Paul Heaton is one of the UK ’s most successful singer-songwriters. He is now pursuing a solo career after enjoying success with The Housemartins and the Beautiful South. “The Point’s” Graeme McIver caught up with Paul on his recent tour to discuss politics, football, cycling, death threats and crisps!
Ever since the 1960’s, hotels have been synonymous with rock and roll excess. TV sets flung from windows, drunken, drug fuelled debauchery, late night parties, fights, overdoses and deaths have written some hotel names into rock legend. The Chelsea Hotel in New York , favourite haunt of Bob Dylan and scene of the death of Sid Vicious’s girlfriend Nancy Spungen joins the Joshua Tree Inn California where country-rock singer Gram Parsons breathed his last after consuming copious amounts of drugs and alcohol at the top of the list of famous rock and roll related establishments.
It would be fair to say that the Clovenfords Hotel, just outside Galashiels in the Scottish Borders does not have quite the same notoriety as either the Chelsea or The Tree. Nor is it likely anytime soon to be added to the list of major tour venues for a new generation of musicians and bands. Apart from the odd wedding combo and some traveling troubadours entertaining the locals it would be fair to say that groupies, NME journos and music industry types have not added the “Cloven” as it affectionately known to their list of must visit music haunts. In fact, the hotel’s only previous claim to fame was that it had a papier-mâché statue of Sir Walter Scott, famous author, arch Tory and sheriff of these parts outside the front door. Yet, on a cool spring evening in mid-May, the Cloven played host to one of the UK’s premier recording artists. A man who’s back catalogue often dominated the charts throughout the 80’s and 90’s and who’s greatest hits album with his band the Beautiful South was said to have found its way into one in every seven UK households. (Not bad for a group who once described themselves as “everyone’s second favourite band!”)
Paul Heaton could have been forgiven for arriving at this, or any other venue in the manner that artists who have sold millions of records are accustomed too. However, in typical contrary fashion Heaton has eschewed the trappings of fame and success and has cycled here, along with his support act Gus Devlin as part of a tour of small venues and pubs. In a summer of more high profile jubilee celebrations, Paul Heaton decided to cycle 2,500 miles – 50 miles for each year of his life, in a bid to support, “local boozers.” His 50/50 tour spanned 40 days and 33 shows from places as diverse as Salford to Ullapool and Derry to the South Coast of England.
The last time I witnessed Paul Heaton live in 1997, his band the Beautiful South played at the cavernous SECC in Glasgow in a tour that took in huge arenas the length and breadth of the country. On his latest sojourn the venues could not have been more different. The Thatch Inn, Tulamore, The Golden Fleece Inn, Tremadog and The Black Bull in Darvel join the Clovenfords Hotel in a sublimely eccentric list of intimate locations for Heaton to showcase his talent.
Prior to the gig he related to the local TV news that as with his Pumps and Pedals Tour in 2011 he wanted to support local pubs and small venues.
“I don’t like the way pubs are ruined” he explained before going onto talk about his purchase of the Kings Arms in Salford to save it from a big brewery chain that planned to rip the fixtures, fittings and heart out of a well loved local hostelry.
He also recognised that in smaller and rural communities across the country, music fans normally had to board coaches to go and see the bigger established acts. The 50/50 tour was a way to take his music to these people. He also gave a nod to the Green agenda by commenting that he was aware of the carbon footprint that a large touring party could leave. Cycling to each venue was his part in, “doing my bit for the environment.”
He probably was regretting his decision to cycle this leg of the tour however. Paul and Gus had set off from Newcastle to cover the 90 or so miles to Clovenfords unaware of the terrain of the Carter Bar and the Border Country. Centuries ago Border Reivers, steeled by whiskey traversed these hills on tough, resilient ponies. Had they had to negotiate the hills and valleys on racing bikes and in cycling shorts with only isotonic sports drinks to refresh them then the history of the Border Country might have been very different! Paul Heaton arrived on stage ten days after his 50th birthday looking weather beaten and tired but fit, healthy and pleased to be there. He spoke with genuine emotion about crossing the Border into Scotland and thanked the hotel staff who had ridden their own bikes to meet him and guide him and Gus to Clovenfords.
