Thursday, 30 April 2020

John Mellencamp

The Best That I Could Do 

I Need A Lover/Ain't Even Done With The Night/Hurts So Good/Jack And Diane/Crumblin' Down/Pink Houses/Authority Song/Lonely Ol' Night/Small Town/R.O.C.K. In The USA/Paper In Fire/Cherry Bomb/Check It Out/Without Expression  
John Mellencamp is normally (and probably correctly) assessed as being a dime store Bruce Springsteen or Bob Seger with some riffy Stones influence in there too. Although those assessments are a bit clich├ęd they are sort of true. Mellencamp leans heavily on those artists - Springsteen for the honest whole working man blue collar image and Seger for the pounding American driving voice and growling, perfect rock voice. For whatever reason, Mellencamp (initially known as John Cougar) never truly made it properly big. This best of compilation would have you questioning why that was because, as the title suggests, it was the best he could do. However, he released many albums and many of them were patchy as he struggled to fully stamp a personality on many of the tracks. When he did nail them though, he was pretty damn good, as the fine selection on here proves. Proper driving Mid-West rock. Roll down the window and switch that power on.

I Need A Lover has an extended piano, drums and guitar intro that builds up like a Jim Steinman song until the tempo drops acoustic guitar, drums and backing vocals and Mellencamp arrives with his charismatic voice. 

Ain't Even Done With The Night is sort of Seger meets Southside Johnny vocally, over a convincing mid-pace and melodic backing.

Hurts So Good is a great track, overflowing with Stonesy riffs , handclaps, a throaty Rod Stewart-ish vocal and a singalong roll the window down chorus. It's great - one of his best ever cuts. 

Now for his absolute best one, Jack And Diane - a Springsteen-esque tale of a regular hometown US couple set against a crashing introductory riff and Mellencamp's finest ever vocal. That riff just gives me goosebumps every time - surely one of rock's greatest and the song merges acoustic and electric guitars perfectly. The lyrics are great too - "suckin' on chilli dog outside the Tastee Freez...".  If you only have two John Mellencamp songs, make them these latter two.

Crumblin' Down is a very Bob Seger-ish rocker with another killer chorus and some more Stones-derived riffs. Pink Houses is a slower tempo piece of Springsteen-style social observation. Like Bruce, Mellencamp liked a bit of social comment, probably even more so as he went on to become a bit of a spokesman for Mid-Western farmers.

Authority Song starts with a Footloose-style opening riff and is a thoroughly catchy piece of upbeat rock. The old rebel in Mellencamp is there on the lyrics as well. I really love this one. 

Lonely Ol' Night is a slightly slower tempo but still mid-pace and solid rocker. Once more, the vocal is superb. Small Town is classic Mellencamp - I don't really need to say that it has great riffs, acoustic and electric guitars in tandem, social comment and a killer vocal. This was what he was all about and I'm buying into it, that's for sure - I'd forgotten just how good some of this stuff was.

R.O.C.K. In The USA is as upbeat as the slightly cheesy title suggests that strangely reminds me of some of Neil Diamond's more lively numbers, particularly on the verse and acoustic guitar bits. 

Paper In Fire is excellent too, in the same riffy way, with some swampy guitar hints and Cajun-ish accordion swirling around. Cherry Bomb has a bit of a rhythmic swing to it and some fetching harmonica that differentiates it just slightly from the material thus far. Check It Out is a slow burner of a rock ballad with a tinge of sadness to it. 

Without Expression is an infectious, bassy mid-pacer with Mellencamp singing in a softer style. Another great song.

This is a really good, enjoyable compilation from an artist who, if this material is the benchmark, was a bit underrated.

Uh-Huh (1983)

Crumblin' Down/Pink Houses/Authority Song/Warmer Place To Sleep/Jackie O/Play Guitar/Serious Business/Lovin' Mother Fo Ya/Golden Gates

1983's rocking Uh-Huh was one of John Mellencamp's best albums. I will cover the songs not dealt with in the above "best of" review, which exclude the album's first three excellent songs that provided such a fine introduction to the album. It is a solidly Mid-Western album with an undercurrent of downtrodden broken dream Springsteen-style emotion running through it. It is Mellencamp's Darkness On The Edge Of Town, comparatively. Not quite as bleak or lyrically astute, but it certainly has its cynical moments.

The rocking, riffy quality is continued on Warmer Place To Sleep with rocks a hard as the previous three numbers had. Jackie O was a song that Mellencamp later credited to John Prine and it has a laid-back country rock vibe to it, totally different to Mellencamp's usual fare. 

