Saturday, 5 July 2008

The Problems of Paul Heaton

After all I had said about moving on, my mood on Friday darkened once the ceremony was over. Fry packed away his Olympic standard composite bow and left me with my grief. My manuscript had sank to the bottom of our ornamental lake and I was supposed to look forward to the next stage of my creative life.

Only it wasn’t working.

‘Damn you!’ I raged to the Gods of Publishing. ‘How could you do this to me? Just when I thought I’d achieved something to establish my artistic credentials! Just when I thought I was worth more than my interview with Sharon Stone when we shared underwear secrets! Why do you mock me so? Why?’

And that’s how Judy found me, knee down in the mud and trying to rewrite my novel with a stick in the banks of Lake Talbot.

‘Come on, Richard,’ she said, helping me to my feet. ‘We can’t have you feeling down. What will the readers of your blog think?’

‘That I’m not really me. That this deeply intelligent creature of violent mood swings can’t be the same handsome, carefree spirit they seen on their TV screens every night.’

Judy tutted in the confident way she had when she is sure she has a way of cheering me up. I wiped away my tears as she started to walk me back to the house.

As we reached the patio, she handed me an envelope. ‘Here,’ she said. ‘This might cheer you up.’

‘What’s this?’ I asked and cracked the seal with my thumb. I looked inside and found two first class air tickets to Manchester, booked for last night. My heart sank. ‘Why would I want to go back to that hell hole of Ladyboys and fundamentalist haters of all things Amis?’

‘Because of these,’ she answered and produced from behind her back two bright red glistening tickets.

My heart sank again. It double sank. It sank quicker than a burning pile of comedy novel. I could see very well what she’d done. It was printed proud on the tickets. ‘Paul Heaton Live at the Manchester Academy’.

‘You could have told me about this before I came all the way back from Manchester last night,’ I protested.

‘But where would the fun be if I did that?’ she asked. ‘And I know you were looking forward to having Stephen around and burning your unpublished book.’

The staging of this whole charade was typical of Judy. As was the pretence that any of this was meant to cheer me up. While Judy has always been a huge fan of both the Beautiful South and Heaton’s solo work, she knows that I’ve always held fundamental doubts about the aesthetic choices he makes.

Heaton’s eye for the ordinary details in everyday life is like no other writer of contemporary lyrics. I admire the huge bravado he displays with lines like:

And your love light shines like cardboard
But your work shoes are glistening
She's a PhD in "I told you so"
You've a knighthood in "I'm not listening"
She'll grab your sweaty bollocks
Then slowly raise her knee
Don't marry her, have me

While the lyrics delight in all their ugliness, from ‘cardboard’ to ‘bollocks’, I find it hard to key them into the breeziness of the Beautiful South sound. Perhaps it is part bravado and part madness. It’s a mix that I’ve never truly understood or much liked. It might be excessive to describe it as being a touch too ‘twee’ for my tastes, but Heaton’s writing has always reminded me of the work of another otherwise glorious Northern writer, Alan Bennett. The northern spirit is always there as they rummage through the sprawled detritus of council estates or, in the case of Bennett, old folks homes, but the melancholic energies of these two men from opposite sides of the Pennines are often disguised by a gentility that I don’t particularly like. Last night was my chance to see if Heaton could overcome my indifference to his gentility.

The Academy 2 is a small all-standing venue and we arrived early and made the perennial mistake of all inexperienced concert goers. Judy took up a position in the middle of the floor, a good twenty feet behind the small crowd of Heaton zealots who had lined up along the front edge of the stage. I would have been happy standing back there but I was thinking of Judy who sometimes struggles to see over a crowd. With my luck, an outing of police cadets was sure to line up in front of us, so I pointed to a gap by the stage where I also thought we might avoid people questioning our disguises.

Naively, we went and stood a metre from a tower of speakers the likes of which could have won World War 2 for the Nazis if only they’d had the warm-up act on their side. As soon as the band hit their first chord, my hearing disappeared in my right ear. By the time they’d finished their set of five songs, I was suffering a loss of my hearing in both ears and I was sure they would never recover. Perhaps the more knowledgeable out there can explain to me the rationale that every band has to play at top volume, irrespective of the venue, the audience, and especially the material. A light, quite likable band, singing songs reminiscent of The Beach Boys, were turned into Gods of Rock with a sound not too dissimilar to Neil Young torturing small animals with his oil-stained machine grunge.

A welcome respite came about in the form of the forty minutes it took for the stage to be made ready for Heaton.

‘Isn’t this exciting?’ asked Judy, her face beaming.

‘What?’ I asked.

‘Isn’t this exciting?’

‘I can’t hear you. I’m reading your lips but I can’t hear you.’

Actually, if the truth be told, I couldn’t even hear myself and I couldn’t even see my own lips.

