/ 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.