One of the great mysteries of popular music is exactly why fate chooses a particular band to become legendary – treated with holy reverence by great swathes of the listening public – when the vast majority either tread the boards for years to an enthusiastic but small fanbase, or disappear completely after a promising start, to the notice of, well, nobody. The example that springs to mind is The Stone Roses – only one-and-a-bit decent albums, a singer that couldn’t really sing, but they are quite justifiably worshipped by those whose lives they entered and changed forever, generating countless spin-off books, photography exhibitions, and finally a feature-length documentary.
It has to do with timing, of course, and geographic location – if you wanted to become a legendary band in the mid-‘80s, Manchester was where you had to be from. The story of The Stone Roses is inextricably intertwined with that of James, The Smiths, New Order, The Hacienda – the Manchester musical family tree can be extended almost without end. So were The Stone Roses great and just happened to be Mancunian, or were they Mancunian and therefore automatically revered as part of that zeitgeist-defining scene? Would they have become the legend they have had they been from Swansea?
All of which rumination brings us to The House of Love. By any reading they are contemporaries of The Stone Roses, having formed in 1986 and released their debut album just a year earlier than them in 1988. The Stone Roses even supported them at an early gig. But in comparison with the Roses, their legend has been largely overlooked. Chiefly comprising singer and songwriter Guy Chambers and guitarist Terry Bickers, the story of The House of Love contains all the essential elements for a classic rock ‘n’ roll narrative arc including a promising start with a signing to Creation Records with Alan McGee proclaiming, “One of the great Creation bands… they could have taken on anybody live.”
But then they began to shed peripheral band members like confetti. Heavy drug use was rife, particularly during the mixing of the first album – with everyone high on LSD, band members and friends alike all had a go on the mixing desk, with predictably disastrous (and no doubt expensive) results. The better-than-fiction endgame came with Bickers ranting in the back of the tour bus, setting fire to banknotes (the KLF would later take this incendiary protest to its logical conclusion and burn a million quid). He was unceremoniously dumped at the nearest railway station, and one of the two personalities which made up the marrow of The House of Love was out of the band for the next decade.
The essence of The House of Love’s achievements are crystallised in their first two albums, neither of which has an official title. Both albums are strong in songwriting terms, the debut coming wrapped in a charmingly naive period production style, which is just as well – the effects and recording flaws are part of its charm. ‘Salome’ is an enormous, anthemic thing, with a sneering, supercilious vocal (“I love the way she cries”), ubiquitous driving guitar work and an enormous solo. ‘Love in a Car’ is a mysteriously circular, quiet-loud affair with a whispered, oblique lyric. ‘Man to Child’ proves they were equally as at ease with balladry, delicate acoustic guitar fluttering around a lyric so poignant you can just about taste the tears. And not forgetting ‘Christine’, the song that kicked the whole affair into gear: an anthemic slice of post-punk, proving that the guitar drones of shoegaze could be put to good use in the context of proper songwriting.
A couple of years later came what has become known as The Butterfly Album, featuring a significant bump in production values whilst keeping the trademark effects-heavy guitars, and a more coherent running order with a proper beginning, middle and end. In the opinion of this writer it represents the pinnacle of THoL’s output. From the moment a couple of minutes in when ‘Hannah’ shifts up from being a wash of slow-burning guitars into its keening vocal refrain, it’s clear that the band have progressed in every area since their first record. ‘Shine On’ should live in the pantheon of perfect pop songs forever – the enormous chorus that emerges before the one minute point yet doesn’t outstay its welcome, the lyric manages to reference the band name yet still make sense, the song itself ends just after three minutes but the band stretch it out into a stunning downtempo outro: unforgettable from the very first listen. ‘Beatles and Stones’ is a beautiful major-chord reminisce about the power of heroes to give one’s life meaning and succour, and even dares to evoke a little Beatles-esque nostalgia with a string-laden middle eight. But before the pastoralism gets too much, there’s a trio of upbeat ditties, including ‘Hedonist’, which neatly summarises Oasis’ whole career in its 3 and a half minutes, down to their penchant for mid-tempo riffing, guitar feedback, and even Liam’s vocal sneer. If Noel Gallagher had realised that someone had released a song that had already set out every decent thing that Oasis would achieve, he could have saved himself a lot of bother. Twelve tracks, and not a duffer amongst them.
Two fine albums then, at a time when the world was eager for a decent British guitar band. So why aren’t they revered for their achievements like their contemporaries? Part of the answer is the band’s implosion into drug use, depression, and personality clashes. But something else pertains: they simply didn’t fit the media narrative of Manchester, or, more accurately, “Madchester”. They were perhaps too good, too competent as musicians and songwriters, too focused on what made good music, to realise, or even care, that what the world and its press wanted was the propagation of a particular scene. Without doubt they must take a great deal of the responsibility for their drawn-out downfall upon themselves. But one cannot escape the conclusion that, despite the internal disagreements, The House of Love still deserve greater credit than that which history has deemed theirs to claim. So there we have it. The House of Love – the best pre-Britpop era band not to come from Manchester.
The House of Love’s latest album ‘She Paints Words In Red’ is available now on Cherry Red Records. The only place to see the band live this summer is at Deer Shed Festival this weekend in North Yorkshire, for which a handful of tickets are still available. The House of Love performs on Saturday.