Tuesday, 16 October 2018

The Beautiful South/The Housemartins

An odd, difficult to categorise band here, but when they hit that certain sound, with those biting, clever lyrics - they were great....

Welcome To The Beautiful South (1989)

This was a superb, quirky debut album released in 1989 by The Beautiful South, with its sometimes baffling lyrics - sad, funny, tasteless, cynical, tongue in cheek, heartbreaking. Rather like the character of band “leader” (disputed), Paul Heaton - a Morrissey-like amalgam of conflicting moods and behaviour patterns. A character virtually impossible to predict, analyse or second guess. At times I admire him greatly. At others I find him an insufferable whatever.

Similarly, the band’s music is impossible to categorise. I can’t even begin to do it. Just as many of the band’s members are somewhat faceless, some of the music just sort of washes over you.

There are some lovely songs on here though - the impossibly catchy 
Song For Whoever, the plaintive I'll Sail This Ship Alone, the cod-funk of Girlfriend and the frankly perplexing Woman In The Wall with its lilting, South African influence.

This was quite an impressive first outing. A remastering is long overdue. Only on compilations will you find any of The South’s material in remastered format, which is a shame.

Choke (1990)
The Beautiful South, after a critically-acclaimed debut album that saw them hailed as the equal of The Smiths in the love/hate sardonic/cynical/Northern down-to-earth wit stakes, found themselves facing a bit of a backlash with this follow-up. As is often the way with witty, observational artists, they pretty soon get condemned for being “too clever”, “pretentious”, “smug” or “too cynical”. This was a bit of a shame, because there is some uniquely impressive material on here. Singer and leading light Paul Heaton, however, one suspects, loved the fact they were getting people’s backs up. It was in his DNA. I have loved the guy’s lyrics and vocal delivery for nearly thirty years, yet I probably wouldn’t want to spend more than thirty minutes in his company.

The typically-catchy Tonight I Fancy Myself is full delightfully dreadful images in the lyrics and a barrel-full of wry wit. Similarly, My Book has a punchy, Motown-ish beat to it and some great lyrics, like these:-

“This is my life and this is how it reads
A documentary that nobody believes
Albert Steptoe in "Gone with the Breeze"
Mother played by Peter Beardsley, father by John Cleese…”

Let Love Speak Up Itself is melodic, beautiful, sad and cynical all rolled into one. Heaven knows what it is about, it seems dark and disturbing, but its delightful strains once aain make one forget all about the lyrics in an odd way, but then that sadness comes back again via Paul Heaton’s plaintive, lamenting vocals. This was a unique thing The Beautiful South were able to inspire as you listen to them. Sadness and joy simultaneously. The final vocal and brass solo is sumptuous. Heaton ends up sounding like a high-pitched Northern Otis Redding.

Should've Kept My Eyes Shut has a lovely vocal from Brianna Corrigan and a huge punchy brass riff. The orchestration and vocal tone when she sings “and she’ll choke…” is just so moving. Nobody did beautifully sardonic songs like The Beautiful South. So many of their songs just make me feel terribly sad, despite the often irresistibly poppy melodies. Even the very short and plaintive Lips has the same effect. 

I've Come For My Reward has more of that Motown-influenced beat. I Think The Answer's Yes is a glorious piece of South-ism with name-checks for “poor old U2” and “poor old Simple Minds” - already condemned as washed-out old dinosaurs.

The big hit single, featuring the iconic (for me anyway) voice of the afore-mentioned Brianna Corrigan was A Little Time, another masterpiece of anti-love in a song. The quality of songs drops off a little after this, I have always found, none of Mother's PrideI Hate You (But You're Interesting), (which sounds like something off Lou Reed's Berlin) or The Rising Of Grafton Street have done much for me. The first eight songs, though, are classics of The Beautiful South’s own unique genre. The first three Beautiful South albums are notable for all ending with two mediocre, almost throwaway tracks, which is a strange thing. This album is in dire need of a remastering, though. It sounds very thin, muffled and tinny, comparatively. Listen to My Book from the Carry Up Up The Charts compilation, much better. Why can't they do this to the whole album?

