The Housemartins, Happy Hour (1986)

housemartins-happy-hour-chrysalis-2

Artist: The Housemartins
Title: Happy Hour
Description: single; track, London 0 Hull 4
Label: Go! Discs
Release date: 1986
First heard: 1986

What a good place to be

Time, ladies and gentlemen, please, to further deify a man already deified. As we draw the final curtain on The 143, and supplementarily launch The 55, tears dilute beers, and pint pots are duly raised in the direction of John Robert Parker Ravenscroft. He was our sturdiest bridge over the troubled waters of popular music, post-prog, linking the throb of dub reggae, Bulgarian voices, Kanda Bongo Man, Barmy Army and The Wedding Present to Bongwater, the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, Duane Eddy and Toumani Diabaté, by way of The Undertones, the Elgins, Link Wray and the Flying Lizards.

There’s nothing dazzling or original or post-rational to say about John, at whose Aga-warmed Suffolk house I spent a bucolic day in the summer of ’99, a pilgrimage we all dreamed of making, and yet the truth was, we all enjoyed the same intimacy wherever he was broadcasting from and wherever we heard it, under the bedclothes or over the soundwaves. The synapse crackled constantly. We knew him. He knew us. That he latterly broadcast from his own manor was the most important home truth of all. It was always all back to Peel’s. (I was in Stowmarket to interview John for a 60th birthday cover of Radio Times, a landmark for me, too.)

I know for gospel that I first heard the Housemartins’ heart-stopping debut Flag Day when most people not fated to live in Humberside did: between 10pm and midnight on Radio 1 on 29 July 1985, when Peel broadcast their first session bearing his imprimatur. I was living in a study bedroom in Battersea, South London, at the time, both lonely and never alone in the twilight hours. The fleet-of-foot foursome with a spiritual bent recorded Drop Down Dead, Flag Day, Stand At Ease and Joy Joy Joy that summer, and somehow or other, between mouthfuls of reactivated powdered milk and plain own-brand biscuits, I sealed the standout onto cassette tape, alerting me at once to the band’s musical acumen and SWP rigour (“It’s a waste of time if you know what they mean/Try shaking a box in front of the Queen”). Ironically, the migratory bird after which they are named has a blue head; the band had not a blue bone in its body.

The third band signed to the still-wet Go! Discs, they followed Flag Day with Sheep the following year, and set out their counter-metropolitan stall with the decisively named London 0 Hull 4, produced by John Williams (not that one), which signified cardigans, CND badges and a homoeroticism peculiar to firm male friends lined up against the world. That their first squirts of royalties were invested in a local youth football team went without saying. Chief songwriters Heaton and Cullimore (with input on three songs from former bassist Ted Key and a single co-credit for session wingman Pete Wingfield) said an awful lot without saying.

The LP’s kick-off, Happy Hour wasn’t just an indie hit, it was a hit hit, its match-fit jangle-guitar jamboree reaching a vertiginous number three. It had entered the Top 40 at 30 on 8 June, risen to 12 the next week, then to its peak on 22 June, kept from the number one spot by Nu Shooz and The Edge of Heaven, farewell single from bronze gods Wham! Our problem-skinned quartet held steady on 29 June, this time robbed of a flag day at the summit by Wham! and – hello – Madonna. Tough competition for the third most popular act in Britain. Cap-sleeved Glaswegian Owen Paul arrived to nudge them back down to four in July, then seven, then ten. Their descent was decent: slow, incremental, leisurely. That’s a happy thirteen weeks. A good place to be. (They would top the charts that Christmas with an ecclesiastical cover of an Isley Brothers song, but denied Christmas Number One status by the reissue of a 1957 original by Jackie Wilson. Classic soul was their friend and enemy.)

