The Housemartins: the group who invented the ’90s

It’s 23 years since the Housemartins first released their album, London 0 Hull 4. And to celebrate this, er, pivotal anniversary, the record has been re-released complete with bonus thingies and unreleased whatsits. This is a good thing.

As a record it’s faultless, a landmark example of the enduring power of post-war British pop music. I’ve never particularly attached a great deal of importance to lyrics, but on London 0 Hull 4, PD (later Paul) Heaton’s descriptions of a north of England ravaged by Thatcherism made me both sad and proud at the same time. The fact that they were carried by the most infectious of pop melodies just made these songs even better. But that wasn’t all.

When you took the record out and looked at the inner sleeve of the record you were greeted with a picture of the band. And in that shot Heaton was wearing a round neck jumper, small-collared shirt and a tiny, discreet football badge on his breast. These details said one thing: Heaton was one of us.

I’d spent the most of the mid-’80s ignoring pop music. And no wonder. Because, from 1984-1986, apart from a few notable exceptions, most of the stuff I heard was pompous, tuneless, overblown rubbish – the soundtrack of me trying to avoid getting my head kicked in at under-18s discos. It was Queen at Live Aid, Duran Duran ditching the funk of their first two albums for big hair and overblown rock, and Go West and Jennifer Rush polluting the charts. I missed out on the genius of The Smiths because they looked like students and the only bit of moving I did to music was my distinctly average breakdancing moves in an upstairs room at the local baths. No wonder that my heroes were Liverpool FC players and the fashion-obsessed scallies who watched them from the Anfield Road End.

This is why The Housemartins were such a breath of fresh (River Humber) air. The clothes they wore and the subjects they sang about marked them out as people my mates and I could identify. When The South Bank Show did a documentary on the band I loved the fact that Heaton wore an à-la-mode Dundee FC ‘tea cosy’ hat when singing Think For a Minute on a boat in the Humber (Bassist Norman Cook’s Adidas windcheater and guitarist Stan Cullimore’s Patrick cagoule are also worthy of note).

The Housemartins sowed the seeds of what, sadly, would eventually become known as ‘laddism’. They showed that you could be into football and politics, that you could obsess about clothes but never go to a Paris catwalk show, and that the things that defined our everyday existence were subjects worthy of documentation. At that time, John Peel was roundly booed by left wing audiences for having the temerity to read out the football results at assorted rock festivals. That wouldn’t happen today (and not because Peel passed away a few years back).

After two albums, the group split, with Heaton going on to form the all-conquering Beautiful South. Musically, to me at least, they were hit and miss, but their songs carried on in the Housemartins tradition of detailing the absurdities of normal life – and Heaton’s hair in the video for Song for Whoever is the best example of a late-’80s long-on-top bob I’ve ever seen. He also wore CP Company and Stone Island long before they became a staple for football hooligans from the Potteries and Yorkshire.

After the demise of The Housemartins came acid house and the creative explosion in music and media that followed, led by many more young men – DJs, musicians, journalists – who shared the same background as Hull’s finest. But by the mid-’90s, this invasion of society’s cooler echelons had been taken over by those whose credentials didn’t bear up to close scrutiny, but whose long-standing links in the ‘creative industries’ ensured their success. Suddenly, everyone from Radio 1 DJs to Harry Enfield was a ‘lad’.

So Heaton withdrew into the comfort of his limited edition Mille Miglia coats and the warmth of his local. Lad he may once been, but once it became just another lazy media term, he did what we all have to – and grew up.


  1. Anonymous3:03 pm

    Having lived in Hull for three years (94-97) I can vouch for the fact that every single jukebox in the greater Hull area was hardwired to play The Housemartins every third track. Weird to see how on point their clothes look now, when at the time they got no end of pisstaking for dressing 'like old men'. Pioneers always get an arrow in the back, etc.

  2. My hair, did actually used to be a bit curly, and I did have to jell it down.
    So were does Madness fit into this equation? Or, were they more Nutty, than Laddy?


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