Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
Paul Heaton
Nine Songs
Paul Heaton

The singer/songwriter and national treasure talks Ed Nash through his favourite songs, an ongoing love of making his own chart lists and his lifelong fascination with music.

02 December 2022, 08:00 | Words by Ed Nash

Whilst there’s certainly a case to be made for crowning Paul Heaton the nicest person in pop music, he’d run away for the contest of being the least interested in money.

To celebrate his 60th birthday this year, instead of a planned bicycle tour where Heaton had planned to play shows at 60 pubs across the UK, he instead decided to give each pub £1,000 to buy their customers a drink.

It’s not the first time Heaton has made a decision that seemingly flew in the face of commercial gain. When he rose to fame in the ‘80s with The Housemartins - the self-proclaimed “fourth best band in Hull” - despite their evergreen top ten hits and a number one single with “Caravan of Love”, they called it a day after two albums. Heaton went onto form The Beautiful South, whose Carry On Up the Charts was reportedly owned by one in seven households in the UK. Never one to rest on his laurels, after The Beautiful South ended, he initially worked as a solo artist, before reuniting with Jacqui Abbott, his former Beautiful South singing partner.

This year’s N.K-Pop - a wonderful reminder of Heaton’s power as a lyricist as well as his and Abbot’s jaw-dropping singing - is their second record to hit the Number One in the UK charts, following 2018’s Manchester Calling. It also sees the pair playing the biggest shows to date, but in keeping with his views on money, Heaton went against the tide of post-lockdown rising concert ticket prices and made the fan friendly decision to cap tickets at £30.

When I ask him about the prospect of playing London’s cavernous O2, he deadpans, “It’s a bit big. I’ve had three cracks at being successful now, and this is the first time I've been in this position. There was The Housemartins and The Beautiful South, but I don’t think the place was built then, so I should be very grateful. I just write the songs, arrange them, sing them and raise the flag and see who salutes.”

Heaton has always been a prodigious list maker and has compiled his own monthly version of the singles charts since 1978. “I’m a terrible list maker”, he tells me. “I've got them all written and copied up since 1980, so I’ve got two years which are on loose bits of paper. I’m going through a hundred and thirteen songs now that I've got to listen to this week.”

Heaton’s music inspiration for his monthly lists started by writing down songs he liked on the radio, and then pub jukeboxes, where he’d note down songs that caught his ear. “After the pub it was John Peel, then Brian Matthew’s Round Midnight. I’d listen to Truckers Hour between 1 and 2am and then You and the Night and the Music. That went up to about three or four o'clock and then I’d go to sleep. I'm not a big drinker and I don't go to clubs, so I have to research it now. I have to go digging for new bands.”

Heaton’s current lists involve listening to all the new releases of Soul, R&B, Reggae, Hip Hop and Country on iTunes. “Then I run through Spotify September 2022, I listen to them for a few days, move them onto a list and then onto a “Super 20” list. I'll hopefully get about five songs for that week, and that will go into making the months top 20.”

His daughters are an additional source of inspiration for his lists. “They’re into Drum and Bass, which I also like, and a lot of dance stuff. They play me stuff which gets into the charts and it’s gradually getting slightly easier with making the lists.” On his ambitions for his beloved lists, Heaton references the narrative of a classic episode The Simpsons, Moe Goes from Rags to Riches.

“I want it to be like the tapestry in The Simpsons, the one that gets torn up by the dog. I want my youngest daughter to take it over and fir it to carry on going through the family.”

His love of music was passed on by his mum, who would take him to concerts in his teens. “The first person I saw onstage was Brook Benton when I was 14, who was supporting The Stylistics. They were the first two artists that I saw, which is quite unusual. My Mum used to drag me along to these concerts and I’d say, “Who is it?” and it would be Earth, Wind and Fire or Frankie Valli.” By the age of 18 he’d seen Stevie Wonder and The Four Tops. “I was going to a lot of Punk and Blues gigs. I saw Memphis Slim in South London in a tiny little pub, Otis Rush, loads of people. So that was the background to liking this more rootsy and obscure music.”