Play Guitar sees Mellencamp returning to business as usual on a thumper of a rock number - chunky riffs and kick-ass vocals. The guitar sounds like Them's Gloria at one point.

Serious Business is an excellent bassy rocker full of Stonesy riffage while Lovin' Mother Fo Ya has a punky edge to it and a Jagger-like vocal. You know, this stuff is really good. Golden Gates ends this strangely short album (less than thirty minutes) with a fine muscular ballad. Good album.

Scarecrow (1985)

Rain On The Scarecrow/Grandma's Theme/Small Town/Minutes To Memories/Lonely Ol' Night/The Face Of The Nation/Justice And Independence '85/Between A Laugh And A Tear/Rumbletear/You've Got To Stand For Something/R.O.C.K. In The USA/The Kind Of Fella I Am

From 1985, this was John Mellencamp's powerful blue collar statement. I have concentrated on the tracks not included on the Best Of compilation reviewed above. It was arguably his finest album although there is a paper-thin difference between it and Uh-Huh. This one probably just edges it due to slightly more variety, musically, in the compositions. It plays as a pretty cohesive album.

Rain On The Scarecrow is a brooding and blistering protest song in support of Mid-Western farmers. The crackly old Grandma's Theme is pretty superfluous but I guess it sort of leads into the power of Small Town

Minutes To Memories is blue-collar rock by numbers, but it is still a fine track, with a strong vocal and hook. Mellencamp spits out his invective against the system convincingly. Protest rock at its best.

The Face Of The Nation has a quirky, staccato bass-driven beat before the song breaks out into another powerful rocker. The lower-key verses give it a different appeal to some of the earlier material. 

Justice And Independence '85 also has a catchiness to its verses and a big hooky chorus. It also has a captivating "drum solo" part in the middle.

Between A Laugh And A Tear is one of those acoustic and electric guitar fusion songs that Mellencamp did so well around this time. Once again, he nails down a great chorus. 

Rumbletear has echoes of Bruce Springsteen in places on the deep vocal verses. It almost seems to go without saying now that the chorus is great. 

You've Got To Stand For Something sees Mellencamp looking back on his past and nailing his colours to the mast on a grinding, brooding rocker. 

The Kind Of Fella I Am is a melodic rocker to finish up with. As I said earlier, there is more musical variety on this album and it stands as a fine eighties rock album. Thankfully there was still some proper rock around in the mid-eighties.

© Lynn Goldsmith

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Generation X

Generation X (1978)

From The Heart/One Hundred Punks/Listen/Ready Steady Go/Kleenex/Promises Promises/Day By Day/The Invisible Man/Kiss Me Deadly/Too Personal/Youth Youth Youth     
There were punks from the top drawer (we know who those were), there were those slightly from the next drawer down like Stiff Little Fingers then there were those from the third drawer like Generation X. I was never into them at the time and I still keep that stance, to an extent, although as you will see I am warming to this album. I viewed them as uninspiring “plastic” punks whose Buzzcocks riffs, standard punk drumming and contrived sneering vocals from bleached blond Billy Idol were nothing more than ordinary. Guitarist Bob Andrews could play though and his soloing gives the album something extra, I have to say. This album, their first, from March 1978, certainly makes no “punk best of” lists, for me, but revisiting it has been surprisingly enjoyable. It is loud, riffy, tinny and exciting. It is no The Clash, The Ramones, In The City or even Inflammable Material, but it is ok. Of its time, of course.

From The Heart is a rousing, punk-by-numbers opener with a couple of good guitar bits and One Hundred Punks has an in-your-face anthemic, fist-pumping vibe to it. Bob Andrews contributes another searing guitar solo. Musically, it is pretty straightforward, however, although there is a lively inventiveness to Listen on occasions. It is quite Buzzcocks influenced.


Ready Steady Go was a minor hit single and it brings back memories for me of 1978. It is a catchy tribute to the iconic sixties music show but it always irritated me a bit - where Billy Idol sings “Cathy McGow-ow-ow-ow-an...”. 

Kleenex is a bit of a silly typical punker. Promises Promises is not the Buzzcocks song, it is an extended attempt at a punk anthem, sort of Still Little Fingers and The Ruts meeting The Boomtown Rats. Actually, it’s quite good. Probably the best track on the album.

Day By Day is a frantic thrash that tells of going round and round on the Circle Line. The Invisible Man, all stabbing riffs and rolling punk drums is a bit like those songs Bruce Foxton wrote for The Jam, lyrically. 

Kiss Me Deadly tries to be a punk ballad with its pre-Billy Bragg guitar and Who-esque dramatic drum breaks. It features possibly Idol’s best vocal.

