The Beautiful South is a British band that has enjoyed enormous success in its home country. Their singles compilation album, Carry On Up The Charts (1994), has sold over 2.2 million copies in the UK (at the time of writing) - the equivalent of roughly one in seven households having a copy of the album.
Yet despite the hit singles, the top-selling albums and packed-out arena concerts, the band have never really become pop stars. Their faces aren't famous. They've never been glamorous, but the subtlety, humour and intelligence in their music has brought The Beautiful South continued success throughout what has been, in pop terms, a long career.
Housemartins Fly South
The Beautiful South was formed following the break-up of The Housemartins, who had enjoyed considerable success in Britain in the late 1980s. The Housemartins were an archetypal 'indie' band, mostly specialising in breezy guitar-based pop songs spiked with wry, sardonic lyrics1. Their amicable split came about partly because bassist Norman Cook was becoming more and more attracted to dance music. After scoring hits under a number of different names, he would eventually become hugely successful as Fatboy Slim2.
Singer Paul Heaton and drummer Dave Hemingway were the two ex-Housemartins who formed the Beautiful South, Hemingway abandoning the drums to become co-frontman with Heaton. They completed the new band's line-up by recruiting guitarist David Rotheray, who became Heaton's songwriting partner, bassist Sean Welch and drummer David Stead. The choice of name for the new band was ironic. All the band members bar Welch came from northern England, and The Beautiful South were based in the northern city of Hull. Heaton explained at the time that the name was partly a sarcastic reflection of his own dislike of southern England, and partly an attempt to force macho men to utter the word 'beautiful'.
Like The Housemartins, The Beautiful South combined melodic music with frequently dark, sardonic lyrics. But The Beautiful South's sound was subtle and sophisticated: soul-influenced jazz-pop, or piano-based ballads, sometimes employing brass or strings. Their debut single 'Song For Whoever', was a beautifully constructed, steadily building ballad with a lyric about the exploitative nature of pop love songs, that reached number two in the UK chart.
The band's debut album, Welcome To The Beautiful South followed later in 1989, to positive reviews and healthy sales. The success of Welcome To the Beautiful South came despite a row over the sleeve artwork. One major British chain store refused to stock the album because of a photo on the cover of a woman putting a gun in her mouth. The band responded by providing an alternative cover on which the controversial picture was replaced by one of a teddy bear. Its tracks included 'You Keep It All In', a duet between Heaton and guest vocalist Briana Corrigan, which gave The Beautiful South their second UK Top Ten single. Corrigan was subsequently recruited as a full-time member of the band.
A Little Success
Another duet featuring Corrigan, this time teamed up with Hemingway, provided The Beautiful South with a Number One single in 1990. 'A Little Time' was an archetypal Beautiful South song, musically smooth but lyrically abrasive. It concerned a couple's break-up, Hemingway's pleas for a little time and space being sharply countered by Corrigan's accusations of selfishness and dishonesty:
I need a little time
To think it over
I need a little space
Just on my own
I need a little time
To find my freedom
I need a little...
Funny how quick the milk turns sour
Isn't it, isn't it?
Your face has been looking like that for hours
Hasn't it, hasn't it?
Promises, promises turn to dust
Wedding bells just turn to rust
Trust into mistrust...
'A Little Time' was accompanied by a memorable video in which the two singers were seen covered with flour, in the middle of a kitchen apparently wrecked by an explosive battle between the two. The chart-topping single was followed by the band's second album, Choke, which sold strongly despite a critical backlash against Heaton's sardonic style of lyric writing.
Heaton's lyrics have always been both a blessing and a curse for The Beautiful South. They're probably the most distinctive thing about the band, but their wry humour and occasional bitterness doesn't always travel well. The third Beautiful South album, 0898 (the title refers to the dialling code used for 'adult' telephone services in Britain) wasn't even released in the United States.
0898 wasn't quite as big a British hit as its two predecessors, but it sold respectably. Its tracks included 'Old Red Eyes Is Back', which became a UK top 30 single despite its bleak subject matter: a man dying from chronic alcoholism. 'Bell Bottomed Tear' did better still, reaching the UK top 20.
However, around this time Heaton's lyrics began to cause some disagreement within the band. His songs about relationships were usually deeply cynical, and some seemed misogynistic3 enough to make Briana Corrigan feel uncomfortable singing them. Corrigan was also frustrated at not being able to get her own compositions on to The Beautiful South's records, and she left the band following the release of 0898 to go solo.
