THE BEAUTIFUL SOUTH, interview
Melody Maker, late summer, 1990
by Simon Reynolds
HULL. Rhymes with "dull", "lull" and "null". Also rhymes with
"mull", as in ruminate morosely over the impasses and dead ends of
your life. It's surely no coincidence that you say the word "Hull"
and barely have to open your mouth doing so.
Today, Hull isn't putting up much of a fight against the
stereotype. The sky is the colour of the grey bits in fishfingers.
The complexions of passers-by are redolent of the filling of
fortnight old cornish pasties. The buildings are ashen. But Hull is
essential to The Beautiful South. It's the stolid ground on which
their feet are firmly, defiantly placed. It's the solid basis of
bathos at the heart of their glossy, sugary pop; the barb that
"punctures the bubble", as they put it, of pop unreality.
Talking of bathos, The Beautiful South have played a little
trick on us. We've been told to rendez-vous at The Grafton Hotel,
which has been described to us as a grand old building packed with
golden photo opportunites. Inevitably, the Grafton Hotel turns out
to be one of those redbrick, characterless, Seventies pubs that
typically rose like boils after the old working class quarters were
rationalised by the town planners. We arrive at midday to find the
place deserted bar a gaggle of old biddies, who eye us
suspiciously. Since we've been assigned the role of yuppie
mediacrat invaders, we ham it up: Sheehan gets out his portable
phone, I complain volubly about the unavailability of Grolsch, Sol
or Dos Equis, while brandishing my Filofax ostentatiously.
Paul Heaton and his songwriting partner David Rotheray live in
the same road as the Grafton, but are late. Paul bears gifts
(gingerbread men, or rather gingerbread Teenage Mutant Ninja
Turtles). He sits down and almost immediately starts smoking a
cigar. Incongruous. My opening gambit involves a frank, but
possibly un-strategic confession. I'm no great fan of The Beautiful
South's music. (I've a secret sweet tooth as regards pop, but it's
for the pralines, marzipan and glistening gateaux of Prefab Sprout.
After Paddy Macaloon's deluxe confectionery, The Beautiful South
seems like Quality Street. You might stuff your face, but you'll
soon feel sick). But, I add, I've always been intrigued by The
Beautiful South's attitude. "Song For Whoever" and "You Keep It All
In" make me think of the Python sketch about the sadistic chocolate
manufacturer and his "Spring Surprise"; bite through the rich,
mouthwatering surface, and two steel bolts spring through your
"Yeah," mutters Heaton. "There are a few barbs. It's just the
way I write. Unfortunately. I'd like to be able to write just
straight, in some ways. Straightforwardly moving stuff. I think
there's a bit of immaturity in the way I write actually."
David: "The humour happens because it's difficult for us to
sustain the taking ourselves seriously for long enough. I don't
think we could manage it for a whole song, without wanting to burst
You seem to have an incredible facility for writing hit
material, but little faith in the ultimate worth of pop.
"But I don't really like the fact that people see us as cynical.
I don't think we are. It's just that he bubble of unreality is
there and there's not many people bursting it. So we took it upon
ourselves to burst a few small bubbles".
Paul: "People think we're cynical about the punters who buy our
records, that we like to pull the wool over their eyes. And it's
almost like we're being double cynical, like we're commenting on
the exploitative nature of the industry, but making money out of it
as well, and laughing behind our hands. But we have a lot of pride
and affection for what we do. We've got a lot of belief that the
people who buy the records understand what we're on about."
Did you feel that there was a delicious irony in 'Song For
Whoever' being a massive hit, when it's all about the
manipulation involved in a certain kind of lovey-dovey lyric-
David: "'Song For Whoever' had to be a hit, for the lyrics to
make sense and be funny. It would have been embarassing singing
'the Number One I hope to reap' if it'd only got to Number 39!"
Heaton and Rotheray seem to have a bit of a problem with
getting down to the job in hand, and keep straying off to regale
the motleg gaggle of mates they've brought along (a transgression,
I might add, of all the protocols of the interview).
