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Reappraised: The Beautiful South

In 1998 a song about the male appendage reached the top of the charts. I can’t think of another song with a similar subject matter to achieve the same dazzling heights of success since ‘My Ding-a Ling’ became a hit for Chuck Berry in 1972.

It’s a song not popularised by angst-ridden teens wanting to upset their parents but instead beloved by everyone. A song that was hummed along to by everyone from Shreddie-knitting grandmas to hopscotch-playing primary school kids.

The song was ‘Perfect 10’ by The Beautiful South. A song where two lovers reassure one another’s anxieties about not conforming to modern stereotypes of physical perfection. For women, their fluctuating weight and for men, the size of their love horns.

The latter, however, sneaks in almost unnoticed amid a backdrop of melodious harmonies and pop-friendly drum loops. Lyrics such as, “When he’s at my gate with a big fat eight, you want to see the smile on my face”, that wouldn’t be out of place on a heavily-censored Nicki Minaj track, pass most casual listeners by.

This is the unbridled genius of The Beautiful South, a group who were able to infiltrate the mainstream with something far more nuanced and subversive than the ‘I love you’ narrative of conventional pop. This was pop music for adults, sung in raincoats. Songs about infidelity, alcoholism and wrinkles.

The lyrics of Paul Heaton are without question up there with the very best. Sarcastic and sardonic with a political edge, he’s also capable of writing about relationships in a meaningful way that doesn’t stray into cliche and even at times, wryly mocking those cliches. See ‘Song for Whoever’ or ‘Straight In At 37’ off their debut album.

Sadly, he rarely gets the credit he deserves.

The group too often gets dismissed as a teacher or parent band. They lack the gothic gloomy glamour of other heralded lyricists like Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen or Tom Waits, or the gravitas and American folklore intrigue of Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell.

Heaton writes about the ordinariness of life in Britain - it’s less Highway 61 and more tales from a northern cul-de-sac. This unassuming position means that they’re often unfairly overlooked, as if ordinary life doesn’t belong to the mantle of valuable art.

Their resonance is equally diminished because the music is pleasant to the ear - how could anything that’s not a sonic chore be poetic or deeply profound? Yet having the ability to subsume the average listener and then sneak in the poison is sublime. How can you usurp the status quo unless you engage with it first?

I’d like to imagine there were a lot of delicate souls who violently hit the brake pads in their car when they started playing the album version of ‘Don’t Marry Her’, only to discover to their horror that the chorus is actually: “Don’t marry her, fuck me”. This is what you get with The Beautiful South: something much richer and anarchic beneath the surface.

Unfortunately for a lot of people they need their world painting in broad brushstrokes, never fully paying attention to the finer details. For those willing to actually listen there’s a great deal to uncover and delight in, while the rest will just hear a charming little ditty in everything, unable to see the cocks for the trees.

Stan's top recommendations:

  • Perfect 10
  • Prettiest Eyes
  • Hairdresser's Floor

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