FEATURE: To Wit, To Woo: Why Modern Songwriters Can Learn a Lot from the Old Masters




To Wit, To Woo


IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images 

Why Modern Songwriters Can Learn a Lot from the Old Masters


MAYBE this is a generational thing…


IN THIS PHOTO: Jacqui Abbott and Paul Heaton/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

but I tend to find there are fewer and fewer songwriters who are providing something human and interesting in their lyrics. I know a lot of songwriters are putting their relationships and personal concerns into the mix but how often does one see relationships portrayed in a very real way? By that, I mean the suburban houses and silly arguments; throwing wit into things and having two-hander songs?! It seems there is a distinct formula for artists in regards relationship dramas or songs in general. Before I come to my point; this piece has been inspired by an album of Paul Heaton-penned songs, The Last King of Pop. The Housemartins and Beautiful South lead is currently working/touring with Jacqui Abbott (The Beautiful South) and the former bandmates have released successful albums together. This article gives details regarding the album:

One of the UK’s most prolifically gifted songwriters Paul Heaton will release a career spanning album on 16 November 2018 on the Virgin EMI label.  Entitled The Last King Of Pop it will feature 23 of the finest songs from throughout Paul’s extraordinary music career, including hits from his days in the Housemartins, through his time in the multi-platinum pop co-operative The Beautiful South, his solo years, and up to the present day in his long-standing collaboration with former Beautiful South singer Jacqui Abbott.

From the Housemartins’ glorious 1985 debut single ‘Flag Day’ to the Beautiful South’s chart dominating pop standards ‘Don’t Marry Her’, ‘Rotterdam’ and ‘Perfect 10’ through to last year’s Heaton & Abbott smash hit ‘I Gotta Praise’ they’re all present and correct….and there’s also room for a 2018 re-record by Paul and Jacqui of the Beautiful South classic ‘A Little Time’, and a brand new song, a deliciously infectious ska-pop paean to a lifetime of jukebox dancing and pop music obsession entitled ‘7”Singles’...


PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

To celebrate the release of ‘The Last King of Pop’, Heaton and Abbott will play 3 very special live shows at London’s Royal Albert Hall, Sheffield City Hall and Blackpool Empress Ballroom at the end of November where they will perform the album in full.

The dates are as follows:

24 November: Blackpool, Empress Ballroom
26 November:  Sheffield, City Hall
28 November: London, Royal Albert Hall

The Beautiful South went through different incarnations and saw three different female singers come through. Abbott is, to me, the female voice of The Beautiful South and the perfect foil to Heaton. Someone who can throw back some wit and spike but perfectly blend in harmony when needed. The band was seen, by some, as middle of the road. Not quite as cool as a lot of the best 1990s/2000s bands and never the funkiest outfit, for sure. The fact the band would often appear at gigs in coats and project a rather middle-aged image, from the start, market them as a ‘guilty pleasure’.

I feel this is wrong. Maybe the songs were not as hook-laden and anthemic as a lot of the stuff coming through but, from the first album (Welcome to the Beautiful South, 1989), there was this wit and incredible originality. Look at songs like You Keep It All In and this repressed scene of domestic tension. Song for Whoever is as flippant as the title suggests: Heaton earning money and chart success from the tears of his various lovers – the more they cry, the wetter his pen becomes with ambition. Some critics labelled Heaton and the band as being caustic and grumpy but many could not get their head around the ordinariness and revelation of the lyrics. Every line was real and talked of a world, a working-class one, that was not being projected that much. In 2018, you do not see many songwriters pen the same sort of songs as Paul Heaton. Love songs tend to be quite ordinary and you are not often taken too far away from the predictable scenes. It is not only the lyrics that strikes me but the make-up of The Beautiful South. Three vocalists (Paul Heaton, Dave Hemmingway and Briana Corrigan/Jacqui Abbott/Alison Wheeler) and songs that would literally present a conversation. Heaton never writes about women in a sexist or unknowing way and is unafraid to write songs with arguing lovers or a couple that slyly jab at the other. I am not going to give a complete history of the band but what they stood for – in terms of lyrics and the sort of wit you got – was amazing. It is a shame they split but I am glad Heaton and Abbott are still performing together.


 IN THIS PHOTO: Prefab Sprout’s Paddy McAloon (1985)/PHOTO CREDIT: © Michael Putland

Look back a bit further and songwriters like Paddy McAloon spring to mind. The leader of Prefab Sprout, the last album was back in 2013 (Crimson/Red). Paddy and his brother Martin are the only remaining members from the original line-up but McAloon, as a songwriter, has few equals. From 1984, with their Swoon debut, the band was being highlighted for their exceptional songwriter and sound. At the heart of the mix were McAloon’s words. Maybe some of the early material features too much juxtaposition and it is a bit stuffed but, in terms of language and wit; nobody in that era seemed to have the same muscle and intelligence as McAloon. Perhaps The Smiths’ Morrissey – the third northern writer I am mentioning – could match that blend of wit, tragedy and florid language but from Two Wheels Good (the U.S.)/Steve McQueen (the rest of the world), critics were taking note of this unique and talented writer. AllMusic, writing retrospectively, provided their thoughts on the album:

Smart, sophisticated and timelessly stylish, Two Wheels Good (titled Steve McQueen throughout the rest of the world) is a minor classic, a shimmering jazz-pop masterpiece sparked by Paddy McAloon'switty and inventive songwriting. McAloon is a wickedly cavalier composer, his songs exploring human weaknesses like regret ("Bonny"), lust ("Appetite") and infidelity ("Horsin' Around") with cynical insight and sarcastic flair; he's also remarkably adaptable, easily switching gears from the faux-country of "Faron" to the stately pop grace of "Moving the River." At times, perhaps, his pretensions get the better of him (as on "Desire As"), while at other times his lyrics are perhaps too trenchant for their own good; at those moments, however, what keeps Two Wheels Good afloat is Thomas Dolby's lush production, which makes even the loftiest and most biting moments as easily palatable as the airiest adult-contemporary confection”.


