24. Hurrah! – Flowers

/ Hip-hip, Kitchenware, 1984

‘I don’t know if we’ve really earned our exclamation mark yet…’ – Paul Handyside of Hurrah! quoted in Are you scared to get happy issue one, circa 1985.

‘Future Nuggets material!’ David ‘Taffy’ Hughes of Hurrah! quoted in the same issue of the same fanzine.

This is the tale – the archetypal one from which perhaps all others follow – of a group whose astounding early recordings and promise were compromised at the hands of a major label for the sake of an advance and a living out of making music.  In signing on the dotted line – selling out, in essence – they broke a previously unmediated connection with supporters whose loyalty was several shades stronger than that of an eighty year old St. James’ Park lifetime season ticket holder.

And yet, in retrospect, the tale looks more complicated, less black and white.  How long can artists, poets or indeed a group splitting what little money they make three or four ways survive on love and admiration alone?  Were the evangelists who quickly gathered around this not untypical four piece right about their greatness?  From early on, wasn’t there an aspiration – conscious or not, and despite the modesty of the quotes at the head of this piece – on both the fans’ and the group’s part that they should become part of the canon of pop?  Wasn’t there always something Presley-esque in the expressive way Paul Handyside sang?  Why so surprised when the rough diamond was buffed up as polished commodity and touted as the next hot property?  And were the recordings Hurrah! made as major label artists really the betrayal they were painted to be by once loyal supporters?

All good questions.  Hurrah! lasted longer than most on the starvation level of income that was the lot even of moderately successful groups on relatively successful independent labels in the early eighties.  But listening again to the music made by the group before and after their big money move, and with greater empathy for the decisions they took given the position they were in, can we still give an unambiguous answer to the fundamental question – which version of Hurrah! best stands the test of time?

The mythical elements of the Hurrah! tale are largely founded on the gospel according to two fanzines, Hungry beat and Are you scared to get happy.  The latter took its name from the chorus of ‘Hip-hip’, one of four singles which stood – as the singles of life-changing groups must – both as great pop songs and statements of philosophical intent: ‘Put down your pills, stop dreaming about it, pick up your thrills and shout about it!’  The weight of what Kevin and Matt wrote packed a punch so far in excess of the better elements of the weekly British music press that the battle was as good as won before a reader of either fanzine ever heard the music.

The singles and Boxed, a compilation bringing them together, were released by Newcastle independent Kitchenware.  The label put more energy and resource into Paddy McAloon’s Prefab Sprout, leaving Hurrah! to progress in fits and starts, despite the bagful of accomplished songs which made up their live sets.  No wonder Boxed, borrowing from Bukowski, was subtitled ‘long-shot pomes from broke players’.  For Hurrah!’s supporters, frustration at the disparity between their obvious greatness and the struggle the group faced even to release their music, let alone make a living from it, turned to bemused or anger-tinged sorrow following their signing to Arista and the release of Tell God I’m here.  The LP’s allegedly trad-rock stylings reneged on what Kevin in his 1987 rebranding of Hungry beat as The same sky called ‘the wondrous understated clangorous pungent perfection’ of their pop to that point.  To the outsider, this withdrawal of support looks much the same as an ecclesiastical schism over an obscure point of theology, or a factional political battle between two left-wing sects.  To the insider it made sense, even if there was an element of novitiate bewilderment at first.  In Are you scared to get happy, Matt wrote that the first single for Arista, ‘Sweet sanity’, was ‘sickening ROCK bluster, histrionic, unsubtle, shrill, whining, UNNECESSARY, trying too hard – for WHAT?  Hurrah! shouldn’t bluster, they should B-R-E-E-Z-E…’  Meanwhile Kevin penned three pages of epistolary rhetoric about Hurrah!, essentially an extended and passionate plea to his ‘all-time favourite fighters’ to ‘Change! Direction! Now!’: ‘you thrive on spontaneity and an infectious emotional-electricity and if this metaphysical mix is ever to be captured on vinyl it can only be by someone who realises that it is what is LEFT OUT that is intrinsically more important than any effects added.’

