“Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.”
There was one reason I went to Hull University. It wasn’t the Humber Bridge, nor the well-regarded drama department, nor even the ghost of Philip Larkin that took me there – though the hermit of Hull did exert some pull. There were, well, four reasons: Paul, Stan, Norman and Hugh (later Dave, so make that five). They were The Housemartins, according to their own description, “the fourth best band in Hull”.
1986 was the year of the Housemartins. Four singles released, three of which made the top 20, a first national tour – albeit with the band kipping on fans’ floors as part of the “Adopt a Housemartin” scheme – and a debut album with the best title of all time: London 0 Hull 4. To cap it all the lads set their sights on the festive top spot. And they made it – with Caravan of Love – for one week only, before being knocked off at the last minute by the rerelease of Jackie Wilson’s Reet Petite.
Sheep was the Housemartins’ second single, released in March of that year and reaching No 54. Not even an interview and live slot on Wacaday could pull the band into the top 40 for the first time, but the single remains a shining introduction to their particular slice of jangle pop in all its silly-serious naivety. The band were on the brink of greater things – Happy Hour’s plasticine playfulness stormed the top 10 and the a cappella Caravan of Love heralded Christmas as the lads weebled down the aisle from The House of Strangeness to Top of the Pops – but Sheep will always be for me the quintessence of Housemartinism.
Their knitwear is glorious; two cardigans and a tank top. Their dancing is, as always, top drawer. They seem to come from simpler times, when you could find a Housemartin under your eaves or spot one picking up condensed soup in Jacksons supermarket. They appeared on No 73. the day after a gig at Treforest Polytechnic. The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. Yet for all the comfiness, they were a spiky band, singing about a combination of muscular Christianity and raging socialism – the Sheep of this song’s titles are the poor huddled masses who forget to yearn to be free: “It’s sheep we’re up against.”
At the end of the video Paul Heaton skilfully traps a football thrown into shot with his shoulder, elegantly cushions it with his knee and can’t quite get his shot away. There is a suspicion of handball. Never mind Maradona, the Housemartins were 1986.
Many years after leaving Hull I bumped into Stan Cullimore, their guitarist, after a performance of The Jungle Book for which he’d written the a cappella music. I told him he’d changed my life. He ran away.
This video was recorded by The Tube in 1986. Sheep was released in March 1986, 30 years ago! Ⓐ