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 peer round the final curtain on The 143, 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.*

 

* As happy good fortune would have it, the concurrent reruns of Top of the Pops on BBC Four are dominated by The Beautiful South, a bigger unit that staked a claim with debut single Song For Whoever, sealed now in amber as one of the UK’s all-time great number twos. Its organically inexorable rise saw it curve from 35, to 23, to 11, to 8, to 3, to its peak at 2, then 4, to 8, to 19, to 37 … They really were marvelous times.

Wah!, The Story of the Blues Part 1 (1982)

Wah!StoryOfTheBlues

Artist: Wah!
Title: The Story of the Blues Part 1
Description: single
Label: Eternal/WEA
Release date: 1982
First heard: 1982

In May 2015, I had the most Liverpool Night Ever. I found myself in England’s finest city to meet, interview and watch Weekend Escapes with Warwick Davies with Ralf, Viv and Eve Woerdenweber, Gogglebox’s finest healing-crystal Goths, for what became the official Gogglebook in time for the Christmas market. I’d arrived at Lime Street that afternoon and walked to my hotel rather than take a taxi – because I knew I could and it was, and remains, my style. A later minicab took me through Birkenhead Tunnel to the Wirral and I had a splendid evening on the other side, eating ice-cream cakes, stroking cats and drinking coffee. I’ll be honest, when I arrived back at the Hope Street Hotel, I was drained from travel and the emotional pressure of meeting two sets of new people and hoping to click with them in houses I knew from watching telly. I ordered fat chips on room service and settled in for a sales-rep night of solitude …

Until a friend phoned. Having sensibly fled her adopted London for her Liverpool home, Kate was carousing in the magnetic city’s most famous pub, Ye Cracke, which just happens to be round the corner from Hope Street and, on that occasion, contained another mutual acquaintance, the comedian Michael Legge, and my friend’s husband-to-be Pete Wylie. Resistance would have been churlish.

And then you realise, you’ve got nothing left to lose

I’d crossed paths with the municipally crucial Pete Wylie before, in 1989, two weeks after the horror of Hillsborough when he joined The Mission, Mick Jones and Lee Mavers onstage at Liverpool’s Royal Court Theatre for a chest-swelling benefit bill that found me in the orchestra pit, gazing upwards as these driven musicians radiated outwards. (My hitherto reigning most Liverpool Night Ever, until the Farm gave me a cultural guided tour in 1991.) It’s easy to underestimate his legend in Jung’s “Pool of Life”. They do things differently there. Selfless acts are remembered. Remembrance is automatically civic. Loyalty is rewarded. Only New Orleans matches Liverpool for self-mythology, and it’s earned. Unlike certain musicians who helped put the city on the map, Wylie represents the majority who still live there. Like Catholicism, it never leaves you, even if you leave it.

So, there are photos of me, and Michael Legge, bathing in Wylie’s glow in Ye Cracke, the same Mecca The La’s had taken me to on my second ever journalistic trip out of London for the NME, in 1988. (The Farm would subsequently blood me at my first Yates’ Wine Lodge a couple of years later.) It’s a city that’s been on its uppers, and has had its fair share of shit, and not just from The Sun, but its heart is as big as … well.

Bands from Liverpool punctuate The 143: the Bunnymen, OMD, the Farm, the Lotus Eaters, the Beatles, and we’re not done yet. I’ve stopped asking if there’s something in the water; there just is. Liverpool was indirectly immortalised in 1960 as a “wondrous place” by local lad Billy Fury (even though his hit was written about some other place by a pair of Americans): “Man I’m nowhere/When I’m anywhere else”; a body of water crossed by its ferry were made myth by Gerry Marsden (and re-floated 20 years later by Frankie Goes to Hollywood); the name of one of its lanes, and the garden of a children’s home, gifted to the world by the Beatles; and Pete Wylie wrote the city an anthem suitable for footballing occasions both victorious and tragic.

But The Story of the Blues is the one. A hit as big as Liverpool in 1983, two years after the terrifyingly insistent Seven Minutes to Midnight had burrowed into the brains of me and my schoolfriend Craig. Wah! Heat had streamlined into Wah! and mainstream acclaim was theirs, or his, or both. (He gets a kick out of expanding and contracting his trading name, but in maverick, dandyish essence Wylie is Wah! and Wah! is Wylie.)

It is the early 80s, so it’s immaterial whether or not the lush strings that provide this pocket symphony’s prologue are real, or cooked up by microprocessors. The majesty of the ascending violins, further warmed through soulful backing vocals (some of which aren’t the hands-on Wylie) and an incredibly polite funk guitar riff give way to wall-of-sound excess that must have provided producer Mike Hedges with a good day at the office. These deft layers feel like literal extensions of the song’s soul. The creator describes it as a labour of love, recorded over months, learning the tech as he and Hedges went along. He aimed to make something that would “last forever.” Well, 34 years down the line, and it’s in rude health. Ask the fans who sing it at Liverpool games.

There’s no taking this record’s pride. When, having peaked, it strips itself down for the epilogue – just those rattlebag drums, some fading wooos and the string section until the dot of four minutes – it’s as if the song knows you need time to decompress. If I had to isolate the very essence of The Story of the Blues, I’d hazard a guess at the syncopated rhythm at the end of each line in the verse where the snare drops out for a beat – boom, boom-boom – a stroke, if I may, of genius. Those drums are played by Linn.

First they take your pride,
Then turn it on its side,
And then you realise you’ve got nothing left to lose.
So you try to stop,
Try to get back up,
And then you realise you’re telling the Story of the Blues.