His set, in a marquee specially erected for the occasion in front of a crowd of 200 or so enthusiastic fans went down a storm. The song list included much of Heaton’s recent solo work from albums such as Acid Country in addition to some well loved hits from his past. Anyone hearing his earlier interview with the news crew might have feared they would be denied these golden oldies when he had stated, “I’m not a great one for nostalgia – I hate nostalgia.” Yet classics like Blackbird on a Wire and Dumb from his days in the Beautiful South joined Housemartins favourites such as We’re Not Deep, Build and Me and the Farmer as particular crowd pleasers.
He finished the set with a riotous harmonica fuelled version of the Clash’s White Man in Hammersmith Palais.
Clearly exhausted from the exertions of the show and his marathon peddle Heaton still took time out to talk to the crowd after the gig was completed. He patiently posed for the obligatory mobile phone photographs and chatted convivially in the bar with fans and locals alike. Even though he evidently wanted to get a chance to catch up with his family who had travelled up to Clovenfords he also very kindly agreed to a half hour interview with The Point, which I explained was a socialist online publication.
Paul Heaton has never hidden his socialism or left wing views. At the height of his commercial and critical success with the Beautiful South he insisted that the band was a co-operative with each member being paid the same. Criticism and controversy have followed him throughout his career. He appeared on the Daily Politics Show in 2008 arguing for the abolition of faith schools as he felt that they pulled children apart whilst after appearing on BBC’s Question Time he was quoted as saying;
Thanks to the lovely staff at the Cloven we were able to retire to the restaurant of the hotel for our chat speaking about another one of Heaton’s passions...football. Cheers and some boo’s from the bar area had earlier confirmed that Chelsea and their particular brand of defensive football had just won the Champions League Final in Munich whilst I was still buzzing from watching Hearts demolish our biggest rivals in the Scottish Cup Final that afternoon. A follower of Sheffield United Paul was lamenting the fact that he would not be able to see his beloved Blades in the League One play off final at Wembley later in the month as he would be cycling between Tobermory and Darvel. (They would go onto lose the game on penalties to Huddersfield !)
In the limited time available to me it was important to talk to Paul about his views on the current political situation but I would have liked to have discussed more about his lyrics and songwriting. Heaton has carved a particular niche for himself in popular music culture.
Writing earlier this month Laura Barton of the Guardian said;
With a refreshing pint in hand Paul settles into a chair and we start by discussing the similarities between the economic situation in the mid 80’s when the Housemartins emerged onto the national music scene and the UK in 2012 with growing poverty, unemployment and uncertainty. The band emerged from the East Yorkshire music scene, (they self deprecatingly referred to themselves at the time as the 4th best band in Hull) and achieved chart success and popularity with a raft of unashamedly political songs such as Flag Day and The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death whilst also providing more subtle social commentaries in compositions such as Think for a Minute, Happy Hour and We’re Not Deep. Even in the title of their debut album the Housemartins thumbed their noses at the southern based music industry and its executives. The back cover of London 0 Hull 4 contained the message, "Take Jesus - Take Marx - Take Hope". They were linked to Red Wedge, the group of musicians led by the likes of Billy Bragg and Paul Weller who wanted to enthuse young people to vote Labour in the 80’s and 90’s although as I was to find out, Paul had a particularly jaundiced view of that organisation.
I asked Paul did he feel than in the midst of these times of austerity and recession that contemporary acts could come through and achieve chart success whilst making music as explicitly political as the Housemartins?
PH: It depends if the framework is in place. By that I mean if there are the clubs and live venues. At the time the Housemartins started the Labour Party had things like trades and Labour clubs that put on loads of gigs. Lots of bands came up through that. Each town in England and it was probably the same in Scotland had a small club or venue that supported the smaller bands. If that framework is still in place then new bands and a political movement could emerge. It’s easy to be reactionary especially when your 50 and say kids aren’t writing about stuff like that these days. I don’t know about that. I know there is a lot of good young music. Plan B wrote some good stuff that was supportive of those involved in the (recent) riots. I got death threats on my Facebook page for stuff I said about that.
GMc: Death threats? Really?