Kevin followed through on the logic of this argument by releasing Way ahead on his own Esurient label – a hand-held cassette recording of Hurrah! playing live.  Just discernable through the lo-fi mud and tub-thumped drums is a missionary zeal rare in Britain in 1985.  Hurrah! and their equally gifted contemporaries the Jasmine Minks were at one end of an independent continuum so riven and fought over in fanzines and the music press that you couldn’t be sure it would hold together from one day to the next.  Way ahead was a protest against the way major A&R cooed in the ear of starving young poets and turned their heads; and a protest against the poets’ betrayal of their own hearts.  A protest too at the end result of this merry dance – the recording itself, and its presentation to the world.  So that ‘what you hear HERE is a direct result of the collective attitude / stance… wrought from very personal experience.’  Kevin also stated that the LP had been ‘produced naturally’, indicating an absence of intermediacy between artist and listener.  But how Hurrah! could have done with a producer like Joe Boyd, who understood the acoustics of a room, and left a sense of space in a recording, lending the process a natural air which disguised its underlying artifice.  Unfortunately he belonged to another age.

These loyal supporters turned on Hurrah! precisely because they had sung of trust, honesty, and love above money.  They had espoused an island mentality, had refused to hunt with the pack, had disdained all affectation.  And yet here they were sounding very much like just another rock group.  The bond was broken, their honesty compromised.  The cash had been taken and the love affair was in ruins.

So much for the tale.  The music remains, through it is much harder to hear now than it ought to be.  An advertised reissue of Tell god I’m here – with a bonus disc gathering together a selection of early singles and demos – seems to be stuck in the pipeline, while the release which best represents Hurrah!’s lost perfection, The sound of Philadelphia, is long deleted and hard to come by.

Far from being dead relics whose emotional force has leached away with the passing of time, the contents of The sound of Philadelphia still stand as something vital, affecting both in the present for the craft in the songs and as a living record of the past – the supreme optimism, the arrogant attack of that time in a life when you first strike out for yourself.  Hurrah!’s music had that elusive lift, that mysterious ingredient which captures a moment in time, defines it and simultaneously performs the trick of rendering it timeless.

The collection’s title suggests the variety of their influence, the styles of music – soul, sixties jangle and drone, jazz rhythms, Britain’s folk heritage – that Hurrah! incorporated into their sound, and an intention to place themselves within the pantheon alongside their inspirations by reference to them.  Pitching their pop somewhere between the Beatles and the Velvets, punk and Postcard, Hurrah! also evoked the rivers and moons of many a soul singer as well as the proud and primal ‘Gloria’s of Them and Patti Smith.  Hurrah!’s ‘Gloria’, the last single before Arista bought them a name producer, is one of those rare songs that’s so perfect, you’d swear it must have written itself.  In Handyside and Hughes, Hurrah! possessed a Lennon and McCartney-esque song writing partnership of equals.  The Beatles were necessarily a touchstone; Newcastle’s Fab Four doffed their caps by quoting ‘Dear Prudence’ at the end of ‘Lonely room’.

Hurrah!’s singles were far from being their only statements of intent.  In fact almost all of their songs positioned themselves strategically, like forts along an emotional Hadrian’s Wall.  ‘Around and round (when in Rome)’ signalled to ‘Celtic (who wants to live by love alone)’, ‘Big sky’ to ‘Better time’, and ‘Don’t need food’ to ‘I would if I could’.  In this respect, it wasn’t hard to tell that Hurrah!, like the Jasmines, took inspiration from the unyielding and emotionally charged attitudes of Paul Weller and Kevin Rowland.  Throw in as a backdrop the bare knuckle fight lacking shades of grey that was British politics in the eighties and you begin to see why Hurrah! felt obliged to proclaim their steadfastness at every opportunity.

Paul Handyside could write a line as callow and corny as ‘Thought for a moment I could hear the phone ring / now I realise it was just my twelve string’ and still make it telling when you heard it sung.  Obviously music was all and everything to both singers, but each keened for and wrote about romance.  And this of course is why they connected so immediately and perfectly with an audience seemingly half-made up of fanzine editors (some of whom would go on to dedicate their lives to the conception of pop music crystallised by Hurrah!) – in conflating very particular views of music and love, they were singing our life.  By 1989, and the version of ‘Saturday’s train’ recorded seven years after the first, this gaucheness has been edited out, with the line becoming ‘thought for a moment I could hear the bells ring / then I realised it was you with my puppet strings’.  The yearning rawness of the earlier version, its scratchy and wiry propulsion, is gone.

