The Beautiful South's 'Old Red Eyes Is Back': Write about what you know [January 19, 1992]
Plus: Genesis, Des'ree, Diana Ross, Carter USM and Lou Reed
Welcome to the week of January 19, 1992, where the Top 5 looks like this:
↑ ‘Goodnight Girl’ - Wet Wet Wet
↓ ‘Bohemian Rhapsody/Those Were The Days Of Our Lives’ — Queen
↓ ‘Everybody in the Place’ — The Prodigy
↑ ‘God Gave Rock and Roll to You II’ — Kiss
(New) ‘Give Me Just a Little More Time’ — Kylie Minogue
We’ll be exploring some of the Top 40 and listening to our Album of the Week, but first, let’s listen to…
This week’s Number 22: ‘Old Red Eyes Is Back’ — The Beautiful South
There’s a moment in the recent Netflix musical tick, tick…BOOM! where playwright Jonathan Larson is on the phone with his agent. He’s just showcased his debut musical, a sci-fi rock opera based on Nineteen Eighty-Four. The showcase was a flop and nobody wants to produce it.
Larson’s agent gives him this advice: “next time, write about what you know.”
But all Johnathan Larson knew was being a broke, struggling writer in a shitty Brooklyn apartment, surrounded by friends dying of AIDS.
So, we wrote what he knew. The result was Rent, which went on to become the biggest musical of the 90s.
“Write what you know” is hideously painful advice, because life is generally quite boring, even for writers (especially for writers).
Last week, we talked about how pop lyrics usually focus on common themes, such as falling in love. Lyricists fall back on these tropes because they’re easy. Every lyric writer knows what it’s like to have a crush. So does every pop song listener.
The first Beautiful South single, ‘Song For Whoever’, makes fun of this cliché by being a boilerplate love song about no one in particular.
When you first hear ‘Song For Whoever’ on the radio, it sounds convincing enough. The melody is sweet, the vocals are sincere, and it seems genuinely romantive, even if Paul Heaton can’t quite remember to whom he’s singing (“Jennifer, Alison, Phillipa, Sue, Deborah, Annabel, too/I forget your name”)
But it’s actually a cynical joke about writers who turn out tacky love songs. He loves these girls for “the PRS [Performing Rights Society] cheques you bring” and “the Number Ones I hope to reap”.
Heaton is part of a long tradition of acerbic British songwriters, from Noel Coward to Morrissey to Jarvis Cocker. One of the things that makes him different, however, is his unerring instinct for a radio-friendly pop melody. His first band, The Housemartins, combined Christianity, Marxism and jangly guitars to produce Top 10 hits like ‘Happy Hour’ and ‘Caravan Of Love’
Heaton then went on to form The Beautiful South, who shot to Number One in 1990 with ‘A Little Time’, a little two-person drama about a relationship falling apart:
It’s a pleasant, jazzy song with a lovely dynamic between the male and female vocals. You almost don’t notice that it’s a close study of narcissism and toxic relationships
That’s the Paul Heaton method. In much the same way that you get a dog to take a pill by wrapping it in bacon, Heaton wraps his bittersweet stories in glossy tunes that sound good on FM radio.
Maybe the most striking example of this is ‘Old Red Eyes is Back’, a catchy number about a man drinking himself to death.
Our main character in the song is Old Red Eyes, an alcoholic who has watched his entire life slip away. Now, he sits in bars ordering one more round, despite warnings from his doctor that his next drink could kill him.
Heaton has struggled with alcohol throughout his life. So have many of the people around him. The 90s were an insane time for drink culture, a moment when near-suicidal alcohol consumption was celebrated as legendary good fun. Heaton’s old bandmate, Norman Cook (aka Fatboy Slim), almost drank himself to death in the 00’s, which inspired Heaton to finally give up the booze.
Write what you know.
Personally, I used to know an Old Red Eyes and I have seen him drink himself to death.
I used to tend bar in a town filled with alcoholics. There was a German guy who was notorious for being a heavy boozer, even by local standards.
His liver finally gave out. The doctors refused to replace it because they knew that he would continue drinking. His family, his friends, the whole town all protested and lobbied against the decision, collectively swearing that they would help him kick the bottle. Eventually, the health service relented and gave him the life-saving transplant.
The guy kept drinking. I hear he went straight from the hospital to the nearest bar.
I first met him after the transplant, after everyone had given up all hope for him, when he was into his final months on earth.
I shivered every time I saw him. He looked like Frankenstein: tall, shuffling, black eyes, matted hair. His skin was this nightmarish pale green. Quite literally a dead man walking.