Too Personal is a solid slice of punk while the final number, Youth Youth Youth, is another attempt at a lengthy classic. It lumbers on a bit too long but it certainly has enough attack in it too retain one’s interest and the guitar solo is positively incendiary. Nice feedback drenched ending too.

I may have been a bit unfair on this one. I didn’t go for it in 1978 but feel more positively about it now. It is a surprisingly good album and a worthy debut.

** The bonus track single Your Generation is a pounding, thumping killer of a track with a coal mine deep bass line throbbing along throughout. 

Its b side was the equally bumptious, stomping, glammy Wild Youth. Both are good ones. Wild Dub is great too, with some excellent bass and drums. A bit Clash-like in places.

No No No is a frenetic Ramones meets early Stiff Little Fingers thrash. Trying For Kicks is a Buzzcocks-fashion grinder. This Heat is very early Boomtown Rats in its feel. All these tracks would have been fine on the album.

Valley Of The Dolls (1979)

Running With The Boss Sound/Night Of The Cadillacs/Paradise West/Friday's Angels/King Rocker/Valley Of The Dolls/English Dream/Love Like Fire/The Prime Of Kenny Silvers, Pt.1/The Prime Of Kenny Silvers, Pt. 2/Gimme Some Truth/Shakin' All Over                                                    
In January 1979, Generation X tried to shake off their punk beginnings and show that they were proper, credible rockers. They employed ex-Mott the Hoople legend Ian Hunter to produce this, their second. While punks like them were using an old rocker like Hunter to produce their album, Hunter used Mick Jones of The Clash to help produce his latest album a few years later. Punks wanted to be rockers, rockers wanted to be punks. A strange time was 1979-80.

The album didn't really work or attract sales and Generation X split in November 1979. To be honest it is a very strange creation, not fitting in with any genre, difficult to categorise.

Running With The Boss Sound starts with a Mott The Hoople-sounding glammy anthemic guitar blast before it settles into a mid-pace new wave rock grind, similar to The Boomtown Rats or some of Ian Hunter's solo material. Billy Idol sounds quite Geldof-like on this. There are vague influences of Bruce Springsteen's 1977-78 output too. Funnily enough it would have fitted quite well on The River or the Tracks box set. Maybe "the boss sound" was not a coincidence.

Night Of The Cadillacs was like a typical Mott The Hoople mish-mash, like Violence or Crash Street Kids, just not as good. It was a bit like the stuff ex-Mott The Hoople bassist Overend Watts wrote when Hunter left and the band became Mott

Paradise West is an attempt to be a Springsteen meets The Boomtown Rats street anthem but it never really gets there, despite some grandiose guitar parts. Its five minutes plus don't realise any potential it may have had. Yes, it has a few good points (a great guitar solo, for one) but probably more unconvincing ones. A few listens, though, and it does sound better, so there you go. 

Friday's Angels sounds like an Ian Hunter bonus unreleased track that didn't make it on to an album.


Next up were two singles, the moderately successful but annoying (to me, anyway) rock 'n' roll pastiche of King Rocker and the chugging sub-Clash meets Rebel Rebel rock of Valley Of The Dolls. I didn't really go for either of these at the time and they still sound decidedly ordinary. 

English Dream is ok, but once again in a very Ian Hunter/Boomtown Rats sort of way. It is probably one of the album's better cuts, however.

Love Like Fire is clunky, uninspiring sub-heavy rock. While one-time punk bands like The Clash and The Jam moved on successfully with albums like Give 'Em Enough Rope, London Calling, All Mod Cons and Setting Sons and even lesser punks like Stiff Little Fingers released Nobody's Heroes and Go For It! material like this ensured that Generation X would not do the same thing.

The Prime Of Kenny Silvers, Pt. 1 finds the band trying to be The Who or The Jam in a character-driven song mixed with the street-drama of Bruce Springsteen or Bob Geldof. Pt. 1 merges seamlessly into Pt. 2 and the tempo drops a little. Look, it is ok, but as with most of the album it just sound right, whereas Rat Trap did. This was no Jungleland or anything off Quadrophenia or Down In The Tube Station At Midnight. It was a bit of a shame, because its intentions are fine,  but some songs make it and some don't.

John Lennon's Gimme Some Truth is given a speeded-up punk makeover in which, ironically, Idol condemns punk rockers. Again, you could see what was trying to be achieved here and once more, it didn't quite work. It ends up like Sham 69 with chanted "truth" shouts. 