In keeping with Hurrah!’s quality control, ‘Flowers’ was strictly speaking an AA side rather than a B; but since ‘Hip-hip’ is in essence their theme song, its flip has to accept that it appears in a supporting role.  And that’s what it does so beautifully – show another side to the group.  Unusual in being written by Handyside but sung by Hughes, ‘Flowers’ develops the jazz-inflected pop trialled on ‘Saturday’s train’ making use in particular of the rhythmic gifts of drummer Damien Mahoney.  But the whole group is on song and in tune with the chosen mood.  A spiral of sound is quickly established, and seems to circle faster and faster, heading into the heart of something, the heart of song, the whorls of a flower, before the music breaks off and the group harmonise sweetly.  The music returns, spiralling up or down before closing with the neat trick of an echo chamber fade.  Despite the helter-skelter effect, ‘Flowers’ is perfectly balanced, full of the poise and grace that is so easily unsettled when responsibility for those qualities is placed in the hands of others.

In truth, Tell God I’m here is not especially overblown by mid-eighties standards, and Hurrah!’s guitars remain clangorous and rousing.  The songs still stand for something, though they are inclined a little too close to the anthemic, a little further from their earlier uncompromising artistry.  Even as it launched the Arista LP, ‘Sweet sanity’ could be read as Handyside’s admission of the dilemma the group faced:

‘Well I never expected
All these dreams to survive
There’s this game I’ve perfected
It’s called taking the dive
There’s a tree by a brook
Where we once used to play
Nothing’s there anymore
Except the vows that we made’

At this retrospective distance, a comparison of the Arista versions of songs also available in earlier incarnations on The sound of Philadelphia reveals that the perfect recording lies uncaptured, somewhere between the immediately loveable freshness of the first drafts and the slightly overworked revisionism of the Tell God I’m here takes.  While they got very close to it with the demos, perhaps the ideal remains only in the heads of Paul and Taffy, in the ghost versions that linger in the corner of the minds of fans who saw them play at their peak, and between the proselytising, excited lines of the best fanzine pieces written about them.

23 Responses to 24. Hurrah! – Flowers

  1. Kevin P says:

    This might not be a terribly fashionable or even expected PS but worth mentioning that Paul Handyside’s Future’s Dream CD released at the start of this year has some cracking songs on. Very much recommended.

  2. Thanks to Paul Handyside, who sent this response via email:

    thanks for the link and your comments. Where to start? what’s the point now? can I remember?

    I think you pretty much tell the tale, but I guess the reality for us was slightly different.

    Four singles in four years, which sold a few hundred copies each. Gigs that may have inspired a few dozen eager indie fans, but in general were met with bemusement or indifference. So compared to other indie bands at the time we were failures, in our minds and that of the indie record buying public.

    As far as it being a “big money move”, after four years signing on and sponging off parents (and by the end of ’85 being grassed up to the dole) we managed to pay ourselves the princely sum of £50 a week for two luxurious years courtesy of Arista. Other people earned from it but certainly not us.

    As far as the artistic change in Hurrah! it’s slightly less clear and perhaps harder to explain. Using name producers was not instigated by Arista, we recorded Who’d havve thought with John Brand (Aztecs Camera) and Gloria with Jimmy Miller. Whether it was Kware or Arista paying it made no difference to us.

    We recorded Tell God in early ’86 with Gil Norton (Throwing Muses) with Kware money as a last stab at success. By that time we had outgrown the old sound and it hadn’t worked, simple as. But just entertain for one moment the thought that the old Hurrah! had sold well. How dishonest would we have been branded for carrying on that path just because it was successful, when we were actually wanting to change as writers and as players (witness the jump to the Beautiful, then the last unreleased album to what me and Taff did subsequently).

    How Tell God got to sound the way it did is a long tortured musical episode that I would have to undergo hypnotic regression with Derren Brown to fully recall, let alone hold your interest. You’re quite right in noting that the perfect versions of the songs lie somewhere between the demos and the album, but we also encountered fans in the USA and Europe who found the early stuff twee and that Tell God was much better. What do I think? personally I hated everything we ever did, I never listened to anything once pressed up. I’m the same to this day with my solo stuff, so I have to take some resonsbility for the “ditch the past” ethos.

    So, in summing up we never took big money and we were changing anyway. But even if Hurrah! mark one had been successful I still think we would have bitten off the hand that fed. Kware always said we had a self destruct button, we would not only alienate die hard indie fans but music biz folks too. Just awkward buggers that wrote the odd good tune. Ask Taff and he’ll have another angle I’m sure so I passed the link on to him also.

