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The Beautiful South

If Hull’s HOUSEMARTINS were the 4th best group from that part of the Yorkshire coastline, then by definition, The BEAUTIFUL SOUTH were their worthy understudy. Founded in late 1988 by singer-songwriter Paul Heaton and drummer-turned vocalist David Hemingway, the pair were almost immediately joined by guitarist/co-scribe Dave Rotheray (from Hemingway’s pre-‘Martins combo The Velvetones), bassist Sean Welch (a former HOUSEMARTINS roadie) and fresh drummer Dave Stead (ex-LUDDITES).
Happy to stick with a renewed Go! Discs contract, the independent quintet’s debut single, `Song For Whoever’, raced up the charts to one spot off the top in June ’89; its parody of love song overload belying a bittersweet appeal which no amount of clever, ironic lyrics could detract from over the course of their career. With the addition of Northern Irish singer Briana Corrigan (at first in a supportive auxiliary role), melody was everything with the group as an irrepressible follow-up track, `You Keep It All In’, popped into the Top 10.
Both singles featured on their debut set, WELCOME TO THE BEAUTIFUL SOUTH (1989) {*8}, it was an impressive enough introduction that included the enduringly charming `From Under The Covers’ and a spontaneous cover of PEBBLES’ `Girlfriend’. The star of the show was undoubtedly `I’ll Sail This Ship Alone’; Heaton’s little-boy-lost vocals working miracles. Shrugging off the controversy of the original Jan Saudek sleeve art (a woman with a gun in her mouth, a man smoking!), their jaunty, twee pop also belied a stronger, caustic wit within the barb of their lyrics.
The bulk of the band’s subsequent work would be characterised by the vocal trade-offs between Heaton and Corrigan (or whoever) – some of them priceless. The 6-strong team topped the charts the following October with the cynical Corrigan/Hemingway croon, `A Little Time’, another cleverly-crafted, bitter-sweet duet to reminisce from the bygone days of Nancy & Lee.
One of the high spots from their near-chart-topping follow-up album, CHOKE (1990) {*7}, the record marked out The BEAUTIFUL SOUTH as undisputed champions of chronicling everyday relationship breakdowns, although both sequel singles, `My Book’ and `Let Love Speak Up Itself’, only bubbled under the Top 40.
Previewed by the tragi-comic hit, `Old Red Eyes Is Back’ (very MORRISSEY), the occasionally brilliant but fragile 0898 BEAUTIFUL SOUTH (1992) {*6} album, called upon a more bitterly realistic affair. The poignant small-time tragedy of `Bell Bottomed Tear’ (another big hitter after `We Are Each Other’), remained one of their most emotionally jarring compositions to date. The record again went Top 5, consolidating the group’s position as mainstream pop mavericks, although relative flop `36D’ (and attendant video) was hardly clear in its intentions, leaving Corrigan to find solace in a subsequent solo career.
A fourth Top 10 set, MIAOW (1994) {*6}, saw Heaton and Co work with new recruit, Jacqui Abbot, a worthy replacement on graceful duets `Good As Gold (Stupid As Mud)’ and a swooning cover of FRED NEIL’s `Everybody’s Talkin’’. The latter track was the record’s biggest hit by far (`Prettiest Star’ stalling at No.37), while the band’s popularity was confirmed when a prophetic greatest hits set, CARRY ON UP THE CHARTS: THE BEST OF THE BEAUTIFUL SOUTH (1994) {*9} – featuring the exclusive `One Last Love Song’ – became one of the fastest selling albums in British history.
On the back of another exclusive Top 20 volley (`Pretenders To The Throne’), the sophisti-pop sextet returned in suitably barbed style with `Rotterdam’, a precious sing-a-long from parent (er… “parental guidance”) album, BLUE IS THE COLOUR (1996) {*7}, a slightly sharp chart-topper which initially drew controversy for its bawdy Top 10 smash, `Don’t Marry Her’ (“f**k me”); a slightly altered version provided for radio play. Other significant pointers from the lush and intimate record was a cover of `Artificial Flowers’ (once sung by BOBBY DARIN), the dreamy hit `Blackbird On The Wire’ and Heaton’s bottom-of-the-bottle tribute to TOM WAITS by way of Dean Martin: `Liars’ Bar’.
Following in a familiar formula, Heaton, Abbott and Co teamed up exquisitely once again after yet another two-year spell. This time No.2 single, `Perfect 10’, a metaphorical dirge from the chart-topping parent album, QUENCH (1998) {*6}, displayed the usual BEAUTIFUL SOUTH repartee. Booze and barflies the prop-up points for many melodious croons on display (`Look What I Found In My Beer’, `The Slide’ and `Window Shopping For Blinds’), these sat unceremoniously alongside staple hits, `Dumb’, `How Long’s A Tear Take To Dry?’ and `The Table’.