Heaton says he made his Nine Songs selections quickly, going with a gut feel rather than agonising over his choices, and after an hour talking about them, it’s easy to see why. Each song tells a story of a time in his life - whether that was stealing 7” singles from record shops, crate-digging in charity shops or a song that was played at his wedding - but collectively, they ladder up to a broader story, that of being an insatiable fan of the possibilities of music.

“I like talking about other people’s music, it’s when I talk about mine that it gets a bit edgy!”

“Grandma, Grandpa” by Owen Gray

I was living in Surrey at a formative age when punk happened. I loved it, but going against the grain - as I always did, and I always will - as soon as it happened, I was looking for other stuff as well. There was a record shop in Croydon called Beanos that had all the punk singles, but upstairs there was a blind spot where you could pinch as many reggae and soul records as you liked.

In 1978 nobody was interested in records from ten years ago but they had all these decade old reggae singles, which I robbed and robbed, and quite a few soul ones from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Amongst them was lots of Blue Beat records, and I managed to thieve loads of those. I was listening to punk, but I was also listening to Blue Beat, Ska, and all the different genres of reggae, like Lovers Rock.

So I had this collection - a pinched collection unfortunately - and amongst it was Owen Gray and Chuck & Darby. Owen Gray sang with Millie Small and it was a weird mixture, a bit of Calypso instrument wise and an eight bar blues on piano, but I absolutely loved this Ska beat. I bought a trombone from a bloke I worked in an office with for 20 quid and I learned by playing along to these records. There was Chuck & Darby, Owen Gray, Folkes Brothers, Theo Beckford and lots of really wild, pretty out of tune solos on them and I tried to play along, I didn’t ever teach myself anything.

I didn't have the money to buy a lot of records at the time, but later on when it came to vinyl and CDs, I bought more Owen Gray records. “Grandma, Grandpa” would have been in my charts. I’d also started getting into Mod too, but I didn't want to buy the ordinary Mod stuff. This sounded cooler than that, and nobody else had it. It's a really good pop song.

“We Are Getting Careless with Our Love, Parts 1 & 2” by Reverend W. Leo Daniels

I have to confess; I used to collect sermons. I ended up with close to 20 of them on vinyl and I’ve still got them. I love to listen to them, some of them are quite hard work and some of them are very, very eccentric. It's quite a weird little collection I’ve got. I don’t go vinyl shopping much these days, but if I ever see one, I’ll definitely buy it.

There were some great ones - “Dead End Street” by W.T. Sneed, W.T. Bigelow, I've got a couple by Aretha Franklin's dad, C.L. Franklin. They're basically similar in that they start off with a story, and this is probably the best one. Leo Daniels is talking about an elderly woman on a train who was asked to get off because she hadn't paid her fare. I love the crescendo of the building up of it and how guttural he sounds, but it's important to listen to Parts One and Two, because it’s on Part Two when he starts getting going.

And as with all the sermons, he gradually comes into a tune with the church organ, then the choir, and the congregation begins singing along with him, and that's the shape all of them.

Norman had this one. I had a 7” single with a B-Side he desperately wanted to sample on one of his records, so I gave him that and he gave me “We Are Getting Careless With Our Love.” There’s been a few of my records that have ended up in his possession and on his records. There was a song I had by Taj Mahal that he sampled, I think it was one of his Beats International records and to listen to something like that and visualise it on record is an incredible talent.

BEST FIT: I remember a Housemartins documentary on Whistle Test, where Norman tried to teach you to DJ, before he became known as Fatboy Slim.

I did eventually learn to do it, but not that day. Me and Norman did a thing together at the end of The Housemartins where we sampled a sermon called “It's Your Thing”, but I don’t think it was ever released. He’s a very talented chappie.

“Just Give Me A Chance” by Silas Hogan

BEST FIT: I read about Silas Hogan, he ended up going back to his job at an Exxon oil refinery after his record deal didn't work out.

Ah, that’s a shame. I didn’t get invited to many parties at school - I was probably too into football - but when I did go to them, people brought their own records and cassettes. I liked Josh White, Blind Boy Fuller and Big Bill Broonzy, but no one else was into them and they’d walk out of the room if I played them. But with “Just Give Me A Chance” people would say ‘I like this, it’s got a good grove to it’. It’s actually a similar groove to “Tequila” by The Champs, and I loved it.

