I had to learn Me and the Farmer on a Walkman – that dates it, doesn’t it?
With The Beautiful South’s second coming set to reach Preston, MALCOLM WYATT talks past, present and future with ex-Housemartin Dave Hemingway
Is it really 25 years since Paul Heaton and fellow Housemartins band member Dave Hemingway helped launch The Beautiful South?
In June 1989, their debut single, Song for Whoever, became the first of more than 20 top-40 hits for the band, and one of six that made the top 10 over the next 17 years.
The band enjoyed a major run of commercial and critical success, finally breaking up in early 2007, comically citing “musical similarities”, having sold 15 million records.
From there, Paul went solo while Dave and a few of his fellow band members were left wondering what to do next.
Pretty soon, the band resurfaced as a nine-piece, now known as The South, Dave sharing vocal duties with Alison Wheeler, who had joined in 2003.
Next month, they’re at Preston’s 53 Degrees, part of an 18-date spring tour, playing several old hits and a few songs from their recent ‘debut’ album Sweet Refrains.
Alison was the original band’s third female vocalist, following Briana Corrigan and Jacqui Abbott, the latter now touring and recording with Paul again.
Dave explained: “Alison got a bit of a raw deal really. She was with us for the last three albums, but the less successful ones, and never really got a fair crack of the whip.
“The majority of our success was with Briana and Jacqui. Through no fault of her own, Alison didn’t get the success. So it was unfinished business in a way.”
Why the reformation? I’m guessing with the size of the band, it’s not just to cash in on past success.
“It’s not for the money, that’s for sure! Some of us wanted to continue, and weren’t ready to call it a day. Money’s tight in certain respects, but it’s not about that.”
As well as Dave and Ali, other mainstays from the original touring band included keyboard player Damon Butcher and horn section Gaz Birtles and Tony Robinson.
Sweet Refrains gives a great indication of what to expect live from The South – not least stand-out tracks like Pigeonhole, Windows, If I Laugh and Thank You.
“We’ve always toured with a big brass section, and they certainly get a good go on this record and add a bit of oomph live.
“Besides, they’ve been with us 20 years as a touring band.
“I’m proud of the new album, not least because we’ve had to do it all ourselves, with no record company.
“We had to find the finance, doing it all from day one, including the artwork, things that used to be taken care of but we now have to knuckle down and do ourselves.
“It was quite a struggle to get it out there. The record business is unrecognisable these days. I preferred it back then, but obviously I’m just an old fogey.”
Will there be lots of the old hits too when the band play Preston’s 53 Degrees?
“Yes. We don’t over-do the new material, as people who come and see us want to hear the songs they know, and we’re happy to play them.
“I’ve never been a fan of bands just playing songs from their new album. That’s a bit unfair. You need to get into an album before you hear the songs live.
“We’ll probably do three or four new songs, and others from the back catalogue.”
What a back catalogue, too, from their No.1 A Little Time – originally a duet between Dave and Briana – to fellow big hits like Perfect Ten, Rotterdam, Don’t Marry Her, You Keep It All In, Old Red Eyes Is Back, and much more.
This is after all a band whose greatest hits album, Carry On Up The Charts, was one of the fastest-selling LPs in UK history, entering at No.1 and staying there for weeks.
All in all, they released 10 studio albums, five hits compilations and 34 chart singles. So is there anything they refuse to play?
“Not really. Some work better than others, so if they’re not working too well, we give them the heave-ho, but we’re capable of playing any of them.”
Dave saw success with The Housemartins before joining Paul in The Beautiful South, having taken over drumming duties in early 1987 from old schoolmate Hugh Whittaker, who recommended him.
He was first tipped off by the band’s roadie Dave Rotheray, later a fellow Beautiful South founder member. Does he still remember the day he got that call?
“Yes. That sort of moment does stick with you, although it was such a long time ago.
“I was in a band in Hull with Dave Rotheray, The Velvetones, came home for my tea on Thursday night, and was watching Mission Impossible when he called.
“Dave said The Housemartins’ guitarist Stan Cullimore was going to ring me, because Hugh was leaving and they wanted me to join. It just sounded like a joke.
“I had to check it wasn’t April 1st. I’d never spoken to Stan before, and had no idea Hugh was contemplating leaving.
“They’d just had their first number one with Caravan of Love. So I thought ‘why would you leave?’ It was all a bit surreal.
“I didn’t really believe him. I just said ‘OK, Dave. Fair enough. See you later, mate.’ I put the phone down. Then 10 minutes later, sure enough, Stan rang.”
Dave clearly proved a success, and by that Christmas was sharing vocals with Paul on top-20 hit, Build. But he wasn’t so sure at first.
“The job I had, working in an office, was fine and I was with good people, but always wanted to be a musician.
“You can want it all you like but you’re never going to actually be able to make a living out of it and do it full time. Things like that happen few and far between.
“But when the chance came, it wasn’t a wrench to leave my job.”
Dave, who left Hull 20 years ago, had to lock himself away and do his homework first though, learning all the songs.
“I was told I was in, and was given a tape of new songs like Me and the Farmer and told to go away and learn them.
“I locked myself away with a Walkman. That dates it, doesn’t it?”
“The trouble was that The Velvetones were more like a jazz band really, so I was playing slower stuff. Playing songs like Happy Hour, more 100mph, I was struggling. For a good while I was thinking I’d packed my job in and couldn’t play this stuff – it was too fast for me. But I stuck at it and worked hard.
“In the end, I was playing too fast, so Norman (Cook) had to tell me to slow down!”
The Housemartins made one more album before splitting, Stan in time becoming a children’s writer, while Norman found success with Beats International then later as Fatboy Slim.
Meanwhile, Paul started a new band, and asked Dave and his namesake from The Velvetones to join him.
And this time he didn’t want Dave H tucked away on drums, telling everyone what a great voice he had and that he should join him on vocals.
“Well, it was nice for him to say so, but it was never my idea and I didn’t know he had that in mind at all.
“When I was asked to join The Beautiful South, I assumed it was just as the drummer. But then he said, I just want you to sing, which was alien to me.
“I was alright as a drummer, I was safe behind the kit. Being out front’s a different matter.”
Dave, based in Crewe for the last decade, and now with children aged 20 and 18, was clearly up to the task, vocal-wise, but never really saw himself as a natural leader.
From around 1994 he took more of a back seat role again – adding backing vocals to Paul and Jacqui, happy to be ‘Robin to Paul’s Batman’.
Has that aversion to being a front-man changed, 25 years on?
“I’m more comfortable with it now, but that doesn’t mean I’m comfortable with it – just more than I used to be!
“It’s still a challenge sometimes, albeit not one I always rise to. I’ve never been one for bigging myself up, being up on stage, saying ‘look at me’.
“As I get older I think it’s even harder to have that attitude. It’s more ‘don’t look at me – look at someone else!’ You have all these doubts … well, I do, anyway.”
Has Dave got largely good memories of his days with The Housemartins and The Beautiful South?
“It was a marvellous time, which I’ll never ever forget, and I’m always proud to be a part of that. Hopefully we can now enjoy what we’re doing at the moment, and see where that goes.”
For more details about The South, head to http://www.thesouth.co.uk. And for tickets for their 53 Degrees show on May 3, go to http://www.53degrees.net/.