Another cover ends the album - Johnny Kidd & The Pirates' Shakin' All Over, something Ian Hunter regularly covered live, much more convincingly. So it was farewell, then to Generation X, probably rightly. Billy Idol went on to have a few solo hits, notably White Wedding and Rebel Yell in the mid-eighties.

Tuesday, 21 April 2020

Ry Cooder

Chicken Skin Music (1976)

The Bourgeois Blues/I Got Mine/Always Lift Him Up/Kanaka Wai Wai/He'll Have To Go/Smack Dab In The Middle/Stand By Me/Yellow Roses/Chloe/Goodnight Irene                                                  
This delightful, comparatively underrated album from Ry Cooder dates from 1976. There is blues, country, folk, soul, r 'n' b, gospel and understated rock in here. It all mixes perfectly to back Cooder's pleasantly unassuming voice.

The Bourgeois Blues is a cover of a Leadbelly blues full of scratchy, pickin' guitar, harmonica and lyrics concerning racial segregation. 

I Got Mine sees the instrumentation and overall improved somewhat from the earthy previous track. It is a slow-paced but solid number enhanced by some New Orleans funereal-sounding brass. It has a fetching old-style guitar solo before the song lifts up to a brassy, gospel ascension. Similarly uplifting is Blind Alfred Reed's Always Lift Him Up, which features a gentle Cooder vocal over subtle gospel backing vocals, some beautiful instrumentation and a Hawaiian gospel tune merged into the mid-song instrumental part. When this kicks in the result is simply lovely. Oh how quiet pieces of music can sometimes be so moving. Incidentally, the album was recorded in Hawaii.


The Jim Reeves country standard He'll Have To Go is given a Tex-Mex/Mariachi makeover, with Mexican brass breaks and an almost reggae-style beat. Cooder's liking for a bluesy r 'n' b tune is satisfied by the syncopated, staccato strains of Smack Dab In The Middle. He liked to cover a classic too, and he does so here with a slow and soulful rendition of Ben E. King's Stand By Me made even more attractive with a Tex-Mex accordion.

Yellow Roses is a cover of an old Hank Snow country hit, given a bit of a Hawaiian makeover on the guitar parts. Chloe is a relaxing guitar-driven instrumental with jazzy hints. The album ends with another Leadbelly cover in Goodnight Irene that also has a New Orleans sound to it. Overall, this is a very enjoyable, low-key album that simply brings quiet pleasure.

Bop Till You Drop (1979)

Little Sister/Go Home Girl/The Very Thing That Makes You Rich (Makes Me Poor)/I Think It’s Going To Work Out Fine/Down In Hollywood/Look At Granny Run Run/Trouble, You Can’t Fool Me/Don’t Mess Up A Good Thing/I Can’t Win

This was, on the surface, a thoroughly incongruous album from 1979, released as it was at the height of punk/new wave/disco. It is a laid-back serving of soul-influenced country/Americana rock that would have gone down well in 1972, but maybe not in 1979. Cooder didn't particularly look the part for 1979, either, being a throwback to the late fifties/early sixties in many ways. That said, it has always been critically-acclaimed. It is immaculately played by Cooder and his band, but its sound is a little low and lacking in punch, despite the album’s claim to game as the very first fully digital recording. In 1979 I was too bothered about The  Clash and The Jam to pay this any attention, but by 1984 I had got into it, as my tastes matured. It is actually a great album. I certainly love it now. The more I listen to it, the more I like it.

I have always liked the gentle country rock sway of Cooder’s cover of Elvis’s Little Sister. Although this is a good cover, I actually prefer the rock 'n' roll guitar-driven Presley version. 

Go Home Girl is a cousin of The Rolling Stones/Arthur Alexander’s You Better Move On. Indeed, it is an Arthur Alexander song. No wonder I thought that. It is a fine track, full of close to the border Tex-Mex melodies and romanticism. 

The Very Thing That Makes You Rich (Makes Me Poor) is a delicious piece of intuitive, melodic blues with a warm, bassy but subtle backing. Dire Straits will have loved this, no doubt. Check out the buzzy slide guitar half way through. A similar feel is found on the quality instrumental I Think It’s Going To Work Out Fine. Top notch musicianship.


Down In Hollywood is an infectiously funky number with a sort of Dr. John/New Orleans groove to it. It slowly swings along most attractively with a gritty edge to it. It features a Stevie Wonder Living For The City spoken bit too and backing vocals that remind me of something else that I can’t put my finger on. It was the album’s only Cooder original composition. 

Look At Granny Run Run is a catchy slice of upbeat country blues, once again featuring some fine backing vocals. These vocals are provided by none other than Chaka Khan, by the way.

