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25 Years On: The House Of Love's Debut Album Revisited
Ned Raggett , November 18th, 2013 06:37

Ned Raggett revisits The House Of Love's debut and finds an album that's aged beautifully

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The House Of Love. It's a bit of a perfect name, really, because it could apply to a slew of different things if desired - different bands given WAY different approaches. Could be a disco act from 1977, could be a Eurovision act from last year. A megaclub name from somewhere, sometime. It's probably been all of these things and I don't know it, but it's also the name of three separate albums by one English band from the late 80s with a penchant for the yearningly romantic and contemplative and an often surprisingly thrilling set of performances. And guess what that band was called?

This year being the 25th anniversary of the second of those albums - and the first one proper, the 'first' album being a compilation of their earliest singles put together for German release - isn't as much of a memory prompt as it would be for others, I suppose. Being off where I was in California and not fully in tune with the Anglophilic underground as such, the only mention I saw of them at all that year was a brief appreciation of their debut full-length in Rolling Stone; couldn't even tell you who wrote it. The one thing that stuck out for me was a comparison of songs like 'Christine' to the work of The Left Banke - the first time I'd heard of them as well, and something that's helped shape my opinion of both bands to the present: as 'rock' as such turned into the service of deep blue elegance, if from a slightly dreamy and still male (if not 'masculine') point of view. Yet it's always worth noting the original presence of Andrea Heukamp on the early House of Love singles. Though she was gone by the time of the album debut, having left on good terms due to tiring of touring - a decision bandleader Guy Chadwick freely admitted later was a deep blow, and perhaps the root of the band's slow but sure mutation over the following years - there's little in the way of lads-all-together sentiments on those songs and on the full debut; more a considered, still questioning approach to what it is to be a man, exactly.

Which sounds a bit heady, and it's hardly unexplored territory. But Chadwick, having already attempted one go-round with music in New Romantic days via a one-single band called the Kingdoms, among other endeavours, was already starting to contemplate the kind of things that bands seem to deal with later down the line: stability, a second marriage, becoming a father. It's telling that one of the songs that Creation's Alan McGee found himself responding to most was practically the album's centerpiece, 'Man To Child'. At the time, being just barely turning 18, it just sounded pretty to me - now, at 42, without kids but facing plenty of midlife ponderings amid all the economic wreck of the past five years, lines like "Jesus, where did the time go?/ Holy God, where is the money now?," sung with a gentle harmonised ease like a big sigh, suddenly feel a little sharper.

Chadwick's singing is one of those interesting beasts - it's not a polished voice per se, but it's not understated murmuring either. He wore his Velvet Underground influence on his sleeve for sure - musically 'Man To Child' could have fit in snugly on the latter's understated third album - but it's almost as if Lou Reed had a slightly higher tone, a touch more of the older choirboy. It suits the world-weariness on the one hand, but on the other it's capable of hitting surprising heights, or at least perfectly matching the band when it's in full force. Hearing him sing "I love the way she cries" on 'Salome' is almost jarring, like suddenly he's been spiked up on that rush of a song, but he does so without breaking the album's flow. His opening lead on 'Fisherman's Song', meanwhile, sets the feel as much as the guitar line, a soothing, calm call softly echoing away. If it had just been him and the rhythm section of Chris Groothuizen and Pete Evans backing him that made up the House Of Love experience at this point, the album would have been nice enough, and maybe still quietly remembered. A close kissing cousin sonically - if not geographically - might have been The Church, coming off their amazing Heyday album three years earlier with the contemporaneous Starfish, similarly blending melancholic, considered singing and a rock band palette happily and indiscriminately drawing from the 60s to the 80s as they chose. But The Church had their own increasingly out-there path to follow, where Chadwick's gentle classicism, though resonant, was always clearly grounded.

Yet there was a reason - media-driven and however unfair, given that Chadwick was the core singer/songwriter throughout - that from their debut single 'Shine On' the House Of Love ended up getting tagged as "the new Smiths" (something that only accelerated when that band drew to a halt in 1987) and that was guitarist Terry Bickers. His performances in combination with Chadwick and Heukamp gave the early singles both depth and thrills; as the standout guitarist on the full album, his work was hard to miss. Yet he never simply barreled over the songs, instead fleshing them out and then adding some jaw-dropping moments as he went. 'Salome' is another stellar example on this front - the song's already bursting from the get-go, Chadwick's descending singing adding to it, and then there's a visceral monster of a short solo, even more frenetic energy and a slam-into-the-end stop. It's a trip just to listen to it, as is the galloping crash on 'Hope', the additional swagger of energy on 'Road' and the feedback waves on the concluding 'Touch Me' (plus many more besides), all of which take each song even higher. 'Love In A Car', one of the album's most delicate numbers, is also one of its most breathtaking, with guitar parts echoing and stretching into the distance like a recurrent series of distant signals, turning the stop/start nature of the song into an almost unbearably intense flow of deep feelings. It's a hard trick to manage, perhaps, but he does it in spades.

