house martin. noun. A small bird of the swallow family that builds its nest under the eaves of houses or on cliff sides. In case you wondered.
Once upon a time, Mary Poppins memorably informed us that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. If you could transform that aphorism into a band, it would come to life as The Housemartins.
Emerging in the mid-80’s in the UK, at a time when the synth-pop of Wham! and Madonna (and nearly everyone else) still dominated the charts, The Housemartins emphasized acoustic guitars, crisp and non-distorted electrics, piano, and real drums. They called their sound “garage gospel,” which basically translates to a mash-up of jangly 1965-era Beatles and swinging Motown basslines.
The band’s jaunty music often obscured lyrics skewering everyone and everything, but particularly those in power: politicians, royalty, the wealthy, your boss. They also cheerfully laid waste to poseurs, hypocrites, the middle class, and those who refused to think for themselves. They summed up their philosophy on the back of their first album: “Take Jesus – Take Marx – Take Hope.” (But they were much more humorous than that sounds.)
In the summer of 1986, The Housemartins’ third single, “Happy Hour,” climbed to #3 on the UK Pop chart. It was their first hit, and the biggest self-penned single they would ever have, helped along by a Pythonesque video which used the zeitgeist technology of claymation.
In the liner notes to a compilation album of their best-loved songs, the band cheekily noted that “Happy Hour” sold “a staggering 450 copies in New Zealand.” This was still probably about 400 more copies than they sold in the US.
So here are The Housemartins. What a good place to be!
Normally I only post one song for Song Of The Week, but for the second week running there’s a bonus track. We didn’t get into music to follow the rules, now did we? I mentioned above that “Happy Hour” was The Housemartins’ biggest original song, but in late 1986 they scored a #1 with an acapella cover of The Isley Brothers’ “Caravan Of Love.” So we’ll have that, too. (It supposedly sold 150 copies in New Zealand.)
The Housemartins didn’t last for long, unfortunately, with only two full-length albums and a handful of B-sides and radio sessions. But they didn’t entirely disappear. Lead singer Paul Heaton formed The Beautiful South, an acerbic pop group whose 1994 greatest hits compilation, Carry On Up The Charts, surprised everyone when it became one of the best-selling albums in UK history. Meanwhile, bassist Norman Cook took his love of turntables and decided to see what he could do with them, adopting the nom de DJ, Fatboy Slim. Then he went multi-platinum all over the world in the late 90’s (including both New Zealand and the US).
Whoa – “Happy Hour” sounds like a lost ’90s Barenaked Ladies song to my Canadian ears!
As well it should! The first time I heard “Hello City” by BNL on the radio back in 1992 I about fell over when they sang part of “Happy Hour” at the end, which, to me at the time, was quite an obscure song. It’s just one of many reasons why Barenaked Ladies are totally awesome (particularly their first album).
Ah! Perhaps that’s why “Happy Hour” felt so familiar upon first listen. That, and the uncannily similar tonal quality in Paul Heaton and Steven Page’s vocals.
Now that I really listen for it, you can definitely hear the influence. It’s stronger than I thought. All The Housemartins’ music is good, but if you decide to check one album out, look for their debut, London 0 Hull 4. Crazy catchy songs!