Trouble, You Can’t Fool Me is soulful country blues at its best, full of Band-influenced vibes. Great guitar picking solo in there too. Don’t Mess Up A Good Thing has Chaka Khan duetting with Cooder on a Fontella Bass number enhanced by some more killer slide guitar. 

I Can’t Win is a heartfelt piece of slow gospel soul to end this short, but eminently appealing album. Ry Cooder, similar to Boz Scaggs and Robbie Robertson, is someone I feel I should give more time to. One of those respected artists that has people nodding their heads and saying “good call” if you mention them.

Borderline (1980)

634-5789/Speedo/Why Don't You Try Me/Down In The Boondocks/Johnny Porter/The Way We Make A Broken Heart/Crazy 'Bout An Automobile (Every Woman I Know)/The Girls From Texas/Borderline/Never Make Your Move Too Soon

This album, from 1980, was also released while new wave was the main sound around, but it remained oblivious to that in its country-influenced Latin vibes and slow rock 'n' roll/ soulful r 'n' b debts. It is fine little album that has slipped underneath many people's radars.

634-5789 is a lively, jaunty cover of the Wilson Pickett song, driven along by some groovy organ and a soulful vocal from Cooder. It has some quirky, appealing instrumental breaks in the middle, too. 

Speedo is a reggae-infused bluesy workout with a gruff Cooder vocal and call-and-response backing vocals. It features a nice, Latin-ish guitar solo too.

Why Don't You Try Me is a delightful track - an uplifting gospelly soulful ballad with a killer, vibrant chorus. I love it, and did so way back then too. It is overflowing with great instrumentation and top notch vocals, with Cooder giving it the big, deep voice soul growler at one point. When Cooder raises his voice skywards in the final verse/chorus the effect is spine-tingling. 

Down In The Boondocks is a cover of a Billy Joe Royal-Joe South-penned song and Cooder gives his it his trademark laid-back Americana/soul veneer.


Johnny Porter is a brooding, deep, bassy piece of swampy blues with a Polk Salad Annie Tony Joe White/Elvis feel to it. The guitar picking solo near the end is superb. Cooder has always liked a Delbert McClinton-style Latin Border country song and we get a great one here in the romantic The Way We Make A Broken Heart. It is actually a John Hiatt song. 

Crazy 'Bout An Automobile (Every Woman I Know) is a Stax-style r 'n' b number with one of those spoken intros before it breaks into its shuffling, addictive blues groove. Southside Johnny no doubt loved this.

The Girls From Texas is a pure singalong country stomper, Borderline is another John Hiatt number, this time a catchy instrumental and Never Make Your Move Too Soon is a Dr. John-influenced piece of New Orleans-style blues rock. As I said at the start, this is a pleasurable album, up there with (and possibly ahead of) Bop Till You Drop.

The Prodigal Son (2018)

Straight Street/Shrinking Man/Gentrification/Everybody Ought To Treat A Stranger Right/The Prodigal Son/Nobody’s Fault But Mine/You Must Unload/I’ll Be Rested When The Roll Is Called/Harbor Of Love/Jesus And Woody/In His Care 

Veteran Ry Cooder joined forces with his son Joachim on this impressive 2018 journey back into his blues, r 'n' b, gospel and soul roots. Most instruments are played by Cooder himself. It tails off a bit towards the end, but there is still some quality stuff on here.
Straight Street starts slowly, with just a bluesy sounding strummed guitar before Cooder’s gruff, soulful, sleepy voice arrives and then the drums and a lovely warm, deep bass too and we are into a perfect piece of Americana. The song has an uplifting, gently gospelly chorus that is full of melodic soul. Indeed, the song was a 1950s gospel hit for The Pilgrim Travelers. Cooder gives it an effortless dignity. Great stuff. It is a great introduction to the album and is probably its best track.

Shrinking Man is a solid bluesy jug band-ish stomper that features some Chris Rea-style slide guitar runs. Gentrification is a staccato, rhythmic blurs with big hints of world music, particularly West African griot-style, all over it. 

Everybody Ought To Treat A Stranger Right is a Blind Willie Johnson blues that is given a solid, slide-driven rocky makeover here. 

The Prodigal Son is a traditional blues that rocks with huge, bassy muscle and is powered along by searing guitar and tub-thumping drums. So much of this album reminds me of some of Chris Rea’s Blue Guitars work, especially the first few CDs of that set.


Nobody’s Fault But Mine is the Blind Wille Johnson song previously recorded by Led Zeppelin. Here it is done in a mysterious, grainy, authentic and mournful blues style. 

