Angels In the Architecture

BELLE AND SEBASTIAN: Manchester Town Hall, Sunday December 28th, 1997.

There’s angels in the architecture and they’re making heavenly music.

Driving into and through Manchester for the first time I’m struck by the similarities to Glasgow, both in the Victorian architecture and in the street geography. At once it feels like a city of dreams, and the story of the Manchester Town Hall being chosen as the venue for this show as a result of an early morning road trip by members of the band sparked by boredom makes perfect sense.

Arriving in the venue, there is instantly a feeling of delighted celebration similar to that which suffused the Union Chapel in London during the summer, and if the building sense of expectation is less here, it is probably more to do with the lack of uncomfortable pews and Glasgow Central drunk poets as pre show entertainment. Instead, pre-Belle delights are served by Future Pilot, whose Sushil Dade led antics are not altogether accidentally missed. Once bitten, twice shy, after all.

Belle and Sebastian are sometimes dismissed as being music for angst filled young men (usually by angst filled old men in music papers), which is to altogether miss the point. For here, as at Union Chapel, there are many young smiling faces in the audience for whom the delight of Belle and Sebastian is not in some introspective existentialist pain, but in the way that Pop can soar and touch the inner stratospheres of the psyche. Except they’d probably just say that it sounds fucking great, which is the point of course. Because they do.

They sound great tonight, which is a relief after the by-all-accounts shambles of the Saturday show and, to a lesser extent, the matinee. They open with ‘Modern Rock Song’, and promptly display their heritage of classic Pop restructured by sounding uncannily like The Velvet Underground in 1969 meets The June Brides, which, in case you’re wondering, is No Bad Thing. They follow this immediately with a similarly Velvetsy take on the already classic ‘The State I Am In’, and already it is clear to those who didn’t already know, that we are witnessing the sort of Pop dream that comes from somewhere beyond the pale and that touches only infrequently upon the ground we call the real world.

And then, as if to prove these sentiments entirely idiotic, they stop. For ten minutes, whilst a Cello doctor is sought to fix the problems with Isobel’s cello. People shake heads, and brows furrow. I see people walk away, out of the hall, clearly unimpressed. And yet it is this very segment which, to me, cements their worth as a Pop group of indefinable magnificence. It is also a moment which polarises opinion and leads to extended arguments regarding professionalism and the perceived responsibility of the Pop group to adhere to certain traditional roles. Which, to me, is what Belle and Sebastian are all about, and that is, questioning and challenging the entire process of being a Pop group in the late 20th Century. I’m not saying that the ten minute gap was planned, but it is the fact that the group can take such risks (how many Pop groups can you name me who take cellos and violins and trumpets and all sorts on stage and make it sound like an amplified Pop orchestra?) and can make the breakdown of the risks feel comfortable and warm that marks them out as special. I am not celebrating incompetence, but rather I am celebrating the way in which the artist can accommodate accidents and weave it into the tapestry of their work. And in such a light, we get Stevie Jackson entertaining us with an impromptu take on ‘Matchstick Men and Matchstick Cats and Dogs’ which is as amusing as it is embarrassing, and a demonstration of the similarity between the riff of ‘le Pastie De La Bourgeoisie’ and the theme from Emmerdale. We also the chance to look at ourselves. Think about it...

All that said, however, the extended pause seems to sap concentration, or heavenly karma or whatever, because when we start off again with ‘le Pastie’, something of the spark has gone. It’s not that this, or the usually perfect ‘Seeing Other People’ and ‘Get Me Away...’ which follow sound bad (indeed, it is the songs from ‘If You’re Feeling Sinister’ that generally sound the least convincing tonight), just that they lack the sparkle of magic dust that we have already seen them to posses.. Things are set back on track however, with the already classic and as yet unreleased ‘The Loneliness Of The Middle Distance Runner’. From it’s opening "I’ll take a second of the day to think about the things that we have done this year..", the song feels for me to be a pinnacle of 1997. I know I am eternally lucky to have had this song as accompaniment to my life since the summer, yet even so it hits me like the first time still. It spirals out into the night air and I can hear my heart fluttering.

Speaking of heartflutters, an even larger one comes next when Isobel steps up to the mic and the strains of Orange Juice’s ‘In A Nutshell’ creep across the tracery of the Town Hall ceiling. Belle & Sebastian seem to perform cover versions with almost the same irregularity as they play shows, and choose and deliver them with such amazing class and poise that I can only stand and dumbly grin at the perfection of the reference points. I am genuinely transfixed by Isobel as she sings, backed by Stevie’s magic ‘sha sha sha’s, and I find myself hoping that everyone here will at the very least determine to go and discover the original for themselves. It’s on ‘You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever’ or the magical and near mythical ‘Ostrich Churchyard’.

Further delight is had at the airing of a new song, ‘I Know Where The Summer’, ‘She’s Losing It’ from the criminally unavailable ‘Tigermilk’, ‘Seymour Stein’ and a ‘Century of Elvis’ which has Stuart David seeming to forget to read much of the story despite reading out of his notebook and Stuart Murdoch singing the closing refrain as "everybody’s trying to sell us another century of Elvis" which is a charming delight. Better yet is the unreleased ‘Simple Things’, which has me standing transfixed again, simply sharing a dumb grin with my friends as we marvel at it’s magical beauty. It’s testament to the quality of the group in fact that tonight it’s new songs which delight the most, a fact not witnessed at a show for many years, and one which is heartily welcomed.

And so it goes. The band perform a rollicking version of ‘Sleep The Clock Around’ and then leave us. When the lights go up, applause rings out, the lights start coming up and my friend turns and says, simply, ‘they don’t, do they?’, to which I reply ‘I certainly hope not’.

And so it goes. 1997 ends for me as it has passed, to the strains of a Pop group sent from a dream called Belle and Sebastian. Like I said already; there’s angels in the architecture, and they’re playing heavenly music.

© Alistair Fitchett 1998.