There are some songs from your childhood that you clearly remember hearing on the radio for the first time. It was summer 1989, and it was a period of change in my life which my ten year old self was feeling pretty optimistic about. My family were about to move house, I was about to go up to senior school, both big life-events for your average ten year old. I was sat in our old kitchen, my mum was cooking tea with the radio on, something which she habitually did despite the fact she wasn’t a huge fan of late 80s pop music, when suddenly this piano feature was punctuated with a line which I now consider among the greatest opening lines in the history of popular song “I love you from the bottom of my pencil case”. As opening lines to songs go, it’s an absolute winner. Except this just wasn’t any old song. This was the debut single by The Beautiful South, and therefore the first time the public had heard anything by this band. As opening lines to your career go, “I love you from the bottom of my pencil case” may very well be the greatest ever, and is certainly in songwriter Paul Heaton’s top five.
30 years later and “Song for Whoever”, with its subverting and brilliant pulling apart of love song tropes, is still my favourite Beautiful South song. So why didn’t I buy Welcome to The Beautiful South at the earliest opportunity? Because I was ten years old when it came out, that’s why. A few years later there would be a copy of the The Best of the Beautiful South: Carry On Up the Chart compilation in our house. This compilation opened with “Song for Whoever”, and contained pretty much every Beautiful South number that I had any affection for, and as a teenager with very limited disposable income, I never really investigated The Beautiful South any further, outside of being partial to their tunes when I heard them on the radio.
So here we are 30 years after its release. Is Welcome to The Beautiful South as good as the band’s arresting debut single would suggest?
After years of knowing and loving the single mix of “Song for Whoever”, hearing the album version is a little bit jarring, as it doesn’t have the same level of pop sparkle that made that single sound so subversive. I mean it’s a brilliant song, and it still mercilessly mocks formulaic balladeers, and I guess if you’re coming into Welcome to The Beautiful South cold, never having heard any of its singles, it’s absolutely a brilliant way to open your debut album. In some ways, this album mix was perhaps the only way to go, as including the single mix of the song would have meant that it would have dominated and overshadowed the rest of Welcome to The Beautiful South. As it is, the slightly less commercial mix makes things easier for the rest of the album to make an impact, with “I’ll Sail This Ship Alone” and “You Keep it All In” being great singles in their own right, and a strong thread of social commentary running through the entire album, with album track “The Woman in the Wall” being one of the more unsettling pop tunes that you will ever hear on a pop album.
It’s when you consider the musical landscape that Welcome to The Beautiful South was released into that you start to appreciate just how radical it was at the time. Much like today, a lot of the pop charts were clogged up with manufactured acts performing assembly line material, while ‘indiepop’ either equated to the burgeoning Madchester scene, or a sort of post-grebo guitar rock as best typified by the likes of The Wonder Stuff and Cud. Beyond that hair-metal was still doing big business, rap was continuing its rise from the underground to the mainstream, and acid-house was addling the minds of a generation. As an album of smartly written social conscious pop with the minimum amount of rock snarl, Welcome to The Beautiful South stood out like a sore thumb, while still appealing to housewives, indie-kids, pop fans and sensitive souls of all ages.
Welcome to The Beautiful South is an album that stood up on its own terms at the time of its release, as the band pretty much established their sound on just one album. While backing vocalist Briana Corrigan would be promoted to a full band member following her striking contributions to this debut, and the band would swell in size and have a broader sound as the 90s progressed, in truth these were merely the fine-tuning of a sound which pretty much arrived fully formed on Welcome to The Beautiful South. Nicely done Mr Heaton and Co.