As the cover of their first EP boasts, this quartet from Hull (actually, only drummer Hugh Whittaker hailed from the English city, the rest wound up there for various reasons) are quite good, creating distinctive, finely crafted pop songs. Flag Day is an outstanding debut, four polished tunes that are memorable and intelligent. No fey pop wimps here. The melancholy title track laments the economic deterioration of Great Britain; the punchy and percussive “Stand at Ease” offers an unusual view of militarism. “You” is bright, bouncy pop with spectacular harmonies; “Coal Train to Hatfield Main” is a country stomp. Paul Heaton’s vocals shine throughout, providing an integral part of the Housemartins’ overall charm.
They followed with Sheep: three fine pop songs plus an extraordinary a cappella cover of Curtis Mayfield’s uplifting “People Get Ready” and a choir-filled gospel song. As the sleeve states, “The Housemartins are my bestest band.” Happy Hour propelled the Housemartins headfirst into the top of the UK charts (at the time no mean feat for a band on an independent label) and earned them an American record contract. Exuberant guitar pop at its best, the title song is a humorous dig at the yuppie lifestyle.
After Happy Hour came a brilliant debut album. London 0 Hull 4 (a play on an age-old soccer rivalry), a dozen perfect pop jewels (including “Sheep” and “Flag Day”), firmly established the band’s position as crown princes of the three-minute pop classic. From the lusty bounce of “Happy Hour” to the gospel tones of “Lean on Me,” the Housemartins are lyrically literate and musically precise.
Think for a Minute continues the band’s ascent to stardom. Five flawless tracks, including the title song (remixed from London 0 Hull 4) and a delightful hip-hop detour entitled “Rap Around the Clock.”
Titled for the Isley/Jasper/Isley song it contains, Caravan of Love underscores the quartet’s spiritual side and aptitude for gospel stylings: five a cappella songs of praise. Considering Heaton’s voice, this is as natural and comfortable an inclination as their usual pop trappings.
Personnel and musical changes marred the band’s second full album, The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death. Heaton’s lyrics, once pointed and exact, have become obtuse and, in some instances (“Me and the Farmer,” “I Can’t Put My Finger on It”), willfully prosaic. The title track, “You Better Be Doubtful” and the solemn “Johannesburg” provide some good moments, but the majority of songs lack the immediate impact of previous Housemartins records. (The US version contained a bonus 45 of “Caravan of Love” b/w “The Day I Met Jesus.”) It’s clear from this album the band’s pop throne might be in jeopardy — a supposition turned fact when they disbanded months after its release.
The Housemartins’ final UK single, “There Is Always Something There to Remind Me” (not the Bacharach/David tune), is included on Now That’s What I Call Quite Good!, a posthumous double-album whose 24 tracks — hits, album material, B-sides, radio sessions and unreleased songs — span the band’s entire career. Though London 0 Hull 4 remains the essential Housemartins disc to own, Now That’s What I Call Quite Good offers a fine overview.