Lady Wheeler as ‘Surrogate Mum’

The South Lineup

From Get West London:

Having famously split due to ‘musical similarities’ in 2007, The Beautiful South, or some of them at least, are back on tour. The South, as they are now known, may be a little older and a little less beautiful but they can still drink you under the table, says singer Alison Wheeler.

Speaking from a guest house in Cardiff in the middle of their tour, The South’s Alison Wheeler sounds a little relieved to get a break from her fellow band members.

It’s not that they don’t get on, it’s just that as the only woman in a group of nine, the mum-of-two finds herself playing ‘surrogate mother’, as she puts it.

“They’re all very polite, with their ‘pleases’ and ‘thank yous’, to begin with but within a few days there’s a gradual decline,” she says.

“I end up picking up their bad habits. By the end of the tour, I don’t know if I feel more like a surrogate mother or a substitute bloke.”

At first glance, their touring schedule sounds very civilised; weekend performances allow Alison to return home to her children, aged seven and four, during the week, and concentrate on her duties as a real mum.

It gives her a chance to rest her vocal cords, she says, and ‘to be moaned at as a mum’.

But, though Wheeler is a whippersnapper at 41 compared with the rest of the group, she still struggles to keep pace with their excesses on tour.

“When I joined the band in 2002, they’d already done the hard living. They’d really partied hard,” she said.

“Some of them are married now, with children, but they still drink like I’ve never seen anyone drink. I need the week off to give my liver a rest.

“As a singer, I don’t even try to match them or I’d soon sound like Barry White, but I’ve seen others try, and they’ve soon learnt their lesson.

“Drinking’s part of the band’s culture and there’ll always be beer and a bottle of pinot grigio on the rider.”

The Beautiful South was formed in 1988 from the ashes of The Housemartins, after bassist Norman Cook (aka Fat Boy Slim) parted company with Paul Heaton and Dave Hemingway.

They enjoyed huge success with songs like Perfect 10 and number one single A Little Time.

Wheeler was the band’s third female vocalist and having only joined in 2002 was not ready to call it a day when they split five years later over what Heaton mischievously called ‘musical similarities’.

She joined forces with five of the other touring members, including fellow singer Hemingway, and a few new faces to resurrect the group – minus the ‘Beautiful’.

The Beautiful South were famous for serving up classic melodic love songs, stuffed with tongue-in-cheek lyrics and lashings of mordant wit.

The South, who perform a mix of classics and new songs on tour, haven’t steered too far from that successful blueprint. Indeed, Pigeonhole, the latest single from their debut album Sweet Refrains, would slot comfortably into their back catalogue.

“The old writing partnership’s gone and anyone can bring something to the table now, which is quite refreshing, but we’ve tried to stay quite true to the style of the old band. We were never going to go off and do a drum and bass album.”

Wheeler hasn’t always been given an easy ride in the group. When she joined, she was dubbed ‘The Lady’ by fellow members – a reference to the clash between her Cambridge education and their working class roots.

Last year, meanwhile, when she turned 40, they made sure everyone knew by sticking a huge black age badge on her microphone, as she recalls with mock bitterness.

But, despite the occasional teasing and her Black Country roots, she sounds genuinely at home with The South.

Asked whether they’ve sorted out their musical similarities, she says: “That was Paul’s dry sense of humour and it was an inspirational quote.

“He’d been with the band for 20 years and was ready to move on but I was enjoying it so much and wasn’t ready to give up.

“The old members are all doing their own thing and we’ve kind of drifted apart.

 “But as The South we’re still really enjoying what we’re doing and trying to evolve as a band, and we’re planning to record a new album next year.”

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