I recently found myself staring into the bottom of yet another Saturday afternoon pint, drifting into yet another set of dull daydreams. For company I had a slim pamphlet. David Wheatley's dark and true and tender is a half-sloshed-but-unsentimental account of the various pubs, inns, and alehouses of Hull. As I vaguely followed Wheatley on a trawl through a city I've never visited, huffing on the prelapsarian cigarettes-indoors aroma of the recent past, my attention was broken by another customer's arrival. He brought the outside world's dampness in with him; a soggy jumper and a scowl ordering a pint of mild and a packet of peanuts.
In the gloom of the pub, I experienced a case of mistaken identity. For a second or two or five, I convinced myself that I knew this man, that he was more than a stranger to me, even if I was simultaneously sure we'd never met. Perhaps it was the lager, or maybe the pamphlet, but in that moment I could have sworn that the anorak in front of me was Paul Heaton, solo artist and lead singer of the interminably brilliant Beautiful South. A sip later it became clear that in a moment of hope and boredom I'd conjured up an apparition. I'd mistaken some bloke for a genius. Then again, if you're going to bump into Paul Heaton, a man who hides his light under a waterproof bushel, anywhere, it might well be here in the pub.
The Beautiful South – even the name is perfect, a three word short story about class and geography and pride and division – rose from the ashes of Paul Heaton's first band, The Housemartins: the group that gave the world "Happy Hour." Sorry, I should say the group that gave the world one of the most joyful indie records ever to haunt sticky-floored clubs up and down the country. They were also responsible for the career of Norman "Fatboy Slim" Cook, but let's overlook that for now. While "The Rockerfeller Skank" will be forever irredeemable, what followed when Paul politely jettisoned Norman benefitted us all.
Over the course of ten albums, three female vocalists, and countless renditions of "Rotterdam" the Beautiful South surveyed the kind of sad, mildewed landscape that feels uniquely and defiantly British. Not in a Clarkson wanking into a pair of Pringle socks way, but British in the way a Caroline Aherne sitcom or a Deborah Levy novel is. The Beautiful South's world is overcast and overweight, a place where the lights have drawn in and the living room smells like fish and chips. It's music for divorcees to tremble and fumble to in the backrooms of community centre Christmas parties, music to accompany hangovers and busy bank holiday motorways.
There was a time when they were massive. A possibly dubious statistic suggested that if you rummaged around the living rooms of Britain, one in seven of them would contain a copy of the group's 1994 best-of compilation, Carry On up the Charts. Whether you chose to believe that or not – and I do, because no harm is done in ever-so occasionally swallowing the whimsy churned up by a PR machine – there's no doubting that this literate and lovelorn group were a big deal. The question of how and why the Beautiful South sold millions of records is a question worth asking. However, there's a more important question and that's a question of what we talk about when we talk about genius.
Most conversations about "genius songwriters" are conversations you'd do better to run away from immediately. Sadly, even the strongest of us occasionally succumb to buying an issue of Mojo or Q at a train station WH Smith, and as such, we're all familiar with the great white whales that surface over and over again: Dylan, Cohen, Lennon, Springsteen, Wilson. To be blunt: fuck that. Falling for the idea that the rock canon is an unimpeachable system that must be respected by all and sundry leads to a situation wherein the story of contemporary music is nothing more than a baby boomer plaything, the domain of white blokes in tennis shoes called Don pattering around their townhouse in St John's Wood. Genius, if we want to call it that, rarely comes clutching a pint of mild, wrapped in a cagoule and a pair of Clarks – which is exactly how Paul Heaton dresses on a daily basis.
Songs like the Beautiful South's debut single, the sardonic mini-masterpiece, "Song For Whoever," is a prime example of the kind of genius we're talking about. Eschewing the stadium-sized faux-poetics of The Boss in all his tight-jeaned pomp, it's a taut song about the artless affect of love songs that, in it's strange way, is the perfect love song. What could be a painful exercise in arch anti-romanticism (the opening lines are "I love you from the bottom of my pencil case / I love you in the songs I write and sing / Love you because you put me in my rightful place / And I love the PRS cheques that you bring") becomes a dizzyingly dark meditation on how the tortured artist figure inflicting calculated misery on another soul for his own benefit is a destructive, self-serving, relationship-destroying pose. And it's a figure that should be treated as what it is: teenage claptrap that does the world far more harm than good. The best thing is that it does all that wrapped up in the kind of Radio 2-friendly song that'll have your dad tapping his fingers on the steering wheel as he turns off the A31 into Bere Regis on a Friday evening.
The lilt and drift of relationships is, of course, a dominant theme of art time immemorial, yet it's so easy to get it wrong in song. We fall prey to both cliche and hyperbole, convinced that our understanding of the end of something or other really is a force of cataclysmic proportions. But listen to Beautiful South classics like "I'll Sail That Ship Alone," or "A Little Time," and you're listening to wedding reception melodrama elevated into the truly sublime. There's a subtlety to Heaton's songwriting that makes going back to the group's albums a perpetual treat. Heartbreak, dismal new conquests, things going metaphorically cold on the side, these are the Beautiful South's bread and butter and they treat you, the listener, like an adult. Even if, in the case of the is-it-as-terrible-as-I-remember-or-is-it-actually-genuinely-properly-sick karaoke anthem "Perfect 10" it's an adult smirking about eight-inch penises.
The eight-inch cock in question is present as both a sort of joke, and a sort of cosmic sexual truth. Nestled in an end-of-the-pier couplet ("When he's at my gate/with a big fat eight/you want to see the smile on my face") its a bald and bold declaration of lust, shorn of the usual metaphorical sheathing pop music gives it. The narrator, in this case Jacqui Abbott, refuses to hide her interest in a larger than average appendage. Which is brilliant, because why should she, or anyone else for that matter? After all, being treated like an adult is preferable to subsuming yourself in a willed-upon teenhood that only makes the comedown of the real more intense. Love fades, things don't pan out as planned, and each of us die disappointed. Still, along the way there's the occasional shag, and the odd pint and that's what makes it all worth it: the occasional glimmer of late-afternoon early-autumn sun caught through the fogged up windows of an old flame's Ford Granada.
Honesty, dignity, and acceptance: those are three words I see when I think of what the Beautiful South are all about, and, as if by chance, they are three words that I think are integral for living life as best as we can. I've just slid my way through the group's back catalogue, alighting at five songs. "Old Red Eyes is Back," "The Next Verse," "Don't Marry Her," "Let Love Speak Up Itself," "You Keep it All In" – they all embody those qualities, and make Dylan and co look like the teenage poets they are. Covering everything from the lure of infidelity in the face of sexless cohabitation ("Don't Marry Her") to the pressure cooker that's a relationship sliding into the bin like the leftovers one of you ignored in favour of another drink with your mates ("You Keep It All In"), they feel like every painfully real moment you've ever experienced; a kind of slow-motion horror of the heart.
So, next Friday, join me in the pub, and we'll stand there by the jukebox with hot pound coins stuffed in our clammy palms, eyes shut, swaying, beers aloft, holding back the tears at the memory of something that once was and never will be again…
Give me one last love song
To bring you back, bring you back
Give me one last video, just dressed in black, dressed in black...
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