Saturday, November 29, 2008

Let's Spend A Little Time In The Beautiful South

Time to look at yet another song and artist that came to my attention via a promotional video of rare distinction. In late 1990 The Beautiful South released the single ‘A Little Time’ and backed it with a music video that reminded me very much of a Danny DeVito directed film that had come out just a year before. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, 1989’s ‘The War Of The Roses’ was a black comedy that starred Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner as a couple, whose marriage descends into a comically macabre hell. As the film progresses each of the characters comes up with new and devilishly fiendish ways to exact revenge upon one another, with some results that make you cry with laughter, as much as wince with the shock of it all. If The Beautiful South didn’t take their inspiration directly from that film, then they must have built it around the same emotional template experienced by couples undergoing a messy break up. Regardless, the video was a brilliantly acerbic juxtaposition to the gentleness of the music for ‘A Little Time’, and in many respects represents that effective balancing of sweet and sour that The Beautiful South’s music and lyrics captured consistently for more than a decade.

The Beautiful South arose in early 1989 from the ashes of The Housemartins (‘Caravan Of Love’). Housemartins’ frontman Paul Heaton, and drummer/vocalist Dave Hemmingway (now focused on vocals/ keyboards), established The Beautiful South in their hometown base of Hull, England, and chose the name as a sarcastic counterpoint to their reputation as dour Northerners. Dave Rotheray (guitar), Sean Welch (bass), Dave Stead (drums-former roadie for the Housemartins), and a key ingredient Briana Corrigan (vocals, ex-Anthill Runaways), rounded out the line-up when she joined fulltime in 1990. It’s worth noting that, although not credited as an official member, Damon Butcher played most of the keyboard/piano parts on many of the band’s albums. Meanwhile former Housemartins bassist Norman Cook took a starkly different fork in the musical road and went on to form Beats International, later on becoming better known to the world as Fatboy Slim.

Heaton and Hemmingway kept the social conscience and no-frills image of the Housemartins, but worked on developing a much richer, and more layered musical style. They shared the vocals on much of the group’s material, alongside Briana Corrigan’s beautiful voice. Heaton tended to handle those songs with a harder political edge, whilst Hemmingway and Corrigan shared vocals more often on the softer, let’s call them, love songs. Their sweet vocal mix was augmented by cheery, jazz tinged hooks and at times lush orchestrations, that perfectly counterbalanced the bitingly caustic undercurrents often contained within the lyrics. The Beautiful South released their appropriately titled debut album ‘Welcome To The Beautiful South’ on the Go! Discs label in late 1989 (it featured a controversial cover image of a woman with a gun in her mouth). They had already made an auspicious beginning with the lead out single ‘Song For Whoever’ (UK#2) a few months earlier, followed by ‘You Keep It All In’ (UK#8), which signalled that, far from having to emerge from the Housemartins’ shadow, The Beautiful South were likely to leave the Housemartins’ legacy covered in their dust. Their debut album climbed steadily to a peak position of #2, and spawned a third hit single with ‘I’ll Sail This Ship Alone’ (UK#31). Heaton’s song writing also took on a new dimension through his collaboration with guitarist Dave Rotheray. Heaton’s arguably abrasive socialist voice was tempered somewhat by Rotheray’s contribution, though in songs like ‘Woman In The Wall’, they balanced sweet fluttering melody playfully against grossly macabre lyrics.

‘A Little Time’ was a sardonically edged love song that featured a sweet and gentle melody, which again belied the darker tone behind the lyrics. Hemmingway’s and Corrigan’s conversational style vocals, combined with the attention grabbing video (which rightly won the 1990 BRIT Award for ‘Best Music Video’, in spite of the obvious cruelty to teddy bears), sealed the deal for ‘A Little Time’ and helped propel it all the way to #1 on the British charts in October 1990. It gave Heaton and Hemmingway their second U.K. #1, following the Housemartins’ December ‘86 chart topper ‘Caravan Of Love’, but they had been beaten to the punch by Norman Cook, whose Beats International had already notched up a #1 back in March ‘90 with ‘Dub Be Good To Me’ (featuring Lindy Layton). ‘A Little Time’ became The Beautiful South’s only foray into the Australian charts (#57), which given their flurry of U.K. hits is quite perplexing. The source album ‘Choke’ cleared a path to #2 on the British charts (OZ#66), and spawned two more minor hits in ‘My Book’ (UK#43) and ‘Let Love Speak Up Itself’ (UK#51). There was a degree of critical backlash during this period, mostly centred around the perception that there was an element of overkill in Heaton’s relentless cynicism, but it was probably more to do with the degree of discomfort generated in listeners by the brutal truth lurking within the lyrics’ confronting subject matter.

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