My first taste of Prefab Sprout was The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Taken from their third album, From Langley Park to Memphis; it is seen as the band’s biggest track but many critics felt it was too commercial and not as sharp as earlier songs. Cars and Girls is a Bruce Springsteen pastiche (taking away the romance of the road and girls) whilst The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll is about a faded and deluded singer who thinks he is all that. When Jordan: The Comeback arrived in 1992 – following the odd bump in the road – critics raved and this was seen as an album that could break America. Entertainment Weekly, in this review, look at the contrasts and complexities of McAloon’s words:

With few exceptions, highbrow pop music-making is a commercially treacherous occupation. Nonetheless, Newcastle’s Prefab Sprout — something of a British answer to Steely Dan — has done quite nicely, purveying evanescent music and frequently loopy subject matter. With Jordan: The Comeback, the quartet is poised to reach a wide American audience as well.

For all their fascinating intelligence, McAloon’s ironic lyrics can be difficult to pin down. Following the whimsical conception of ”Looking for Atlantis,” the arch iconography of ”Jesse James Symphony,” and the Presleyesque content of the beautiful title song (and others: Elvis is one of the album’s thematic threads), it’s hard to resist searching the sincere sentiments of ”All the World Loves Love” for a subtext that isn’t there”.


IN THIS PHOTO: Morrissey (1984)/PHOTO CREDIT: Nick Knight for The Face

I have mentioned a couple of songwriter and tipped a nod to Morrissey – and maybe there is a geographical element. The last lyricist to put a new spin on love and regular life was Alex Turner. The Arctic Monkeys’ frontman has been weaving exceptional rhymes and visions since the band’s debut album back in 2006. Like the aforementioned; Turner was looking around everyday life and scenes that he was walking through and putting them into music. Perhaps these northern writers have a very different experience to the predominantly southern/American writers who are dominating the charts now. There are some special and fascinating songwriters who can take life’s ordinary sides and make them shine but, for the most part, they are away from the mainstream. I keep getting review requests from people and, largely, the songs are about heartbreak or some sort of change. The most depressive part is the same synopsis and pitch. All the songs seem to be saying the same thing and said in the same manner. It seems there is this formula and restrictive mind-set from writers; they get caught in a loop and their language can be very narrow. I have mentioned male names but look at female songwriters such as Patti Smith and Joni Mitchell and they have created incredible songs that are so different to anything around them.

It is dangerous replicating songwriters and looking back too much but there are lessons that can be learned. As music is becoming sadder, slower and more repetitive; are we just accepting this format and accepting music that is pretty brief and familiar? Those artists who break habits and producing something stunning are fewer and rare and I feel a lot of wit and freshness has been lost from music. I always love discovering a songwriter who can make me smile or tackles life from a different side. I am not saying every song needs to sparkle with its language and wit but I think we are all starting to get lazy. The quality of my writing, I feel, could be better and too much time on social media and conversing in a very electronic way means we are not as together and fluent as we used to be. I am scaling my interviews right back because of the standard of written response and writing less (from next year) as I am making silly errors. My need to move into the radio/audio side of things is the result and does songwriting have the same problem? My biggest problem with music today is the rather unengaging and unmemorable lyrics. This does not apply to everyone but I feel a lot of artists are more interested in sound and production rather than standout lines.


 PHOTO CREDIT: @neonbrand/Unsplash

One gets bored hearing the same sort of lyrics and the clichés pour; the hyperbole, strain and unengaging words pounding in the ear. Maybe there were faults and flaws when we look at those songwriters such as Heaton, McAloon and Morrissey – not to forget the likes of Patti Smith – and maybe it is a generational shift. I think their upbringing was more humble than a lot of their peers so their perspective was not the same. Maybe too many modern artists have that comfort and, if they are struggling, anger is replacing the charm and foibles of their setting. It might tie into a piece I wrote recently about the fun escaping music and I think lyrics as a whole are getting more predictable and boring. I would prefer to hear something sarcastic and snide – two lovers poking one another – and see words beautifully crafted and contorted than the usual delivery of routine and predictability. We might have gone past that point where we can encourage this sort of change but I know there are songwriters out there who have not lost that sort of edge. There are plenty out there who are brilliant lyricists who can write in a very interesting way. They are being buried and lost in a rabble of plain and generic artists. Whilst I yearn for something uplifting with a hint of the humorous; a bit of bitterness with a side order of domestic grumbling, let’s hope the current crop can take notes from those whose music...

WE are listening to decades after it first came out.