Piccadilly Press, 118pp, 1992
If your local branch of Waterstones stocks any books on how to make it as a popstar, the chances are that they’ve been written by a man called Cowell or Walsh and feature brash examples from a Saturday night ITV programme. Finding a book like Fighting for Fame, which is a guide on exactly the same subject by a member of a short-lived indie band from Hull, may be more difficult.
Stan Cullimore was the guitarist – the “Chunkety-Chunk” type of guitarist, he explains in the book, rather than the “Trickly-Intricate” type – in The Housemartins, who combined left-wing politics and chirpy pop to terrific effect over three albums in the mid-1980s. ‘Caravan of Love’ was their biggest hit: a gospel number sung a cappella, the video for which featured all four bandmembers with a cross shaved into the side of their heads. While their singer, Paul Heaton, went on to sustained success with The Beautiful South, Cullimore has since written more than 100 books, mostly for children and teenagers, and has also worked on numerous kids’ TV projects. Fighting for Fame is similarly aimed at teenagers, so there’s no room here for the ‘25s and over’ who apparently stymie Louis Walsh’s genius on series after series of that ITV programme.
Cullimore’s guide, illustrated with cartoons by Julian Sharp, is factual and offers no shortcuts. To be a popstar, you must actually learn to do something, whether it’s singing or playing an instrument. You might as well try to learn how to write songs as well because it’s fun and it’s also where the money is, and if you find anyone who likes your band, then you need to look after the “‘Billy Bunters’”, or punters, because they’re the ones who’ll come to the gigs and buy the records. Cullimore is practical and engaging in the advice he dispenses, and if you’d really had no idea how to go about making it in pop music in 1992, this would have been a good place to start. Twenty years on, it’s Cullimore’s personal insights into the industry and being in a band which stand out, but which he modestly tucks away between square brackets in the book. This is how he explains the interjections:
[. . .These are Boring-But-True bits. Anecdotes, or thoughts, which occurred to me from time to time and got written down. Please feel free to ignore them.]
Ignoring them would be foolish, though, because they’re very far from being boring. An unspoken notion behind these pieces for The Pop Music Library is that I won’t waste time pointing out how each book is a reminder of the way the world of pop used to be; of course it’s changed, and it’s the change that makes these books interesting to me. But in Fighting for Fame, which is, after all, a glimpse only into the recent past, I couldn’t help but be struck by the quaintly archaic nature of some of the details. The Housemartins, for example, would sometimes minimise the risk to a gig promoter by offering to play for free, because they could subsidise their travel: a promotion on Mars Bars at the time offered free coach tickets if you cashed in enough wrappers. And after they’d played a gig, band members would go out into the audience to sell demo tapes and write down addresses for a mailing list. If you and your band really wanted to, you could do all these things today: tour via National Express, lug boxes of cassettes from venue to venue, and carry around scrappy lists of postal addresses. But it would be a pretty laborious way to build up a connection with the ‘Billy Bunters’.
The glimmers of life as a Housemartin described by Cullimore encouraged me to read Mike Pattenden’s 1999 book, Last Orders at the Liars’ Bar, which is advertised as the biography of The Beautiful South but which focuses on the career of Paul Heaton and therefore covers in detail the successes of the earlier band. This is Pattenden’s description of Cullimore at the time Paul Heaton first met him:
Tall for his age and a wearer of heavy rimmed specs, Stan was a proto geek, a fact accentuated by his obvious intelligence and penchant for behaving in a manner generally described as zany.
Most accounts agree that Paul Heaton is a very complex character, but whatever the bandmembers’ individual quirks, Pattenden is clear about The Housemartins’ appetite for hard work. They were, he says, “tireless self-promoters”, who set up an office called The House of Strangeness to maintain the mailing lists and distribute self-effacing t-shirts and badges proclaiming that the band were “Quite Good”. When Cullimore asserts in his book that we must fight for fame, this is the voice of experience. You’re unlikely to get to the top without a struggle, and that’s a lesson that never goes out of date.
After finishing the two books I dug out my copy of The Housemartins’ first LP, London 0, Hull 4. When I listened to it, what struck me was how tight the band sounded; this really was an outfit who’d cut their teeth – and probably eroded them too, judging by the way they paid for their travel – at sparsely-attended gigs across the country. Cullimore may have been a ‘chunkety-chunk’ guitarist, but his rhythm playing is an improbably good match for the frontman’s soulful delivery. And I’d forgotten how much of a contribution Heaton made to their sound, and how distinctive his voice and lyrics remain to this day.
Not long after the end of The Housemartins, Stan Cullimore decided that he didn’t want to pursue the pop life any longer. In the last part of Fighting for Fame he talks about “very contented ex-popstars”, and cheerfully counts himself among their number. I’m glad he found happiness and success elsewhere, and if in five years’ time some other popstar currently enjoying a moment in the sun – let’s say Olly Murs, just to keep The X-Factor comparision alive to the last paragraph – can map out the route to fame for us with as much charm and as little bitterness, then I’ll say hurrah to that. But for now, let’s bow our heads and give thanks for the glorious achievements of The Housemartins. Are you ready?