The Housemartins: how we made Happy Hour

‘I started getting letters from pub landlords saying that people were jumping on tables to it. I don’t know if many listeners realised it’s about women being harassed’

Paul Heaton, singer and songwriter

Happy Hour started off as a song called French England, years before I formed the Housemartins. I was working in a ledger office in Surrey, and as a northerner I saw that whole area as part of France. So the original first line was “French England, what a good place to be”.

Then I started listing things that annoyed me about the office. At lunchtime, the sales reps would come in with their smiles and all the gel and shit on their hair. “Coming down the hatch lunchtime, Paul? Coupla birds in the George and Dragon …” Which I could not stand, because I’d moved down from Sheffield, where we didn’t talk about women like that. When I formed the band in Hull, much of this stuff made it into Happy Hour.

We wrote it in my house in Grafton Street on Wednesday 22 January 1986 – I know the date because I kept a diary. Flag Day had got to No 10 in John Peel’s Festive 50 and we’d landed a Peel session so needed some more songs, and along came Happy Hour. As a song it contains one of my main themes – shovelling too many words in – but it worked.

On Tuesday 3 June it was at No 58. Then it just kept rising. I didn’t know that my life would never be the same again. When we did TV shows I thought it would be the first and last time so I pestered the other acts for autographs. I got Paul McCartney’s at Razzmatazz and Bill Oddie’s in BBC reception after we did Top of the Pops.

Happy hours were big then – a golden hour of cheap drinking which would encourage stupidity – and something just connected. I don’t know if many people realised that the song was about feeling miserable in a happy hour, or that the lyrics make loose statements about women being harassed. After the song became a hit, I started getting letters from pub landlords saying: “Your song smashed up my pub! As soon as it came on the jukebox people started jumping on the tables. Then everybody started dancing and the tables all collapsed.”

Stan Cullimore, songwriter and guitarist

Paul’s house in Grafton Street was like student digs. We’d meet there and have a slice of toast. Paul had his lyrics in a little notebook and I had chord progressions in mine, and we’d put them together to write songs. We’d just written Me and the Farmer and I wanted to go for a “bun run” – a trip to the local cake shop. But Paul was adamant that we needed one more song, so we came up with Happy Hour. I was so desperate to get to the cake shop that I used the same chords for the chorus in the verse, but because Paul sang a different melody over it and I did the “It’s happy hour again” backing vocals, it worked. We recorded it on a little cassette recorder, I chucked down my guitar and ran for a custard slice. The whole thing can’t have taken us much more than 10 minutes. I certainly never thought: “This is going to be a massive hit.”

The idea for the video came to us in the pub. I loved Morph, the little animated clay character on Tony Hart’s TV show, Take Hart, so we got some student animators to make plasticine animations of all four Housemartins. We shot the pub scene in the Star in St John’s Wood in London. It starred Phill Jupitus, who was our road manager and support act for a while. The girl in the video is Wendy May, who was a mate of ours from a bluegrass band called the Boothill Foot Tappers. Everything felt very low-key and modest. We were the self-proclaimed “fourth best band in Hull”, big in our own little world of John Peel and NME, but then Happy Hour just took off.

I’m constantly amazed and humbled that people still listen to it after 32 years. I write kids’ books now and work in schools engaging primary school children in reading and writing. Sometimes I joke with them, “Hey, I used to be a pop star! Who believes me?” They never do, until the teacher shows them the Happy Hour video and they all go: “Oh my God. It’s true!”

• Paul Heaton’s career-spanning best of, The Last King of Pop, is out now on Virgin EMI.

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Interviews by Dave Simpson

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