxious addresses social inequality with vocal harmonies that the group would become known for, but the track gives us a glimmer of hope as well as a rare bass solo when everyone else at the time was indulging in guitar noodling. Sitting on a Fence swipes at those that ‘see both sides of both sides’ and continues their condemnation of good men who do nothing. All of the Housemartins strong suits are on display in Sheep – rolling snares, tight vocal harmonies, bright guitar riffs and biting social commentary. Over There criticizes the fences that are used to divide us a society and weaken our power, but again, its tone and energy leave you with nothing but hope and optimism. Heaton reaches his most Morrisseyesque moment on Think for a Minute – a crooning illustration of the creeping individualization of society – before the album returns to the upbeat We’re Not Deep and the Gospel of Lean on Me. Freedom sees the album out with its critique of media cabals serving us up slightly differing shades of the same opinion.
London 0 Hull 4 is a look back to the glory days of music when you could still get to the top of the music charts and receive national airplay while sporting hand knitted cardigans, prescription reading glasses and singing about social injustice. The back of the album sleeve carried the contradiction Take Jesus – Take Marx – Take Hope. If none of those appeal to you however, definitely Take This Album.