I got it in a second-hand shop in probably 1981 and I’ve since bought it on CD. I was living in South London-ish at the time, I would root through Oxfam or wherever they had good records and if it was black and bluesy looking, I’d buy it. They were only 50p. At night I’d go and see artists like Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee and then I’d buy their records in Oxfam, but also significantly, I got records by Silas Hogan and Slim Harpo, because that’s where I learned to play harmonica, I’d play them back-to-back. I tried to get a harmonica that fitted the key, but I bought one and found it was totally the wrong key.

Around the same time, I also listened to and wrote down everything John Peel played. He’d play the Buzzcocks single and we’d buy it. People forget that for a very short time Punk was popular with everybody, apart from Teddy boys. Johnny Rotten was so popular and everybody loved him flicking V’s at society. John Peel was listened to by 1000s of kids.

BEST FIT: Listening to John Peel got me into The Smiths. I’d play their songs at parties, but everyone wanted to hear Wham! instead.

The Smiths was another push for the John Peel audience. They were massive, you weren’t alone, but they weren't mainstream. Punk was on Top of the Pops between ‘77 and ‘79 nearly every week, so it was a bit easier to put a Buzzcocks record on at a party than it would be with The Smiths.

BEST FIT: Was it easy to put Silas Hogan on at a party?!

Well, it was better than Blind Boy Fuller. I had a couple mates that stuck with me. One of them bought a Washboard Sam record, because he played with Blind Boy Fuller, and he said ‘See? You had some influence.”

“Another Like You” by Hayes Carll ft. Cary Ann Hearst

When I buy records now it’s just me, the computer and playlists, so I never know how big people are. I often have to look them up and see how many followers they’ve got. Hayes Carll is an interesting character and I think he's quite popular.

I own quite a few of his songs and I particularly like this one, but weirdly enough, it only got to number 20 in my charts. I played it to my wife, and she said, ‘This is like us when we first met’, which was getting drunk and arguing. Now we're totally different and very happy. We played this song at our wedding.

With some of the people I listen to, I don't think anybody - or very few people - listen to them. I contacted somebody the other day, Tami Neilson. I retweeted her song and she was delighted, and that’s a good thing about Twitter. With Hayes Carll it’s more likely I’d read a review in Mojo or Q, because he's got that crossover. He's not hardcore country, he’s more Americana in a way, I don't know whether his songs would qualify as country.

It should be said that this sort of music is a definite influence on my lyrics; when it’s one person to the other and there’s as much wit from the woman as the man. And that's important, because she’s taking the piss out of him all the way through it, of how important and how big he thinks he is, and she brings him back down with these brilliant one liners. I like songs like that, it’s got a fair bit of humour and honesty in it.

“I Wanna Be by Your Side” by Syreeta with G.C. Cameron

This was another second-hand record and it was the sort of thing I’d buy, because it was affordable when I was working on a poor wage in an office. It took me quite a few listens. I’d have to look at the record sleeve, but I’ve got a feeling this song is at the end of one side and I didn’t listen to it initially.

She had that big hit “With You I'm Born Again” with Billy Preston and on this record she had "Universal Sound of the World (Your Kiss Is Sweet)", which was a big pop hit at the time. Other than that I saw her as a bit middle of the road, but being married to Stevie Wonder would be a lot of fun I think. I don’t know if “I Wanna Be by Your Side” was a hit, but when I heard it on this record I thought ‘I know Syreeta.’ It might have been a hit in America.

Before the internet, I was fascinated by who G.C. Cameron was because he's credited as the co-singer, and I was also fascinated that the album's called Stevie Wonder Presents: Syreeta. I knew Stevie Wonder played on it, but he plays drums on the end section and it’s so brilliant. I'm not big on picking out instruments and saying, ‘That’s a brilliant solo’, but whilst G.C. Cameron and Syreeta go mad - G.C. Cameron is singing falsetto - Stevie Wonder is going on a totally different, random beat and it's fantastic. I always envisaged that G.C. Cameron was only ever asked do one song and that was it, but I’ve since found out he was in The Spinners.

BEST FIT: He sang on “It’s a Shame”, which is a hell of a tune and was co-written by Stevie Wonder and Syreeta.