0898 (1992)

The Beautiful South were a strange entity. For some reason, I don’t view them as I do any other group. They are certainly not a “rock” group. They weren’t soul. They weren’t post punk. I honestly do not know how to categorise them. They were totally unique. I can’t really express what I want to say very well, but they certainly were a one-off. Eschewing traditional rock musical cliches, they had a subtle, melodic, light sound, full of evocative piano, gentle acoustic guitars, sensual organ, occasional big brass punchy parts. On the whole, though, the music and three-part vocals (on this album from Paul HeatonDave Rotheray and Brianna Corrigan) is subtle, tuneful and light. You would expect, therefore, celebratory, good-time pop songs. You get that, musically, but lyrically you get something much darker. Cynical, sardonic songs about the human condition, traditional life, politics. All of those populate their songs, but beneath that there is still always a real sensitivity and compassion. You did get the impression, though, that Heaton, in particular enjoyed dressing up what were often ghastly lyrical tales in irresistible pop melodies. The group were also utterly faceless too. Apart from Paul Heaton and Corrigan, I can’t remember any of them. Their image and dress was decidely ordinary. Not their songs, though, they were special.
36D is a melodic, infectious and movingly cynical song about sexual objectification. The piano, bass and guitar are perfect, as is the brass when it kicks in on the chorus. As always, Paul Heaton’s voice has a vocal just packed full of plaintive pathos, despite its meanness, at times - “close your legs, open your mind…” is the first line. Despite the poppy melody, Heaton turns every song into a biting issue. Old Red Eyes Is Back, about a sad old alcoholic has him at his most compassionate, though, even though the song is a critically observational one. The thing about The Beautiful South is that if you start to get a bit downpressed by the relentlessly sombre subject matter, such as on the suffocating We Are Each Other, you can, as on that song, lose yourself in the delicious poppy tune. That is why they were such a schizophrenic group. The catchy, poppy theme exists on The Domino Man, which is a jaunty, singalong number with some excellent brass and We'll Deal With You Later has the same punchy vibe to it and a great piano riff. 

You Play Glockenspiel, I'll Play Drums is a captivating, almost funky number, with an intro very similar to Billy Joel's All For LeynaWhen I'm 84 is an infectious and wryly amusing look at ageing. It also has a funky break in it. Here It Is Again has a deep, rumbling bass intro and some tinkling piano before an insistent vocal rides over one of their rockiest songs, full of rolling drums and cutting guitar interjections (yes). I'm Your No. 1 Fan is an upbeat duet between Heaton and Corrigan. Something That You Said has a moving harmonica intro and one of those classic heartbreaking, but vaguely disturbing Heaton vocals and then Brianna Corrigan joins in to what is a most dark duet. Bell-Bottomed Tear has Corrigan at her most fragile and vulnerable-sounding. The pathos drips from this song like the tears of the title. “This is the woman you laid…” she laments, staring off into the distance, like Cathy in Wuthering Heights. It is a shame she disagreed with Heaton about the subject matter in some of his songs and left the group one album later, because she got it so right. She was, undoubtedly, the group’s best ever female vocalist. The Rocking Chair is just tear-jerkingly beautiful, when she sings “Am I skinny, a shade too fat, my friend the cat knows all about that…” it just moves my soul. Not sure why, just something about her plaintive delivery. I simply love the song. This album was Brianna Corrigan’s album, if you ask me. (although it is clearly Heaton's masterwork, let's be honest). Her finest three-quarters of an hour, even though she only sang on two songs - Bell Bottomed Tear and The Rocking Chair. These are the two which forever stick in my mind. The sound is 100% better than on Choke as well, thankfully.

Check out The Housemartins' work here :-

The Housemartins - The Best Of The Housemartins
They were an odd entity, The HousemartinsFormed in 1983 by Paul Heaton and Stan Cullimore in Hull, they became successful in the "loadsamoney", me first, 1986-87 period on the back of Socialist politics and a supposedly authentic working class credibility. Fair to play to them for that, but there was always something a little contrived and pretentious about them, for me. Bassist Quentin Cook (later to achieve mega-stardom as DJ Norman "Fatboy Slim" Cook) was from the comparatively wealthy Tory heartlands of Bromley in Kent as opposed to Hull and the always "challenging" character of Paul Heaton has vaguely irritated me for years, despite the fact that I love so much of his subsequent work with The Beautiful South. He referred to himself as P.D. Heaton during his time with The Housemartins, slightly for effect, I'm sure. Stan Cullimore's real first names were Ian Peter. Presumably he called himself Stan either as a nickname derived from footballer Stan Collymore or to enhance his traditional working class credentials. The former is more likely, I think, although I don't know, so forgive me if I'm wrong. The band's line up changed several times in a short period of time, (Cook was the second bassist, for example) and another subsequent arrival was Dave Hemingway who also left when the band split, to form The Beautiful South with Heaton.

