30 Years On: The House Of Love’s Debut Album Revisited

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

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 30th 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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