Ten Songs That Made Me Love...
published: 24 /
Anthony Dhanendran argues the case for and reflects on his ten favourite songs by the much maligned and heavily criticised the Beautiful South.
The Beautiful South were, I think, a much misunderstood band. The misunderstanding wasn’t helped by the music, which is lovely in its own way, but was often criticised as inoffensive, middle of the road, even boring.
You have to go a bit deeper to see the point which is that to songwriters Paul Heaton and Dave Rotheray, there is misery, filth or corruption barely concealed below every single surface of everyday life, and all it takes to reveal it is the slightest of scratches.
Even the band’s name, the Beautiful South, is a bitter dig at the aspersions that had been cast at the pair’s previous outfit the Housemartins, because of their Hull roots. The music serves both as a vehicle for the lyrics, carrying it into the charts ready to pounce and to spill their contents on to an unsuspecting public, and as a contrast – the beautiful instrumentation and melodies, not forgetting Heaton’s own angelic singing, jarring against the hard edge of the words.
I’ll be the first to admit that my own love of the band doesn’t go much deeper than their singles. But then this column is called 'Ten Songs That Made Me Love…' and in that instruction I am happy to deliver the goods.
1. 'Prettiest Eyes' ('Miaow', 1994)
We open with the bare bulb of a brightly picked guitar, before Heaton’s voice joins us. “Line one is the time/That you, you first stayed over at mine.” So far, so normal – deconstructing the song you’re singing for a metatextual close reading might be relatively unusual for a pop song, but not for this band. But then we get to the cut: it’s not set in the present, it’s a love song by someone looking back at the beginning of his relationship from somewhere much further down the line: “Sixty 25th of Decembers, 59 4th of Julys”, and while the character singing doesn’t shy away from unvarnished truth, he’s also still in love: “Take a look at these crow’s feet, just look/Sitting on the prettiest eyes”. That said, “And I only write them down just in case that you die” is pretty brutal. It’s no mean feat to write a song that’s about both young love and old love, but here it is.
2. 'A Little Time' ('Choke', 1990)
This might be the finest rendition of the Beautiful South’s most famous song form, the two-hander, in which Hemingway sings what you might call the more basic pop vocal: “I need a little time to think it over,” while in the second verse Briana Corrigan deftly deflates him: “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?” Again the band expertly peek under the covers of a broken relationship, in which one person is in denial and the other has just figured out that they’ve been had: “You had a little time and you had a little fun, didn't you, didn't you?/While you had yours, do you think I had none, do you, do you? The freedom that you wanted bad/Is yours for good, I hope you're glad.” Like all the best pop songs, and all the best Beautiful South songs, it knows when to quit, too, clocking out in a shade under three minutes. It was rewarded by being the band’s only number one.
3. 'Song for Whoever' ('Welcome to the Beautiful South', 1989)
This is the archetype. The Ur-Beautiful South monolith. Straight in at number two, their first release in 1989. From the get-go it’s got everything we’d later come to expect: a saccharine-sweet melody line (though still of a far higher quality than the things it was parodying), and the very first lyric is a punch to the throat of the rent-a-pen songwriters and boy bands then (and now) clogging up the charts: “I love you from the bottom of my pencil case”, and then in the second stanza they stab right
at the heart of pop’s basic conceit: “You put me in my rightful place”, a spectacular double-entendre. It’s overly familiar by now, but it’s still glorious.
4. 'I’ve Come for My Award' ('Choke', 1990)
Released in October 1990, a month before Mrs Thatcher vacated the country’s most famous residence, this is the band in political mode, with a sneering, searing swipe at the yuppies and the suits, slapping one another on the back and giving each other awards for destroying communities and tearing up industries: “I took on your free enterprise and your pretty little shops/I walked in with empty bags and walked out with the lot”
5. I’ll Sail This Ship Alone' ('Welcome to the Beautiful South', 1989)
This is chamber pop at its very best. The Beautiful South knew how to write and play a beautiful tune. 'Sail This Ship' begins with a lovely solo piano line before, characteristically, the drums and Heaton’s unadorned vocal kick in at the same time. This tale of a spurned lover trying everything he can to get his love back is biting and cutting, and it even takes time out – in the very first chorus, no less – to stab itself in the back, with a stanza that attacks the song itself for not being very good: “Well, they said if I wrote the perfect love song/That you would take me back/Well I wrote it, but I lost it/And now will you take me back anyway?” It’s the sort of thing few bands would risk running with, reminiscent of the famous lines with which Axl Rose would begin Guns ‘n’ Roses’ stadium shows: “You wanted the best,” he’d scream, before adding, “Well, they couldn’t fuckin’ make it, so you’ve got us.”
