One day in the spring of 1994, I walked from my dorm at Pomona College to Rhino Records to check out the new releases. It was a sunny day. I don’t actually remember the weather; it’s just that it was always sunny in Claremont, California.
In the imports section I found The Beautiful South’s Miaow and took it home even though it cost $24, which would have bought twelve extra-thick milkshakes at the student union. My friend Jamie had introduced me to The Beautiful South’s 1989 debut in high school, and I was thrilled to unexpectedly come across their fourth album. Back then, new releases didn’t show up as a glowing bell at the top of the Spotify window. At best, you could read about them in Rolling Stone or Details, but a weekly trip to the record store was the best way.
I loved Miaow then and I love it now. Will, who lived down the hall, poked his head into my room a couple days later to ask if I was ever going to stop playing that record. A few days after that, he came back to say, “Wait, what is that song? It’s amazing.”
The song was “Prettiest Eyes.” It’s one of the greatest pop songs ever written. If you live in the US, you’ve almost certainly never heard it. If you live in the UK, you probably never want to hear it again.
I’m listening to “Prettiest Eyes” right now, and unlike a lot of the music I was listening to in 1994 — Superunknown, Unplugged in New York, Weezer’s blue album — it still affects me in the same way. It’s timeless. It doesn’t sound like 1994, and while it’s definitely influenced by the Beatles and sixties folk-rock, it doesn’t sound like a deliberate throwback, either. The song is about an old person (gender unspecified) tracing the wrinkles on their lover’s face and remembering the good and bad times together that forged them:
Line one is the time
That you, you first stayed over at mine
And we drank our first bottle of wine
And we cried
Listening to “Prettiest Eyes” — a song about growing old — makes me feel like a 19-year-old kid heading to the record store, hoping to pick up something good. And there are plenty of other brilliant songs on Miaow. It’s hard to imagine anyone listening to “Especially for You” and not thinking, oh yeah, I know that feeling:
If you’re working as a DJ
Leave this record in its sleeve
’Cause this one’s not for general airplay
This song is for the day she leaves
It’s a quirky, self-aware version of “Everybody Hurts”:
Don’t let them tell you no one cares
This song’s one especially for you
American pop culture is known worldwide, but the UK has an additional parallel universe of pop stars that never hit it big in America, Robbie Williams being the foremost example. I became aware of this the first time I went to London, in 1998, and saw a music video by a band called Texas. I elbowed my English friend. Isn’t it funny that there’s a British band named after an American state! He didn’t think it was funny at all, because Texas was a massively successful band from Scotland, and their name had lost any novelty a couple of platinum certifications ago. The Beautiful South, who broke up in 2007, similarly sold millions of albums in the UK (including three number-ones). In their native land, they opened for R.E.M. and once filled in for Oasis, but never hit the Billboard Hot 100 albums or Top 200 songs charts in the US.
I was curious about whether other people held Miaow in the same esteem I do, so I looked it up on Amazon and laughed at this line from a UK customer’s five-star review: “OK, so they will never be an important band or change anyones lives…”
Last month, my wife Laurie and I went to see indie band The Bird and the Bee at a club in Seattle. While waiting for the band to go on, I asked her, “What’s the best rock show you’ve ever seen?”
We’ve been to well over a hundred shows together, and even though I’d never asked her that question before, I had a pretty good idea that her answer was going to be the same as mine: The Beautiful South, Los Angeles, 1995. The show was at a theater in Hollywood whose name I don’t remember and which is probably closed. The band was touring without singer Jacqui Abbott, who was on maternity leave. So they chose a setlist that would highlight the considerable vocal talents of singers Paul Heaton and Dave Hemingway. The Beautiful South had seemed like a transmission from another planet, a tape dubbed for me by a cool friend in high school, an expensive import at the record store, and now they were feet away from me at a small club in Hollywood, playing my favorite songs and helping to cement my relationship with the woman I’ve now been married to for twenty years. Not bad for an unimportant band with no capacity to change lives.
Whenever I’ve mentioned to British or Canadian friends that I’m a Beautiful South fan, they’re perplexed. It’s a dorky thing to like. It’s music their parents would listen to, and maybe turn up the corners of their mouths at the band’s saucier lines. (One of their hits features the refrain “Don’t marry her, fuck me.”) And it was ubiquitous background music. If someone my age told me they really connected with Kenny G, I’d assume there were many levels of irony at work.
But The Beautiful South didn’t bring anything of this baggage when they came into life of an American teenager. They had me from “Line one.”