Paul Heaton: a buyer’s guide to the socialist songsmith


Paul Heaton

Sheffield’s supreme songsmith deserves a career reappraisal more than most and Getintothis’ Steven Doherty is here to handpick his finest moments.

Paul Heaton is one of the country’s finest lyricists of modern times, and yet he’s also one of the most underrated.

In recent interviews, he was asked about the fact that he has never been particularly trendy, never winning any sort of major awards, but as his nature, he seemed humble and respectful about his lack of trinkets, musing that the work was it’s own reward.

And such an outlook has always permutated his art.

And it is an art.

He can write about the most mundane of topics, and yet find the pearl in the oyster of normalness every time.

Heaton started his musical career when he formed The Housemartins in the early 80’s, and had his first taste of success with the Top 3 single Happy Hour in 1986.

His time in the band saw him achieve numerous top 40 singles, including the wintery number one Caravan Of Love, as well as two best selling albums, all within a couple of years.

However, he had said all that he had to say with those particular musicians in that particular style and was looking to try something completely different.

On the face of it, forming the sarcastically named The Beautiful South was a saccharine turn of events, their singles appeared to be much softer and tamer, with calls of Heaton being something of a sell-out or a fraud.

The Stone Roses: Spike Island – 30 years on from ‘the ugliest festival of all-time’ that inspired a generation

However, as time went on, it became obvious that the messages in the singles (and especially some of their album tracks) were dark, bleak sonnets, an iron fist in a babies glove.

The Beautiful South enjoyed massive success for the majority of the 19 years that they were together, but the writing had been on the wall for a while before they split.

After they disbanded, he made a couple of solo records before re-uniting with BS vocalist Jacqui Abbott to re-ignite his chart career after something of a commercial lull.

But throughout it all, the quality of the song-writing, the deft lyrical touches has always been in fashion.

As well as this, his actual vocal style has never fully been appreciated.

On one of his earlier solo tours, he played alongside former Catatonia vocalist Cerys Matthews and it was the perfect male/female modern singer night, two voices that could sing you the phone book and still sound captivating.

Following his recent Number One album Manchester Calling (which features Getintothis favourite non-poet poet Roy), we look back on some of his must-have records.


The Housemartins: Now That’s What I Call Quite Good

Yes, it may seem a bit of a cop-out choosing a singles collection, but it really is a best of

The Housemartins were great at wisely choosing which singles to release and therefore this is head and shoulders above either of the two official albums that were London 0 Hull 4 and The People Who Grinned Themselves To Death.

They self proclaimed that they were the “4th best band in Hull”, but this was so much better over anything else from there at the time.

The catchy Happy Hour and the should-have-been-bigger-than-it-was single Five Get Over Excited lead the line here and even the Marmite qualities of the acapella Caravan Of Love (which was really not everyone’s cup of tea, least of all their early followers more used to their socialist anthems).

All the hits are here, along with some of B-Sides and session tracks, the perfect Heaton starting point for the uninitiated.

The John Peel session archive; opening a treasure trove of musical discovery

The Beautiful South: Welcome To The Beautiful South (1989)

The above cover for their debut album was soon to be banned due to its suicidal bleakness, and replaced by a picture of a bunny and teddy bear, and this sums up the mix of dark and froth that would come to symbolise most of their (and Heaton’s) subsequent releases, alongside the catchy singles, there were tales of real darkness, albeit still with a pop element.

The pinnacle of which on this record was the massive live favourite Woman In The Wall, a haunting tale of a drunken husband killing his wife and burying her (you guessed it) in between their houses’ walls.

The commercial counter-balance here was the cynical debut single Song For Whoever and the bickering Top 10 follow-up You Keep It All In, as well as a cover of Pebbles‘ R&B classic Girlfriend.

I’ll Sail This Ship Alone is a classic example of the heart-breaking Heaton ballad, and not for the last time in their career, just too damn heartfelt to be embraced as a standalone single, stalling as it did outside the Top 30.

They kept their satirical edge from the days of The Housemartins with the politician-baiting Oh Blackpool, whilst the record ends with the seven-minute plus Love Is…, and the truly strange I Love You (But You’re Boring), a curveball of sorts that they tried to include on each of their early albums, seemingly to confuse the kids who just bought it for the pop songs.

The Beautiful South: Choke (1990)

In my humble O, The Beautiful South’s finest moment.

It may appear somewhat flimsier than the debut that proceeded it, with a running time of just over 36 minutes, that the quality is hoisted quite the notch.

The first two singles released from the album (Let Love Speak Up Itself and the best-so-far My Book) both bombed chart-wise (only reaching 51 and 43 respectively), prompting fears that they were finished before they begun.

But then came A Little Time.

Basically two sides of an argument set to music, this track seemed to hit a nerve with the nation, who unexpectedly then sent it to Number One.

And the fact that this is one of the album’s weaker tracks just show what a triumph of an album this is.

