The South: Carrying on regardless and heading to Cambridge
When the Beautiful South disbanded in 2007 after nearly 20 years together, due to “musical similarities”, some members of the group were not quite ready to call it a day.
Singers Dave Hemingway and Alison Wheeler formed ‘The New Beautiful South’ – later shortened to ‘The South’ – a year later, along with drummer Dave Stead, keyboardist Damon Butcher, saxophonist Gaz Birtles and trumpeter Tony Robinson.
Though put together to celebrate the music of the Beautiful South, the band actually put out their own well-received album of original material, Sweet Refrains, in 2012.
Dave Hemingway, whose warm vocals memorably featured on the Beautiful South’s sole number one hit, A Little Time, in 1990, left in 2017, and others have also since departed. Gaz took up singing duties alongside Alison – a graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge, and the third female to sing with the group, after Briana Corrigan and Jacqui Abbott.
Jacqui now performs as a duo with Beautiful South co-founder Paul Heaton, while Dave Hemingway has gone on to form another band, the Americana-tinged Sunbirds, with former South guitarist Phil Barton.
Expect to hear some very familiar tunes when, all being well, The South appear at The Junction (J1) in September, as they will be playing songs from the Beautiful South’s iconic ‘best of’ album, 1994’s Carry on Up the Charts – one of the fastest selling albums in UK history.
Speaking to the Cambridge Independent from his home in Leicester, Gaz – who is still recovering from Covid, having contracted it in November last year – revealed what he has been doing this past year.
“I bought myself a bass guitar and started to learn to play bass, and percussion a bit more, so I’ve been doing some stuff in my studio,” he says. “I’ve not seen any of the band at all really since last March, but we’re getting together again now to go over things.” The band have used a WhatsApp group chat to stay in touch during lockdown.
Though he was the Beautiful South’s saxophonist during their long tenure, Gaz describes himself as more of singer-songwriter. “So when the opportunity came when Dave left the band a few years back, I thought, ‘I could probably do that’,” he says, noting that he has not picked up his sax since.
Happily, with BBC4 showing old episodes of Top of the Pops, fans have had the chance to reminisce and see Gaz and the others as they were back in the late 80s, early 90s when the Beautiful South were just starting out. Paul Heaton and Dave Hemingway had previously been in another very popular act – The Housemartins.
“I saw that the other week with A Little Time; that was my first Beautiful South Top of the Pops,” says Gaz. “I always look out to see if there are any more coming up!”
It must have been a pretty exciting time? “Oh yeah,” says Gaz. “When you’re in that position it’s like you almost take it for granted – it’s only in retrospect when you’re not in that position anymore that you say, ‘Wow, that was a fantastic time!’
“It was a fantastic 18 years, or whatever it was, travelling the world and doing some great festivals and shows and staying in some fantastic hotels.”
Gaz confirms that the Beautiful South’s number one compilation album Carry on Up the Charts will be the focus at the Cambridge gig. “I’m not sure we’ll do it in the same order, we’ll have to look at that,” he notes, “because you do have to gear it to live events...
“Over the years, we’ve pretty much done every song off it anyway – the only one we haven’t really done is a song called My Book. But the last shows we did, we started putting that in the set. So yeah, we’ll be doing all those songs, plus a few others – should be a cracking night.”
Gaz cites Let Love Speak Up Itself as a particular favourite. “I love singing that,” he says. “There’s a particularly long, high note that I sometimes get, I sometimes don’t! All the ballads – Blackbird on the Wire, Prettiest Eyes... they’re just beautiful songs and a joy to sing.”