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23 August 2017

The Housemartins - 'London 0 Hull 4' (Go Discs)

When I lived in the UK (about a decade ago), Kingston-upon-Hull was the punchline of the entire country, a once-respectable Yorkshire city that had fallen into such decline that it had become synonymous with the idea of hopeless post-Thatcher devastation. One could apparently buy a flat in the city centre for as low as £20,000, and I often suggested that it should be colonised by weirdo artist types since it was affordable and (I assumed, probably incorrectly) somewhat lawless. I didn't know what I was talking about then, so Hull became some sort of symbol to me. I understand that things have picked up somewhat since then, making Hull if not exactly a hotspot of Northern culture certainly an option for people looking to set out and create their own universe. I'd be curious to visit now, as I've only ever driven through the city en route to Zeebrugge (by ferry) and it looked like an interesting place. Certainly it's produced a fair share of notable musicians over the years - Throbbing Gristle, Mick Ronson, Luke Poot, Aby Vulliamy - and of course the Housemartins. Now I suspect they're almost forgotten, just a footnote to the career of bassist Norman Cook aka Fatboy Slim aka a million other things, or the precursor to the Beautiful South, a band I never listened to but always imagined were pretty good. This is 1986, the year of the famous C-86 compilation which the Housemartins are not on, but could be. This is indie music with a folky, white soul edge, and the band was aggressively independent and aggressively socialist. The inner sleeve contains some handwritten words to inspire the masses, with 'Take Jesus - Take Marx - Take Hope' at the bottom, and these are the majority of the lyrical themes. 'Flag Day' is the most memorable song, an anti-patriotic ballad which stretches Paul Heaton's voice to its most emotive, drawn over it's slow pace. It's probably the classic cut from the album but it's not my favourite - I prefer the Housemartins when they're more uptempo, such as 'We're Not Deep' or 'Get Up Off Our Knees'; the latter is a stomping attack on the ruling class, with the necessary inspirational chorus that makes pop music great. The Housemartins lyrics are a little bit superficial, but thats not really a problem - it's probably one of the reasons this record ages so well. And maybe that's what 'We're Not Deep' is about, but the anger is cut with a healthy dose of sunshine (and some ba-ba-bas). London 0 Hull 4 (a great title, though illogical, since there is no football team just called 'London', and the score would be more accurately written as 'London 0 - 4 Hull' anyway, a nice away win for Hull City A.F.C, unless it just refers to the number of musicians from Hull vs the number from London) definitely sounds like it's from the 80s, but the decay of the North is felt more than explicitly discussed, and there's a driving optimism throughout. 'Happy Hour', which bears a bit of resemblance to 'Sheep' (and each start the two sides of the record), is another unforgettable pop song, though over the years I've enjoyed it (about 20 now) I never have been clear what it's about - a female immigrant bartender putting up with sexual harassment is my best guess. A cover of 'Lean on Me' (but not the Bill Withers tune, another one) and 'Flag Day' are the only two really slow songs, and thus where the soul aspect comes out the most, and these white Northerners are pretty convincing. The piano playing on 'Lean on Me' particularly exemplifies this, as it leans into the dramatic builds and Heaton's soaring voice reveals a depth not often found in late 80s British jangle-pop. There's not a dud on London 0 Hull 4 and I always think this surpassed their followup album, with the brilliant name The People Who Grinned Themselves To Death, though weirdly I've never found a cheap copy of that so we'll have to move past it.

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