Like most of the most memorable tunes that radiate out in harmonious waves from the shady grinning soul of Paul Heaton, Happy Hour is effortlessly catchy, misleadingly light, freighted with social commentary and soulfully sung by the nation’s favourite choirboys. (Also, in subsequent incarnations, girls: take a bow Jacqui Abbott, Briana Corrigan and Alison Wheeler.) As well as Cullimore, Heaton co-wrote with Dave Rotheray in The Beautiful South and currently collaborates with writing partner Jonny Lexus in Gran Canaria. Nobody else knows how Paul does it.

With its joyfully crude claymation video, Happy Hour had make-do charm built in and wooed even those – in fact especially those – who made happy hour so unhappy by being happy that the fire is real and the barman is a she.

And the meaning of style is a night out with the boss

It’s about male bonding rituals and the abject fear of standing out from the lunchtime crowd. It’s about “speaking a different language” from the flock, with their open wallets and closed minds, and their aspirations taken in “footsteps overgrown with moss” towards domestic safety and sexual compliance. There’s even a hint of Christian prurience in the couplet, “They tell me that women grow on trees, and if you catch them right they will land upon their knees.” Not to pray, one dares to assume. I’m thinking about Joe Lampton and Arthur Seaton and Colin Smith and Vic Brown and the other male relics of Barstow and Braine and Sillitoe and Delaney when I hear the desperate plea, “And you take all your clothes off, and go back to the kitchen sink.”

Five years, two albums, one number one, six Top 20 hits, four old heads on four young pairs of shoulders: the Housemartins built a nest in the eaves of popular music and then flew away south to broader pastures.

Arctic Monkeys, When The Sun Goes Down (2006)

Whenthesungoesdown

Artist: Arctic Monkeys
Title: When The Sun Goes Down
Description: single; track, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not
Label: Domino
Release date: 2006
First heard: 2005

’E told Roxanne to put on her red light

Who the fuck were Arctic Monkeys? What right had this quartet of spotty Herberts from a genteel suburb of Sheffield to reconfigure the noughties with their “bangin’ tunes and DJ sets and dirty dancefloors”, “tracky bottoms tucked in socks” and a young George Formby serenading the red lights that “indicate doors are secure”? I’ll be honest: I’d given up with the 21st century in 2005, musically. I’d actually squared it with the cosmos that all the good music had been written and recorded. How greedy to hope for more! There were still back catalogues to complete, and hundreds of transfigurative old records from the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s to listen to again and again and again. (And that was without facing up to the vast universe of pre-20th century classical music to finally burrow my way into.) In that unreal, post-Kid A wilderness, I was happy enough for Radiohead to be my final favourite band until my death.

Don’t get me wrong, I liked TV on the Radio, Franz Ferdinand and held a candle for the Beastie Boys in middle age, and I was still up for new names to me, like Clipse and MF Doom – I wasn’t a total Terpsichorean Luddite – and Arcade Fire seemed super-promising with Funeral, but I wasn’t expecting anything to blow me fully away. It was a workable state to be in. I’d even moved to Surrey by mistake, as if to make statute my withdrawal from the moshpit.

And then my wife alerted me to these demos a Yorkshire band had been giving away as downloads for free (this is the modern world), songs so catchy that audiences were already singing along to every word, despite nothing having been officially released (a long time ago there were pirates). I wasn’t even the first person in my house to “discover” Arctic Monkeys; indeed, I got into them just as they were about to go straight to number one in the proper UK charts with their dynamite second single I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor without anyone’s permission. But so besotted did I become, overnight, we used our own money to follow them around the UK and Europe, without a commission from a magazine or newspaper to justify the travel outlay. (Word subsequently asked me to write about how Arctic Monkeys had made me a music fan again, but it was not the sole purpose of my visits.) We flew to Cologne to catch them in a tiny club (priceless), and to Dublin for the first night of the Shockwaves NME Awards Tour, then to Sheffield for some home-game excitement at the university, and saw them again in London for the climax (the second time in my life I’d seen three dates on one tour – the first time was Curve). I was born again.

