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The Housemartins "London 0 Hull 4" - Retrospective Review

Updated: May 8

8.6/10

The Housemartins "London 0 Hull 4" - Retrospective Review

Housing two UK top 40 tunes, along with one hitting the number three spot, The Housemartins debut album London 0 Hull 4 played its part in paving the way for Britpop to come with its jangly hooks, clean guitar, and authentically British artistic ideals. Alongside the longer term impact of the record, The Housemartins established themselves as one of the essential English indie rock acts of the mid-80s alongside The Smiths over in Manchester. Nevertheless, it’s now been nearly 40 years since the band’s debut and is perhaps time for the full-length, 16 song CD version to be critically visited yet again.


Beginning with Happy Hour, the album sets the stage for an upbeat, bright exploration of jangly British indie rock. The track eventually became the band's most recognizable song and is perhaps the only one of their singles familiar to American audiences, despite not charting in the U.S. While songs like Get Up Off of Our Knees and Sitting on a Fence match the energy and sound you'd expect after hearing the opener, London 0 Hull 4 is never quite the album I expect it to be each time I listen. The band, particularly frontman Paul Heaton, seemingly drew a great deal of influence from unexpected sources for an indie rock troupe. Aside from taking cues from the Mod revivalists like The Jam, the album also includes both expected and surprising influences. On the expected side, you can hear the upbeat, guitar-forward tunes drawing from The Smiths and even The Clash, but what sneaks up on me every time is the infusion of soul and gospel sounds.

To the band's credit, their harmonies are immaculate, particularly on songs like People Get Ready and He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother, which demonstrate their ability to create impressive gospel soundscapes. I can't think of many other indie records with such vibrant, perfected four-part harmonies, but those songs still always leave me scratching my head. Songs like these sound so far-stretched from Happy Hour and the sound that makes up most of the record, I almost want to skip them... Beyond delivering a gospel sound in certain tracks, the band also lyrically explores that direction. Freedom is another track where the band showcases their harmonic power as the song gradually shifts toward a gospel style, leading into the tune's powerful outro.


Subtly and not so subtly politically charged lyrics can be found throughout the record's 47 minutes, with Sitting on a Fence perhaps showcasing Heaton's most directly political lyrics along with Flag Day kicking off the song with the line, "Too many Florence Nightingales, and not enough Robin Hoods". Those who manage to obtain a physical copy of the album will notice the message "Take Jesus - Take Marx - Take Hope" on the back, which further underscores the not-so-subtle lyrical themes of the songs. It's a thoughtful message from the band, although seeing "Jesus" and "Marx" in the same phrase can be a bit puzzling.


Of the deeper cuts from the record, one that shines exuberantly bright is Over There. Utilizing a catchy chord progression that remains fairly consistent throughout the song, the bass dances percussively around the guitar line, while Paul Heaton's expertly delivered vocals become hypnotic during the tune's chorus. Norman Cook's dancing basslines have by this point become something of a theme on the record, especially on Anxious.

London 0 Hull 4 has so much to love for indie fans, and although the band gets frequent comparisons to groups like The Smiths, a listen to this record reveals more sonic differences between the two than one might expect, particularly with all of The Housemartins' harmonies. This album covers much more diverse sonic ground than The Smiths ever have on their releases, which isn't necessarily a good thing. The heavy gospel influence is interesting and well-executed but clashes with listener expectations, especially for newcomers who decide to explore the full record after enjoying, say, Happy Hour. To be fair, the original vinyl release was a more concise 12 tracks compared to the 16 on the CD, but by 1986, CD sales were on the rise while vinyl was tapering off. There's a sense that the band is a bit scattered, yet they rarely produced duds—aside from their spin of Lean on Me.


At the end of the day, London 0 Hull 4 still holds up and, by our metric, is one of the 100 greatest indie rock albums of all time. There are so many songs on the LP worth saving and coming back to again and again. The guitar is crisp, the bass is momentous, the keyboards enhance the compositions, and the harmonies are a step above just about any other indie act to follow them. The band's talent shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, given the success Norman Cook had throughout the '90s under the name Fatboy Slim and Heaton's glaring success with The Beautiful South. London 0 Hull 4 probably could have shelved a few tunes—not necessarily just the four additional songs included on the CD—but those that disrupt the album's vibe. In the end, those were creative decisions made by the band and they were put there for a reason resulting in a record that tops most.


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