A Night of Celebrationin the union chapel

This night is a celebration. There is an air of excited anticipation in the air so tangible you can feel it creeping along your skin. It feels good. It feels the way I’ve not fully experienced since being in a hall with The Smiths back in ’83, when they too were poised on the edge of stardom, when they too were surrounded already by a die-hard following who adored their every move, and although the press were also largely adoring, there was nevertheless a coterie of non-believers who, it seemed, just Didn’t Get It. So similarly in the here and now, with Belle & Sebastian, we have a plethora of excited and fawning ‘criticism’ penned by a multitude of adoring indiepopsters and journalists alike, alongside others who make weak minded half formed comments about Nick Drake and some weird perceived ‘lack of ambition’. Which baffles me, because it seems to me that ‘getting’ Belle & Sebastian isn’t that hard.

I mean, I can be pop-historical. I can tell you specific reasons why I adore Belle & Sebastian, and perhaps these reasons would be applicable to the way a certain number of others adore Belle & Sebastian. For example, I can witter on about how the way Belle & Sebastian go about running their careers is very non-Rock’n’Roll, how they have built, in a very careful manner, a mythic history already which is based on a career which, in many ways, is little over a year old. I like this because it is very Pop, because it reminds me of the way in which Lawrence built his Felt myth. That said, I feel certain that more people will care about the Belle & Sebastian myth than cared about the Felt one, but that’s maybe a moot point. I like the way they are obstreperous about their career, about the way in which they retain at least a modicum of control over the way they are represented, the way in which they carefully choreograph their (non) promotional photographs, the way they (don’t) do interviews. This air of being rather difficult, it reminds me of Kevin Rowland and Dexys. Which means a lot to me. I have a lot of time for Americans, and although I am ‘guilty’ of being a linguistic magpie and say ‘sidewalk’ or ‘parking lot’, I like the way that Belle & Sebastian do not pretend that they are an American Rock band. I like the way they use the English (Scottish?) language, in the way that I like to feel Vic Godard would appreciate. I like the way they gang together. I like the way they look. I like the way the guitarist wears a sharp suit like Paul Haig and hold his guitar tight like Subway Sect would. Or Fire Engines, or the ‘secret sacred’ Hurrah!. Or that afore-hinted at Josef K. Hell, I like the fact that they come roughly from Glasgow, which is the only ‘real’ city in the UK I can honestly say I’d live in, and that they mention Dalry in their sleeve-notes.

But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: although I know I rate Belle & Sebastian for all the above reasons, there’s something more that transcends those things. It’s to do with the way they make me feel. And that’s a way I can’t quite pinpoint with words. You’d have to be me. Or get it yourself. And this night, seeing a chapel full of people so genuinely excited, I get the impression that a lot of people get it themselves. They get That Feeling.

So like I said, it is a night of celebration. The feeling that this is maybe the last time we’ll all get to love this Popgroup in a relatively intimate space, the feeling that when Belle & Sebastian return from their summer sojourn to the US, they will be bigger than, perhaps not Oasis, (and one could see Belle & Sebastian being much more accurately promoted as the anti-Oasis than Blur ever were) but certainly than they are already. There is even a sense that the band themselves know this, and for this reason and others are also celebrating. They are celebratory in the sense that they know they are making something special, that they have that indefinable, elusive quality that makes for great obsessional pop. Maybe it’s the God connection. I dunno. Whatever, when they roll into ‘Judy & The Dream of Horses’ the crowd sigh as one and the floor fills with gyrating bodies. Something Spiritual is happening.

The Spiritual angle flows into the lead track on the new EP, and with Monica from Thrum joining them on-stage for a rousing version (no Beautiful South comparisons please…), the fans provide the hand-claps, and for a minute you wonder if someone is going to shout ‘hallelujah’. Thankfully they don’t, and instead the Velvets organ rush builds up and washes over us all, driving the smiles wider, the loves deeper.

If anything though, ‘Lazy Line Painter Jane’ shows Belle & Sebastian at their most traditional, at their most flirtatious with the rock beast. It’s to their credit that they juggle the relationship so well, but it’s through other moments where they make the most appeal; when they do the instrument shifting between songs, when Stevie fills in with an impromptu chorus and verse from ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, when Stuart Murdoch does the twitching dance, his acoustic guitar held close and tight, when Isabel plays her red plastic toy thingy. The connection with the audience, the moment when someone calls for ‘The State I am In’ and Stuart responds with "The State YOU’RE in…" Pop Moments. Stars for being Non-Stars.

So it goes. They play about fourteen songs, including a brace of new songs, of which only a few are recognisable to even those who have their collection of demos tapes and which sound, much to everyone’s relief, as good as everything else, and leave the chapel in darkness. People are shouting for more, yet I wonder just how many actually want them to come back on stage and do a thing so traditional as an encore. And so naturally they do not appear. Naturally people let out sighs of relief, or if they don’t, maybe they just haven’t got to hear ‘Expectations’ yet.

Then we leave the chapel. We go home. We wear our T-shirts with the silly pride we did when we were sixteen (except of course the ones who are sixteen, and to be honest, there’s a pleasingly large number of those around tonight).

That’s Pop. That’s the celebration that is Belle & Sebastian. Now what do you mean when you say that you still don’t get it?

© Alistair Fitchett 3.8.97..

Photo of Mr Murdoch by Soozy.