How come? Though I was technically going through the messy transition from my thirties to my forties, this was no mid-life crisis. Had Arctic Monkeys not come along – as eloquent, humorous and melodic as the Smiths, as evangelism-forming as the Stone Roses and Parklife-era Blur, as vital as The Fall, and as different as all four of those touchstone English bands had seemed when they first blocked out the sky, in the 80s and 90s, except with a hormonally-skinned frontman who sincerely addressed his audience as “ladies and gentlemen” – I’m sure I would still have paid good money to see Goldfrapp and Kasabian, but that would have been it. Arctic Monkeys lured me across bodies of water and thrilled me sufficiently to put up with the shower of beer that had been introduced into gig-going while I’d taken early retirement.

When The Sun Goes Down is the song of that hour because it does what all the best Arctic Monkeys songs do: starts quietly, spins a yarn, honours the local vernacular, shakes things up, batters your head and leaves you emotionally bruised, as well as actually. Turner, gently mocked at first for singing like a wartime concert party entertainer, but loved all the same, begins the song known by early adopters (us!) as Scummy, with just a few strums to accompany him.

Said ’o’s that girl there?
I wonder what went wrong so that she ’ad to walk the streets
She don’t take major credit cards, I doubt she does receipts
It’s all not quite legitimate

I know, it’s tiresome to elevate lyrics to the level of poetry, but that first stanza not only rivals it rhymes: streets, receipts. Turner has such a natural flair for making the English language flow, and he appreciates the nuances of how it sounds – the instinctive feel to drop the “h” from “who’s” and “had” but to harden the “t”s in “legitimate.” (Elsewhere, he bends the Yorkshire dialect to rhyme “say ’owt” so that it perfectly rhymes with “Mondeo” – a trick it’s hard to emulate unless you come from round there.) That he knows exactly when to drop the f-bomb is key, too, accenting his assumption of Roxanne being “fucking freezing” with primeval anger, if anger still being formulated and shaped by events in a young male’s mind. This is an indignant chronicle, a slice of life, a thousand words that paint a picture, mixing adolescent banter (“he’s got a nasty plan … he’ll rob you if he can … what a scummy man”) with old-head-young-shoulders reflection (“I start to wonder what his story might be”). The very notion of things changing when the sun goes down, and the fact that “they” say it, is more profound and poetic than anything Ed Sheeran will ever write.

Arctic Monkeys’ effortless virtuosity – Matt Helder’s impossible drumming, Jamie Cook’s incendiary, descriptive guitar, Turner’s wicked way with words, the entire gang’s ability to shoot straight – ought to have robbed them of much of their early, approachable charm, but it never did. It sustained them for three albums, after which they ran out of puff, but only briefly. With the grinding desert rock of fourth album AM, they were reborn in 2013. I had grown weary of beer spray by then, but loved their headliner at Glastonbury from the comfort of the sofa that year, with something approaching paternal pride.

I offer thanks to the three surviving Herberts from those early days of this century. Perhaps they will be my last favourite band before death.

Mind you, Sleaford Mods …

Jim Bob, Cartoon Dad (2007)

JimBobHumptyD

Artist: Jim Bob
Title: Cartoon Dad
Description: album track, A Humpty Dumpty Thing
Label: Cherry Red
Release date: 2007
First heard: 2007

Mighty Mouse is on his way
Here I come to save the day

Can we put aside our petty musical differences and at least agree that Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine were – in their original run and reformed pomp – a pretty unique proposition in terms of fusion pop music, taking the minimalism of the Pet Shop Boys, roughing it up with punk rock electric guitars and arch pun-based social commentary, and lobbing said cocktail to the top of the charts? You don’t have to love them to appreciate them. I did love and do love them – and yes, we will be hearing from them again.