"I bought some boxer shorts, after our argument about the
relative merits of Y-fronts and boxers," announces David apropos of
sod-all. "And they were a a total disaster. They're terrible. I
mean, they're comfortable, I can see your point there. But in
terms of 'unwanted arousal embarassment', boxers are terrible.
Because your knob's down your leg. So this fucking growth is sticking
out of your upper thigh. So I'm going back to Y-fronts. Although
boxers do look good, when you're getting undressed. But erectile-
ly, boxers are a disaster. There's no restraint in the material."
Paul: "But anyway, Simon, aren't you gonna ask us if we feel
threatened by the current hegemony of dance music, eh? And whether
we're going to make a move in that direction?"
All in due time. Oh, all right - go on then. Tell us what
you think about your old mate Norman Cook's recent activities, and
all his claims to the effect that he was never into The
Housemartins indie janglepop thing?
"He's no mate of mine. Hahahaha! No, I feel so chuffed for the
lad. The bastard. No, I think Norman's a really really good
producer, and I like the stuff he's come out with so far. But as to
idea that he was never into the Housemartins music... you could
have fooled me. He enjoyed performing live with us, and I think he
enjoyed recording those songs. But it is true that the music he
listened to was always dance music. But then the stuff I listen to
isn't like the Beautiful South. I listen to Penderecki's "Threnody
For Hiroshima", me. Miles Davis' On The Corner and Dark Magus.
Really gets you going in the morning. "He Loved Him Madly" off
Get Up With It, is dead sad, a thirty minutes long elegy for Duke
Ellington. New sonic architecture, that's my bag.
"But Norman, I think his musical direction's good. I think
it's a bit Jive Bunny at times. It's a bit frivolous. A bit up, if
you know what I mean. Chirpy chirpy cheep cheep. Another thing: I
think Norman's surrounded himself with some hideous artists. Some
of the singing on those records is piss-poor. Lindy Layton is just
one of the long dark list. And I think Beats International should
disassociate themselves from her, after her notorious campaign on
television, advertising for the Army. I don't think the ad has been
shown down South yet, but basically there's these three girls on a
bus, and one girl's boyfriend is in the Army and the others are
jealous, cos he's a real man. So I think they should disassociate
themselves from the advert immediately. If you've got one of these
collective, cooperative type things, you just can't let anybody
walk in. You've got to have a word with them first, otherwise
they'll be coming out with all kinds of shit in interviews. Apart
from that I'm dead chuffed for him."
I read somewhere that even you thought The Housemartins had
been too mired in Britishness. Do you have a love/hate thing for
"Not really. I think I was just pointing out where the limits
were. The Beautiful South are very British too, but it's a bit
more open-ended. We could do pretty much anything apart from out
and out dance. We could do a Housemartins type song, or we could go
real plush. The Housemartins couldn't really go anywhere but where
they were. Mind you, I am thinking of reforming the band, if this
new single flops, and rereleasing 'Happy Hour' the dance mix, and
moving to Manchester!"
"You Keep It All In" - your best moment, the only one that
verged on tickling my fancy - seemed to be all about the British
disease, or at least, the specifically male complaint of emotional
"I'm happy to a certain extent with being British. But there
is this reserve. Whereas the Europeans embrace each other. It's
very strange when you go to Italy, where the men are so physical,
towards other men. There was this bloke who kept putting his arm
round me, and I thought he was after me, but of course he was just
trying to show his affection. They touch each other all the time.
And it put me on edge a bit."
Unlike the denizens of the New World, or the Continentals, we're
an island race, we're all trapped in our own own personal space.
"I'm a bit like that meself, and it's reflected in the lyrics.
I tend not to tell people things. A lot of men bottle it up.
Usually, with me, I think: 'why the fuck should I tell anyone
David: "The irony is it makes people think you're really deep,
doesn't it? You can keep an image of deepness just by keeping your
I've been reliably informed that "Tonight I Fancy Myself" off
the next album is an anthem to masturbation.
Paul: "Not really. It's just got one line in it that suggests
that on this particular occasion, it's better to go off and have a
wank, than be out with those sort of people."
