After disbanding England’s ironically poppy — and, at home, wildly popular — Housemartins in 1988, frontman Paul Heaton wasted little time in maintaining the Hull band’s chart momentum with the less jangly but similarly double-edged Beautiful South. (Another ex-member, Norman Cook, launched Beats International and subsequently became a massive star as Fatboy Slim.) Though the new combo replaced the Housemartins’ plangent guitars with a more mature, keyboard-driven MOR-pop sound, it maintained the pointed juxtaposition of attractively crafted tunes and Heaton’s barbed lyrical sentiments. In their mix of attractive arrangements and scabrous lyrics, the Beautiful South would bewilder and alienate its potential American audience while becoming enormous stars at home.
With ex-Housemartins drummer Dave Hemmingway sharing vocal duties (but not playing drums), Welcome to the Beautiful South sets the tone with “Song for Whoever,” an irresistible melody supporting a biting lyric nailing the cynicism just below the surface of commercial love songs. Elsewhere, the material — co-written by Heaton and guitarist David Rotheray — is most effective when Heaton lets his guard down and shows some vulnerability (as he does in “You Keep It All In” and “I’ll Sail This Ship Alone”) and less so when taking gratuitous potshots at obvious targets (like Duran Duran singer Simon Le Bon).
Expanding from a quintet to a sextet, the Beautiful South returned the same year with the even more bilious Choke, a collection of eleven acerbic, pointed songs that is over and done in 37 minutes. The group’s disgust with just about everything but its seductive music — tinged with horn parts straight from the Bacharach/David songbook and distinguished by a loping, easy groove — is palpable from the very first cut, “Tonight I Fancy Myself,” where the singer recoils from the sight of icky-cooey lovers and bluntly states, “I choose / self-abuse.” Vocalist Briana Corrigan, who isn’t given much to do, brings a welcome edge to “Should’ve Kept My Eyes Shut,” which sets harrowing lyrics of domestic abuse against bouncy pop dynamics: “I should have kept my eyes shut / My mouth should’ve closed / But the mixture of vomit and blood / Just crept up through my nose.” In “I’ve Come for My Award,” a disgusting, thieving captain of free enterprise allows that “Jesus was my greatest accomplice.” Choke makes it clear that the Beautiful South has ample pop sense and pure venom to keep its unique act going for quite a while.
0898 Beautiful South features even more uplifting melodies and more balanced lyrics: “Old Red Eyes Is Back,” “We Are Each Other” and the Corrigan-sung “Bell-Bottomed Tear” benefit immeasurably by demonstrating a bit more compassion for their subjects. Heaton hits particular peaks in his dialogue songs. (He writes alternating-verse male/female numbers better than just about anyone.) “We Are Each Other” follows in the footsteps of “You Keep It All In” and presages the future Beautiful South hits “Good as Gold” and “Perfect 10.” Following 0898, Corrigan left the band, reportedly after reading Heaton’s lyrics for forthcoming albums and finding them too misogynistic to sing in public.
Regardless, the subsequent Miaow is similarly satisfying. “Good as Gold (Stupid as Mud)” and “Prettiest Eyes” focus more on intimate details rather than the sweeping generalizations all too common on the band’s early discs. (The record is, however, exceedingly nasty in tone toward the end, with the brutal S&M imagery of “Mini-Correct” contributing to Heaton’s reputation as a snarling misanthrope.) New singer Jacqueline Abbott (who replaced Corrigan and is similarly underused) steps out front for a competent but pointless reading of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’.” The Beautiful South had no US record deal at this point, so the album’s UK success went untested overseas.
A few select Miaow tunes made it to the States via Carry on Up the Charts, a decent 15-song sampler that includes two new numbers (the anthemic “One Last Love Song” and a snappy Abbott-sung cover of the pop chestnut “Dream a Little Dream of Me”). The compilation was an enormous commercial success in the UK, reaching platinum faster than any album in British history, demonstrating the surprisingly vast audience for Heaton and Rotheray’s melodic misery.
The group’s next two releases, Blue Is the Colour and Quench, likewise topped the British charts while remaining totally off American radar. Blue Is the Colour is the clear winner (although both have their charms), with some of the most pop-friendly melodies and vocals in the Beautiful South’s history. Abbott’s singing on “Rotterdam (Or Anywhere)” is blithely chipper, while the tuneful “Don’t Marry Her” offers a gleeful endorsement of infidelity. (The chorus, sung brightly by Abbott, goes, “The Sunday sun shines down on San Francisco Bay / And you realize you can’t make it any way / You have to wash the car, take the kids to the park / Don’t marry her, fuck me.”) Heaton sings “Liars Bar” like he’s just discovered Tom Waits; “Little Blue” and “Artificial Flowers” are subtle highlights.
Quench falters, despite the funky Heaton-Abbott duet “Perfect 10,” which salutes plus-size romance and begs to be covered by an American R&B or hip-hop group. Abbott’s “How Long’s a Tear Take to Dry?” reconciles fueding lovers, and the album closer, “Your Father and I,” is one of Heaton’s most finely wrought duets of male/female relations, with alternating verses by Abbott and Heaton deflating one another’s pretensions. The rest of the album, however, is less catchy or profound than simply tedious. Alcohol is the dominant lyrical obsession — “Look What I Found in My Beer” tellingly offers a drinking problem history of Heaton (or someone very like him).
The ambitious double-length Painting It Red offers loads of quantity (20 tracks on the UK release, 17 in the States) but only middling quality. The album is generally dreary in tone, with tired-sounding performances and material. Amid the languor and defeatism, the double-disc version also suffers from poor pacing, with far too many ballads and slower numbers. “The River,” released as a single in the UK, is groaningly sluggish and lacks the snap of Heaton and Rotheray’s best numbers. There are some worthy tracks, but most are ballads. “Closer Than Most” and Abbott’s “Just Checkin’” are the rare examples here of that trademark Beautiful South formula of a withering lyric on a catchy melody.
Solid Bronze compiles the Beautiful South’s hits up to 2001 (to less effect than Carry on Up the Charts), adding a few new songs. Gaze introduces Alison Wheeler, yet another female vocalist as foil for Heaton and Rotheray. She stayed with the band for an offbeat collection of covers, Golddiggas, Headnodders & Pholk Songs, which ranges from the Zombies to S Club 7 to the Travolta/Newton-John duet “You’re the One That I Want” from Grease. “This Old Skin,” credited to the Heppelbaums, appears to be the sole original.
Superbi is a more credible addition to the catalogue. Heaton’s “The Rose in My Cologne” shows a clear ’70s soul influence, while “Manchester” is a rousing tribute to his adopted hometown (“If rain makes Britain great / Then Manchester is greater”). Wheeler is in fine form on yet another alternating-vocalists duet, “When Romance Is Dead,” and there are other engaging moments in a more-of-the-same vein. The band’s stylistic sources remain British music hall, Bacharach, American soul and lite jazz, and Heaton’s lyrics invariably circle around the same topics.
Gold, a double-disc of hits, immediately supplants both Carry On and Solid Bronze, at least for UK listeners. With 36 tracks, it meets the needs of just about every Beautiful South fan and documents the extraordinary output and consistency of Heaton, Hemmingway, Rotheray, their female singing partners (Corrigan, Abbott, Wheeler) and bandmates.
Although Heaton has led bands for decades, he’s released only one album as a solo artist, Fat Chance, under the name Biscuit Boy.