She was replaced by Jacqui Abbott, who joined in time to appear on the fourth Beautiful South album, Miaow, released in 1994. Abbott soon found herself in the spotlight when her rendition of 'Everybody's Talkin'', the Fred Neil composition made famous by Harry Nilsson, provided The Beautiful South with their biggest hit single since 'A Little Time'. The single reached number 12 in the UK chart.
Carry on Going Platinum
What happened next firmly established The Beautiful South as a major band, at least in their homeland. It also astonished the band themselves. Their greatest-hits compilation album Carry On Up The Charts, released late in 1994, shot straight to number one in the UK album chart. It stayed there for months, and went platinum in Britain over and over again4.
Blue Is The Colour followed in 1996, and soon earned the band another UK platinum disc. It also yielded two Top Ten singles, 'Rotterdam (Or Anywhere)' and 'Don't Marry Her'. Both were melodic, bouncy pop songs with a sting in the words. 'Rotterdam (Or Anywhere)' is about how loneliness can follow you anywhere, 'Don't Marry Her' is a wonderfully witty song sung (by Abbott) from the point of view of a woman trying to persuade a man to cancel his planned wedding and become her lover instead:
And the kitchen's always tidy
And the bathroom's always clean
She's a diploma in 'just hiding things'
You've a first in 'low esteem'
When your socks smell of angels
But your life smells of Brie...
A withering, strongly worded5 attack on family values set to a pretty, bouncy tune: a great example of The Beautiful South's sly art at its best.
The band came back with a bang in 1998 with another highly successful duet, this time between Heaton and Abbott. 'Perfect 10' had originally been written for Tom Jones, but Jones turned the song down. He may have regretted that decision as The Beautiful South's own version climbed to number 2 in the UK singles chart. Fiercely funky by Beautiful South standards, 'Perfect 10' was a risqué, innuendo-laden romp of a song, about appreciating lovers of all shapes and sizes.
Quench, the album that followed later in 1998, had all The Beautiful South's habitual wit, but was a more thoughtful, less cynical record than its immediate predecessors. The album's title, and some of the lyrics it contained, seemed to relate to the excessive fondness for alcohol that Heaton has admitted to in several interviews over the years, but has recently claimed to have overcome.
The clearest reference to Heaton's over-indulgence came in 'Look What I Found In My Beer', a song that contrasts the destructive power of excessive drinking with the healing power of music:
Look what I found in my beer
A start to being lonely and an end to my career...
Look what I found in the mic
An end to screwed-up drinking and a Paul I actually like.
'Big Coin' is another philosophical song, weighing up the real relative values of love and money:
Big coin that you held and you treasured
Big coin that you can't believe that you lost
Little kiss that helped you when you needed
Little kiss, big coin.
The Beautiful South returned to action in 2000 with the release of a double CD, Painting It Red. Unfortunately for them, the musical climate in Britain was dominated by boy bands, girl bands and dance music, and was unfriendly towards new music aimed at adults. The album sold disappointingly and only produced one Top 30 single, 'Closer Than Most'. A further blow to The Beautiful South came in October 2000 when Jacqui Abbott left the band midway through a tour of North America, citing 'personal reasons'. However, the band completed both that tour and some British dates, with Heaton and Hemingway doing the singing.
In the summer of 2001, Heaton surprised Beautiful South fans by announcing plans for his debut solo album 'Fat Chance', to be released under the name of Biscuit Boy. The album was duly released in September 2001. However, there is no reason to believe (at the time of writing) that this means the end of The Beautiful South. The first Biscuit Boy single, 'Mitch', was written by the regular Beautiful South songwriting team of Heaton and David Rotheray.
The success of the British dates The Beautiful South played in late 2000 demonstrated that they still had a sizeable audience in Britain. That fact was confirmed in November 2001, when a new compilation album of the band's hit singles, Solid Bronze - Great Hits, entered the Top 10 of the UK album chart. The album includes tracks from all phases of The Beautiful South's career, and bears witness to their enduring popularity and creativity.