David: "It's not worth the price of what you have to go through.
You mean, it's better to go off and relieve yourself rather than
have casual sex.
"Relieve yourself!," splutters Heaton. "I like that, it's so
bloody doctorish, isn't it. 'Could you just relieve yourself into
this bag, sir. I keep all me own spunk, you know."
David: "I actually tried that, honest. When I first started
wanking, I attempted to save it all, to see how much I could build
up over a certain period of time."
Paul: "What vessel did you use?"
David: "It was like a tupperware container. But the problem is
that it basically all evaporates. Even though it seems quite solid
really, it must be 95% water. You just get this filmy, greasy,
scum. I didn't persevere with the experiment. I used to keep all my
bogies too. I had this special place in the house, underneath the
mantelpiece. Every bogie I had, I put there. After a year, the
bogie construction fell off. And it was like a perfect mould of the
the underside of the mantelpiece."
"Hideous!", grimaces Heaton. "But to get back to "Tonight I
Fancy Myself", I was on this train in Italy, and there was this
couple, and they were tongueing each other all the way to bloody
thingibob. Venice. I felt embarassed, and I felt a song coming on.
So I went to the loo, had a quick wank, and wrote it all down. But
there is one line on it that goes 'tonight I choose/Self abuse'."
Any other bold departures on the album?
"'I've Come For My Award' is all about a burglar who goes to
one of these business enterprise centres where they give out prizes
for entrepreneurial get-up and go."
Is that like the idea that Happy Mondays and Flowered Up and
that lumpen milieu are Thatcher's illegitimate children, with their
dealing, blagging, bootlegging, their rave-promoting, their extra-
legal take on the "work hard, play hard" ethos.
"Kind of. The villain's saying that he's shown lots of pluck,
he's darted past all the security cameras, he's a perfect
enterprising character. Thieving is the ultimate form of free
entreprise, isn't it?"
Have you ever committed any criminal acts?.
"I've done a bit of petty theft. I was addicted at one point.
They had to alter the shop I used to go into. Change the sightlines
to get rid of this blindspot where me and my brother used to pocket
David: "I used to be addicted to doing runners from restaurants. That's a definite buzz. There's quite a complex of strategies you can use, depending on the shape of the restaurant. You've got to position yourself correctly, you've got to consider
your line of sight as regards the staff, you've got to consider
your escape route, and the best corner to run round once you're out
the door. Timing's important. You should always have something
still to come when you do the runner. Dessert or coffee. I've
only been pursued once, when I was with Dave Hemingway from the
band, and he got caught. He lost his nerve in the doorway, the
waiter caught him, and he explained that I'd just run off for no
reason and he'd tried to stop me. But I've got ethics about it.
I'll only do runners from large restaurant chains, or if I've been
served crap food."
The new single, "A Little Time" is kitchen-sink realism, a C&W
tinged duet between a man who keeps making excuses and a woman who
won't be fobbed off anymore.
Paul: "Yeah, it's commonplace. I wanted to write about
something that happens regularly, an emotion that comes out
A emotional bowel movement.
"Ha! He's good, this one," says Heaton, then abruptly turns
away to talk about football. Rotheray changes the subject. "First
time in Hull, Simon?"
Aye. You've lived all your life, right? Never been tempted to
"I like to go away, but I like coming back too. It's my home, I
suupose. Hull, it's a kind of end of the line place. What's the
opposite of transient? Static. People stay here, they're not
moving through. It gives it an air of tradition, and sort of
And a lot of Beatuiful South songs are about emotional
stagnation, about relationships that have gone a bit mouldy round
"And emotional double standards. Where men are in a power
position in relationships. What I like about "A Little Time" is
that it ends with the women leaving him. And that's a happy ending.
It's not a reconciliation, which would be the soft ending, the
Hollywood ending. I just think it's good for a love song to say
that staying together isn't always best, sometimes it's better to
have the strength to walk away. Those kind of recriminations,
they're really commonplace emotions, but you don't often hear them
in pop songs."
* there is a falsified Paul Heaton quote inserted in this piece, see if you can spot it.