The Beautiful South
The Beautiful South
a guided tour with Hull's high flyers
EIGHTEEN MONTHS AFTER THE HOUSEMARTINS' DEMISE, PAUL HEATON AND DAVE HEMINGWAY RETURN TO THE POP FRATERNITY. MICHAEL LEONARD PACKS HIS BAGS FOR A QUICK TOUR OF THE BEAUTIFUL SOUTH.
IT'S THE HEART OF LONDON, it's the middle of summer, there's a small ration of beer in front of us and it is hot. Despite the metropolitan pub setting, you might think you were in a farmyard. A very strange man at the bar starts to moo like a demented heifer, and it's not long before Paul Heaton of The Beautiful South adopts his rustic mode.
"We should get some squealing piglets on stage" he says to the other band members. "Not pigs. Pigs are absolutely massive! They're as big as that jukebox! But get some piglets and we could slap them around a bit in the toilet before we go on and they'd go completely mad!" Guitarist David Rotheray yelps in the background and everyone cackles with laughter.
At the moment, The Beautiful South have good reason to be pleased with themselves. With their sweetly subversive 'Song For Whoever' soaring into the Top 10, the band are flying as high as The Housemartins, and there's the promise of even better to come. An LP, provisionally entitled Hogwash is due in the autumn, and a short tour of Britain has confirmed that The Beautiful South is "where it's at". As Paul and fellow ex-House-martin Dave Hemingway explain, they are both surprised and pleased with their recent achievements.
"I've really enjoyed the last few weeks, especially the gigs", says Paul.
"And the success has taken us very much by surprise" confirms Dave. "I suppose it was always a case of which ex-Housemartin would be first to put out some new work and perhaps capture The Housemartins' market. But I wouldn't have thought that our stuff is in The Housemartins' mould, although I've since been told it is seen as such. It would seem that we've got the initial curiosity of the fans, and hopefully they won't be too bothered that we don't play Housemartins' music."
Shaking off the ghost of The Housemartins is something about which both Paul and Dave are keenly aware. It's hardly surprising when you realise that in their short three-album career, the Hull quartet established themselves as one of the finest bands of the mid-'80s. Mixing Paul's sardonic lyrics with the perky tunes of Stan Cullimore, the band stood head and shoulders above much of the usual chart fodder. When they finally crashed to the ground in 1988, any intelligent person with a taste for home-knit cardies and silly dancing must have shed a tear. But Heaton and Hemingway are back, and they don't seem to have lost their knack of ruffling a few feathers.
"It's just a case of sweeping the old band under the carpet now" affirms Dave. "It's not to everyone's great pleasure, but that's what we're trying to do with this tour. We're getting up a lot of people's noses by really ramming it down their throats that we're not The Housemartins anymore! It's just our way of doing things, rightly or wrongly. Paul's distinctive voice is hard to get away from, so I suppose we're always going to be linked with The Housemartins."
But apart from these immediate similarities, Dave sees The Beautiful South as being very different to his and Paul's previous collaboration.
"The songs are really different, and obviously the rest of the band is different. The songs perhaps aren't as immediate, but they're more long term I think. They're more like album songs really. In that respect it's been difficult to choose a single. The album version of 'Song For Whoever' is double the length of the 7" version, but it seems to have worked OK on that particular track. But we have lots of songs like that."
For Dave in particular The Beautiful South represents a major challenge. Although he shared lead vocals with Heaton on The Housemartins' 'Build' and 'The People Who Grinned Themselves To Death', he has now laid down his drum sticks to croon full-time.
"It's a lot safer behind the drum kit" he says sheepishly, "but I'm warming to the task now... gradually. There are a lot of knocks that have been taken and there'll be a lot more in the future, but it's a challenge, so sod it!"
On the surface Dave Hemingway is not the most extrovert person you're likely to meet, so does this hardening attitude harbour a secret ambition to make the Phil Collins transition to superstardom?
"Well, not really" he laughs. "I want to keep my hair. Paul had always said that he'd like to work with me after The Housemartins as a singer, so I thought I'd give it a go. Anyway, it's only coincidence that I'm singing on the first single, I'll have to occupy myself in other ways on other songs. I can play rhythm guitar badly enough to get on something or other! I've been told I can't dance so it's going to be an uphill struggle."
From a nucleus of Paul and Dave the band were again formed with fellow Hull musicians, some more experienced than others. Dave explains the human geography of The Beautiful South: "Sean Welch was a roadie, helper and basically a friend of The Housemartins, so we just asked him if he'd like to try and learn the bass - which he has done! Then we asked around Hull to see who was the craziest drummer and everyone said it was Dave Stead, so he was in. He's one of these drummers who is perhaps not rock steady... I can keep a good tight beat, but I was perhaps a bit conservative when it comes to letting rip. The same criticism cannot be made of Dave Stead. He's just crazy."