I love that song. I had no idea until recently that he sang on it, because I didn't know he was in The Spinners. And I also thought it was two different voices, because it sounds like The Temptations or The Four Tops, where it goes from one voice to the other. He impersonated people and made records to deliberately sound like other people, but that's not what he does on this song. It’s beautiful.

I love Syreeta, I love the stuff she did with Billy Preston, and I love Stevie Wonder. There were loads of soul songs I could have picked and loads of solo artists that I like above Syreeta - Al Green, Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin - but I thought that because of G.C. Cameron being a bit of an underdog and a background character that I’d pick this one. It's a favourite.

“Nightmares” by Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside

BEST FIT: I couldn't find out much about Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside, other than they disbanded a few years ago.

Oh, have they? That’s disappointing. This is the least I know of the background of any of these songs. I bought it on CD in 2011 or 2010. I think it was her first record, and I was captivated by her voice. I don’t even know - and this is horrible - if I like it, but I couldn't stop listening to it. I found the video captivating; I ended up having to watch it again when I was putting these songs together.

She reminds me of that intensity of ‘40s or ‘50s jazz and blues. I’m just reading the Wikipedia page and it says, ‘Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith’ and I think the way that she's like them is her lack of movement - it’s purely her voice, she's not performing. Ella Fitzgerald was a performer, but Billie Holiday used to stand stock still, and she sits there and talks to you with this voice, it’s amazing.

It’s a really good album, it's not just this song. I think one of the reasons people stopped buying CDs and vinyl was that there was one or two songs that you heard on the radio, and the rest would be a load of shit, but this is an example of a good singer, a good band, and a really, really good album.

BEST FIT: It was interesting that you didn't know if you liked the singing?

By that I mean I wouldn't describe it as being a good voice. What it does is it gets across what she wants to emote, so it's an exciting voice. I don't listen for perfection, but it's unusual, isn't it? It’s something I suppose we all have it in different strains of life, something you're attracted to, but you shouldn't be. Or somebody who's got a very beautiful face, but it’s not. There's something quite ugly about her voice, but there's something really dangerous too, where she sort of controls you.

Is she still singing? I didn’t know that she’d split up with her band, so I’m going to write that down now and follow it up. We’re all learning a little bit today.

“Lucky Sometimes” by Pokey LaFarge

BEST FIT: You tweeted this song, saying your wife thinks that you sing like him.

She does say that. There’s a particular song, “Something in the Water”, that she thinks I sound like him on, so I didn't pick that one, and it has a bit of a silly video as well.

With Pokey LaFarge and Sallie Ford, it’s sort of ‘50s Americana, for want of a better word. And by Americana – and I don't like the word, or those sorts of labels – I mean they’re typically American in the way they dress, in the way they sound and the feel of it. I love the way Pokey LaFarge dresses, he's out there in that ‘50s garb and he's got such a great face to go with it. He looks like one of those racist rockabillies from the 1950s (laughs). He looks like a couple of people I know as well.

There’s a few of them, like JD McPherson and Langhorne Slim, who seem to celebrate that culture of ‘50s rockabilly country, and they’re such good players. I don't notice how good they are at it until I turn around to my band – who are brilliant musicians – and I say, ‘Try and sound like that’. They laugh at me and say, ‘We’ll try it’, and they do, but you get something else. Pokey LaFarge is surrounded by authentic people who’ve played that music probably since they were very young. He's amazing, a really good songwriter and I love “Lucky Sometimes”, it’s such a joyous song.

BEST FIT: What makes it sound so joyous?

It’s the simplicity of it. I found writing simplicity in a song difficult previously, and to write a song like “Lucky Sometimes” has always been quite difficult. All of my love songs - or whatever you want to call them – always had to have a twist at the end, where somebody was stabbed or an anvil fell on their head, but I’ve gotten much better at writing straightforward love songs.

But I do still envy somebody who's able to get a really simple message, an uncomplicated message, and maybe they envy me for getting the complicated one.

“Surround Sound” by J.I.D. ft. 21 Savage & Baby Tate

The Housemartins displayed a lot of love for soul and gospel, but Norman would try his Hip Hop and get shouted down! It goes back John Peel. He was the first to play Washington Go Go, Detroit House and New York hip hop. The first time you heard it in the ‘80s it was really out there, it felt like a very different type of music.

