The band is best known for their biting wit and mastery of Lyrical Dissonance: Heaton and guitarist Dave Rotheray often wrote pleasant-sounding pop tunes paired with lyrics that were dark, satirical, political or otherwise atypical in some fashion. Depending on who you listen to, they were almost equally lauded and derided for this deployment of what was most frequently called "irony" under the cover of sweet melodies, leading to a not insubstantial Hate Dom as well as huge success.
With two lead singers, the Beautiful South emphasized vocal harmonies, especially between male and female vocalists. The first of these female co-leads was Northern Irish singer Briana Corrigan, who left after their third album, 0898 Beautiful South. Jacqui Abbott sang on the next four albums, while Alison Wheeler was a member for the final three. With three-part vocal harmonies and smooth playing from the band, the Beautiful South exhibited a honeyed sound that could mask very barbed lyrics.
The band scored big early successes with the likes of their Heaton-sung debut No.2 single "Song For Whoever", "You Keep It All In" (both 1989) and the chart-topping duet "A Little Time" (1990) sung by Hemingway and Corrigan. Their commercial fortunes thereafter seemed to be on the gradual wane however, until the late-1994 release of Greatest Hits Album Carry On up the Charts: The Best of the Beautiful South unexpectedly went stratospheric — it became the second-best selling album of the year, and with eventual 6x platinum status it has often been claimed that 1 in 7 UK households owned a copy. With the simultaneous rise of Brit Pop also bringing guitar-bass-drums music back into the chart mainstream, subsequently the group had its first Top 10 singles in over half a decade with the Abbott-fronted "Rotterdam" and "Don't Marry Her" then their biggest hit in 8 years with the Heaton-Abbott duet "Perfect 10", along with two more multi-platinum Number One albums, before slipping oddly quickly and quietly from million-selling ubiquity into becoming a fan-only act around the turn of the millennium.
The band broke up amicably in 2007, wittily subversive to the end by citing the cause as "musical similarities." Since then, members Hemingway, Wheeler and Dave Stead have toured with other musicians as The South and the New Beautiful South, Heaton has recorded several solo albums and also reconvened with Jacqui Abbott, leading to the pair recording and touring again as a duo.
Principal Members (Founding members in bold:)
- Paul Heaton - co-lead vocals (1988-2007)
- Dave Hemingway - co-lead vocals (1988-2007)
- Dave Rotheray - guitar (1988-2007)
- Sean Welch - bass (1988-2007)
- Dave Stead - drums (1988-2007)
- Briana Corrigan - additional vocals (1988-89), co-lead vocals (1989-92)
- Jacqui Abbott - co-lead vocals (1994-2000)
- Alison Wheeler - co-lead vocals (2003-07)
- 1989 - Welcome to the Beautiful South (UK #2)
- 1990 - Choke (#2)
- 1992 - 0898 Beautiful South (#4)
- 1994 - Miaow (#6)
- 1994 - Carry On up the Charts: The Best of (#1)
- 1996 - Blue is the Colour (#1)
- 1998 - Quench (#1)
- 2000 - Painting It Red (#2)
- 2001 - Solid Bronze: Great Hits (#10)
- 2003 - Gaze (#14)
- 2004 - Golddiggas, Headnodders and Pholk Songs (#11)
- 2006 - Superbi (#6)
- 2007 - Soup (#15) — combined Housemartins and Beautiful South compilation
I love you from the bottom of my troping case...
- The Alcoholic: "Old Red Eyes Is Back" is a song about poorly disguised alcoholism. Also, most of the denizens of "Liar's Bar".
- Alternate Album Cover: Two examples in fact.
- Welcome to the Beautiful South: The original cover depicted two pictures taken by Czech photographer Jan Saudek, one depicting a woman with a gun in her mouth and another depicting a man smoking, while the alternate cover depicts two different pictures with one featuring a stuffed toy rabbit and another featuring a teddy bear. This change was made because Woolworths took offence at the original cover and request the band to change it in order to become available at their stores. Another alternate cover depicted only the smoking man for the Canadian release.
- Miaow: The original cover painted by German artist Michael Sowa depicted a lot of dogs seated in a music hall with a gramophone on the stage, while the alternate cover, also by Sowa, depicted four dogs in a boat at sea. This change was made because HMV felt the original cover poked fun of their mascot Nipper and had the band change the cover in order for the album to become available at their stores.
- Animated Music Video: "How Long's A Tear Take To Dry", courtesy of none other than Hanna-Barbera.
- Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: When they released their debut album, Woolworth's refused to stock it due to the album's cover, which depicted a woman with a gun in her mouth next to a man smoking. The band replied in typical fashion saying the store wanted to:"Prevent the hordes of impressionable young fans from blowing their heads off in a gun-gobbling frenzy. Or taking up smoking."
- Big Beautiful Woman: "Perfect 10": "She's a perfect ten/But she wears a twelve/Baby, keep a little two for me."
- Bigger Is Better in Bed: The other half of "Perfect 10", although the singer notes that there's a range of size that she can tolerate and too large might cause some problems. "Well if he's XXL, well what the hell/Every penny don't fit the slot."
- Blonde, Brunette, Redhead: The female vocalists. They started out with Briana Corrigan (redhead), later drafted Jacqui Abbott (brunette), and finally Alison Wheeler (blonde).
- Bowdlerization: The single "Don't Marry Her" changed the rather unsubtle line "don't marry her, fuck me" to "don't marry her, have me". It also changed the line "sweaty bollocks" to "Sandra Bullocks".
- Break-Up Song: "A Little Time": He left her, he regrets it, she's decided she's okay with it.
- Cover Version: Their covers include Pebbles' "Girlfriend" and Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin'", already Covered Up by Harry Nilsson. Eventually the band released Golddiggas, Headnodders and Pholk Songs, an (almost)note all-covers album, which featured songs by Willie Nelson ("Valentine"), Rufus Wainwright ("Rebel Prince"), The Ramones ("Blitzkrieg Bop") and Blue Öyster Cult ("Don't Fear the Reaper")!
- Cross-Referenced Titles: "I Love You (But You're Boring)" and "I Hate You (But You're Interesting)".
- Grow Old with Me: "Prettiest Eyes" tells a story of an old man looking proudly back on the years he had spent with his partner:Let's take a look at these crows' feet, just look,
Sitting on the prettiest eyes.
Sixty 25th of Decembers,
Fifty-nine 4th of Julys
- Taken up to eleven with "Hold Me Close (Underground)", where the singer promises that they'll carry on making love, even when they're dead.
- Inside a Wall: "Woman in the Wall" is about an alcoholic who kills his wife in a drunken rage and hides her body in the walls of their house, but is tormented by hearing her voice from the walls every night.
- Lyrical Dissonance: A hallmark of the band's work.
- Early hit "You Keep It All In" was a pleasant-sounding ditty with the lyrics "Last night, the conversation we had last night/When all I wanted to do was stab you in the heart..."
- "A Little Time", the band's sole UK Number One single, is a warm, soft 'love song' sung from the point of a man and a woman whose relationship is crumbling.
- Muse Abuse: "Song For Whoever" is about a songwriter who cynically sees his lover's grief as inspiration, and either doesn't even remember her name or has used so many lovers as fodder for his musical career that he struggles to recall them all.Deep, so deep
The number-one I hope to reap
Depends upon the tears you weep
So cry, lover, cry
- Noble Bird of Prey: A falcon stares into the camera on the cover of Gaze.
- Ode to Sobriety: "Liar's Bar" is the "subverted drinking song" version; the bar's regulars are such a terrible example that they'd discourage anyone from drinking, or at least from drinking there.
- One-Woman Song: Parodied to hell and back in "Song For Whoever":Oh Cathy, Oh Alison, Oh Phillipa, Oh Sue
You made me so much money, I wrote this song for you
Jennifer, Alison, Phillipa, Sue, Deborah, Annabel, too...
- Retraux: The "How Long's a Tear Take to Dry?" video is done in the style of a Hanna-Barbera Band Toon. The studio itself provided the animation.
- Seduction Lyric: "Don't Marry Her" is a completely open, NSFW offer of sex to someone who seems intent on taking a different, less appealing option.Think of you with pipe and slippers
Think of her in Bed
Laying there just watching telly
Then think of me instead...
- Self-Deprecation: The band's second Greatest Hits Album was entitled the deliberately underwhelming-sounding Solid Bronze.
- Self-Titled Album: Semi-examples with Welcome to the Beautiful South and 0898 Beautiful South.
- Sexiness Score: "Perfect 10" is about a Big Beautiful Woman who's described as "She's a perfect 10/But she wears a 12".
- Take That!: A hallmark of Paul's writing, even back in his Housemartins days.
- Unusual Euphemism: "Sandra Bullocks", for "sweaty bollocks", in the bowdlerised radio version of "Don't Marry Her".