Retrofitted: (Welcome to) The Beautiful South

Recently, I returned home to visit my parents. Whenever I am back in my “old haunt”, I do a number of things: leaf through browning baseball cards; read old comic books; dig through photo albums; and open the boxes of letters I received as a youth.  It’s amazing the memories you’ll unearth after reading a couple of lines of prose.

I’d like to believe that the art of letter writing hasn’t completely become extinct and that there are still some intrepid souls that communicate via pen, paper and the USPS.  Yes, it’s somewhat arcane and less immediate form of interaction, but I’ve yet to find myself smiling with glee or moved to tears by an old-email.  As per usual, I have digressed.

Upon opening the box labeled “high-school” letters (all things are meticulously cataloged, an OCD characteristic of mine to be sure), I found a rather extended back-and-forth correspondence with my friend C.F. (from N.C.). I met C.F. on a trip overseas sometime in my early teenage years from which I returned with black fingernails, braided hair, and a penchant for Marxist politics – much to the horror, chagrin, and disdain of my parents and the amusement of my siblings. (It is fair to say I was constant source of pleasure vis a vis my parents for my brothers and sisters. The stories of my wanton disobedience could fill a small-size swimming pool.) For the record, eventually, I was forced to remove the nail polish; parochial schools do not tolerate “young men with make-up” I was told. And, thus, began my crush with eye liner.

C.F. and I wrote extensively about sundry and mundane topics. There were extensive doodles and psychedelic drawings covering the backs of envelopes (see to right), letters would recount days, fragments of thoughts, revelations, confusions, uncertainties and new adventures. In short, it was everything that embodies and exemplifies a long distance friendship of two odd, geeky, and bookish kids prone to excessive rumination. Along the way, C.F. introduced me to the odd world of ‘zines, self-styled poets (until then the only quirky poetry I knew was by King Missile), sardonic Brit(ish) pop, and the burgeoning southern Independent Rock scene. Although I still enjoy spinning records by the Connells, the Blake Babies, Dillon Fence, Superchunk, and the countless other bands of the 90s nascent Chapel Hill scene (that never quite exploded), it was the first band C.F. ever introduced me to that made the biggest and most lasting impression: the Beautiful South.

Let’s talk about Mary, a sad story, turned her grief into glory. Late at night by the typewriter light ripped his ribbons to shreds. – The Beautiful South

In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, an earthquake struck Northern California and The Beautiful South released their first album, Welcome to the Beautiful South. I don’t think there was any connection between the three events. However, each had lasting impact on my person and psyche. The Beautiful South were largely the brainchild and passion of Hull, England‘s Paul Heaton (lead songwriter and co-lead singer) and Dave Hemingway (no relation and co-lead singer) both of whom had been a part of a fairly popular (in the U.K.) band called The Housemartins with bassist Norman Cook. Sound familiar? Norman Cook is now better known as the man behind Fatboy Slim. We’ve come a long way, baby. Speaking of which… I’ve spoken of my obsession and love for sarcastic and witty lyricism of Mssrs. Morrissey and Merritt, right? Well, Paul Heaton (The Beautiful South’s main songwriter) definitely deserves an entrance in the club of (tongue-in) cheeky. As with many of my adolescent obsessions (e.g., R.E.M., 10,000 Maniacs, the Smiths, etc.), The Beautiful South illustrated that being nerdy, a little odd, fascinated by books and history, and intellectually curious was actually pretty cool . . . at least somewhere, perhaps not Miami but there was a wide world out there, all I needed to do was bide my time. Plus, Heaton depicted a fabulously rich and colorful set of characters with the resonance of reality, yet totally foreign to me; my desire to discover and delve to towards further locales grew by the day.

He was just a social drinker, but social every night.The Beautiful South

Let’s step backwards a little or diagonally as the case may be…. My fascination with The Beautiful South started at the top with the brilliantly dark comedy of “Song for Whoever” – an ode to the countless ladies (triumphs and tragedies, but mostly tragedies) and heartaches that helped the narrator craft brilliant love songs and shot him to the top of the pop charts while filling his bank account. [When I first heard this song with C.F., it was in a karaoke lounge and there were those oddly Hallmark-esque videos playing in the background; the experience in retrospect couldn’t be more surreal.] Heaton’s lyrics are a not so subtle stab at the cruel reality of profiting of another’s tears. But, he’s not morally judging. He’s just observing but with such intensity and sincerity that you can’t help but find the absurdity and hilarity in the moment. Later, I would recognize a certain Dada character to these hyper-real observations.

Heaton’s callous third person narrator/observer continues throughout the album to witness and relish the hypocrisy, irony, and confusion of the modern world. In “From Under the Covers”, he discusses his lazy, unmotivated, pessimistic, and excuse-filled friend who wanders through life eternally “asleep.” (Is this a metaphor for England in the late 80s? Es posible.) He then turns his sights on the day’s current hip political philosophy or cause celebre as hewanders the streets of Brighton in “Oh Blackpool”, attempting to decide between “Soviet Hip” and “British Pride” as flippantly as one might choose to slip on a pair of Chuck Taylors or Keds. Heaton was dissecting and lampooning intellectual posturing and poser-ism long before the assault on East-Coast hipster-dom of the early 00s. (Don’t get me wrong James Murphy does a great job but he’s just one in a long line. The English have been doing it for years.) From the foregoing, one shouldn’t assume that The BS is all pomp and petulance, they also write about the realities of domestic abuse (“Woman In the Wall”) and the need to share the difficult moments with one’s friends (“You Keep It All In”). But, a wry and witty turn-of-phrase is never too far away even in the most serious of moments.

Should we dance again in our special way with our trousers around our knees, our knees? The Beautiful South.

It’s not just the head to which The B’South appeal, but also the feet. As with many Brit Pop acts of their day, the boys and girls of Hull had a penchant for making music for the discos, songs to shake your hips and sway your head to. Replete with horns and drum machines, Welcome to the Beautiful South will get you boppin’ before long, because after a couple of pints everyone wants to shimmy, right? In the end, The Beautiful South have inspired countless impromptu dance parities filled me with many a smile and laugh. And, I have C.F. to thank for it, wherever she might be these days.

I thank you from the bottom of my pencil case,


So, take a trip back in time and across the Pond with me and visit a quirky cast of characters by listening to The Beautiful South’s Welcome to the Beautiful South.

2 thoughts on “Retrofitted: (Welcome to) The Beautiful South

  1. Thanks for the shout about this one. I was familiar with the Housemartins because of their awesome song ‘Happy Hour.’ But it was very enlightening to give this album a few spins. ‘Song for Whoever’ is really great, and a few of the other cuts were just as good. The whole album was solid, though, with nary a weak track. All in all, I really enjoyed discovering this lost classic!

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