Paul confirms the diagnosis, recalling Mr Stead's antics at the previous night's gig - smashing his drums up. Afterwards young fans were to be seen clutching drumheads ready for autographing. The final member of the band is Dave Rotheray, who today is also adept at letting rip, but in a more "natural" way. The flatulent fifth member of the Beautiful South has been making a lot of noise all afternoon, but saying little (if you know what I mean). His more cultured talents are aired as the new songwriting partner for Heaton. Dave Hemingway continues:
"Paul had known David Rotheray for a few years, so when he wanted a guitarist for The Beautiful South, he didn't have much looking around to do. He just walked to the corner shop and found David."
"Yeah, the only reason I'm making a living doing this is because I happened to live in the same street as a pop star" jokes Rotheray.
"IT IS A SHARKS' BUSINESS. IN THIS BUSINESS YOU'RE LUCKY IF YOU'VE GOT TWO OR THREE YEARS, THEN YOU'RE OUT. THE PEOPLE WHO RUN THE BUSINESS HAVE GOT A JOB FOR LIFE, SO DON'T MISS OUT ON YOUR 'O' LEVELS."
For David, the leap from guitarist with various Hull jazz bands to co-songwriter with the The Beautiful South must have been quite something.
"I've been in bands since I was thirteen or fourteen", he explains. "My whole life has been spent in bands, but I've had no thanks for it. It's a huge task, especially when you're a bit older and you've spent ten or fifteen years slogging 'round the country, hoping you'll make it. Every band I've been in I've thought 'this is the one'. Like most people I suppose."
David recently overhauled both his style of playing and his guitar, disguising his earlier influences.
"When I joined the band I was playing semi-acoustics but I decided I wanted to change the sound. Everyone is always saying how fifties and sixties guitars are great but the best guitars I've played have always been new ones. I eventually bought an ESP - Telecaster shape - which is just beautiful, the best guitar I've ever played. I think calling the new Japanese guitars copies is wrong, because it implies they're somehow inferior. This one knocks the spots off most Fenders."
With a new guitar and a new songwriting partnership, maybe this is the band he's been looking for. While The Housemartins fizzled to a less than spectacular close (their final single reached only 35 in the UK Top 40), everyone in The Beautiful South seems firmly optimistic about the future. Dave Hemingway: "I joined The Housemartins about a year before their demise and if I'm honest I really enjoyed that year. But it's better for me now because I feel my position in the band is a lot stronger. And I can understand what the three members of The Beautiful South who weren't in The Housemartins are going through, because I've been through it too."
"It's a much easier lifestyle in this group", Paul continues. "But I don't know how long it will go on, there's certainly no game plan for The Beautiful South."
But one specific aim is to kill off the image Heaton and Hemingway cultivated in the Housemartins. It's a good lesson for any young band that a strong image can get you noticed at first and then become a terrible millstone around your neck.
"The Housemartins did have an image, but we don't really", says Dave. "We're perhaps a bit smarter and acting our age a bit more. We're not wearing anoraks to school anymore."
Does he feel as though The Housemartins' image was a problem?
"Yeah, but it was as much the band's fault as the people who saw them that way" he argues. "It seemed right at the time, probably because it wasn't far from the truth. But Paul's finding it hard to shake off now. He created a monster and he's setting about it with a sledgehammmer."
Risking a vitriolic reply I ask about their attitude towards the press, who at times gave The Housemartins a very hard time. The daily tabloid press specifically did nothing to endear themselves to the band.
"Yeah, I've had a bad deal from the press, but I've given them a bad deal. I don't really think about it anymore. They know I'm gay. I know they're gay!" laughs Paul. "I suppose they'll write more with the new band getting in the Top 10, but so what?"
"I grew up quickly in The Housemartins" continues Dave. "I learnt very quickly to deal with the things that come your way in this line of business. The naiveté soon went. Although, having said that, I was naive enough recently to talk to a tabloid and they just twisted everything I said. It's really annoying to have a pleasant conversation with somebody who then makes you out to be a money-grabbing bastard, which I'm not. I won't be doing that again in a hurry.
"You're up there to be shot down basically. I'm not the most confident of blokes at the best of times, and it can be hard for me to take on some occasions. But I'm learning fast. I think I'll just have to harden up a bit. You've got to, because for every person that likes your music there'll be three or four who don't and they let you know about it. But it's worth taking the knocks, because there are so many benefits. I've always been involved in music and it's the best job I've ever had. It's the only thing for me!" he grins.
