Back in the late 80s, particularly after they split, the music press regularly bestowed the ‘new Smiths’ tag on a succession of mostly undeserving indie acts (remember Bradford? Raymonde? Thought not). But when The House of Love released their debut album in 1988, they looked like they might just be the real deal. Gawkily charismatic, sex-obsessed, outspoken lead singer? Check. Diminutive, floppy-haired guitar genius? Check. Angst-ridden, anthemic songs about unrequited love and sexual frustration? Check. For a couple of years THOL seemed poised for megastardom, and this comprehensive 5CD box set encapsulates both why they were so hotly tipped (oo-er), and why it never actually happened.
Firstly, that album. Even in 1988, the year when the electric guitar was taken to its absolute peak by the likes of MBV, Sonic Youth, Pixies, Dinosaur Jr, AR Kane and Throwing Muses (my god what a year that was), The House of Love stood out, from the opening drone of ‘Christine’ through to the smouldering ‘Touch Me’. Listening to it again, as I have done at least once a week for the last 30 years, it hasn’t aged a day. Bickers’ fluid riffs (on ‘Road’ and ‘Salome’ in particular) are as thrilling as ever; ‘Touch Me’ and ‘Love in a Car’ still smoulder (“It’s so deep here, just let your sweat fall on me…I licked my fingers & drove my car to the sea”); and Chadwick’s quirky, inscrutable, often jaded lyricism (he was already in his 30s when the album was recorded) are still striking – and “Jesus, where did the time go? Holy God, what am I doing here?” is a lot more meaningful to me now than it was 30 years ago. A true classic, critically adored at the time but strangely unappreciated now.
Disc 2 throws in the ‘German Album’, also known as The House of Love (as was their third album), a collection of early recordings featuring original guitarist & singer Andrea Heukamp, Nico to Guy’s Lou as the band gave free rein to their Velvets (and Bunnymen) fantasies. It’s more than just interesting juvenilia and is a wonderful record in its own right, and the fact that so few people have heard songs like the angry, anti-establishment ‘Real Animal’ (“You’ll never be stopped by a policeman in England/And if they do, just tell them who your father is and don’t despair”), the wonderfully languid ‘Plastic’, and the menacing ‘Nothing to Me’, with its bizarre baby-talk lyrics (“She do nothing to me, I lay on my back and she stand on my knee”), just shows how hopeless the band – and their management – were, and would always be, at promoting themselves. And of course it also marks the first appearance of the mighty ‘Shine On’, the song here that most hints at the greatness to come, with Bickers’ spidery guitar lines weaving in & out of Chadwick’s gloriously hangdog lyrics (“I’m not the pleasure that I used to be…”)
If those first two discs make it very clear why, as 1988 turned into 1989, THOL had the world at their feet, the rest of the set shows exactly why they never seized their chance. The number of largely superfluous alternate mixes on disc 3 is ample evidence of the tensions within the band, due partly to the 10-year age difference between Bickers and Chadwick, and partly to copious amounts of LSD (producer Pat Collier, tired of the arguing, ended up giving his mixes straight to the label in order to get the job finished); whilst the Peel Sessions on disc 4 show a band in decline, going from a high-octane run through non-album single ‘Destroy the Heart’ to playing a limp acoustic set that sounds utterly devoid of energy. On the August 1988 Peel version of ‘Love in a Car’ they sound at their absolute peak, majestic, imperious; eight months later they’re practically a spent force, and who really wanted to hear the nation’s most vital young indie band paying piss-weak acoustic tribute to ‘The Beatles & the Stones’?
Disc 5, a collection of live recordings, merely rams that point home. Here they are in 1988, absolutely tearing shit up on stage in Paris, howling their way through ‘Destroy the Heart’ and The Stooges ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’; then there they are a couple of years later performing limp the indie-dance coat-tail-grab that was ‘Never’, The Stone Roses having already dethroned them.
I saw them at the tail end of 1989, exhausted after months in the studio and in the middle of a 60-date tour, totally off their heads and taking a Molotov cocktail to their back catalogue with cynical yet still thrilling abandon. And then Bickers, the idealist, was gone, after an argument too many with a band he saw as being too careerist, and that mediocre, over-produced third album limped out, and it was, effectively, all over. Johnny Marr had left The Smiths again.
There’s a decent 3-disc box set lurking in the middle of this over-exhaustive collection, and if you have the 2003 Complete Creation Recordings rerelease you really don’t need this. But, as someone who was living in France at the time & recorded that Paris gig off the radio onto a long-since lost C90, it’s wonderful to hear it again & be reminded of just how exhilarating this band could be at their peak. I just wish the compilers had skipped the stuff that reminds us of why they didn’t stay there very long. (10/10 for the original album of course).