One of the reasons for writing this blog is to introduce whatever readers I have to a variety of entertainers, historical figures, inventors, and events that may have escaped your awareness. And, since music has always been a passion of mine, I thought I’d devote a few postings to singers and bands that have won my loyalty, but have rarely, if ever, captured much attention in the U.S. (not surprisingly, most are from the U.K.).
So, I’ll label these postings “Retro Reviews”–not exactly hot off the CD presses, but in the music world, discovering any music that becomes a new personal favorite, even years after its release, is better than never discovering it at all.
In that spirit, I’d like to pass along the strongest of recommendations for a band called The Beautiful South, formed in 1988 and hailing from Hull, England, a port city on the northeastern coast. My awareness and enthusiasm for the group is due to my friend Linda, who lives in Hull, and who, many years ago, sent me a tape of the band’s first Greatest Hits collection, Carry On Up The Charts.
The band had its beginnings following the break-up of a previous Hull band, the Housemartins, led by singer-songwriter Paul Heaton (who could easily pass as a member of Best Buy’s Geek Squad). When the Housemartins called it a day, Heaton and fellow Housemartin singer Dave Hemingway formed The Beautiful South, with Irish native Brianna Corrigan as the group’s third singer. Her presence provided Heaton with the impetus to write some relationship-themed songs that included the female’s point of view (the other band members included Sean Welch on bass and Dave Stead on drums, plus Damon Butcher, who played keyboards on the albums, but was never listed as an official member of the group). The Beautiful South rarely favored a heavy guitar sound, preferring instead to emphasize keyboards, acoustic guitar, and additional instruments.
Their first album, 1989’s Welcome to the Beautiful South, produced two Top 10 singles, “Song For Whoever,” and “You Keep It All In.” A third single, “I’ll Sail This Ship Alone,” also landed in the Top 40. From that point on, the band continued an impressive streak of successful albums and Top 40 hits.
One of the first things I noticed upon my initial exposure those hits was how many of the songs would combine somewhat quirky lyrics, with an occasionally crude phrase, description, or four-letter word, with a downright beautiful, plaintive, and very catchy melody, often enhanced with a superb string and/or horn arrangement. The juxtaposition between the elegant music and offbeat lyrics can be a bit jarring at first, and might require some getting used to. But, while Heaton’s lyrics have been known for their sarcasm, cynicsm, and stinging political messages about British politics (most of which are lost on this Yank), many of his strongest and most heartfelt songs deal with relationships, and how they can either
deteriorate over time, or grow stronger well into middle-age, and beyond. The best two examples are found in the tender songs “The Prettiest Eyes” (from their fourth album, Miaow) and” ‘Til You Can’t Tuck It In” (from the exceptional Painting It Red album, released in 2000). Both songs are, shall we say, better appreciated when you’ve reached a certain age. If you can listen to either without getting a lump in your throat, check to see if you still have a pulse.
Heaton developed an interesting modus operandi for writing the songs. Periodically, he would spend several weeks alone in an out-of-the-way town in the Netherlands, writing miscellaneous sets of lyrics in his notebook while sitting in pubs, his hotel room, or meandering through the town, where he could go unrecognized. Upon returning to Hull, he and guitarist Dave Rotheray would choose a warmer, sunnier locale to travel to for writing each song’s music. Back in Hull, they would then work out the melodies and arrangements with the full band (the composers always split all earnings for the band, including song royalties, evenly amongst the members).
After the release of their third album, 0898 Beautiful South in 1992, Corrigan left the band, partly to explore a solo career, but also in protest of what she considered to be offensive or misogynistic lyrics in some of the songs, such as “36D” (not likely to become an anthem for the #MeToo movement) –a charge Heaton conceded had some merit.
Corrigan’s replacement, Hull native Jacqui Abbott, joined the band in an unlikely way. She and a friend once attended an after-show party for the band, during which her friend nudged Abbott to sing for Heaton. Reluctantly, she did so, and Heaton made a mental note of her talents. When Corrigan announced her intentions to leave the band, Heaton made the effort to find Abbott’s friend, in order to arrange a more formal audition.
Abbott’s sultry, husky voice won him over, and she quickly went from grocery store shelf-stacker to singer in one of the U.K.’s most popular bands of the ’90s (she’s also simply one of the coolest women on the planet). Her solo vocal tracks are impressive enough, but Heaton took particular delight in the sound of their duets. As with some of his earlier compositions, he continued writing songs that alternate between the male and female point of view. And, when sung with Abbott, the results can be exquisite.
After the band recorded Painting It Red, Abbott left to devote more time to her two-year-old son, who had been diagnosed with autism. After a break, the band continued recording and touring, with singer Alison Wheeler replacing Abbott. The Beautiful South split for good in early 2007, famously citing “musical similarities,” although some of the members continued working together in various combinations.
Heaton continued fronting a new band, and in 2011, contacted Abbott to ask if she’d like to participate in a few performances of a new musical work he had been touring with. Even though they had lost touch for nearly a decade, they each found working together again to be invigorating, and, in 2014, released an album of new material, What Have We Become? This kicked off a busy round of live performances and guest appearances on the top British TV morning chat shows (much to the delight of their longtime fans, as well as the program hosts), in which Heaton praised Abbott, and expressed his joy over working
with her again. The feeling was mutual, although Abbott is considerably more shy and soft-spoken on camera than Heaton. Now that they’re together again and performing in venues big and small, the two haven’t rested on their laurels by relying on The Beautiful South’s many hits for their concert gigs. In fact, they’ve since recorded two more albums, Wisdom, Laughter and Lines in 2015, and Crooked Calypso in 2017.
Thankfully, there are numerous clips of both The Beautiful South and the more recent Heaton/Abbott performances on YouTube for you to discover, such as the two below. And, all of the aforementioned albums are available on Amazon.com. So, as long as you’ve got your face in your screen to read this anyway, why not stop over at YouTube and give them a chance?
Until next time…