The Housemartins were largely ignored upon the release of their first two singles. Both Flag Day and the ultimate ear-worm Sheep failed to break the UK top 40 . However the third single from this album rectified this, with Happy Hour (see below) charting at number 3 and cementing both the commercial and critical acclaim for this album and forcing ‘all things Hull’ into the public consciousness, just as The Smiths were starting to implode internally.
Such a divide was often considered as the contrast between northerners being tough, hard partying, real ale drinkers, who played vicious contact sports in the 4 hours a week they were allowed off their factory jobs. In comparison to southerners who were perhaps, soft shandy drinking lager wendies, whose chosen past times often revolved around more cerebral pursuits such as the arts, discussing male face care treatments in the numerous hours off from the job that Daddy’s mate ‘Mungo’ had got them in the City.
Of course those are just the stereotypes from an embittered Midlander who is not accepted into either camp and no matter how true or false they may or may not be, Paul Heaton had a way of penning lyrics that garnered total inclusiveness. For instance, Happy Hour sees him bemoaning the banalities of work functions, where the social convention insists we spend time with our boss and/or colleagues, despite the fact we would rather stab ourselves in the eyes with the sharpest stolen company stationary available than waste our precious drinking drinking time in such company.
Heaton recognizes the fact that whether rich or poor, north or south, boss or mere pleb, we all have to smile inanely through such pain at some point (unless until the first person is brave enough to leave, signalling the mass exodus of the remainder). The track represents the brilliant description of this universal (mild) pain and is somehow accentuated by the fact his chosen vehicle to express this is via the sort of wonderful exuberant jangled guitar pop that also managed to draw in the ‘commercial radio crowd’, who were just beginning to realize that big hair and shoulder pads were so ‘yesterday’.
The Housemartins, despite their musical joviality, were also one of the most biting political acts around and happily moved into the area that was furrowed for them by bands such as The Pop Group and The Smiths, who invited bands to ‘say something’. As such Heaton, using the outspoken manner and wit that typifies many of the people of northern England and promoting their predominantly socialist politics, brilliantly attacked (Margaret) Thatcherism with a vitriole and a resultant populism that the actual socialist leaders of the era such as Callaghan, Foot and Kinnock inevitably failed to muster.
Sheep sees Heaton denigrate the herd mentality that was firmly fostered on both sides of the political divide, with the conservatives right being prepared to accept the status quo or the ‘different shades of blue’ whilst the socialist left were prepared to do nothing other than moan incessantly, without ever really doing anything about it. This despair about the antipathy of the British populous is also the central theme in tracks such as the albums true standout and rallying cry of Get Up off Our Knees (see below), Freedom and Sitting on a Fence.
Unfortunately much of the meaning of the lyrics may have been lost to some, amid the absolute paradox of the ‘poppy’ catchy melodies. This issue was accentuated in an era where the likes of Billy Bragg / Morrissey were the antithesis of Heaton’s beautiful vocals and delivered their messages of discontent with more ‘challenged vocals’. To some they were just too pretty to be taken seriously.