In the meantime, those among you who took Carter USM to your 100% cotton bosom in the indie boom years of the early 90s will raise no eyebrow at the inclusion in The 143 of a solo piece from the duo’s singer, who has forged a workable solo career in their wake and from whose seventh post-Carter album (fourth under his own name) this abiding kitchen-sink favourite comes.

Neither Jim Bob nor Fruitbat was the leader in Carter – each relied upon and, you might say, completed the other – and both have continued to make music, born to do so. But Jim Bob had custody of the voice, and it’s his voice that elevates Cartoon Dad as much as the thoughtful lyrics and the clever arrangement. To declare an interest, I consider Jim a friend. We’re not in and out of each others’ houses, in fact I’ve never been inside his house and he’s never been inside mine, but we exchange Christmas cards, and if ever I’ve been able to involve him in my random media career I have unashamedly leaped at the chance. (Luckily, he and Carter are held in sufficiently high regard for me to be able to do this without self-consciousness. Also, I was a fan before I met them and would have remained so had I not.)

In 2006, on the release of his sixth (or third) album School, I found myself filling in for Mark Radcliffe on Radio 2 and suggested Jim as an in-studio acoustic guest. It was an album with a story, and I relished the opportunity to spread the love. At the end of 2009, having that year suggested him to Robin Ince as a suitable musical turn for his mixed Lessons and Carols for Godless People bill, the Times asked me to contribute to a New Year’s spread recommending “New Faces”; I twisted the brief and nominated Luke Haines and Jim Bob, two old farts, to be frank, but hitting corresponding solo highs to my mind. (I argued that 2010 being the year Jim turned 50 made it a landmark.) I wrote:

Jim ought to be as beloved as a Costello or a Dury or a Davies, with slices of life as tuneful, arch, dramatic and unapologetic as Teenage Body Count, Cartoon Dad and The Golden Years Of Lonely Old Dears.

Of the aforementioned recommended three, Cartoon Dad tackles and humanises the vexed issue of an unnamed protest group who are clearly Fathers 4 Justice via a lilting, brass-fanfared lament to a “muggy Monday morning” spent scaling St Stephen’s Tower (the structure that houses Big Ben), and the apparent fruitlessness of the unfurling of a superhero-costumed lone parent’s “stupid protest banner”. References to Converse, Tesco Metro, the Body Shop, Lucozade and Happy Meals do Jim’s usual job of painting a picture through the joining of cultural dots, while the tale is tragicomically told with equal attention to mundane detail, whether it’s Mighty Mouse’s forlorn-sounding “supermarket bag” or the tourists taking pictures from the London Eye on their “cameraphones”, which meant something in 2007 and fixes the song in time.

On the subject of those voyeuristic snappers on “the Wheel”, we learn that they “suspected a PR stunt … But secretly they hoped I’d jump.” It’s a devastating couplet because you’re certain he’s about to rhyme “stunt” with “c—“. But it’s not his style. He prefers to channel his righteous ire through droll erudition and wordplay. Jim, a paragon of humility, might blanch at the notion of being a poet, but his literary ambition crossed over with the music on A Humpty Dumpty Thing, as it came bound with the short story Word Count. He’s always been a weaver of stories. The album is built around four unused songs he originally wrote for Mark Ravenhill’s Dick Whittington pantomime. This is one of them. Hence streets paved with gold and an arch reference to Golden Arches?

I mentioned the fine arrangement and it’s sympathetic to the song, with the brass band intro exquisitely pitched, the drama subsequently built up through a rat-a-tat-tat staccato section and a daringly literal chime before a reference to Big Ben striking. (More Dick we may assume.) I realise I’m quoting back a fair chunk of the lyric, but it would be self-defeating not to. Like so much of Jim’s solo and Carter catalogue, Cartoon Dad takes you by the hand and leads you through the streets of London, “all along the River Thames, from Westminster to Southend and into the sea.” And it boasts this perfect twist at the end. Savour it.

Dr Samuel Johnson, you were very nearly right
I was tired of London
But I would never tire of life

Mighty.