The group's sound was typical mid-eighties, "indie" jangly, guitar-driven but melodic pop, with a cynical, observation, wry style to their lyrics, much like The Smiths. Their breezy, upbeat sound suited the era perfectly but it was the pathos in their lyrics and innate sadness in Heaton's vocal delivery that made them stick out for me. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in their first hit, the irresistibly catchy Happy Hour. It is here that Heaton's sad beneath the surface voice was first heard by me. I have loved it ever since. Although I have always found him a frustratingly perverse character, his voice and lyrics have always struck a chord with me. It taps into the mid-eighties "fun" trend of pubs offering "happy hours" of cheap drinks. There was no happiness in Thatcher's Britain, however, (not for me, anyway) and the song's sad undercurrent emphasises that. This is an enjoyable compilation for "part time" fans like me. The sound on the group's work has never been great, though, and has always suffered from being a bit tinny.

Five Get Over Excited is similarly frantic and poppy, a sort of Beach Boys pastiche mixed with that indie pop ear for a tune. Apparently, a lot of the group's long time fans were not happy with their surprise number one hit, an a capella cover of Isley Jasper Isley's Caravan Of Love. Not me, I absolutely love it. It is the finest thing they ever did and gets me all tearful every time I hear it. I won't hear a word said against it. Magnificent stuff. Heaton's finest moment, possibly, despite all his subsequent success. The lovely Think For A Minute is precursor to The Beautiful South's material, featuring another fine vocal. Check out that wonderful Beatles-Billy Bragg-esque French horn solo too. 
Me And The Farmer is a delightfully effervescent, lively number full of vocal harmonies and great guitar. It is simply irrepressible. The more restrained, slightly sombre Flag Day has a lovely, warm bass line before it breaks out into a big, dramatic chorus backed by more impressive brass.

Sheep has a similar frantic rhythm to Happy Hour and more cynical lyrics. Build is a great track, with a killer slow hook and another great bass, a real signpost as to The Beautiful South. Heaton's voice is again heartbreaking in its baleful timbre. Nobody delivers quite like he does. As I said, I will always love him for it. 
There Is Always Something There To Remind Me is a bit low-key and mournful, lacking their usual joie de vivre but this returns with the infectious, almost rockabilly rhythm of AnxiousHopelessly Devoted To Them is another Happy Hour-influenced poppy number with more acerbic, wry lyrics. I Smell Winter has a thumping, slightly Motown-ish beat and another pre-Beautiful South feel.

The People Who Grinned Themselves To Death is a very Smiths-ish number and one of the first when you feel The Housemartins are sounding more like somebody else than themselves. The brass breaks are more their own, however. 
I'll Be Your Shelter (Just Like A Shelter) is an initially evocative, plaintive, piano-driven ballad with a big gospelly chorus to end this brief and invigorating collection with. It is probably the album's most adventurous number. There are so many signs as to the potential Heaton and Hemingway had in this material. Not so much for Cook, for his success was the result of a huge diversification.

The Housemartins - London 0 Hull 4 (1986)
This was The Housemartins' debut album from 1986. The band itself and many of the songs have been dealt with above on the review for The Best Of The Housemartins. As an album, it was a most impressive debut offering and went along aside The SmithsBilly Bragg and The Style Council as a bold statement for those of us who objected to the government of the time to hang our hats on. It is not merely throwaway pop, not at all. There are dark, often cynical and dispiriting messages contained within the admittedly infectious music. The Housemartins had all the anger, vitriol and rage of The ClashThe Jam or The Sex Pistols but they coated with a jangly pop sensibility which made them special. Paul Heaton and Dave Hemingway would continue that with The Beautiful South.

