1989 – Song For Whoever, The Beautiful South

Tulips from Amsterdam Hull

For a band who were, at least for a while, incredibly popular, The Beautiful South have left a surprisingly small cultural footprint. There was a time when their Greatest Hits album, the magnificently-named Carry On Up The Charts, was said to be in one of every seven households in the UK. Whether anyone went round and actually counted them all remains somewhat up in the air but regardless – that such a thing could even be rumoured to be true gives some impression of just how successful they were. That album, released in 1994, was certified platinum five times in the UK alone (1.5 million sales – compare and contrast with Terence Trent D’Arby last week who “only” got to that number globally). It’s an impressive feat.

That belongs in the future, though it does show the heights the band will reach. The ascension to that success begins, here, with their very first single, “Song For Whoever”. The Beautiful South were born from the ashes of The Housemartins, one of those bands who just seem to have an absurd amount of talent concentrated in them. After the demise of The Housemartins one part of the band – Paul Heaton and Dave Hemmingway – formed The Beautiful South, continuing a vein of excellently-crafted, thoughtful and considered pop music. Norman Cook’s post-Housemartins career found him putting together Beats International and he’s now better known by the moniker Fatboy Slim. The Housemartins had found some success – “Happy Hour” was their breakthrough and remains a phenomenal single, and “Caravan Of Love” topped the charts – but only released two (excellent) albums before all that talent went their separate ways. Commercially the band’s career did just fine but they were about to be eclipsed on all sides.

From the very first line, “Song For Whoever” pretty much sets up how things are going to be for The Beautiful South. “I love you from the bottom of my pencil case,” croons Dave Hemmingway, delivering a classic Paul Heaton opening line sincerely, sweetly and without any inflected irony – the delivery is dead straight. It’s a droll line that has to be delivered in exactly the right way, because if it tilts over into winking self-awareness the whole thing is going to become intolerably smug very quickly, and if it becomes overblown the song is going to lapse into bathos and just become ridiculous. It’s a high-wire act and that’s what the whole song is, a delicate balance between the lightly humorous, the sweetly sincere and the somewhat sardonic. It’s a wry, dry-witted song about a man who gets into relationships so he can find something to write songs about, a gentle but pleasing conceit with just a touch of acidity that shows some degree of thought but which never lapses into Morrissey-esque “oh woe is me” self-flagellation.  There’s nothing self-pitying about “Song For Whoever” – in fact quite the reserve and Heaton’s lyric finds the sweet spot here precicely.

The protagonist seems sincere in their desire to find something to write about, and that sincerity leads him into relationships with a string of women who get namechecked and thanked in a heartfelt way. “Oh Cathy, oh Alison, oh Phillipa, oh Sue / you made me so much money, I wrote this song for you,” Hemmingway sings with tongue planted firmly in cheek, yet also absolutely meaning it. And again it’s that high-wire act – that line ought to make him sound like a dick, exploiting women just so he can get a pay-day. But because Hemmingway’s delivery is perfect and he sounds like he really does want to thank the women who provided him with inspiration it doesn’t come across that way. He’s delivering the lines, in other words, that make those women… well, not muses exactly, that would probably be an overstatement, but inspirations at the very least. “Deep, so deep / the Number 1 I hope to reap”, indeed. Whether that makes his treatment of said women any better is another matter, but it’s extremely characteristic of The Beautiful South that they will pull this kind of lyrical tightrope act but still remain likeable.

And if there’s one word to describe “Song For Whoever” it’s likeable. It’s a funny, easy-to-enjoy song which wears its wit and its charm lightly and is meant to be taken in that vein. It’s also a song which is consciously out of step with the music of 1989. It was held off Number 1 by Soul II Soul’s “Back To Life”, and the other three songs in the Top Five the week it was at Number 2 were “London Nights” by London Boys (no, me neither), Prince’s “Batdance” and the all-too-appropriately named “It’s Alright” by Pet Shop Boys. So in other words the Top Five that week basically consisted of four dance tracks and a self-deprecating piano ballad.

And that’s not unrepresentative of the year – 1989 was… not a great year, musically. It says something that The Beautiful South were able to do so well with this kind of song in the face of endless manufactured Stock, Aitken and Waterman rent-a-frontperson dross (and hideous TV show The Hitman And Her, which Pete Waterman co-hosted, was also on British TV at this point, tragically), big dance hits and nostalgia cash-ins. The video plays into the idea that the band are out of step, with everyone clothed in a just slightly old-fashioned way, dressed in shits and jackets. Meanwhile an impossibly-young looking Paul Heaton plays piano (until the camera shifts and it’s revealed he’s actually tapping away on a typewriter, dashing out the song’s lyric) and at one point a blancmange is wheeled out to be a star vehicle, a not-exactly-subtle swipe at just how artificial and fake the manufactured pop stars of the era were, and the video ends with the blancmange consumed.

Despite the musical landscape of the time The Beautiful South were still able to be popular, yes, but like previous entries Dire Straits that popularity never translated itself into “cool”, and they never courted it either – their aloofness was part of the appeal and though nobody would have used the phrase in 1989 they were what would now refer to as “counter-programming” in terms of the charts. Instead of following the trends or styles of the era they intentionally contrasted with them and relied on just writing one really great song after another.

