Paul Heaton of The Beautiful South, Phoenix Festival, Stratford-Upon-Avon, United Kingdom, 1994. (Photo by Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images)

Paul Heaton: an undervalued musical genius

For all his success, Heaton remains surprisingly niche – which is probably just how he likes it

Artillery Row

I came of age in the 1980s, in the middle of the social and economic whirlwind which came to be called the “Thatcher Revolution”. I was instinctively a conservative, something best kept quiet when your undergraduate days are spent drinking in the bars of Belfast.

I was all the same aware that the policies of the Conservative Party at times paid insufficient attention to the value of social and cultural capital. My grandfather had been a miner in Lancashire, and the whole business of the miners’ strikes was taken personally in our Liverpool-Irish family. I was open to the possibility of cultural and musical protest. There was a problem though: those “protests” were actually pretty rubbish.

When attended to properly, Heaton’s work has a beguiling depth

Those of us who were looking for a nuanced, musical interrogation of the Thatcherite agenda had to make do with the strident rent-seekers of “Red Wedge”; a collection of leftist musicians who did very well out of the social revolution by disparaging it at every opportunity. Its founder, Billy Bragg, insisted (modestly) that he wasn’t “looking for a New England”, presumably because he’d done so well out of the Old one.

Salvation came through and – pleasingly – it arrived from the North of England, in the form of a genuinely eccentric songwriter who offered musical critiques which went deeper than the standard attacks on the transformational politics of the day.

Paul Heaton emerged onto the national stage as long ago as 1986 as the lyricist and lead singer for the The Housemartins. That year the Hull based band released Happy Hour, a beautifully jaunty subversion of enforced fun, and a not so subtly disguised attack on the supposedly rapacious, capitalist culture of the time:

“What a good place to be!”,

Don’t believe her,

Cos, they speak a different language and it’s never really happened for me…

The track is from the album London 0, Hull 4, a title which announces Heaton’s Northern antecedents (and discloses his lifelong obsession with football). When he dissolved The Housemartins and formed a successor band, The Beautiful South, the choice of name was almost certainly a form of gentle trolling.

Heaton had concluded that a professional reinvention was necessary because he wanted, occasionally, to write lyrics from an imagined female perspective. He realised it might therefore be better to get a woman to sing them (Housemartins was an all-male outfit). There followed such gems as A Little Time in which a young woman calls bullshit on her partner’s cliched reasons for breaking up, and in doing so moves from “sad into unsad”. And Don’t Marry Her (Have Me), which, notoriously, comes in two versions (I’ll let you join the dots), and in which a temptress attempts to persuade a man to abandon domestic security (“your socks smell of angels, but your life smells of brie”) in favour of ephemeral sexual satisfaction.

Heaton’s genius as a songwriter is an ability to communicate cynicism via the juxtaposition of what Rolling Stone magazine once called “irrepressibly giddy music hooks” with incommensurably dark lyrical content. The first Beautiful South release, Song for Whoever, is, on the face of it, a pleasingly melodic love song; dig a little and it turns out to be anything but:

Deep, so deep, the Number One I hope to reap,

Depends upon the tears you weep… so cry, lovey, cry…

The song’s narrator is in fact a serial philanderer, who sleeps with women (so many he can’t remember their names) in order to monetise sex by writing saccharine “love” songs about these fleeting relationships. In the full album version, Heaton’s sinister reprise implies that in the case of Mary (the name he can remember), the consequences of the exploitation might have been so tragic as to force a change of heart:

Late at night under typewriter light… I ripped this ribbon to shreds.

And then there’s You Keep It All In, a shockingly tuneful account of suppressed aggression inexorably leading to domestic abuse:

Midnight, a husband getting ready to fight,

A daughter sleeps alone with the light turned on, she hears,

She keeps it all in…

When attended to properly, Heaton’s work has a beguiling depth. Even at their warmest, his lyrics have a bite to them (“take a look at these crow’s feet, just look, sitting on the prettiest eyes, sixty 25 of Decembers; 59 fourth of Julys”). What he appreciates is the value of tension; a device which serves an aesthetic function not only in music, but in art construed more generally.

For example, in the short stories of the Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor there is an incongruity between narrative style and the explosions of violence which seem to come from nowhere (A Good Man Is Hard to Find serves as the most notable example of this); similarly, with Patricia Highsmith: The Talented Mr Ripley reads a bit like an Enid Blyton novel, disturbingly centred around a clinical psychopath. The ghost stories of M.R. James build tension incrementally, the odd phrase here and there tell you that something is not quite right.

Heaton is a complicated figure who avidly collects combs and beer mats

In the case of James and O’Connor the tension is left deliberately unresolved. In other aesthetic contexts, resolution is necessary. Take comedy, a subject which caught the attention of the greatest of the Enlightenment philosophers. Kant suggested that the most plausible account of the phenomenon of amusement is that it is a pleasurable reconciliation of the tension that exists between the way the world is, versus the way you expected it to be (the punchline of a joke, or similar linguistic misdirection, being an example of this).

In “classical” music, types of tension can be generated through key change or through the dissonant combination of notes which on the face of it do not belong together. Heaton’s work exploits a different form of dissonance: between melody and lyric (and between the song itself and the video which markets it). But it is no less aesthetically impressive for that.

Of course, it could be replied that I’m reading too much into things and that Heaton is no more than a proficient composer of “pop songs”, pieces of music which (to borrow a phrase from David Bowie) “please the ear but leave the mind alone”. To that objection, I’ll return the burden of proof. And I’ll point out that a similar charge could be made against Dylan, whose Positively Fourth Street has a Heaton-esque quality, despite pre-dating Happy Hour by a couple of decades.

Heaton the man is, not surprisingly, complicated. An alleged control freak who apparently lacks ego (he doesn’t even feature on many of the productions he has composed); an avid collector of combs, beer mats and crisp packets; an obsessive wearer of ridiculous hats. And that rare thing: a multimillionaire socialist who acknowledges that the best thing to do with your wealth is to voluntarily redistribute it.

He is also a workaholic. Were we in normal times he’d be touring with Jacqui Abbott, his friend and Beautiful South co-vocalist whom he recruited while she was working as a supermarket shelf stacker, after hearing her sing at a party.

Heaton, for all his success, remains surprisingly niche. Which is probably how he likes it. We should be grateful though, that the musician who started as a cultural antidote to the social blindness of a reforming government in office several decades ago, has evolved into something much greater.

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