The Beautiful South's Personnel
- Paul Heaton, born 9 May, 1962, Birkenhead, Merseyside, UK - vocals and songwriting
- Dave Hemingway, b. 20 September, 1960, Hull, East Yorkshire, UK - vocals
- David Rotheray, b. 9 February, 1963, Hull, East Yorkshire, UK - guitar and songwriting
- Dave Stead, b. 15 October, 1966, Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, UK - drums
- Sean Welch, b. 12 April, 1965, Enfield, Middlesex, UK - bass
The Beautiful South Album Discography
Welcome to the Beautiful South (1989): 'Song for Whoever', 'Have you Ever Been Away?', 'From Under The Covers', 'I'll Sail This Ship Alone', 'Girlfriend', 'Straight in at 37', 'You Keep It All In', 'Woman In The Wall', 'Oh Blackpool', 'Love Is...', 'I Love You (But You're Boring)'.
Choke (1990):'Tonight I Fancy Myself', 'My Book', 'Let Love Speak Up Itself', 'Should've Kept My Eyes Shut', 'I've Come For My Award', 'Lips', 'I Think The Answer's Yes', 'A Little Time', 'Mother's Pride', 'I Hate You (But You're Interesting)', 'The Rising Of Grafton Street'.
0898 (1992): 'Old Red Eyes Is Back', 'We Are Each Other', 'The Rocking Chair', 'We'll Deal With You Later', 'Domino Man', '36D', 'Here It Is Again', 'Something That You Said', 'I'm Your No.1 Fan', 'Bell-Bottomed Tear', 'You'll Play Glockenspiel I'll Play Drums', 'When I'm 84'.
Miaow (1994): 'Hold On To What?', 'Good As Gold (Stupid As Mud)', 'Especially For You', 'Everybody's Talkin'', 'Prettiest Eyes', 'Worthless Lie', 'Hooligans Don't Fall In Love', 'Hidden Jukebox', 'Hold Me Close (Underground)', 'Tattoo', 'Mini-Correct', 'Poppy'.
Carry on Up The Charts (1994): 'Song For Whoever', 'You Keep It All In', 'I'll Sail This Ship Alone', 'A Little Time', 'My Book', 'Let Love Speak Up Itself', 'Old Red Eyes Is Back', 'We Are Each Other', 'Bell Bottomed Tear', '36D', 'Good As Gold (Stupid As Mud)', 'Everybody's Talkin'', 'Prettiest Eyes', 'One Last Love Song'.
Blue Is The Colour (1996): 'Don't Marry Her', 'Little Blue', 'Mirror', 'Blackbird On The Wire', 'The Sound Of North America', 'Have Fun', 'Liars' Bar', 'Rotterdam (Or Anywhere)', 'Foundations', 'Artificial Flowers', 'One God', 'Alone'.
Quench (1998): 'How Long's A Tear Take To Dry?', 'The Lure Of The Sea', 'Big Coin', 'Dumb', 'Perfect 10', 'The Slide', 'Look What I Found In My Beer', 'The Table', 'Window Shopping For Blinds', 'Pockets', 'I May Be Ugly', 'Losing Things', 'Your Father And I'.
Painting it Red (2000): 'Who's Gonna Tell?', 'Closer Than Most', 'Just Checkin'', 'Hit Parade', 'Masculine Eclipse', ''Til You Can't Tuck It In', 'If We Crawl', 'Tupperware Queen', 'Half-Hearted Get (Is Second Best)', 'White Teeth'6, 'The River', 'Baby Please Go', 'You Can Call Me Leisure', 'Final Spark', '10,000 Feet', 'Hot On The Heels OF Heartbreak', 'The Mediterranean', 'A Little Piece of Advice', 'Property Quiz', 'Chicken Wings'.
Solid Bronze - Great Hits (2001)7 'Rotterdam', 'Perfect 10', 'Don't Marry Her', 'A Little Time', 'Everybody's Talkin'', 'Dream A Little Dream', 'Song For Whoever', 'Old Red Eyes is Back', 'One Last Love Song', 'Dumb', 'You Keep It All In', 'How Long's A Tear Take To Dry?' 'Blackbird On The Wire', 'Good As Gold', 'Closer Than Most' 'The River', 'Pretenders To The Throne' 'The Root Of All Evil', 'The Mediterranean (remix)'.
The Beautiful South's Official Website
For further information on The Beautiful South, see The Official Beautiful South website. It features a wealth of information about the band, including the latest news of their activities, some highly entertaining interviews with the band members, the lyrics to all their songs, and the stories behind their album sleeves.