The tracks I have not covered are as follows. Get Up Off Our Knees is a typical piece of acidic yet melodic Paul Heaton political invective with his bitter message sweetened by an incredibly catchy tune. Heaton wants the disaffected to "not shoot someone tomorrow that you could shoot today...". Basically, stop moaning and get into direct action. Fair point, I guess, but I wonder what he actually did to back up his words. The same as me, I would imagine, and just carried on moaning...

Reverends Revenge is a very Happy Hour-ish, lively instrumental which features a typically Housemartins beat and some pure 1964 Rolling Stones harmonica. 
Sitting On A Fence is very Beautiful South in its sound and could easily have been from their 1989 Choke album. It features a bit of a drum solo followed by some funky bass and is a really good track, full of vitality and impressive musicianship. Over There is a solid, bassy rocker that again sounds like the sort of stuff The Beautiful South would specialise in a few years later. There is a nice guitar solo part in the middle. These lads could play, something that was often overlooked. We're Not Deep is irresistibly toe-tapping with a killer bass line and some uplifting vocals. 

Lean On Me is not the Bill Withers song but an equally inspirational, plaintive, gospel-influenced Heaton (written with sixties veteran Pete Wingfield) song performed against a piano backing. Freedom is a sort of Motown meets punk stomper to end this short but rousing album. The sound on the deluxe edition is an improvement on the original and it is always a genuine pleasure to dig this out. It is an often forgotten great album of the eighties, make no mistake about that. Highly recommended.

** The non-albums tracks include the excellent Elvis Costello meets Nick Lowe meets Billy Bragg thrash of Stand At Ease; the bassy, easy groove pop of You; a jaunty instrumental in Coal Train To Hatfield; a fetching a capella cover of Aretha Franklin's People Get Ready and the punchy, jangle pop of Drop Down Dead. All impressive tracks.

Added to that list is the frantic, harmonica-driven instrumental The Mighty Ship; another impressive a capella cover in The HolliesHe Ain't Heavy He's My Brother; a punky, vaguely Irish-sounding instrumental in Who Needs The Limelightmore unaccompanied vocal in the gospel of Joy Joy Joy and the amusing cod-rap of Rap Around The Clock.

The Housemartins - The People Who Grinned Themselves To Death (1987)
This, from 1987, was the second and last album from The Housemartins before they went their separate ways to other projects. It is less Smiths-influenced than their debut album and more Motown-esque in its bassy, rhythmic catchiness. Paul Heaton always loved classic soul-pop.

The People Who Grinned Themselves To Death is a vitriolic jibe against the Royal Family hidden behind the group's usual catchy poppiness. I find this a bit sour, to be honest - despite my left-wing politics and punk youth I've actually never bothered much about the Royals. I quite like the history of it all, so there you go - I'm as contradictory a character as Paul Heaton. The breezy pop of I Can't Put My Finger On It has a delicious, deep bass line and a better sound quality the one was used to on Housemartins recordings. The Light Is Still Green is a solid slowish ecologically-motivated number with a wonderful line in "wherever there's a will there's a motorway...". Paul Heaton, despite some shortcomings, was always a great lyricist, and indeed still is.

The World's On Fire is more chunky and riffy than many Housemartins tracks before it breaks out into a typical chorus. Pirate Aggro is a short, organ-driven, poppy instrumental. 
We're Not Going Back is a solid riffy rocker enhanced by some bluesy harmonica. Me And The Farmer is irresistible from beginning to end with a fine guitar solo in the middle too. Five Get Over Excited is delightful, upbeat bit of cynical Beach Boys meet the late eighties fun. It is full of great lyrics - too many to keep quoting.

Johannesburg is a slow acoustic ballad whose lyrics and meaning I have to say I don't really get. It is one of Heaton's more cryptic numbers. Is it about South Africa? If so, where? If where, what does it mean? Heaton was often a perplexing lyricist. 
Bow Down returns to the archetypal Housemartins thumping and brassy pop sound. You Better Be Doubtful has a warm, bassy and melodic beat and another of those nasal but strangely evocative Heaton vocals. Build is a sad, baleful goodbye from this short-lived but actually quite ground-breaking and quietly influential group.

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