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The 11 best Paul Heaton songs

Why have a top 10 when you can have one more? We pick our 11 favourite songs by Yorkshire's finest, Paul Heaton

Nobody writes a pop song quite like Paul Heaton. Across a remarkable career with The Housemartins, The Beautiful South, solo and alongside Jacqui Abbott, Heaton has been fiery, cynical, witty, charming, whip-smart and always on the side of the downtrodden and oppressed. Not your average hitmaker, but Heaton’s track record – from ‘Caravan Of Love’ to ‘A Little Time’ – is astounding, with seven Top 10 hits, including two No.1s.

You could fill this list with songs just from The Housemartins’ London 0 Hull 4, but that would ignore so many greats. And even with 11 spaces to fill, we’ve been forced to omit too many that deserved a mention, from ‘Build’ by The Housemartins to Heaton and Abbott’s ‘You And Me (Were Meant To Be Together)’. Painful decisions made, here are our 11 favourite songs by Paul Heaton.

11. Poems

(Paul Heaton – Fat Chance, 2002)
Draw the line at the end of The Beautiful South and you cut off two decades of brilliant songwriting. This low-key stunner from Heaton’s 2002 solo album stresses the importance of action, risk and seizing your chance. Quite appropriately, the lyrics are some of Heaton’s most overtly poetic and moving.

10. Old Red Eyes Is Back

(The Beautiful South – 0898, 1989)
Following on from the massive success of their debut album, 0898 solidified The Beautiful South’s reputation as the UK’s smartest pop band and Heaton and co-writer/guitarist David Rotheray as the country’s finest songwriters. This clever play on Sinatra’s ‘Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back’ replaces the debonair charmer with a wizened, hard-luck old alcoholic who can’t seem to tell if he’s drinking because he’s sad or he’s sad because he’s drinking.

9. Get Up Off Our Knees

(The Housemartins – London 0 Hull 4, 1986)
It’s not even remotely a slight on the rest of Heaton’s career to suggest that his first record is his best, not when that record is the tremendous London 0 Hull 4, Hull’s answer to Meat Is Murder. “Don’t shoot someone tomorrow that you can shoot today” is classic Heaton and that chorus is one hell of a good time.

8. You Keep It All In

(The Beautiful South – Welcome To The Beautiful South, 1989)
There’s no better introduction to the unrivalled wit of The Beautiful South than this bickering back and forth between Heaton, Dave Hemingway and Briana Corrigan. The band’s second big hit, it gave us the timeless classic line: “When all I wanted to do was knife you in the heart, I kept it all in”.

7. Caravan Of Love

(The Housemartins – Now That’s What I Call Quite Good, 1988)
We don’t generally include covers in these lists but this is where rules are made to be broken. There’s no denying the brilliance of The Housemartins’ cover of Isley-Jasper-Isley’s ‘Caravan Of Love’, stripping away the cheesy 80s flourishes and turning it into a powerful a cappella hymn of strength. It’s barely the same song.

6. I’ll Sail This Ship Alone

(The Beautiful South – Welcome To The Beautiful South, 1989)
Some songs sound like classics the first time you hear them. From the title to its Merseybeat arrangement to its eternally lonely message, ‘I’ll Sail This Ship Alone’ feels like something that’s always been there. But this is no defiant song of solitary strength, rather a shrugging defeat that veers into something much more macabre by the final verse. Hopeless resignation has never sounded so unnervingly romantic.

5. Me And The Farmer

(The Housemartins – The People Who Grinned Themselves To Death, 1987)
Heaton has always been a considerate, compassionate man, from his donation to sacked Q Magazine staff to putting £1k behind the bar at 60 pubs to mark his 60th birthday. That sentiment is present in this rollicking socialist anthem from The Housemartins’ second album that bemoans the control and dominance of the 1%, represented here by a greedy farmer who has “ripped up fields, bullied flocks and worked his workers right around the clock”.

4. Flag Day

(The Housemartins – London 0 Hull 4, 1986)
Heaton has never sounded as furious as he does on ‘Flag Day’ not mincing a single word as he laments the lack of activism and commitment in those claiming to try and correct society’s ills. “Too many Florence Nightingales, not enough Robin Hoods, too many halos, not enough heroes.” Considering Hull’s struggles in the 70s and 80s, you can understand his anger.

3. Happy Hour

(The Housemartins – London 0 Hull 4, 1986)
The Housemartins had just been signed up for a Peel session and Heaton decided they needed more songs. Impatient to go and buy cakes, they dashed off ‘Happy Hour’ in 10 minutes, working from observations Heaton had made while working in an office in Surrey. Its giddy, hooky sugar rush has led its message to be widely misunderstood, a kind of Yorkshire ‘Born In The USA’.

2. Over There

(The Housemartins – London 0 Hull 4, 1986)
If you’d only heard ‘Caravan Of Love’ and Blue Is The Colour, it might be a surprise that Heaton and The Housemartins were once considered Yorkshire’s answer to The Smiths. A few bars of ‘Over There’ is all it takes for the comparison to make sense. Heaton beautifully articulates the rage and frustration at the uncrossable social divide, the invisible fence that “turns one into two”. That he does it over the best in jangly 80s indie just makes the message even more compelling.

1. Song For Whoever

(The Beautiful South – Welcome To The Beautiful South, 1989)
It’s hard to know exactly when the penny dropped with ‘Song For Whoever’, which is what makes the joke so effective. It sounds so romantic. Hemingway and Heaton sing like such lovesick fools that it clouds the lyrics and the meaning enough to dupe the listener into thinking it’s all so genuine, until you eventually realise that it’s about a guy mining romantic misery for a hit single. It’s beyond clever and it’s a truly beautiful song. Maybe even perfect.

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