And though it’s easy to focus on the lyrics – because Paul Heaton is just a fantastically great lyric writer – we mustn’t give short shrift to the rest of the band. The song is co-written by Dave Rotheray, the band’s guitarist (as are all songs by The Beautiful South) and here they are a perfect match for each other. Dave Hemmingway’s vocals are fantastically good and bring so much to the song and Heaton, when he harmonises with Hemmingway, takes the song to a whole new level, adding depth and warmth with the simplest of additions. The piano lines are all fantastic, and little trills here and there even manage to raise a laugh – no mean feat – as they flirt with being deliberately corny in the style of a traditional piano ballad while playing off against the rather more knowing lyric. It’s the same high-wire act the lyric and vocal are performing, just corny enough to be recognisable but done well enough to hold the song together.

“Song For Whoever” is about as good a start to a career as any band could hope for, and indeed it would be onwards and upwards for The Beautiful South. The album, Welcome To The Beautiful South, spawned two other big hits, “I’ll Sail This Ship Alone” and “You Keep It All In” (the latter also a Top Ten hit, peaking at Number 8) and the band would continue to have huge commercial success throughout the 90’s. It all petered out after the turn of the millennium and the band split amicably in 2007 in their usual wry way, “due to musical similarities”. They left behind a legacy of amazing songs and some top-notch albums but that cultural footprint remains just an impression in the sands of over-used similes – it seems that it is the fate of The Beautiful South that they are to be under-appreciated and unduly forgotten. That’s a terrible shame because Heaton and Rotheray are astoundingly good songwriters and “Song For Whoever” is a perfect way into the band’s back catalogue, doing everything they do as well as they can do it. If 1989 was a dreadful year for music – and it absolutely was – then at least “Song For Whoever” provided a little musical oasis in a desert of dreck. For that alone, we should be grateful.

What Else Happened in 1989?

It gives me no pleasure to tell you that this is the year of sodding Jive Bunny And The Mastermixers. Yuk. It’s also the year of Black Box’s “Ride On Time” – good luck getting that out of your head now. Madonna’s imperial phase continues unabated, despite being dropped by Pepsi, with “Like A Prayer” being the biggest song of the year, and it’s Catholic Church-baiting video really did make all the headlines. The Bangles are just behind her with “Eternal Flame” as the second-biggest of the year. The 90’s really are just round the corner now – Hole, The Cranberries and Neutral Milk Hotel are all founded while Gladys Knight And The Pips go their separate ways. The whole Milli Vanilli scandal happens while, in other scandal news, Bill Wyman announces he’s going to marry Mandy Smith, who is nineteen and who he’d been dating for six years. Lou Reed returns to form with New York, New Order have Technique, and Roy Orbison’s final, posthumous, album Mystery Girl is released. David Bowie begins his long journey back to relevance with Tin Machine, and Paul McCartney releases Flowers In The Dirt, his best work in the 80’s aside from Tug Of War (not that there’s been much competition). Ice Cube leaves N.W.A., The Offspring debut and Prince is all about Batman this year. David Hasselhoff helps bring down the Berlin Wall with “Looking For Changes” and, in related news, the Berlin Wall comes down. Canada’s finest, The Tragically Hip, release their first album, Eurythmics release their last one (well, until 1999 anyway), and the B-52’s give us the sublime Cosmic Thing – they also have the fifth biggest selling single of the year with “Love Shack”. The Stone Roses give us student classic The Stone Roses, The Cure give us Disintegration, Tom Petty has Full Moon Fever and De La Soul are Three Feet High And Rising. Taylor Swift is born and, at the ripe old age of 101, Irving Berlin passes away and passes into legend.

What Did We Nearly End Up Discussing?

Right up until I hit “post” on the previous entry it was going to be “Poison” by Alice Cooper then I swerved away at the very last second. Cooper is in many ways an interesting figure but I also realised I have nothing to say about the song beyond “nice riff, bit sexist, fine for what it is”. Which isn’t a great article, really. Other contenders were… um. You know, it really wasn’t a fabulous year. Erasure’s Crackers International EP would have been next-best after “Poison” but it’s mostly a scattering of garbage. Michael Ball, Bros, Cliff Richard, fucking Mike fucking And fucking The fucking Mechanics? Fuck no.

Rankings:

1.   The Beatles – “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane”
2.   Stevie Wonder – “Sir Duke”
3.   The Kinks – “Lola”
4.   Jean Knight – “Mr Big Stuff”
5.   Eurythmics – “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)”
6.   Ultravox – “Vienna”
7.   Elvis Costello – “Oliver’s Army”
8.   The Animals – “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”
9.   Sly And The Family Stone – “Everyday People”
10. Pet Shop Boys with Dusty Springfield – “What Have I Done To Deserve This?”
11. The Beautiful South – “Song For Whoever”
12. Adam And The Ants – “Antmusic”
13. The Sweet, “Ballroom Blitz”
14. The Bangles – “Manic Monday”
15. Petula Clark – “Downtown”
16. Queen, “Killer Queen”
17. Blondie, “Denis”
18. Dire Straits – “Private Investigations”
19. Elton John – “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time)”
20. Tom Jones – “Delilah”
21. Gloria Gaynor – “Never Can Say Goodbye”
22. Cyndi Lauper – “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”
23. Eddie Cochrane – “Three Steps To Heaven”
24. Bonnie Tyler – “Holding Out For A Hero”
25. Wings – “Let ‘Em In”
26. The Troggs – “Wild Thing”
27. Jimmy Dean – “Big Bad John”
28. Terence Trent D’Arby – “Sign Your Name”
29. Chubby Checker – “Let’s Twist Again”
30. Billy J Kramer And The Dakotas – “Do You Want To Know A Secret”

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