Paul also feels that being in The Housemartins taught him a lot about "pop life".
"We very much went into it with me and Stan basically managing the band, and that in itself put too much pressure on us. That was the main lesson. But you should try and manage yourself because it's such good experience.
"I'LL HAVE TO HARDEN UP A BIT. YOU'VE GOT TO, BECAUSE FOR EVERY PERSON THAT LIKES YOU THERE'S THREE OR FOUR THAT DON'T AND LET YOU KNOW ABOUT IT."
"We were doing everything though, even distributing the mailing list and all that. In fact, even until after 'Caravan of Love' I was the band contact, and anyone who wanted to talk to the band came to us through me, which was incredibly naive. I wasn't even ex-directory in the phone book, I was just there under 'Heaton'! It might as well have been under 'Housemartins'. It was just crazy."
With these lessons learned, The Beautiful South are looking odds on favourites for a crushing victory in the pop challenge cup. Their debut single is set to be one the year's best performances, with its sardonic swipe at the trite output of their competitors. The B-side, 'Straight In At 37' finds no grace either in their working environment. Their uncompromising attitude is summed up by their live work, as Dave Hemingway explains:
"We are very different live. The single is a very soft production, very lush, with lots of instruments on it. But live it's just the five of us on stage. For example, none of us can play piano to a good enough level to reproduce 'Song For Whoever'. So live we're just stripped down to the bare essentials, just 'in our underpants'."
This is something the band have already been criticised for, being somewhat of an uncultured noise on stage. But they firmly believe that the songs have to stand up on their own, no matter how they're played.
"I don't see what we can do about it" argues Dave. "You come to see the band, and that's exactly what you get - no session pianist, no session synth player, no session horn section. We could do that at a later stage, but that's obviously got to be discussed.
"It's been written that we're embarrassed by the songs, which is just a load of bollocks. If we're embarrassed it's because they're so good compared to what's around at the moment. It takes a lot of courage to go out and play new songs when people are shouting for the old favourites, but we're just going to shove it down their throats. The Housemartins used to get a lot of letters from people and I'm expecting a lot now. Only by that will we know what sort of audience we're getting and what they think about what we're doing."
On the evidence of their first efforts, the songwriting seems as strong as you might expect. Paul's lyrics now seem less heavy handed compared to 'Sheep', 'Sitting On A Fence', 'The People Who Grinned...' et al. Does he feel this is something that has developed slowly?
"Yeah. Lyrical subtlety is generally where I'm going, although there's lyrical absurdity at times! In fact, I've had to be limited in this band... one particular set of lyrics David (Rotheray) just refused to accept!"
"They were just crazy" shrugs David calmly.
"They are actually!" laughs Paul. "The thing is, you've actually got to be me to understand those lyrics. That's pretty much up your own bottom when you've got to that stage!"
Usually building lyrics from a title idea, Paul does however retain a strict control on what he submits to vinyl.
"I think most of the lyrics I write have meat, or at least meat substitute. As you said, using political ideas in pop can be a bit heavy handed, but I do consider that more when I write. I'll throw a lot out now if I feel it sounds too trite. In the past there wasn't such a tight filter.
"I also always try and write about new subjects. 'Song For Whoever' is certainly a new subject, which is probably why it's been talked about so much."
As well as trying to push the boundaries of pop lyrically, Paul also tends to write in character or about other people, rather than himself. Why is this?
"Well, you have to maintain your privacy, but really I just find it easier to write about your own experiences and problems via someone else. I don't understand the first and second person. I am the third person, the third man!"
With Paul Heaton's penchant for gospel and soul and David Rotheray's jazz-tinged background, what's bending the ears of The Beautiful South?
"Well, the things I listen to are so far removed from what we play, I don't think any specific influences have rubbed off really" says David. "I don't particularly follow the independent scene, although there a few bands I like - such as The Sugarcubes, The Pixies. But I'm getting a bit old for all that really!"
"I'm just at that point where I'm ready for a new music to get into" Paul grins. "And I reckon... it's going to be Brazilian music. But I don't think we'll be running around with maracas or anything. It'd be pretty naff wouldn't it?"
It probably would. So how do The Beautiful South see themselves? Cue Paul: "Hard-drinking pool-hustling kestrel-keeping scooter-riders from hell. That's what we are."
They're not. But if you thought they were The Housemartins Mark 2, you'd be wrong too. It's early in the season, but there's a good chance they'll go one better. The latest score? London 0, Hull 5.
Interview by Michael Leonard
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