The Beautiful South: how we made Rotterdam (Or Anywhere)

‘I wrote it in a bar in Rotterdam. I’d been drinking all night and probably smelled. When they tried to move me on, I got really pissed off’

Paul Heaton, co-writer

I wrote the lyrics to Rotterdam (Or Anywhere) sitting in a bar on the north end of Lijnbaan, Rotterdam’s main shopping street. The bar was modern-looking and not friendly at all. It was in January 1996, about three in the afternoon. I’d probably been up all night drinking, I probably smelled, and I’d walked into their bar and plonked my bag down.

I wasn’t the sort the owners wanted in there. They probably thought: “Oh God, we don’t want this bloke to be our regular. Let’s make sure he never comes back.” So they were trying to think of different excuses to move me on, like: “You can’t sit there, there’s a private party coming in.” I got really pissed off – and I wrote a short story that became a very bitchy song, scribbling it down while sitting there.

With the line “everyone is blond and everyone is beautiful”, I wasn’t slagging off Rotterdam – I was slagging off a certain type of person who exists everywhere. As someone who used to go the football and observe fashion, I’ve seen that you can tell different cities apart in England. But the rich and super-rich, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the lot at Ascot and the lot at Monza. They all dress the same – same cars, same coats, everything. That day in Rotterdam, I just happened to walk into one of those places that exist the world over.

The song has that unusual guitar riff, which was [co-writer] Dave Rotheray’s idea. I was amazed by Jacqui’s vocal. At first, I thought I was going to sing it, because it sounds so like me, chuntering on when I’ve had five pints. But as soon as she sang it, the song made absolute sense, because instead of me banging a table, it suddenly became this calm, scything, scissoring attack on the bar and the people in it.

You know that really annoying dance Genesis did in the I Can’t Dance video? There was a period when, if me and Dave wrote a song we thought was gonna be a hit, we’d do that stupid walk as we went to the pub. Rotterdam was one of those songs. It’s sung on the terraces now, by Liverpool, Leeds and Sheffield United fans. It’s nice to think that song has been special to so many people.

Jacqui Abbott, singer

The first time I heard Rotterdam (Or Anywhere) it would have been on a cassette I got from Paul and Dave. It was just a lovely song. Paul had written this sweet, very happy melody – but then it had these very biting lyrics. It’s quite derogatory, really. It originally started off as a love letter to Rotterdam that then became annoyed and turned into quite a cynical song. I wonder what it would have been like if Paul had found that bar really charming.

The lyrics always made me laugh. And I knew the sort of people Paul was talking about with the “blond and beautiful” line. We once did a festival in Stockholm and in the afternoon, we walked out into the festival grounds. I remember being with Paul’s best mate, who said: “Jesus Christ, these people are just ridiculously good-looking.” And then there’s us walking through, y’know, these gangly, pasty, beer-drinking Brits with our unsymmetrical faces and teeth everywhere …

When you’re singing Rotterdam live, it’s even nicer when you’re in the places mentioned in the lyrics. We’ve never actually sung it in Rotterdam. Rome, neither – I’ll have to bug Paul about going there too. But we have played it in Liverpool. And when you’re in Ireland and you sing the line about “gargoyles dipped long in Irish stout”, it’s just fantastic.

The Beautiful South would come up with ideas for videos and it was like: “Er, right.” I’m thinking of Good as Gold, where there was an elephant in the video, or One Last Love Song, where we all got very drunk up on a hillside in fancy dress – I was a six-foot bunny rabbit.

The Rotterdam video had a circus theme, and it was filmed on a stretch of disused motorway where they road-tested vehicles. All day, I walked up and down, miming and holding a petrol can, with jugglers and unicyclists behind me. I think the people watching just thought – as we did: “What the hell is going on?”

I’d give anything to go back and live the success of Rotterdam again. You’re overly confident when you’re young. You think you’ve got all the time in the world and it’s going to go on for ever. It doesn’t. But since I started working with Paul again in 2014, it’s come around again. And as soon as the audience hears that opening riff, their reaction is absolutely lovely.

Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott’s new album Manchester Calling is out now on Virgin EMI. Their rescheduled tour begins in October. For details see paulheaton.co.uk.

Contributor

Interviews by Henry Yates

The GuardianTramp

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