    Feel free to question anything I’ve said. If you were one of the hurt indie fans, then sorry for the disappointment.

    best wishes Paul

  3. matsrep says:

    “Flowers” is my favourite Hurrah! song. I always thought it was weird that it was left off The Sound of Philadelphia. I put it on a private cd-comp. a few years back and it still always works. In my mind, everything by Hurrah! should have exactly that sound. (Which would not have worked I guess.)

    Paul’s answer above is interresting: we now have two similar indie “betrayals” (I did not believe in them, well maybe the Hurrah! one a little bit, I’m afraid, since the album disappointed me some little bit). But none were sell outs!

    First the Orange Juice one with You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever, which to this day often is called a major label sell out (or something like that), but the record was financed by Rough Trade (Postcard) and bought by Polydor (if I get the details right). Anyway: one brilliant album, more shambolic than polished. Etc.

    And a few years later the Hurrah! move to Arista. Hear Paul’s words: “We recorded Tell God in early ‘86 with Gil Norton (Throwing Muses) with Kware money as a last stab at success.”

    I’ll have to follow Kevin’s advice and look for the Handyside album!

  4. kris says:

    should anyone find themselves with a desire to hear this song, i put it here:

  5. Thanks for this, Kris, and for the additional link in your post. For various mundane reasons, I don’t yet have the technology to turn vinyl into files – an odd state of affairs given the nature of this blog, and one I hope to set right in the near future.

  6. alistair says:

    And Way Ahead is now available on the Interweb, with the blessing of Kevin 🙂 Link to it from this blog post:

  7. Thanks both. That just about covers it all, give or take The Beautiful…

  8. jack watson says:

    i bought the sun in hmv in newcastle in 82 on my way to the rock on the tyne show
    i said whos this is it aztec camera no she said local band hurrah saw them in 83 at darlington art centre supported by prefab sprout they were good hurrah were perfect ibought gloria 12inch but could never find whoud have thought why wasnt celtic on boxed tell god was a lett down but the songs are all there never saw then live again would love to hear the unreleased album have searched for years no luck reading pauls reply made me sad but i understand what he means four of the best singles ever made a great legacy i had chances to see them in newcastle between 82 n 85 never whent wasted opps cheers

  9. paul greene says:

    Its time the “Lost” album saw the light of day….attended 2 great but poorly attended Hurrah shows in London around 92 – 93 – then ordered a 12 ” copy of That Dream Is over and it got lost in the post ! – an NME or melody Maker review at the time seemed to suggest their time had come again but all to no avail – it would be great if the album was available even on the net…..with regard to the changing sound , sometimes us fans get a little too precious –

  10. […] Incidentally Matt also has another past life as a fanzine editor and he may not thank me for it but I quote him in this piece about Hurrah! […]

  11. Jesus Becotide says:

    I’d have been aged about 15 the first time I saw Hurrah! this would have been in the Riverside Club in Newcastle, just before the Arista signing. I went out and bought Gloria the next week. It would n’t have mattered if I had never bought the record, I’d already decided they were my favourite band. From there I followed them till the last gigs at the Cumberland Arms when they’d reverted back to an indie (Kitchenware only) band. For me, the songs, the band were always great. Kevin Pearce talked about them losing IT, I could sympathise with his view, or at least empathise with how much he seemed to love/need the band. I never agreed though, the production and marketing may have changed, the band’s attitude, poise, songs never did, even with the leather jackets. Perhaps it was Kitchenware that lost IT. I swear Phil Mitchell from Kitchenware had a Ponytail in the late 80’s, although it might be just how I picture him now. I’ve spoken to Paul Handyside a few times down the years, he’s never lost his intent to go forward, he’s always ready to drop whatever employment he has if someone will give him enough money to persue his art, and always with a pessimistic view of how comercially successful it will be. That’s as PURE as anyone can be in my view. I’ve never found another band that excited/inspired me like Hurrah! Perhaps you can only have one.

    Incidently, Paul and Taffy (Girl with the Replaceable Head) are playing on the same bill at the Side Cafe in Newcastle next month. As Kevin points out, there’s some cracking tunes on Paul’s new album. Still Way Ahead.

