Talking Music : Gaz Birtles of The South

When The Beautiful South split in 2007, some members of the band didn’t feel ready to hang up their microphones or instruments and so The South was born, featuring former members of The Beautiful South including singer Alison Wheeler and lifelong sax player Gaz Birtles.  

Since singer, Dave Hemingway, left the group at the end of 2016, Gaz has moved across to vocal duties. They play the songs made famous by The Beautiful South while bringing back the full flavour and excitement of hits such as Rotterdam and A Little Time with the nine-piece live band.

Ahead of two dates playing in South Wales, Gaz chats to Andy Howells about stepping up to the microphone for The South’s latest shows.

The South feature Gaz Birtles and Alison Wheeler performing the his of The Beautiful South

Along with Alison Wheeler, you are now a lead singer in The South taking over from Dave Hemingway.

Dave was getting a bit unhappy towards the end of the previous tour in November/December 2016 and made it known he didn’t want to do it after that and then we thought we’d pack it in.

Then I thought well I might as well give it a go, I know the songs and I’ve been a singer in my own band.and just happened to play saxophone with The Beautiful South and then The South.

We’ve done a few gigs now and i don’t know what we’d have done if another chap had come in and tried to learn the songs. There’s some subtle phrasing on the bits with Alison when there’s two voices and it would have been a hard call for anyone to take on.

Dave was also a bit of a reluctant front-man, having stepped out of the shadows on drums from his days with Paul Heaton in The Housemartins to singing with The Beautiful South. Is this a bit of history repeating itself with you originally playing saxophone?

(Laughs) I didn’t think about that but you’re right. Dave was a reluctant frontman from been a drummer with The Housemartins. I’m not reluctantly doing this, but it was never an ambition to do it.

What got you interested in playing music?

Initially it was things like Roxy Music in the early 70s playing Virginia Plain and loving their sax player, Andy MacKay on Top of the Pops, He looked cool, so me and my mate went out and bought saxophones.

In 1977, the punk scene happened and anyone could be in a band. My mate started a punk band and said, “You can sing Gaz, you can be the front-man”. I ended up singing in a band and not really knowing anything about it, we wrote our own songs. The first gig we did was in front of about a thousand drunken students at Leicester Polytechnic.

Later on I formed a synth pop band called The Swinging Laurels and we got signed to Warner Brothers in 1983. We supported Culture Club  when they were like Gods. We had screaming girls throwing teddy bears and so on. I ended up doing other bands and writing my own songs.

How did you get into The Beautiful South?

I was offered a job from a friend of mine to play saxophone in a band called Crazyhead, I toured Europe in the brass section with Iggy Pop for a month. The Beautiful South’s agent saw us  at the start of when they were looking for a brass section. So I got the call and ended up doing every gig that they did.

The Beautiful South were a big hit from the word go weren’t they?

It went sort of straight and quite high with the debut single and album, both Paul and Dave were used to that sort of level by then with The Housemartins. I think it was a shock to all of them to hit that high-level at that point, they were quite happy doing what they were doing and been everybody’s secret favourite band.

All the venues were pretty much sold out because back in those days, arenas didnt exist. By the time our greatest hits, Carry On Up The Charts, came out,  there were quite a few arenas, so we ended up doing an arena tour, Europe and America about five times and I remember thinking at the time, “This is cool, I can do this! “

Now looking back I can see I’ve spent nigh on 30 years of my life with The Beautiful South.

The Beautiful South disbanded when Paul Heaton left the band in 2007. What inspired the band to get back together?

It was Dave Stead, the drummer. About two years later, we all got a phone call saying “Do you fancy getting it back together and half of us said “Yes” while the other half said “No”.

Paul was working on some solo stuff at the time but gave us his blessing to carry on, so we changed our name because there were only 6 members of the original 11 and we became The South.. I can’t believe it but that’s about 10 years ago now!

What made you say “Yes”?

It felt like my job really and from my point of view carrying n where we left off. We felt we’d only carry on if people wanted to come out and see us and they have done. Be it seeing The South or not seeing The Beautiful South but mainly seeing what we are doing.

You also released an album a few years back?

We did our own album, Sweet Refrains which was a hard task to try and drop into the same style and quality. I I think its a fantastic album, it stands up really well and we always play 2 or 3 from it each night. You always see people singing along to them as well as The Beautiful South songs so it fits in really well.

Is there a temptation to change the style or presentation of the classic hits on stage?

The thing is with The Beautiful South music nothing really changed. Some things did on stage and if it worked we kept it in. The reality is people want the songs how they remember them so we stick pretty much to the style they were done in.

How well are you balancing playing saxophone as well as singing?

Well, I’m not, (Laughs) Su Robinson deputised for us a bit back in the day so knows all the songs anyway and she jumped at the chance to play saxophone. So I don’t have to worry about it, Although there are certain times on the night, I look over at the saxophone and think “Oh, I love this riff!”.

  • Catch The South at Porthcawl’s Grand Theatre on March 24.
  • Interview archived: June 2021