Their record company calls them "the most successful British writing partnership since
Lennon and McCartney."
Marketing hype aside, the claim is not without some validity: Songwriting pair Paul
Heaton and Dave Rotheray of the pop septet the Beautiful South have produced 19
consecutive hits and two consecutive multi-platinum albums in their native England.
Yet the 10-year-old band still can't seem to cut a break in the United States.
American critics love them -- Robert Christgau dedicated an entire Village Voice
column to them last year -- but Americans just won't buy their records, and radio won't
Now, with a new album, Quench, due to be released in the United States early
this year, the members of the Beautiful South once again are poised to watch their
success hit a brick wall on the western shores of the Atlantic.
But they approach that wall with a mixture of acceptance and optimism.
"It's a bit similar to when we started in Britain," guitarist Rotheray, 35, said. "The concerts
are smaller here, which is refreshing. The audience here is better, because in Britain
we're a big hit; here we're a big secret."
In Britain, the Beautiful South's 1994 singles compilation, Carry On Up the Charts,
lived up to its title and stayed at #1 for six straight weeks, becoming one of the
biggest-selling albums in British history. The group still sells out show after show in
Its failure to fare as well in the United States defies easy explanation.
"It's difficult with a band who's been around a long time," Rotheray suggested. "It's hard
to get people jazzed up about a band who's been around England for 10 years.
"Maybe we're too idiosyncratic and English, which I don't think is true," he continued. "I
think Americans like idiosyncrasy. Look at [ex-Smiths singer] Morrissey. Americans don't
want an English band to look and sound like [mainstream hard-rockers] Aerosmith."
Rotheray and vocalist Heaton met -- and still reside -- in Hull, a once-thriving, currently
depressed English industrial town. Heaton, now 36, had just finished up his role as a
popular frontman for '80s Brit-pop chartbusters the Housemartins, and Rotheray was
looking for a new project.
Since the Beautiful South released their first single, "Song for Whoever," in 1989, the
lineup has morphed slightly, yielding a current lineup of Heaton; Rotheray; vocalist
Jacqueline Abbott, 25; vocalist Dave Hemingway, 38; bassist Sean Welch, 33; drummer
David Stead, 32; and keyboardist Damon Butcher.
Their somewhat enigmatic songs mix irony, desperation, a solid base of Brit-pop, the
looseness of jazz and the earnest lyrics of soul. Beautiful South songs of the past offered
up such warped scenarios as that of "Woman in the Wall," a quirky tune about a man
who buries his wife in the wall and ends up losing it when "the rotting wall began to drip."
They also courted controversy, as in the songs "36D," "I Love You, But You're Boring"
and "Don't Marry Her (F--- Me)." Other songs were simply out-and-out melancholy, such
as the 1997 single, "Liar's Bar" (RealAudio excerpt),
with its lyric, "Well sitting in a bar alone where no one knows your name/ Is like laying in
a graveyard wide awake."
Quench features a new strain of Beautiful South music. While still throwing the
listener an ironic bone for good measure, the album's songs are a mite more upbeat, as
in "Perfect 10," a horn-spiced dance romp with duet vocals that quip, "She's a perfect 10,
but she wears a 12/ Baby keep a little 2 for me."
Quench, which already has charted in the U.K., boasts clean production, unique
arrangements and even some percussion production from Fatboy Slim DJ (and former
Housemartins bassist) Norman Cook.
The songs still contain the honesty and wit associated with the Beautiful South, but they
also suggest that lyricist Heaton has come to realize that love sometimes can
"I think maybe it was an attempt to sound more mature," Heaton said of the new songs. "I
think the danger with a band like ourselves is that people think we think every love story
goes tragically wrong."
If the Beautiful South's new optimism is any indication, the band's relationship with
American listeners may have a happy ending after all.