A major US hit for Isley-Jasper-Isley just the year before, 'Caravan Of Love' was a re-statement of Chris Jasper's born again Christian beliefs and his attempt to evangelise them to a wider audience. On face value, The Housemartins' acapella cover version looks little more than a cynical and gimmicky attempt to cash in on the sentimental Christmas market by a band that always set itself up to know better, but scratch below the surface and there's more going on than meets the eye.
Self professed 'fourth best band in Hull', The Housemartins released a steady flow of indie jangle in the mid eighties that hid a welter of biting social commentary and attacks on moral hypocrisy that came wrapped in a left wing slant. And those politics are important when considering 'Caravan Of Love'; although vocalist Paul Heaton has claimed himself an atheist, The Housemartins' lyrics always contained elements of a skewed Christianity in their world view. There's no doubt that Jasper wrote 'Caravan Of Love' with Jesus on his mind, but The Housemartins' own ideology subtly shifts the emphasis of the lyrics until become almost a call for Marx's proletariat to rise up and throw off their chains: "Are you ready for the time of life, its time to stand up and fight. So alright hand in hand we take a caravan to the marble land. One by one we gonna stand up with pride, one that cant be denied. Stand up"
To get the full body of evidence for this, it's illuminating to watch the accompanying promo video that saw the band, with crucifixes shaved into the sides of their head, larking about in a church and shuffling around on their knees in mock reverence with hoodies doubling as a monk's cowl. Far from the saccharine sell out the hardcore fans dismissed it as at the time, 'Caravan Of Love' is actually quite a subversive package to be at number one at Christmas. And context is everything - I don't think this would have fared quite so well had it been released mid summer, but then the message would have been diluted too.
As for the recording itself, the Isley-Jasper-Isley original lends itself well to an acapella arrangement and The Housemartins don't perform any radical makeover of the tune and are content to merely reproduce the main melody note for note and replace the backing instrumentisation with their own multi tracked vocals. Does it work? Well there's certainly something charmingly amateur about it, especially the slightly grating call and response sections, but it's a refreshingly honest and earthy recording that suggests it would sound much the same if they came round to your house to sing it in person. It stood out from the rest of the overproduced flotsam in the charts around it and this no doubt helped it catch the ear of the record buying public at Christmas (The Flying Pickets had mined a similar seam in 1983).
And because of this, it has also aged far better than most of other the number ones of 1986, and at this twenty plus year remove the accusations of 'sell out' (a damaging thing to be accused of by the grey overcoated, Stalinist 'Indie Credibility Police' of the times) have faded like Ozymandias's statute. But sod them, I never had much time for such arguments anyway - I liked 'Caravan Of Love' in 1986 and I still like it now. There are plenty that don't, but I bet they moan Christmas is overly commercial and starts earlier every year too. They enjoy it all the same mind, even though they'd be the last to admit it.