I only served him once. A small beer in the afternoon. It felt like assisting a suicide.
This is my truth. This is what I know. And I could never find a way to turn that into a jaunty pop song, even if you gave me a million years to work on it.
That’s the essence of Paul Heaton’s genius. Writing what you know is only half the battle. Great artists show us the mundane in a way we’ve never seen before.
And you know what? ‘Old Red Eyes’ isn’t even the catchiest song that Heaton wrote about alcohol abuse! That award goes to the 1986 Housemartins track, ‘Happy Hour’:
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Elsewhere in the charts
Number 7 (↑ from 10): ‘I Can’t Dance’ — Genesis
This video was a big success because it poked fun at some of the most well-known Levis commercials of recent years (we talked about those ads in last year’s post about The Clash), with Phil Collins filling in for various male models.
It’s a fun concept and it’s done well, although Foo Fighters did it better when they parodied Mentos ads in their ‘Big Me’ video.
But here’s the thing: the whole joke of the video is that an attractive woman would never associate with Phil Collins. The premise because we all understand and agree. We all grew up knowing three things about Phil Collins: that he is an okay singer, a great drummer, and entirely unfuckable.
So it was a big surprise when his daughter turned out to be one of the most beautiful women in the world. I still cannot get my head around the idea of these two being related
Number 13 (↑ from 16): ‘Feel So High’ — Des’ree
The 90s were riddled with Lite Soul, a kind of inoffensive mash that existed entirely to play in supermarkets and while you were on hold to the tax office. This music wasn’t necessarily bad, just extremely bland and samey.
Which is a shame, because it swallowed up some very talented people. Des’ree, for example, kind of got lumped into this genre, despite being a pretty great soul singer. On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is The Lighthouse Family and 10 is Gabrielle, Des’ree at least an 8.
The production on ‘Feel So High’ is very glossy and middle-of-the-road, but her delivery is charming and charismatic enough to make it worth another listen.
Number 18 (↓ from 13): ‘When You Tell Me That You Love Me’ — Diana Ross
Ms. Ross later went on to re-record this song with support from Westlife. Punishment for missing that penalty, no doubt. Should have belted it down the middle, Diana.
Number 24 (↓ from 11): ‘Roobarb and Custard’ — Shaft
Probably the second-best Kiddy Rave song after The Prodigy’s ‘Charly’. Roobarb and Custard had a bitching electronic theme tune, which is deftly worked into this classic bit of rave.
Number 36 (↓ from 17): ‘Rubbish’ — Carter USM
This is a rerelease of a 1990 single, which is an odd choice as Carter USM had a new album coming out a few months later.
Anyway, the funny thing about this song is that it contains a sample of John Peel speaking. Peel hated Carter USM and never played their records. Were they trying to butter him up? If so, it failed. He continued to not play their records for the rest of his life.
Album of the Week
Magic and Loss — Lou Reed
By 1992, many of the first generation of rock’n’roll icons were dead. Elvis died in ‘77. John Lennon was shot and killed in 1980. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Buddy Holly, Jim Morrison—all gone.
For the ones who survived, an even worse fate awaited.
1992 saw Lou Reed turning 50, by which point he had already had two careers. First as the enigmatic lead singer of The Velvet Underground, a band that revolutionised art rock with a little help from Andy Warhol (Warhol died in 1987). Later, he became a mainstream solo star with the album Transformer, produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson (Ronson died in 1993).
Magic and Loss is a stark record, bare as a hospital waiting room, that talks about this moment in life, when all your friends are dying and you’re not sure why the universe has decided that you should stick around.
This is Reed at his most humane, humble and vulnerable as he’s ever been. Describing a friend’s funeral in ‘Goodby Mass’, he sings, “Trying hard to listen to your friends who have come/Some of them are famous and some are just like me.” Visiting a terminally ill friend in ‘No Chance’, he thinks “I see you in the hospital, your humor is intact/I’m embarrassed by the strength I seem to lack”
But it’s not all grim. Magic and Loss is also a record about friendship and love, expressed in the jaunty surrealism of tracks like ‘No Good’ (“What good is a computerized nose?”) as well as the haunting beauty of ‘Dreamin’, probably the sweetest ballad ever written about a visit to the cancer ward.
Magic and Loss ends up being one of the most focused albums of Reed’s solo career, as the big man faces up to something much bigger than him. “There's a bit of magic in everything,” he sings in the album’s closer, “and then some loss to even things out.”
A bit more upbeat next week, as we talk about Kylie in a transitional moment of her career.