You Must Unload is adapted from an old hymn and take to task the greedy, the selfish, immoral, hypocritical and the decadent. Played out against an almost Irish-sounding air it is a marvellous song with a fine message. The fools who currently run a lot of the world would do well to heed this.

I’ll Be Rested When The Roll Is Called is a rousing piece of country blues. Bruce Springsteen in Seeger Sessions mode would love this, I’m sure. 

Harbor Of Love has a gentle, almost folky feel to it in its acoustic strains. Bob Dylan would love this one too, I feel. It features some lovely guitar. 

Jesus And Woody is a Cooder original that has Jesus requesting that Woody Guthrie sing to him as they were both “dreamers”. In His Care is a gospelly stomp to end on. This is a genuine, authentic slice of Americana of an album, delving deep into the history of the blues. Yes it is retrospective, but gloriously so.

Saturday, 18 April 2020

The Pet Shop Boys

Please (1986)

Two Divided By Zero/West End Girls/Opportunities (Let's Make Lots Of Money)/Love Comes Quickly/Suburbia/Opportunities/Tonight Is Forever/Violence/I Want A Lover/Later Tonight/Why Don't We Live Together?    
I will be totally honest here, I was never really into The Pet Shop Boys, finding that their somewhat contrived, narcissistic image just wasn't my thing. Neither was their electro-dance-pop music, particularly, either. However, from 1986 onwards, for a few years, their music was everywhere, so it sort of has a nostalgic feel for me in a perverse sort of way. There was definitely a character and an atmosphere to their creations and ex-music journalist Neil Tennant had a knack for a killer lyric, that was for sure. There is no way I will dismiss their music.

Incidentally, the tiny images on the cover was, I am sure, a deliberate ploy to say "don't notice us - now make damn sure you notice us...". Clever move.

Two Divided By Zero kicks things off with masses of programmed drums and synthesisers (not a favourite thing of mine) but is has an oomph to it and Tennant's laconic, drawlingly gay-sounding voice gives it something special. He was Marc Almond with bags more deliberate ennui. 

West End Girls was the group's first big hit and remains the song they are known for best, with its mysterious ambience, semi-rap vocal (the style would be used by Madonna on Vogue several years later), sweeping synthesised strings and throbbing bass. It represented the hedonistic, carefree, city-loving self-obsessed mid eighties culture as much as any other song. This is not a criticism. It is a truly great song. 

Also latching on to the "loadsamoney" acquisitive zeitgeist is the tongue-in-cheek, cynical Opportunities (Let's Make Lots Of Money). "I've got the brains, you've got the looks - let's make lots of money..." - how very 1986. Clever dance pop was The Pet Shop Boys' bag. It built on the foundations laid by Soft Cell's Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret but in a more world-weary, less sexual fashion.

Love Comes Quickly has another rubbery bass sound and some ethereal vocals/synths. It is full of atmosphere. Madonna would produce a whole album like this eight years later with Bedtime Stories, so there was considerable influence here.

Maybe my favourite Pet Shop Boys number is the extremely evocative Suburbia, with its wonderful chorus hook and Tennant's bored-sounding but deeply cutting voice. A brief reprise of Opportunities leads into the beguiling groove of Tonight Is Forever. It is a rhythmic, attractive number with yet more impressive, convincing semi-spoken quietly-dominant vocals. Violence is similarly brooding with a nice deep bassy sound.

I Want A Lover is a more upbeat piece of electro disco pop. Even on a more throwaway song like this, though, the lyrics are sharp and acerbic. "I don't want another drink or fight, I want a lover...". Indeed. Can't argue with that. 

Later Tonight is the album's only plaintive, piano-driven ballad and Why Don't We Live Together? returns to Madonna-style dance pop vibes.

As I said, not essentially my thing, but a worthy and credible album all the same, overflowing with the feel of 1986.

Saturday, 4 April 2020

The Housemartins

The Best Of The Housemartins

Happy Hour/Five Get Over Excited/Caravan Of Love/Think For A Minute/Me And The Farmer/Flag Day/Sheep/Build/There Is Always Something There To Remind Me/Anxious/Hopelessly Devoted To Them/I Smell Winter/The People Who Grinned Themselves To Death/I'll Be Your Shelter (Just Like A Shelter) 
They were an odd entity, The Housemartins, formed in 1983 by Paul Heaton and Stan Cullimore in Hull, they became successful in the "loadsamoney", me first, 1986-87 period on the back of Socialist politics and a supposedly authentic working class credibility. Fair to play to them for that, but there was always something a little contrived and pretentious about them, for me. Bassist Quentin Cook (later to achieve mega-stardom as DJ Norman "Fatboy Slim" Cook) was from the comparatively wealthy Tory heartlands of Bromley in Kent as opposed to Hull and the always "challenging" character of Paul Heaton has vaguely irritated me for years, despite the fact that I love so much of his subsequent work with The Beautiful South. He referred to himself as P.D. Heaton during his time with The Housemartins, slightly for effect, I'm sure. Stan Cullimore's real first names were Ian Peter. Presumably he called himself Stan either as a nickname derived from footballer Stan Collymore or to enhance his traditional working class credentials. The former is more likely, I think, although I don't know, so forgive me if I'm wrong.