While critics continued to queue up in hope of writing off Heaton and crew, the band’s comfy nook in the adult-pop pantheon looked increasingly secure. Another day, another decade and another dole-dodging dollar, PAINTING IT RED (2000) {*5} was business as usual for the group; their tried and tested formula of subversive pop skulduggery making few concessions to musical fashion. The infectious `Closer Than Most’ managed a Top 30 placing, whilst its follow-up (the double-A-sided `The River’ and `Just Checkin’’) clocked up a relatively poor Top 75 chart performance, suggesting that The BEAUTIFUL SOUTH’s brand of social comment was on the verge of finally being made redundant in the vacuum-packed, braindead wasteland that constituted modern “pop”. As if to certify this prediction, `The Root Of All Evil’ (from a second Top 10 collection), only just cracked the Top 50.
The creatively irrepressible PAUL HEATON got his solo career off to a decent start with 2001’s `Fat Chance’, originally released under the “Biscuit Boy” banner. Kitted-out with an up-to-the-minute production and armed with as much lyrical trickery as any BS fan could hope for, the album updated the singer’s standard musical context without sacrificing the charm. Meanwhile, on a general hiatus which turned into an eventual split, Rotheray splintered with countrified folk-pop act, Homespun; three sets into their career, the man finally delivered his debut solo set, `Life Of Birds’ (2010).
Swapping Abbott for their third-and-final lady-in-waiting Alison Wheeler, The BEAUTIFUL SOUTH returned to the fray with GAZE (2003) {*5}; as always, piano-player/keyboard-kingpin Damon Butcher was their man in-demand on session. The Top 20 album suffered both critically and commercially after their long lay-off, as Heaton and the group turned to kitchen-sink, campfire-country-tinged pop in an attempt to please themselves; lead single `Just A Few Things That I Ain’t’ and `Let Go With The Flow’, were the only semblance of their lilting past.
In keeping with their new-found Nashville sound, the group decided on clutching at straws for their first album for Sony Music, full-blown covers submission GOLDDIGGAS, HEADNODDERS & PHOLK SONGS (2004) {*6}. A refreshingly surprising curiosity that killed not one country cat, the near Top 10 guilty pleasure hosted three mid-market hit re-vamps by way of the ELECTRIC LIGHT ORCHESTRA’s `Livin’ Thing’, The ZOMBIES’ `This Will Be Our Year’ and their own `This Old Skin’ (which Heaton and Rotheray masked under the Christiansand and Klein nom de plume). Of course, the public could’ve been spoilt for choice had they released the following selections:- `You’re The One That I Want’ (a hit for JOHN TRAVOLTA & OLIVIA NEWTON-JOHN), `Ciao!’ (LUSH), `Valentine’ (WILLIE NELSON), `Don’t Fear The Reaper’ (BLUE OYSTER CULT), `Don’t Stop Moving’ (S Club 7), `Till I Can’t Take It Anymore’ (BEN E.KING), `Rebel Prince’ (RUFUS WAINWRIGHT), `Blitzkrieg Bop’ (RAMONES) and `I’m Stone In Love With You’ (The STYLISTICS); while left as outtakes from this period were flip-sides:- `I’m Living Good’ (Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham), `Lovin’ You’ (The LOVIN’ SPOONFUL), `Another Night With The Boys’ (Goffin & King), `Lipstick Traces’ (ALLEN TOUSSAINT), `Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ (The SMITHS), `For The Good Times’ (KRIS KRISTOFFERSON) and `Never Mind’ (Harlan Howard).
B-side cover versions had indeed been a speciality for Messrs Heaton, Hemingway and band over the past decade or so, the not so weird and wonderful archived on `Love Wars’ (WOMACK AND WOMACK), `God Bless The Child’ (BILLIE HOLIDAY), `I Sold My Heart To The Junkman’ (LaBELLE), `I Started A Joke’ and `You Should Be Dancing’ (BEE GEES) and `Ain’t No Sunshine’, `You Just Can’t Smile It Away’ and `Lean On Me’ (BILL WITHERS).
2006’s SUPERBI {*5} turned out to be their swansong set, a Top 10 entry produced by Ian Stanley (ex-TEARS FOR FEARS) at PETER GABRIEL’s Real World Studios. Bookended by `The Rose Of Cologne’ and the aptly-named `Tears’ (`Manchester’ was the only track to reach the Top 50), The BEAUTIFUL SOUTH bowed out at a time when music was drastically becoming more of a commodity to download rather than something to hold and treasure. While the rest continued as The South, HEATON continued his solo venture and, more recently, reunited with JACQUI ABBOTT on an album, `What Have We Become?’ (2014).
© MC Strong 1994-2002/GRD // rev-up MCS Dec2015

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