There’s an operatic quality to Wylie’s voice that suits the ambition of this gin-soaked, us-and-them anthem, which charted on Christmas Day 1982, put Wah! on Top of the Pops and summited at number 3, during 12 weeks on the chart. In the video, he’s all eyeliner, silk scarf, red kerchief and a jiggling energy that suggests either a rubbing of the gums or pentup pride.

While the song might have once been oh-so-mistakenly misread as a reference to Everton FC, its emanating aura of togetherness has seen it recently adopted by fans of Manchester City FC, and before that Chelsea, leaving Wylie understandably touched.

From one man’s pocket comes “front page news”.

A postscript: at the end of that memorable night in ’89 at the Royal Court, the power went out, plunging audience and participants into darkness. Wylie led a spontaneous community singalong, lit by the light of lighters: You’ll Never Walk Alone and, if I remember correctly, You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory. Except you can.

James, Sometimes (1993)

James-Sometimes

Artist: James
Title: Sometimes
Description: single; album track, Laid
Label: Mercury
Release date: 1993
First heard: 1993

Sometimes, when I look deep in your eyes
I swear I can see your soul

Brian Eno has had his oblique fingerprints over so much music I have loved over the years. From the overt – his wonky, front-of-house contributions to early Roxy; the perplexingly poppy early solo work, which I discovered via the Russell Mills illustrations in the gorgeous book More Dark Than Shark and its attendant compilation album while I was an art student; the Bauhaus cover of Third Uncle; the mind-blowing My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts with David Byrne; a lecture I saw “the Prof” deliver in 1992 at Sadlers Wells about mapping smell – to the covert – in other words, his production work for other artists, most of whom grew or mutated under his tutelage.

While at one end of the production-credit scale the utilitarian Steve Albini “records” artists, Brian Eno seems to inhabit an artist’s soul and become a de facto member of a band. Low, “Heroes”, Lodger – what more is there to add to Bowie’s purplest patch? (He already added it.) From The Unforgettable Fire to Zooropa, he helped place U2 for a lot of people.

So it was with folksy Madchester beneficiaries James, whose jerky, ornery, pastoral early promise found a public address system in the early 90s where they were baggy-sleeved anthem-suppliers by appointment. I understand they sought him out, and well they might. By the time of their fifth album Laid, they were in the public domain, a festival-headlining, multitude-seating, arms-in-the-air, merch-shifting, Gold-certified Top 3 Big Band. Their artistry was not in doubt, but they’d cracked the commercial sphere and needed saving from themselves, perhaps. For my money, Brian Eno steered them to their greatest glory; Laid remains the pinnacle of their commercial/creative duality. And the life-affirming, untarnishable, soul-deep Sometimes is the fulcrum. The album’s biggest hit in the UK, but not the one that broke them in the US – that was the title track itself.

Extricate Sometimes from its video if you will, but the sight of James – always an unwieldy number of men, but vital, no passengers – belting it out in a water tank, soaked to the skin, is an elemental image it’s hard to shake off. Some videos just capture the spirit of a song. That it’s so very literal is not a drawback. This is a song that’s all about the weather.

“There’s a storm outside, and the gap between crack and thunder is closing in, closing in …” warns Tim Booth, who we may assume penned the lyric, a hymn to the spillage, if you will. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the rain falls: it “floods gutters”; it “lifts lids off cars”, spins buses “like toys, stripping them to chrome”; it picks up fishing boats and “spews them on the shore.” It never rains but it pours in this Biblical flood, recreated at Pinewood in the tank they usually joosh up for Bond movies.

Perhaps, like Travis Bickle’s “real rain” it will wash the scum off the sidewalks. Booth always seemed a man pure of heart, a vegan, a spiritual observer, a thin, rangy man always reaching out to touch faith.

We haven’t even got to the incredible music yet, but the imagery is so compelling: “On a flat roof, there’s a boy leaning against the wall of rain, aerial held high, calling, ‘Come on thunder, come on thunder!'” That boy is surely Booth himself, willing on the apocalypse. He ends up thunderstruck, “lit up against the sky, like a neon sign”, his inert form “delivered on” by the deluge, the “endless rain”.

The mid-90s nucleus of the band – Booth, Larry Gott, Jim Glennie, Saul Davies, Mark Hunter, David Baynton-Power – sound telepathically on point for this session, united I romantically imagine by Eno’s sure, enabling hand on the tiller in studios in Bath and Wrexham. The soft, rattling snare intro, quickly accompanied by guitars tracing the same cantering rhythm (is that really why the title sometimes appears with the name of jockey Lester Piggott in brackets?) sets the pace with disarming simplicity, but whatever works. The urgency rises with the water and over the next four and a half minutes seems to hit peak after peak. You can almost touch the texture of it and see a tin roof deflecting it back upwards in jewels, the waves “turning into something else”. Sound waves, perhaps? Booth sings of “a great sound on concrete”: it’s a song about acoustics.

The chorus – “Some-ti-i-imes …” – has all the singalongability of Sit Down or Come Home, but without barking orders. Some-ti-i-imes when he looks deep in your eyes, he swears he can see your soul. Surely it’s not asking too much to intuit Eno’s sonic strategy in the way the song almost sounds like a rehearsal or a run-through? It sounds so natural and felt, you wonder if it’s an early studio take that would only be sullied by technical improvement. Maybe it’s a once in a lifetime deal.

When the others join in on the harmonies and “Some-ti-i-imes” becomes a gospel chant, gorgeously committed, we’re all praising the open heavens, dripping wet together. The last minute of this heavenly outpour is one you don’t wish to end. Sometimes really is something.

Hose it down. Hose it down.