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The Beautiful South: I'll Sail This Ship Alone

Tim Woods

Record sales that topped 15 million. Eight top 10 studio albums, with two reaching No1 in the charts. Twenty-two singles that made the UK Top 40. Numerous festival appearances, sold-out tours, a Brit Award… is it ridiculous even to suggest that the Beautiful South were underappreciated?

Despite all their success, both critical and commercial, it sometimes feels that way. They were one of the leading bands of the Nineties, but the mark they left on the British musical landscape is nowhere near as deep as it should be.

That’s not to say they are forgotten. Any Brit above the age of 30 will have heard their name, and most can probably sing along to a good number of their tunes. Maybe not the whole song, but they’ll definitely know those word-juggling, ear-worm hooks:

Stand in the street and sing one out loud – OK, maybe not that last one – and I guarantee that several passers-by will nod along, smile and, more often than not, join in with the next line. And then – more fool them – forget about The Beautiful South for another few years. The band don’t enjoy the same elevated status as a number of their contemporaries who were far less prolific and nowhere near as proficient.

Perhaps they deserve a little blame for this. The Hull-based band formed in 1988 – or possibly re-formed, given that Paul Heaton and Dave Hemingway had been in the Housemartins, and Sean Welch was that band’s roadie. Two non-Housemartins joined this incarnation, with Messrs Stead and Rotheray making it three Daves in the band’s original quintet. They quickly became a six-strong outfit, with Briana Corrigan, Jacqui Abbott and Alison Wheeler all taking a turn as the female vocalist.

But despite their debut single, Song For Whoever, reaching No2 in the charts, they were never the sort of band to push themselves into the spotlight – certainly not when a quiet corner of the nearest pub was available. Unpresumptuous, reserved, not liking to make a fuss – whichever northern stereotype you place on them, the flat cap fits. After all, it’s not every band that has the self-deprecating wit to call their greatest hits compilation Solid Bronze.

This diffidence is evident in one of their finest tunes. I’ll Sail This Ship Alone, a song from debut album Welcome To The Beautiful South, is performed by Heaton, who penned it with Rotheray – a songwriting partnership that endured throughout the band’s 18 years. The lyric tells the tale of someone who, with their relationship falling apart, decides to shrug their shoulders and simply move on with life:

If you would rather go your way, then go your way

I’ll sail this ship alone

It’s unclear if the sentiment stems from defeatism or defiance. On the album version, the song is slow and melancholic, but on the version released as a single two months later, Heaton’s delivery is just a little more upbeat. The change is small, but definitely present: there’s a touch more nonchalance second time around, the shrug in the shoulders a bit more uppity.

Yet neither version hints at a pouring out of the soul, or a descent into inconsolable misery. The heart-tugging melodrama found in so many other love songs is noticeably absent. Even the protagonist’s request for a second chance lacks the desperation that most balladeers plump for, being quarter-hearted at best:

Well they said if I wrote the perfect love song

You would take me back

Well I wrote it but I lost it

And now will you take me back anyway?

It was this ability to avoid repeating the obvious, to offer different perspectives, that made The Beautiful South so fascinating. Few bands write a love song saying it’s fine to be a bit chubby, which is the heartwarming message in Perfect 10; fewer still write one about still being in love in old age, as they do in the delightful Prettiest Eyes. And, to the best of my knowledge, Hold Me Close (Underground) is the only song in existence that muses on how potholers like to have sex. (If there is another one, I’d be thrilled to hear it.)

Yet there was much more to their craft than being a little obscure. There was often a darkness as well, with their repertoire covering a range of less palatable subjects: from the negative effects of alcoholism to the reality of being a glamour model, or the British obsession with glorifying war to the cowardice of battlefield generals. There’s even a twist at the end of I’ll Sail This Ship Alone, the closing verse cutting off halfway through with a shift in tone to something much more sinister:

Well they said if I burnt myself alive

That you’d come running back

There are many other bands who revel in the macabre side of humanity – there are whole musical genres that deal with little else – but few have done it with such razor-sharpness as The Beautiful South. And this is where their genius lies: in heading for the unusual, looking at the parts of society that others would gladly pass over. Having the ability to put it all to some fabulous tunes was a trick that few others achieved quite so often, or so well.

The music didn’t end with the demise of The Beautiful South, thankfully. Paul Heaton had some success as a solo artist, and now performs with his former bandmate Jacqui Abbott. Their 2020 album Manchester Calling contains, unsurprisingly, many of the same musical and lyrical qualities as found in their former band’s back catalogue. David Rotheray also released a solo album, 2010’s The Life Of Birds, while other members briefly tried to rekindle the magic in a band called, perhaps a little wistfully, The South. While Housemartins fans may disagree, none of them has ever produced anything as special as the string of records they put together between 1988 and 2006.

So, do The Beautiful South deserve to be recognised as one of the most consistent and thought-provoking bands the UK has produced? Yes, most definitely. Do they care if they receive this recognition? Almost certainly not. At times, the entirety of their million-selling career felt like an in-joke, each song being sung with a wry smile and a knowing wink to the camera.

We should care, though, and treat them with a little more respect. Because while some bands have the music, and others the words, The Beautiful South had a treasure chest brimming with both – and for that they deserve our unending appreciation.

Tim Woods is the author of Love In The Time Of Britpop and has a new book coming out in the not too distant future. Twitter: @tim_woods77


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