From then on, we all had a lot of love for hip hop. The Beautiful South listened to it a lot and I carried on. As you may be able to tell with these song choices, I don't like clinging onto an era, but I’m constantly trying to find hip hop that’s as good as what was called ‘the golden era’ in the ‘90s. There’s stuff out there today that’s as good, if not better, it's just that people don't hear it. It’s like when people say, “There's no decent indie bands these days,” and you say, “When did you last go to a club and listen to a band?” It’s the same with hip hop, people who are stuck in the 90’s say, “I’ve not been out for twenty years”. Well, there’s your answer!

I have to go delving in a particularly difficult way to find it. Hip Hop Connection went, and my newsagent can't find DJ Magazine. So this is what I have to do. This morning I was on iTunes, I go to Hip Hop, there’s maybe seven or eight new albums out - K-Trap, Freddie Gibbs, DDG and Tory Lanez have got new albums - I listen to them all and pick out songs I like.

It’s obviously not a major influence on my writing, but I do love - and always have loved - the sense of place in hip hop language and lyrics, when they mention different areas, avenues and blocks they’re from.

BEST FIT: Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside picked Young Thug’s “Danny Glover” for his Nine Songs, and said he loved hip hop because of “The noise, the beats, that distinct lack of tonal melody, the lack of sentimentality or hyperbolic pop excitement.”

He’s absolutely right. They’re doing all the things that I can't do, and he probably can’t do. With the complexities - particularly in British grime and hip hop, where they slow down and speed up the track and the voice - I’m like, “How on earth do you have the time to do all that stuff?”. They're not working as keyboard players, they're working as producers, using computers and the desk not only in terms of sound, but the timing and key pitch. To somebody like myself, who is basically making English pop music, the dynamics are incredibly exciting.

I was going to pick “TRNDSTTR” by Black Coast for that reason, because I can't get my head around how complicated but how brilliant it sounds. I imagine Green Gartside would be listening in a similar way that I am, with awe of how they get those sounds and don’t give up.

“Surround Sound” is a song I liked from earlier this year. I partly picked it because the way they’re singing it sounds quite poppy. I like all the voices on it, the others are 21 Savage and Baby Tate, but I really like JID. I always liked Timbaland & Magoo, and when Magoo used to come in he sounded like Mr Magoo, it’s that almost cartoon voice, almost falsely high. I like the whole sound of it.

“You Will Always Have a Friend” by Louis Jordan

I often quote people as being lyrical influences and I always forget Louis Jordan, because people like Smokey Robinson, Elvis Costello and Bill Withers are more serious. Quite often I use humour in my lyrics and Louis Jordan is a really, really humorous lyricist, he often talks about weight issues.

I was looking up his songs before I spoke to you, and I always remember “I Like ’Em Fat Like That”, which got in my charts, but there were other ones like “The Chicks I Pick Are Slender, Tender and Tall” and “You're Much Too Fat (And That's That). His lyrics are like Juke Joint patter. You can imagine him going into the Juke Joints in the ‘40s and ’50s and singing these songs about the different people in there.

I absolutely love him as a lyricist, as a singer and a player and I've got many, many of his records. I have done since Joe Jackson covered one of his songs, “Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby” on his fourth album, which was a jazz album. Then I looked into him and became a big fan, thanks to Joe Jackson.

BEST FIT: What do you like about the lyrics?

They’re funny. With this song, it’s that he knows it will end as soon as he runs out of money. It's not personal to me, I don't value money like that, but in ‘50s America there was this explosion of money. And particularly in some parts of the black community, where for the first time, black people could buy Chevrolet's. I love the fact that he's written about losing it straightaway.

It was a great, great period of time for music and it must have been difficult for him to sing and write these songs, knowing that he wasn't going to be taken as seriously as some of what you would call the jazz greats of the period, like Miles Davis, where they were moving on to what they called at the time ‘modern jazz’.

Louis Jordan was probably left feeling as though trad jazz, more traditional messages and this sort of skat-talking and juke joint bad-mouthing felt a little bit out of date, but I absolutely love it.

Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott are on tour now and play London’s The 02 on 17 December

Share article

Get the Best Fit take on the week in music direct to your inbox every Friday

Read next