  12. Thanks for commenting, JB. The number of responses this piece has generated in comparison with other B/w entries proves just how deep an impression Hurrah! made on people.

    The Side Cafe show is 25th September for anyone in striking distance of Newcastle. Given what Paul says above about ditching the past, I guess it’s unlikely that they’ll be tempted to play a Hurrah! number or two, but you never know…

  13. Size says:

    I first saw Hurrah! in an upstairs room at the Lonsdale in Jesmond around about the time Hip Hip was released, i last saw Hurrah! in an upstairs room in the Cumberland Arms in Byker with about 11 other souls who kinda knew it was the end. In between i must have seen them play a hundred times from shitty pubs in Hartlepool to the Hammesmith palais in London to the Tyne Tees Studios of the Tube on City Road.
    The music never failed to please either recorded or live. Major moments in my life seem to have had a Hurrah! track thrown in, meeting the girl, loving the girl, losing the girl…..all the usual stuff…and some of the lyrics……well…..everybodys askin’ when you gonna pick up your life

    im just glad it all happened and i was there

  14. malareay says:

    Funny how a group could inspire so much devotion for so little reward? Rewind to 1981 and a backstreet venue aptly called the Garage in Newcastle. On the stage a group who I’d spotted weeks before walking through the streets of town looking cool as fuck, drainpipe trousers, tie dyed, bowl haircuts, strangely modern but retro(!?) but just as important doing something new. The group i found out to be The Green Eyed Children and they had that thing what i couldn’t put my finger on. Fast Forward 18 months to ’82 to Tiffanys nightclub, and the flowering is nearly complete, the look (white drainpipes, the shoes/boots, the suede jackets), guitars held high (Hofner, Burns, Jaguar….) the drummer with THAT style! Here they were the lineage that followed the awkward and the strange, Wilko Feelgoods, Subway Sect, Wire, The Pop Group…..you get the score? The rest is history but keep looking forward baby!

  15. […] presented on Tell god I’m here.  Read up on the full-ish story of those recordings over at Backed with, complete in the comments with testimony from fans and the thoughts of the Very Reverend Paul […]

  16. Ian Collins says:

    Thanks to Youtube I have rediscovered the band. The Around And Around video was the missing piece of the jigsaw. First saw the snippet on The Tube and was hooked from then on. Saw Hurrah! support The Stranglers. Seems a lifetime ago.

  17. […] Hurrah! – Flowers at Backed with […]

  18. spiney says:

    thanks for the info, I loved Hurrah

  19. […] infinite importance to a small, select number of people; folk took the trouble to testify to this when I wrote about the group over at Backed with.  Implored to do so by the collective persuasion of both Hungry beat and Are you scared to get […]

  20. luke101 says:

    (A full decade after this article was first posted…) I only just heard of this band, but read their video for song “Sweet Sanity” was banned by certain stations in the US and they were denied entry because the video seemed to show a lesbian couple. Was that what the song was about, can anyone tell me?

    • Hi Luke, and thanks for commenting after all this time. The lyrics don’t specify any particular gender, and are sufficiently vague to be open to a broad range of interpretation. I suspect the female couple were added to the video either to detract from the masculine if not macho nature of the band at that point in their career, or, in a industry that was increasingly ruled by MTV, simply as what might now be called eye candy. The video is laughably mild, set against today’s standards.

  21. tom marco says:

    Needed a read like this, so little is out there regarding Hurrah. As an American there was absolutely nothing about the band back then. I stumbled across them due to good old MTV (yes, they played more than Poison and Ratt videos) broadcasting the Brit show ‘The Tube.’ Hurrah absolutely killed on that program. I taped it on VHS and re-watched that performance a hundred times. Bought the album and though good, it certainly was not the life-changing experience that ‘Tube’ performance was.

    So Hurrah! were another top band that never got the success they should have. That makes them one of about ten thousand bands I can think of. But at least Hurrah! will always have Paris…they’ll always have that ten minutes of absolute brilliance and glory on ‘The Tube.’ Nothing is going to take that away from them; and with the internet being a gateway to infinity, that smashing performance of theirs can be seen by whatever is on this planet in the year 2525.

    • Thanks for reading, Tom – in the intervening ten years since I wrote it, the piece has turned into a sort of little shrine to a group who meant so much to a not insubstantial number of people.

      I presume this is the performance on The Tube that you’re referring to?

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