The band's line up changed several times in a short period of time, (Cook was the second bassist, for example) and another subsequent arrival was Dave Hemingway who also left when the band split, to form The Beautiful South with Heaton.

The group's sound was typical mid-eighties, "indie" jangly, guitar-driven but melodic pop, with a cynical, observation, wry style to their lyrics, much like The Smiths. Their breezy, upbeat sound suited the era perfectly but it was the pathos in their lyrics and innate sadness in Heaton's vocal delivery that made them stick out for me. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in their first hit, the irresistibly catchy Happy Hour. It is here that Heaton's sad beneath the surface voice was first heard by me. I have loved it ever since. Although I have always found him a frustratingly perverse character, his voice and lyrics have always struck a chord with me. It taps into the mid-eighties "fun" trend of pubs offering "happy hours" of cheap drinks. There was no happiness in Thatcher's Britain, however, (not for me, anyway) and the song's sad undercurrent emphasises that.

This is an enjoyable compilation for "part time" fans like me. The sound on the group's work has never been great, though, and has always suffered from being a bit tinny.


Five Get Over Excited is similarly frantic and poppy, a sort of Beach Boys pastiche mixed with that indie pop ear for a tune. Apparently, a lot of the group's long time fans were not happy with their surprise number one hit, an a capella cover of Isley Jasper Isley's Caravan Of Love. Not me, I absolutely love it. It is the finest thing they ever did and gets me all tearful every time I hear it. I won't hear a word said against it. Magnificent stuff. Heaton's finest moment, possibly, despite all his subsequent success.

The lovely Think For A Minute is precursor to The Beautiful South's material, featuring another fine vocal. Check out that wonderful Beatles/Billy Bragg-esque French horn solo too. 

Me And The Farmer is a delightfully effervescent, lively number full of vocal harmonies and great guitar. It is simply irrepressible. The more restrained, slightly sombre Flag Day has a lovely, warm bass line before it breaks out into a big, dramatic chorus backed by more impressive brass.

Sheep has a similar frantic rhythm to Happy Hour and more cynical lyrics. Build is a great track, with a killer slow hook and another great bass, a real signpost as to The Beautiful South. Heaton's voice is again heartbreaking in its baleful timbre. Nobody delivers quite like he does. As I said, I will always love him for it. 

There Is Always Something There To Remind Me is a bit low-key and mournful, lacking their usual joie de vivre but this returns with the infectious, almost rockabilly rhythm of Anxious

Hopelessly Devoted To Them is another Happy Hour-influenced poppy number with more acerbic, wry lyrics. I Smell Winter has a thumping, slightly Motown-ish beat and another pre-Beautiful South feel.

The People Who Grinned Themselves To Death is a very Smiths-ish number and one of the first when you feel The Housemartins are sounding more like somebody else than themselves. The brass breaks are more their own, however. 

I'll Be Your Shelter (Just Like A Shelter) is an initially evocative, plaintive, piano-driven ballad with a big gospelly chorus to end this brief and invigorating collection with. It is probably the album's most adventurous number. There are so many signs as to the potential Heaton and Hemingway had in this material. Not so much for Cook, for his success was the result of a huge diversification.

London 0 Hull 4 (1986)

Happy Hour/Get Up Off Our Knees/Flag Day/Anxious/Reverends Revenge/Sitting On A Fence/Sheep/Over There/Think For A Minute/We're Not Deep/Lean On Me/Freedom  

This was The Housemartins' debut album from 1986. The band itself and many of the songs have been dealt with above on the review for The Best Of The Housemartins.

As an album, it was a most impressive debut offering and went along aside The Smiths, Billy Bragg and The Style Council as a bold statement for those of us who objected to the government of the time to hang our hats on. It is not merely throwaway pop, not at all. There are dark, often cynical and dispiriting messages contained within the admittedly infectious music. The Housemartins had all the anger, vitriol and rage of The Clash, The Jam or The Sex Pistols but they coated with a jangly pop sensibility which made them special. Paul Heaton and Dave Hemingway would continue that with The Beautiful South.

