Glasgow, like all of the UK’s once major ports, has an equally fine history of Pop to challenge its shipping heritage. London and Liverpool may have spawned the Beat explosion, but Glasgow groups have always seemed to grow slightly stranger, oft-times harder and certainly more determined to be awkward. Belle & Sebastian may be among the newest bands of Pop artisans on the Clydeside block, but they inevitably feed from a rich heritage that stretches at least back as far as the foppish Post-punk heyday of Postcard records and certainly takes in the roughly Glasgow-centric Chemikal Underground scene of today’s other delightful deviants, Delgados and Arab Strap.
Although Belle & Sebastian then are utterly contemporary, and it would perhaps be running the risk of overstating just one of the disparate influences on the group to suggest that the Postcard angle is vital, it is anyway an angle that demands focus, if only thanks to the admitted penchant of at least lead singer/songwriter Stuart Murdoch and multi-instrumentalist Isobel Campbell for that self-styled ‘Sound of Young Scotland’: In the sleeve notes for the ‘3, 6, 9 Seconds of Light’ EP there is reference to the drumming cat logo, whilst at their Manchester shows at the end of 1997 Isobel sang a marvellous rendition of ‘In A Nutshell’, one of the peaches from the early Orange Juice canon, and certainly one of Edwyn Collins’ finest songs. Add to this a love of the Go-Betweens and Felt (the group whose first single Postcard boss Alan Horne described sympathetically as "classic rubbish"), a book about Orange Juice allegedly being penned by Murdoch and the pairs’ appreciation of Postcard t-shirts and it’s clear that this early 80s scene is important to the aesthetic of Belle & Sebastian. Indeed, it might be argued that in Belle & Sebastian we have finally a return to foppish Pop the way it was meant to be, had all things gone according to the early ‘80s gloriously ramshackle romantic plans of Horne, Collins, Paul Morley, Dave McCullough et al. Orange Juice at their best were threateningly soft, but that threat was dissipated by those who followed, by groups like Haircut 100 and later the worst of the shambolic C86ers who took the whole thing too far towards the cute and twee, totally missing the artful angle of it all. And as Horne and co were always quick to point out, it was "Art, Art, and only ART."
Belle & Sebastian revisit that ground of studied fey charm, infusing it as they do with late ‘90s eclecticism and a knowledge and enthusiasm for Pop history that should put other new groups to shame. For sure they are masters of their Art. Their debut LP, Tigermilk, released in 1996 as part of Murdoch’s course at Stow College and produced by ex-Associates member Alan Rankine was a gem of worldly wordy Pop that rapidly sold out of it’s 1000 copy pressing, thanks in part to the support of Radio One’s Mark Radcliffe. These days copies change hands for around £300, and a copy signed by the band was recently auctioned off for £810 with the money going to the cancer ward of Glasgow’s Gartnavel Hospital. Despite repeated pleas by fans for a re-issue, the band have so far resisted the temptation, although insist that it will see the light of day again. Eventually. To those who cared about such things it had all the kinds of camp charm, pithy aphorisms and a way of using ideas and words in a way that is still generally not the done thing in pop. Intelligent word-smithery may not be some people’s idea of great Pop, but it is an idea that stretches back and forward, taking in punk with Richard Hell, Vic Godard and Howard Devoto, back through Dylan and Smokey Robinson to Cole Porter, and from Gil Scott Heron through to Sally Rodgers with A Man Called Adam. Important references if you think that Pop can be both smart and disposable in one go.
The second album, If You’re Feeling Sinister, released in November of 1996, built on these naturally artful foundations, and if the band were to later voice dissatisfaction at the production quality it did nothing to stop a growing numbers of fans becoming naturally obsessive. Those in the know voted the album one of the finest on the year, whilst those slightly less well connected were driven to voting it one of the finest of 1997, which was no mean feat and which hinted at the growing fashionability of Belle & Sebastian as a, if not the, name to drop. Infrequent live performances largely cemented this cult popularity, and if the summer/autumn shows of 1997 in London and New York were typically fraught with technical hiccups, they were also typically well attended by well-connected media and music types (step forward Jarvis Cocker, Nick Currie aka Momus, Mark Eitzel and Steve Malkmus).
As a rule, though, Belle & Sebastian do not play the traditional rock and roll roles of the music industry, and nor do they play the same games of promotion. Only recently have they appeared as a whole band in a promotional photo, previously preferring pictures of friends, or a couple of band members in staged road accidents. Perversely, they appear to shun publicity, and seldom do anything so obvious as interviews (a five page, unbroken by ads spread in The Face with accompanying cover was recently declined), and when they do, it’s as likely that journalists will be given short thrift, as evidenced by an amusing NME spread earlier in the year. Certainly the man that most want to talk to, the charming boyish looking thirty year old that is Murdoch, will refuse to appear. The intention appears to be that they are determined to keep as much control over the artistic process as possible, a will to allow the art to make the statements. In this, Belle & Sebastian conjure memories of idealistic souls with a clear personal agenda that is outwith that typically touted by the music industry. Modern day Dexy’s Midnight Runners with Murdoch as an incarnation of Kevin Rowland? Perhaps, and like Rowland at his finest (‘I Couldn’t Help If I Tried’, ‘Old’, ‘The Waltz’), understanding the Taoist truisms of the softest being the hardest and he who is shouting is losing the argument.
Reflections of the past is something that Belle & Sebastian seem to generate with some regularity, and in the past there has been some inevitability in seeing reference being made to The Smiths, Nick Drake and Ray Davies, amongst others. The new album, titled The Boy With The Arab Strap (Aidan Moffat is a friend of the group, and mentioned them in his song ‘I Saw You’) will do little to stop those parallels being drawn, but it similarly also throws some new connotations into the mix: Glitterband handclaps on the title track, Isobel as would-be-Twinkle on her own composition ‘Is It Wicked Not To Care’, Money Mark beats and spoken word-smithery on bassist Stuart David’s ‘Spaceboy Dream’, guitarist Stevie Jackson with his brittle and beautiful ballad to Sire records boss Seymour Stein. Ultimately though, and this is what makes Belle & Sebastian so thoroughly marvellous and classically Pop, the songs sound like no-one else on earth. There are echoes, there are ghosts, there are shared obsessions creeping, but it’s all been dis-connected, essentially given new voice, synthesised through personal life and experience. In a world of over-blown Rock histrionics, self-aggrandised pomposity masquerading as meaningful soul searching and studied reconstructions of ‘old-skool’ cool, it is refreshing to hear a group willing to both carefully mine Pop’s rich tapestry and yet also treat that mining with a casual air of disposability.
The Boy With The Arab Strap is released by Jeepster records (JPRCD 003) on Sept 7th.
© Alistair Fitchett 1998.