Then there's 'Christine', the first song Chadwick wrote with the band in mind and possibly their perfect moment still. It's not to say that everything the band could do or did do is all in the song, but there's a reason I remember it being singled out in that Rolling Stone review, and there's no shame in them front-loading the album with a hell of a calling card. It should be worth noting too that the album's barely over half an hour long - in comparison, 1990's The House Of Love was almost a full hour - and the sense throughout is of immediacy and impact, of little time wasted, which is hardly surprising given the album was recorded swiftly over a few days.

How much of that was down to intent and how much to the touch-and-go nature of indie-level recording at the time can't be simply measured, but it helped the album as a whole that stalwart producer Pat Collier did another of his many underrated but excellent jobs here. Although he did the final mix over the band's objections, 'Christine' is as much a triumph of engineering as of performance. Everything plays out perfectly here as presented - an immediate opening guitar line against a steady drum/cymbal/bass undertow, Chadwick leading the singing with confidence and calm, wounded insistence; shifting breaks that bring out other parts of the performance, sometimes vocally, sometimes instrumentally; a massive break with Bickers pulling off some spiralling notes; and then a huge wash matched by wordless singing just so, a final exultant retro-60s "ba-ba-ba" sendoff to help wrap it all up. Majestic in the space of three-and-a-half minutes, as good a wall-of-sound approach as any other high profile homage to Phil Spector and company's highlights.

The tangled collapse of the Chadwick/Bickers partnership and the resultant major label stint is its own story - three albums, a rarities collection, a slew of other rarities and a slow grind-down to nothing - while Bickers' own sudden arc up and down with the underrated Levitation deserves its own revisit. Their reunion in 2005 and easy but still productive routine since then, with Evans still holding it down on drums, seems to suit everyone perfectly now, the mature-before-their-years themes of the early days a good foundation all around. There's a packed to the gills version of the debut album that Cherry Red released last year, which gives you just about all the songs you could want from the time over the course of three CDs. It's well worth the time, but give that original album a listen as is some time. In the US mass media it may have only provoked that short note I read way back then, as a curious late teenager in California - but I'm still awfully glad I read it.

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john p.
Nov 18, 2013 12:26pm

Being Dutch I have an over-romanticised (and probably rather false) idea of how 'Englishness' sounds. Hard to describe but I hear it in, say, early Pink Floyd and, more recent, Alexander Tucker... and The House of Love has it in abundance. Fine stuff!

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Nov 18, 2013 7:31pm

Remember being well impressed by this album at the time and there being some `buzz` about HOL for a while , only heightened by the superb Destroy The Heart single shortly after the album , managed to catch a great gig in Edinburgh, they were quite something live ,but by the time the next album came out... wasn`t quite the same Madchester/baggy had came along and they didn`t seem to fit, shame ,I still listen to the 3rd s/t album and it still sounds good , need to back and check this one out,

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Nov 18, 2013 10:44pm

Yeah, 'Christine' blew me away the first time I heard it. Bought the album and ended up deciding 'Love In a Car' was the other masterpiece from their proper debut. Timeless.

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Nov 20, 2013 1:35pm

A pure guitar orientated indie rock classic - every guitarist needs to study this record.

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Nov 20, 2013 2:24pm

One of the best albums ever. Every song on this is a classic to my ears.
'88 was a pretty good year for music.

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Nov 20, 2013 7:43pm

Ah, one of my most treasured records. Never got to see them live.

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Nov 24, 2013 9:07pm

In reply to Edoc:

They are back playing together and with terry bickers back in the fold..saw them play only last week and they've still got it

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Nov 25, 2013 9:09am

We saw them perform some of these songs live last week to a crowd of just 200, ten times smaller than the last time I saw the HOL in 1988. But the effect was the same, goose bumps, and an invisible wire from the guitars into my pleasure centres. Guy sang with the same intensity, maybe a little more wistfully.

What they need is a stage at Glastonbury or Jules Holland, but thats stating the obvious.

I never get tired of these songs. Brilliant.

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Steven Kalata
Nov 25, 2013 10:15am

Great article and homage to one of my favorite bands and oddly enough mentions the Church who also top my list. The Peel Sessions, Live at the BBC & the Fontana Years compilation offer up nice alternate versions of the songs and while the live album doesn't have Terry Bickers or Andrea Heukamp on it, it still showcases how great they were as a live band!

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Nov 25, 2013 1:28pm

Saw them a few times in late 80's and again in 2005. Wonderful band and the 1st 2 x albums and the early singles were fantastic. it's a pity they never got the accolades they deserved - but hey! look athe bands who went on a nd 'made it' who never achieved their initial promise!
Love In A Car is a highly emotionally charged piece which always gives me goosebumps!x

Viva HOL!!!!!!

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Dec 7, 2013 2:44pm

Nice piece, Ned. Heukamp's departure was a _huge_ loss for the band. Tired of touring, yes, and then there were apparently interpersonal issues with another bandmate. She did return to good effect in the studio for "Babe Rainbow" and "Audience with the Mind". You'll easily hear her harmonies on a few of the tunes.

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Tim Space Debris
Feb 8, 2014 9:12am

You're on the money with that Church comparison. HOL sometimes sound uncannily like The Church. The Smiths were aware of The Church you'd have to think House Of Love were as well.

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Sep 16, 2015 12:52pm

Bickers was an absolute genius. Deserves more recognition. Up there with the likes of Marr and Squire as far as I'm concerned.

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