The tracks I have not covered are as follows. Get Up Of Our Knees is a typical piece of acidic yet melodic Paul Heaton political invective with his bitter message sweetened by an incredibly catchy tune. Heaton wants the disaffected to "not shoot someone tomorrow that you could shoot today...". Basically, stop moaning and get into direct action. Fair point, I guess, but I wonder what he actually did to back up his words. The same as me, I would imagine, carried on moaning...


Reverends Revenge is a very Happy Hour-ish, lively instrumental which features a typically Housemartins beat and some pure 1964 Rolling Stones harmonica. 

Sitting On A Fence is very Beautiful South in its sound and could easily have been from their 1989 Choke album. It features a bit of a drum solo followed by some funky bass and is a really good track, full of vitality and impressive musicianship. 

Over There is a solid, bassy rocker that again sounds like the sort of stuff The Beautiful South would specialise in a few years later. There is a nice guitar solo part in the middle. These lads could play, something that was often overlooked.

We're Not Deep is irresistibly toe-tapping with a killer bass line and some uplifting vocals. 

Lean On Me is not the Bill Withers song but an equally inspirational, plaintive, gospel-influenced Heaton (written with sixties veteran Pete Wingfield) song performed against a piano backing. Freedom is a sort of Motown meets punk stomper to end this short but rousing album.

The sound on the deluxe edition is an improvement on the original and it is always a genuine pleasure to dig this out. It is an often forgotten great album of the eighties, make no mistake about that. Highly recommended.

** The non-albums tracks include the excellent Elvis Costello meets Nick Lowe meets Billy Bragg thrash of Stand At Ease; the bassy, easy groove pop of You; a jaunty instrumental in Coal Train To Hatfield; a fetching a capella cover of Aretha Franklin's People Get Ready and the punchy, jangle pop of Drop Down Dead. All impressive tracks.

Added to that list is the frantic, harmonica-driven instrumental The Mighty Ship; another impressive a capella cover in The Hollies' He Ain't Heavy He's My Brother; a punky, vaguely Irish-sounding instrumental in Who Needs The Limelight; more unaccompanied vocal in the gospel of Joy Joy Joy and the amusing cod-rap of Rap Around The Clock.

The People Who Grinned Themselves To Death (1987)

The People Who Grinned Themselves To Death/I Can't Put My Finger On It/The Light Is Always Green/The World's On Fire/Pirate Aggro/We're Not Going Back/Me And The Farmer/Five Get Over Excited/Johannesburg/Bow Down/You Better Be Doubtful/Build 
This, from 1987, was the second and last album from The Housemartins before they went their separate ways to other projects. It is less Smiths-influenced than their debut album and more Motown-esque in its bassy, rhythmic catchiness. Paul Heaton always loved classic soul/pop.

The People Who Grinned Themselves To Death is a vitriolic jibe against the Royal Family hidden behind the group's usual catchy poppiness. I find this a bit sour, to be honest - despite my left-wing politics and punk youth I've actually never bothered much about the Royals. I quite like the history of it all, so there you go - I'm as contradictory a character as Paul Heaton.

The breezy pop of I Can't Put My Finger On It has a delicious, deep bass line and a better sound quality the one was used to on Housemartins recordings. 

The Light Is Still Green is a solid slowish ecologically-motivated number with a wonderful line in "wherever there's a will there's a motorway...". Paul Heaton, despite some shortcomings, was always a great lyricist, and indeed still is.


The World's On Fire is more chunky and riffy than many Housemartins tracks before it breaks out into a typical chorus. Pirate Aggro is a short  organ-driven instrumental. 

We're Not Going Back is a solid riffy rocker enhanced by some bluesy harmonica. Me And The Farmer is irresistible from beginning to end with a fine guitar solo in the middle too. 

Five Get Over Excited is delightful, upbeat bit of cynical Beach Boys meet the late eighties fun. It is full of great lyrics - too many to keep quoting.

Johannesburg is a slow acoustic ballad whose lyrics and meaning I have to say I don't really get. It is one of Heaton's more cryptic numbers. Is it about South Africa? If so, where? If where, what does it mean? Heaton was often a perplexing lyricist. 

Bow Down returns to the archetypal Housemartins thumping and brassy pop sound. You Better Be Doubtful has a warm, bassy and melodic beat and another of those nasal but strangely evocative Heaton vocals. Build is a sad, baleful goodbye from this short-lived but actually quite ground-breaking and quietly influential group.