"I had twenty good years of drinking, I'd encourage anyone to go drinking but it's not for me anymore."
- Paul Heaton, dotmusic interview, October 2002
Paul Heaton is the lyricist and voice behind the bitter sweet, fiercely everyday poets, The Beautiful South. Singing songs of divorce, aging, drinking, and romantic entanglement with a typically northern British cynicism led their 1994 album, Carry on up the charts to become one of the UK's best selling albums. It has estimated that one in seven British homes has a copy tucked away somewhere. This song, from the previous album, 0898 and featured on Carry on up the charts, tells the sorry tale of one old soak. Heaton is known for writing his lyrics alone and on holiday, and this song was composed in the Gran Canaria.
Old Red eyes is back
Red from the night before the night before
Walked into the wrong bar walked into a door
Old Red's in town.
And sitting late at night he doesn't make a sound
Just adding to the wrinkles on his deathly frown
In an interview with Stuart Maconie for Q magazine, Heaton described this song as "looking at the more humorous and sad side of being drunk... It sold respectably but the radio didn't really play it. I don't suppose they like songs about alcohol abuse." Whilst the song does indeed provide a light-hearted look at the demise of a drunk, it also reflects Heaton's own attitude to alcohol. Without wanting to resort to cliché, Heaton had a very traditional, Northern working class relationship with alcohol. A fan of a drink or two or three or four in one of Hull's many pubs each day lead to many of the band's songs being written in a gin-soaked haze.
"I'm genuinely happy I've enough money to go into a bar, and buy another gin and tonic"
They're only red from all the tears that I should've shed
They're only red from all the women that I could've wed
So when you look into these eyes I hope you realise
They could never be blue
Whilst writing in the pub was no problem, and no doubt helped keep the band's lyrics true to real life, it began to take it's toll on Heaton, and so place a strain on the band as a consequence. It soon became apparent that a change of lifestyle was required, and Heaton worked towards giving up the drink.
Listen up Old Red
You never listened to a word the doctor said
He told you if you drank another you'd be dead
Old Red Eyes is back
His shoulders ache all over and his brain is sore
He pours a drink and listens to his body thaw
"If you're by yourself, writing, you're in the same state of mind whether you're drunk or sober"
Old Red he died
And every single landlord in the district cried
An empty bottle of whisky laying by his side
A lazy little tear running from each eye
That could never be blue.
By the time the album Quench was released in 1998, Heaton was able to sing, "look what I found in the mic / An end to screwed-up drinking and a Paul I actually like." Starting a family, and the realisation that his flourishing musical career could save him from depression, coupled with the (utterly correct) belief that he could write just as well sober as drunk, led him from depression and alcohol to a new, happier, Paul.
- Delores and the Turtle: The Beautiful South
- dotMusic - The Beautiful South Interviews
- BBC Radio 2: Stuart Maconie's Critical List
- YimPan - Old Red Eyes Is Back lyrics