Graded on a Curve:
The Housemartins,
London 0 Hull 4

You’ve gotta love a band of chipper Christian lads who deliver lines like “Don’t shoot someone tomorrow that you can shoot today.”

I’m talking, of course, about The Housemartins. Hailing from Hull, England, these Socialists for Jesus dressed up their angry agitprop in jangly pop clothing, but there’s no denying their righteous anger–they didn’t like what they saw in Margaret Thatcher’s Green and Unpleasant Land, and they lifted their cheery voices and, well, raged.

On their 1986 debut LP London 0 Hull 4, The Housemartins denounce fence sitters, sheep (“They’ve never questioned anything”), surrender monkeys (“Now apathy is happy that/It won without a fight”) and people who “listen without their ears.” The Housemartins practiced a radical Christianity, as is evidenced by the lines, “We’ve got to form a congregation and sink down the nation/Batter all the sinners to the ground.”

Ignore the words and what you get are a bunch of fey and frothy tunes with great soul vocals; this quartet of Hullensians could almost be mistaken for Wham!, except Wham! never advocated shooting anybody–they were too busy inspiring people to shoot them.

Sanctimony never sounded so divine as it does on London 0 Hull 4. What you get are four choirboys who sound like they just tossed off their cassocks and surplices, and their angelic (and very soulful) voices and jangly guitars put a deceptively ear-pleasing gloss on their very subversive messaging. Which basically amounts to “Wake up you complacent wankers, the rich and indifferent are bringing our country down around your working class ears.”

They certainly get their point across on “Get Up Off Your Knees,” the pleasantly upbeat tune that includes the “shoot someone today” lines. Radicals that they are, the lads forego the power of prayer in favor of more direct action–“Time to end the praying,” sings Paul Heaton, “Listen what they’re saying.” That said, their message isn’t always so clear; I can’t for the life of me decide whether the very happy-making “We’re Not Deep” is a simple anthem to sleeping late, or a pointed jab at folks who refuse to wake up and smell the bitter coffee.

On the melancholy piano rocker “Flag Day” (think Elton John circa Blue Moves) Heaton writes off staging appeals for the poor (“It’s a waste of time if you know what I mean”). Which doesn’t make him a fucking Libertarian so much as a wild-eyed radical looking for, er, more drastic means of wealth distribution–“Too many Florence Nightingales/Not enough Robin Hoods,” he sings, “Too many haloes and not enough heroes/Coming up with the goods.”

“Happy Hour” is a bouncy salute to the dubious joys of joining your workmates for a drink after work–haircuts smile, you’re out with the boss, everybody’s busy opening their wallets and closing their minds. No wonder Heaton sings–and I have to say he reminds me a bit of good old Morrissey–”It’s happy hour again/I think I might be happy if I wasn’t out with them.”

“Sheep” is as happy-making musically as it’s straightforward lyrically; “It’s sheep we’re up against,” sings Heaton, and that’s a message that always rings true. “Think for a Minute” goes against the grain insofar as it’s downbeat on all fronts–the song’s medium tempo fits the lyrics about England’s decline into hopelessness and apathy like a glove. It’s an enjoinder to stop and think, but Heaton doesn’t sound so sure anybody’s listening.

“Freedom”’s message is simple enough: “So this is freedom/They must be joking.” But if that sounds like a bummer, just try to not sing along. As for “Lean on Me” it’s the LP’s odd song out, a stripped down, straight-up gospel number (not to be confused with the Bill Withers’ classic) that limns the limits of despair: “Down and out without hope” sings Heaton over and over again to the accompaniment of a piano, and his voice is as lovely as it is doeful.

My only complaint with London 0 Hull Four is that while its lyrics are pointed, they may not be pointed enough–they lack the ugly specifics and quicksilver imagery of your best agitprop. That said, if you’re looking for an album that will make you happy and make you think, this one will be your cup of tea.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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