PH: Yeh. I said that whatever damage the rioters do tonight or tomorrow night or whatever they will never do as much damage to our towns and cities as those men in suits and politicians. I got a hail of abuse but it’s true. What did Manchester or London lose that night? A few buildings? But look at what have those places lost since then such as thousands and thousands of pounds slashed from the NHS. I think that if there are socialist or political writers out there then they need leadership. By that I mean party leadership. Young kids need to sit down like I did back then listening to left wing political opinions on Question Time and linking those views to songs by the likes of the Clash or other songs played by the likes of John Peel. Right now, never mind the framework, there is no leadership from the likes of the Labour Party…but other parties could offer that.
GMc: The Labour Party at the time you first broke onto the music scene was a very different animal from the party we see today. Even if socialists argued over how radical or left wing the party was then it could not be denied that then it had genuine roots in working class communities, mass trade union membership, active branches and social clubs such as you referred too earlier. What do you think of the Labour Party now?
PH: Yeh, well the big clashes at the Labour conference used to be between the Parliamentary Labour Party and the Constituency Labour Party. Then the constituencies had a lot of power. Now it’s all about Miliband and the parliamentary party. They are the leaders. The vote does not go to the floor any more. What happened in our life time was that the Militant Tendency was replaced by the Miliband Tendency. I can argue with political opponents. I can argue with fascists or racists but I find it hard to argue with these people in suits. They are just drones.
During research prior to the interview I had come across a quote from the Liverpool Daily Post where Paul had said;
Expanding on that view I put it to Paul that many of the new generation of Labour’s elected representatives did not come from the trade union or industrial back grounds that the likes of Dennis Skinner had emerged from.
PH: I agree. In the book by Owen Jones, The Demonisation of the Working Class has quite rightly picked up on the total change in Labour’s parliamentary politicians. It would be an exaggeration to say that previously Labour politicians came from coal mines or steel works but there was at least a representation, maybe 20%, from those who had worked in industry in parliament. Now there’s nothing. There is no representation, there really isn’t. You would have to read Owen Jones’s book for the correct figure but I think the percentage of those who had been involved in finance and banking who are in the Conservative Party and in particular the Tory Party in Parliament is incredibly high. Add to this the number from public school. When the Housemartins started it felt like there was a great movement, like at the start of the Miners Strike, we felt we were part of a bigger movement and now I don’t think that the Labour Party offers that.
GMc: It seems Labour could be characterised as being content with saying, “vote for us - we are slightly less worse than the Tories. We’d have the same cuts but over a longer period.” They no longer seem to be discussing a radically different vision of society from their Tory counterparts.
PH: Politics has become an argument over who is better at running the economy. In fairness to Milliband I think he’s looked at it and said as Cameron shadow boxed Blair and Brown, so should I shadow box Cameron and just keep vaguely to the left of him. I do believe that in these times, good, strong, left wing leadership would go down incredibly well. People don’t want things like the NHS touched, the majority have a very old fashioned and good view of the NHS.
GMc: Do you think George Galloway’s recent by-election success in Bradford confirms your view that there is support out there for a strong left wing message?
PH: Yeh, on this tour I’ve been coming out with lots of left wing statements and getting an incredible amount of support from the audience. There is a temptation to think that if you make such statements that you’ll get abuse because people will be reactionary, but people aren’t reactionary. We now know that the idea of “Middle England ” was an absolute fallacy. The attention that Miliband and Cameron and Brown and Blair paid to Middle England was ridiculous as they were running scared of the opinion of “Express” readers. Opinions formed by public school boys employed by the Sun or the News of the World. Its public school boys forming these opinions. Three journalists I know who work at the Sun went to public school.
GMc: What are you views on the relationship between politicians and the press? Especially the Murdoch Press where politicians who once queued up to curry favour are now distancing themselves from his empire?
PH: There is a sinister relationship between the press and politics though. As I said in the way that Blair and Brown courted the readership of the Mail and Express and said what they thought those people wanted to hear. I think that was a political mistake.