On the stroke of nine, Heaton emerged from the back of the stage with his band of three and the crowd began to chant: ‘Heaton! Heaton! Heaton! Heaton!’ which made for another of the striking contradictions of the evening. Already heavily juiced from the beer taps in Manchester Students Union bar, some in the crowd had all the subtlety of a bus of football hooligans careering down a twisting country lane. Heaton, on the other hand, has the stage presence of a character from the Last of the Summer Wine. A strange anorak reaches barely above his navel but is zipped to the collar. His short hair compliments a face that is pleasingly comic and, when his brows lower and he looks quizzically to audience, he looks somewhat like an English Robin Williams. He also had a likable comedic line running throughout his set. His drab replies to the audience’s questions reveal a quick left-of-centre mind. It makes such a welcome change from the usual clichés (most of which were evident in the desperately pleased-with themselves warm up act).

Heaton has the appearance of an immersion heater but his lyrics scald. This same is also true of Heaton’s voice which has a rich nasal quality but it capable of being strident and stretched. And herein lies the greatest paradox of all. The lyrical dexterity, the precision of the small words that cram the metrical line, the provincial urgency that lies deep in his accent: they are all lost somewhere beyond the huge speakers that dominate the stage. Strident guitar lines and the hammer blows of the drums are all that we can hear. Every twitch of the bass player’s fingers plucks the spine from ours back and lyrics which are probably the best of the current crop of English songwriters are neutralised by this attempt to assail the audience with a wall of noise. It wasn’t much better when I moved to the back of the hall and it left me wondering how good Heaton would be in more intimate surroundings, with an audience less drunk, and the sound system more in harmony with his real gifts.

I arrived wondering if Heaton could be less gentile than the Beautiful South. I left wanting more of that gentility. I wanted less of the crowd that insisted in whistling down my ear before songs were finished. The hot stench of beer on the breath of a small wingnut of a woman to my side – ‘we luv you Paul’ stank of cheap perfume and rolling tobacco – was not the fault of the band but the fault of a public that goes to these events for something other than the music. A group of woman were clearly only there to prepare for an all night bender. They rarely stopped laughing and chatting through the whole of Heaton’s hour on the stage. A severely drunk guy was dragged from the crowd and in the process of falling over head-butted me in my hip. They were all details that might fit well in a Heaton song and this, perhaps, was the truth I had come to realise. In the solitude of the recording studio, Heaton produces beautifully crafted vignettes of a world he recognises. They have a quality of a Lowry painting, with the same lines, twisted perspectives, and remote view. On stage, reality doesn’t allow him to retain that distance. There is no opportunity to create that purity. I wondered if the sound is there loud to drown out the crowd; to obscure the ugly world that is so much a part of the Heaton’s music.

Paul Heaton’s new album is out on Monday and I have no doubt that Judy will be first in the queue to buy it. I might well be second. We have a moral duty to reward talent and Heaton deserves the patronage of anybody who wants to see the craft of intelligent song writing flourish in modern Britain. By being everything we don’t think of in our performers, he flies beneath the radar. He joked about his new single being number 188 in the charts and his wanting to break into the top hundred. He’s far too intelligent for that. It is a shame that all his greatest qualities work are more like defects. He is unapologetically loyal to his region and displays that rarest of qualities in human beings – a dry sense of humour.

‘Did you enjoy last night?’ asked Judy this morning.

My ears still sounded like somebody was pumping air through them. Either that or my head had developed a slow leak.

‘I can’t hear you,’ I replied, ‘but I thought he was very good. I’ve been checking out his website and I’ll be buying all of his albums on Monday.’

Judy smiled and looked quite pleased with herself.

‘Such a funny man,’ I think she said. ‘Somebody should encourage him to write a novel.’

I dropped my spoon. Now it was my spirits that had suddenly developed a leak.


Anonymous said...

Strangely, despite having only seen a handful of live acts, The Beautiful South is one - they opened for REM at the huge McAlpine Stadium in Huddersfield more than a decade ago. They were better than REM, i thought.

Dick Madeley said...


Seriously, Elberry, I hope you didn't end up like me. My ears just aren't right today.

Anonymous said...

Took me about 2 to 3 days for my ears to stop ringing after seeing Spiritualized in 2001. A fat Muslim freak i know developed permanent tinnitus after attending black metal concerts. A grim condition, not life-threatening but people have committed suicide because of the constant ringing. In future i'll take ear plugs to any such event...

Lola said...

I saw (and heard) Alabama 3 at the very same Academy venue. What impressed me was that the majority of punters were old people like me, fans of the band and their music, but the ones being noisy and obnoxious were the boozed-up drugged-up kids who had no interest in what was being played. I still had my hearing afterwards, though.

Another similar event in Birmingham (Hayseed Dixie): a youngish lad was 'dancing' far too vigorously for the space available. We all cheered up when a huge biker type in the audience who had been 'nudged' one too many times lifted him bodily from the floor and moved him away.

Zena said...

You should tell me if you want a copy of my new[ish] album [Acid Country]. After such a lovely review I think you deserve a free one sending. Paul Heaton

Uncle Stan Madeley said...

Thank you Zena. I would greatly appreciate that. I've always been a fan of your Warrior Princess days too.

However, I have no way of sending you my address. Could you get your people to email me at so I might exploit your kindness?