From sprightly opener Tonight I Fancy Myself, through the singles to the joyous, almost indie-pop fuzz of I’ve Come For My Reward, it’s an opening salvo to match most great album Side A’s.

It’s full of quirky, off-the-cuff moments of a band high on self-belief and a willingness to try something different, Lips is just a minute-long swirl, Mother’s Pride a seemingly throwaway two minute beauty stomp and the U2 and Simple Minds baiting I Think The Answer’s Yes is the cornerstone of the second side.

Just like the debut, they save the oddest till last, the answer song to the track on the first album I Hate You (But You’re Interesting) is a wistful yearn and the jaunty instrumental of The Rising Of Grafton Street is as northern as it gets.

A high watermark.

Liam Gallagher announces MTV Unplugged album release date

The Beautiful South: 0898 (1992)

Flimsy is something that this album could not be accused of, the change of producer adding a more purposeful, stronger sound, and with that, the lyrical content was also ramped up, which as it turned out would cause some complications.

Old Red Eyes Is Back and We Are Each Other is some opening one-two to an album, and the quality waivers only slightly over the following ten tracks.

The subject matters seem darker than what had gone before, alcoholism, murder, glamour models, relationship collapse, old age, it’s all here.

Original vocalist Briana Corrigan left the band shortly after this album due to disagreements with Heaton over his lyrics, fourth single 36D being the main point of consternation, she thought the glamour industry and media should be blamed rather than the model themselves.

We’ll Deal With You Later is one of the BS great shoulda-been a single, and the likes of You Play Glockenspiel, I’ll Play Drums and I’m Your Number 1 Fan show a band once again on form.

This was probably also their most critically acclaimed album thus far, but was the first not to reach the Top 3 in the Album Chart, a fact that their record company put down to the ugliness of the album cover (of all things).

The Beautiful South: Miaow (1994)

So they needed a new female vocalist.

Heaton had met two girls outside a night club and invited them to a party where one of them got up to sing, and Heaton was that impressed, he gave Jacqui Abbott (for it was her) the job.

Miaow contains some of their best individual album tracks, and yet was their worst received, lowest selling album to date.

The singles from it also disappointed sales wise and there was definitely a mood in the air that the band’s fortunes were on the wane.

Which is a crying shame as this is a tremendous album.

Hold On To What? is the six-and-a-half minute opener and is arguably the best thing they ever did, it’s crashing last minute (or so) build is a goose-bump inducing thrill even all these years later.

Retrospectively, Good As Gold feels like a massive single, but the big track from the album was the rather straightforward run through of Nilsson’s Everybody’s Talkin’.

Pointless Lie is another six minute plus epic, as the band seemed more willing to let the music breathe instead of trying to cram it in a three minute pop song.

There’s an overall sadness to the record, probably best expressed on the anti-war Poppy.

Once again, they had some hoo-ha over the cover, this time they were made to change it by HMV due to it containing both a dog and a gramophone.

So they’d released an unloved album, and the band seemed to be in trouble.

What better time to release your Greatest Hits?

Pet Shop Boys; Top 10

The Beautiful South: The B-Sides Album (1994)

A move which is now known as “doing a Beautiful South“.

The nation seemed to rise up as one and declare their love for The Beautiful South, so much so that they ended up with the coveted Xmas Number One album, the second best selling record of the year (even though it was only released in November, and a five-times Platinum selling Best Of.

But we are not here for the singles.

Early copies of the album came as a two-disc collection, the other being the bands B-sides to date.

And, controversial opinion alert, the B-sides album is so much better than the A-Sides.

No really, it is.

There’s a variety of covers, their take on both Womack & Womack’s Love Wars and Bill Withers’ You Just Can’t Smile It Away are up there with the originals.

Then there’s some really dark stuff that could have sat comfortably on any of their first five albums, such as Trevor You’re Bizarre, They Used To Wear Black and But ‘Til Then as well as potential A-Sides His Time Ran Out and Throw His Song Away.

All these factors combined  to make a strangely coherent set of songs, up their with the B-Side collections of the likes of Oasis and Pet Shop Boys.

Sadly, it’s nowhere to be seen on Spotify, but as this is a Buyer’s Guide then definitely seek it out and buy.


Paul Heaton & Jacqui Abbott: What Have We Become (2014)

They were reunited and it felt so good.

After a couple of solo albums which were unfairly ignored, Heaton ended up very much back in the public consciousness after the success of this album teaser, the made-for-Radio 2 single D.I.Y.

The fact that he was back with The Beautiful South’s most successful female accomplice, which meant that their live shows could see him, for the first time, look back on his back catalogue and play the hits probably did him no harm either.

All this contributed to his most successful record since the old days, reaching number 3 in the charts.

But this is not because they’ve dumbed down, it’s just that people finally caught up.

As well as the pure pop of the single and the soulful Moulding Of A Fool, there’s the flamenco thrash of Some Dancing To Do as well as some of those customarily offbeat Heaton moments, the undisputed highlight of which is the glorious standout I Am Not A Muse.

It was good to have them back.