When the Housemartins were asked to join Red Wedge, me and Stan from the band went along to one meeting. I asked, “do you want to nationalise the music industry?” and to a man, and I won’t name the names, but they were famous Red Wedge people, everyone of them said no. I just said, “right, you’ve not got our support” and walked out. Those same Red Wedgers, were the same people who were saying to me in 1997, just get Labour in and then they will go to the left and I said fuck that. So in 97, unusually for a socialist, I didn’t vote for Blair. I voted for Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party. It was a waste of a vote but I couldn’t bring myself to vote for New Labour. Maybe in certain areas you get a good Labour MP but in an area like I was, in Leeds in 97 and I was not going to vote for a be-suited moron. Now when I sit down with my daughters for a political debate, like my dad did with me, I look at the parties and think what’s the difference? My dad used to say when politicians came on the telly that you could tell the difference between Labour and Conservative, but now when you watch Question Time you can’t tell the difference.
GMc: Scotland differs from England in that there is an electoral alternative to the left of Labour here. Whilst clearly not a socialist party the SNP orientate themselves to the left of Labour on a number of issues. Also in previous elections the hard left, (at least until damaging splits) had performed well.
PH: Yeh they are. Under Salmond they are seen to be slightly left of centre.
GMc: What’s your view on the Independence question?
PH: As far as I’m concerned its Scotland ’s issue. It’s unbelievable Cameron coming in and telling Scots how they should vote.
What keeps me going is my connections with Scotland and the socialist vote there is here…If you do leave then don’t forget there’s still a few of us down England who are not all bad!
I have a big identity and always have, as a traveling musician with Scottish working class people. I’ve had some great debates and great talks. Even in Dundee once when faced up by some National Front kids, I wasn’t scared and felt I could talk to them. I was telling them about Sturmabteilung and the night of the long knives. These were just 6 or 7 Dundee skinheads into the NF or whatever and i just told them dont forget about what happened in the 30’s when Hitler used you skinheads, Ernst Röhm and his brownshirts, to get into power and then slit your fucking necks in one night. Once again run by public schoolboys. Look at the BNP and Nick Griffin…public schoolboy. The BNP don’t believe in income tax. They are a rich person’s party, not a workers party. The first people the BNP would get rid of would be those boot boys who got them into power.
And on that note its time to draw the interview to its logical conclusion. Having followed Paul’s career closely since the mid -80’s it was necessary to find out his view on one of the most important issues of the day…crisp collecting!
In a previous interview with the Metro, Paul had stated;
As I raise the subject he puts his face in his hands and laughs whilst admitting that he had started recollecting recently.
GMc: Is there a big underground crisp collector’s scene that we should know about?
“No, it’s just me and my brother,” he says laughing. He goes on with a glint in his eye…
PH: There’s some good little crisps happening! My brother bought me a nightmare of a present for my 50th, he bought me 50 different packets of crisps and we have to get through them all using a nerdy marking system like taste factor and wedge factor. (Paul goes on to explain that wedge factor is how many you can comfortably grasp between your fingers.)
The description of the marking system seems like a good place to stop the interview as, with time pressing on, we had gone full circle from Red Wedge to Wedge Factor. I leave Paul to pose for more photos and shake more hands before heading off to re-join his family. In the morning he and Gus would be starting early to peddle the miles to Pitlochry.
At 50 his passion for music, politics, football and…eh..crisps seem undiminished.
This will be a summer dominated by the pomp and circumstance of a nationwide Royal tour, where the Queen and her family travel to major cities in opulent comfort whilst the media subtly reinforce the message of subservience and class. It’s a refreshing antidote therefore to find Paul Heaton self-propelling himself between the nation’s small towns and villages whilst delivering a left wing message from the seat of a bicycle. To quote the final Housemartins album…Now that’s what I call Quite Good!
Too many Florence nightingales
Not enough robin hoods
Too many halos not enough heroes
Coming up with the goods
So you though you’d like to change the world
Decided to stage a jumble sale
For the poor, for the poor
It’s a waste of time if you know what they mean
Try shaking a box in front of the queen
’cause her purse is fat and bursting at the seams
It’s a waste of time if you know what they mean
Flag Day – Paul Heaton
Photos courtesy of http://paulheatonmusic.co.uk/