Break-up songs: Song For Whoever by The Beautiful South

Jennifer. Alison. Phillipa. Sue. Deborah. Annabel, too. And Cathy and Mary and Shirley and Julie. Song For Whoever co-writers Paul Heaton and David Rotheray must’ve been unlikely lotharios. Sure, they weren’t bad looking lads (although Heaton’s dancing ability suggested that he had no left feet), and their musical ability mixed with wry sense of humour must’ve helped with the ladies, but that’s quite a remarkable list of conquests for two men who wouldn’t stand-out from the usual suspects who are featured on Crimewatch. Indeed, there were so many that they admit that they can’t even remember all of their names.

Is Song For Whoever a satirical dig at the countless songwriters who made a living by doing little more than randomly working the words love, baby, cry, tears, sad, alone and together around a melodramatic middle-eight and a “tasteful” saxamaphone solo? It would certainly seem so given the depths of inspiration of which they speak (“I love you from the bottom of my pencil case” evolves into “I love you until my fountain pen runs dry”).

Or were Heaton and Rotheray sending a “Hey, look at me now I’m successful!” telegram to their ex-girlfriends who doubtless dumped them for mindless macho men or those with careers somewhat steadier than that of a promising young musician? If so, the meta-levels of irony that inevitably weave both theories together (“the number one I hope to reap”) are too overwhelming to fully comprehend.

It doesn’t really matter, for the desired result – “PRS cheques” – have been arriving for the  deceitful duo on a quarterly basis for approximately twenty-five years. Well, they’re probably transfered directly to their business accounts these days but that’s almost beside the point. As is the dwindling value of such payments in these post-record store times. But Song For Whoever set a chain in motion in which the Beautiful South’s often scathing, cynical songs effectively became a licence to print money for almost two decades.

At the height of their popularity, it was said that one in seven households owned a Beautiful South album – a fact that would actually makes sense in terms of their sales figures. 1989 was a long time ago and that statistic is surely no longer true. A quick straw poll, however, suggests a presence in approximately 99% of London’s charity shops. If the songwriter’s cliche that you never know that you’re writing a hit is true, Heaton and Rotheray couldn’t have predicted that most of their work would end up being priced at 99p and filed between Natalie Imbruglia’s Left of the Middle album and FIFA Soccer 96 for the original PlayStation.

Song For Whoever should’ve killed the break-up song cold dead. If you achieve major success by satirising an entire genre while still sounding much like what you’re targeting AND do it with an entirely straight-face AND make decent money out of it, there really should be no way that the blander competition should ever been taken seriously again. Just like the fakery of glam metal was killed by the real emotions (man) of grunge. Just like the musical excess of prog was pushed underground by punk. But grunge effectively became the new radio rock, as subsequent generations of bands degenerated into dull music played by dull people for dull audiences. Punk stepped back from a dangerous, volatile thrill to the most hackneyed, packaged rebellion in music.

And that, in essence, is the exact spirit of Song For Whoever. Whatever promise may await, whether it’s in romance or music, seperation or selling-out is the end result; an outcome that’s as crushingly certain as death and taxes.

Break-up tip: feverishly document your emotional turmoil. There might be money in it one day. To be honest, there probably won’t be, because talented people make money, and wealthy talented people don’t tend to get dumped. Sucks to be you, eh?


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