6. 'We Are Each Other' ('0898 Beautiful South', 1992)
Melding indie sensibility and pop hooks to somehow anticipate 90's indie-pop by some years, and at the same time cheekily lifting a snippet of melody from Giovanni Capurro’s famous 'O Sole Mio' (or the Cornetto ad, if you prefer) this song takes aim at those couples who are a bit too close for comfort: “It's too close for another, it's too close for a lover”.
7. 'Old Red Eyes Is Back' ('0898 Beautiful South', 1992)
While other bands would come up with drinking songs, Heaton and Rotheray would reach back into the sensibility of blues and country music, and create drunkards’ songs. This one is a painful chronicle of the alcoholics you might find down the pub or in the bookie’s, the sort of people with nothing left for them but the bottom of a bottle. As ever, though, they don’t stop on the surface, instead getting right under the skin and into the mind of the drinker in question – they can’t help wondering what it is that made him that way: “They're only red from all the thoughts unused inside my head/They're only red from all the things I could have done instead/So when you look into these eyes, I hope you realise/They could never be blue, they could never be blue.” The tune, meanwhile, starts slowly, like the first tentative steps of the morning after, not quite sure when the hangover’s going to truly kick it, but then it gets right off at a rollicking pace. Red, of course, dies at the end.
8. I Love You (But You’re Boring)' (Welcome to the Beautiful South', 1989) and 9. 'I Hate You (But You’re Interesting)' ('Choke', 1990)
An intertwined pair of songs, the first appears on 1989’s debut album 'Welcome to the Beautiful South' and is uncharacteristically low-key, with a strummed guitar accompaniment to a strikingly lo-fi vocal, and some odd sounds and bits of speech mixed in. It’s a lovely song about the innocence of youth, childhood infatuation, and young love, and it doesn’t forget to get some barbs in: “Birds are singing in the trees/As we rise up in a beautiful morning/But I can't hear that beautiful sound/'Cos I'm permanently yawning”.
The second track is on 1990’s follow-up album,'Choke'. It is similarly sparse, but it’s a much sadder song. It’s brutal, in fact: “I went to see a doctor and she said, 'Yes, go ahead/ Throw yourself into the sea'”. That’s followed up with: “I wrote a will for my friends, and this is how it read:/ 'Me, me, me, me, me, me, me'”. Morrissey would have killed to have written that couplet.
I like these two songs so much because they’re so unusual compared to the rest of the band’s canon, especially the hits, and because they manage to get right to the heart of the band’s raison d’être: pathos. All is pathos, and if you think it’s going well, just wait until you see what’s coming round the corner.
10. 'Let Love Speak Up Itself' ('Choke', 1990)
“Don’t whisper love, and dream of wedding bells/Don’t do all the talking/Let love speak up itself,” are the opening lines of this most glorious, most clear-eyed, most penetrating love song. Obviously it failed to crack the top 50 – the country wasn’t ready (I’m not sure it’ll ever be) for this melding of rococo chamber pop with the dirt, the grime, the exhaustion of simply living a life and trying to keep a marriage together: “And when you feel unhappy that I'm not the one I was/Let love rot inside and let love palm you off”. It’s my favourite Beautiful South song, and one of my favourites of all time, simply because (aside from the fact that the tune and the orchestration are both stunning) it reaches into the body of meaning for which all other pop strives, casually picks out the heart, drains the blood into a glass and drinks it, while winking leeringly at you. I can’t do it any more justice than to simply quote the blindingly brilliant, insightful stanza that stops the band in their tracks half-way through the song and perfectly pictures the scene, the underbelly of filth that subsists beneath the thin layer of domestic happiness: “There will not be a send-off/ A funeral or mass/Just a pathetic little vodka From a dirty little glass: ‘To the world’s greatest mum From the oldest swinger in town’”