Tag Archives: The Boy with the Arab Strap

Belle and Sebastian @ Royal Hospital Chelsea, 15/06/17

Seeing Belle and Sebastian in the environs of the Royal Hospital in Chelsea was a rather strange experience. For a group whose milieu seems to be the more down-at-heel parts of Glasgow, and whose music has always been determinedly small scale and for years had the whiff of the school-assembly-recital, a large-scale outdoor gig at a grand institution on the banks of the Thames in Chelsea was unlikely enough that every now and again I found my mind turning to the distance the band had travelled from their uber-indie beginnings twenty-odd years ago to here and now: the Royal Albert Hall last year, the Royal Hospital Chelsea this.

Last Thursday was a beautiful day, but windy, and by evening the stiff breeze made it feel pretty damn cold, and few of us were dressed for it. Sara and I had walked to the gig, and the evening seemed perfect, but by the time we took our seats, it was so cold that neither of us were sure we’d make it to the end. In the event, we did what lots of other people did, leaving the bleachers and joining the standing crowd, hoping that the chance to move around a bit, and being among a throng, would make the wind less of a problem. It worked a little, but we left before the encore as Sara couldn’t feel her feet.

After an introduction by two Chelsea Pensioners, the band came on and opened with Act of the Apostle from The Life Pursuit. The band found their gear right away, but Stuart Murdoch’s voice was rough around the edges. The song’s got some unusual chord changes and difficult intervals, and I wondered whether it would have been better for Murdoch if they’d started with a run of easier songs and he’d had time to get warmed up before tackling it.

Things took an immediate upturn, though, with I’m a Cuckoo, from 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress. I’m a Cuckoo is probably the best song that Murdoch has ever written (and the best record the band has ever made), and they played a fuss-free but spirited version, Murdoch sounding much more comfortable in the lower end of his register. Unless I’m mistaken, they played the single edit of the song, which I’ve come to think is actually a better length than the 5.20 album version.

The set was a nice mix of recent tracks, including a couple of new ones, and vintage material: Seeing Other People and She’s Losing It were well received by the old-school fans, Another Sunny Day from The Life Pursuit was really pretty (and appropriate to the occasion), I Know Where the Summer Goes from the This is Just a Modern Rock Song EP was an unexpected treat (although I’d have loved it if they’d played the title track instead), and as the band moved up through the gears, The Boy With the Arab Strap, The Blues are Still Blue and Get Me Away from Here, I’m Dying brought the gig to a strong conclusion, with Arab Strap the cue for the inevitable on-stage dancers and the release of some specially made Belle and Sebastian balloons.

The balloons promptly blew away. “Well, that was £1500 well spent,” quipped Murdoch. An attempt at something beautiful thwarted by something as mundane as a stiff breeze. It seemed an appropriately Belle and Sebastianish moment.

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Tigermilk – Belle and Sebastian, Part 2

Tigermilk starts with the Belle and Sebastian ur-text and one of their greatest songs: The State I Am In. If you’re curious about the band, have a listen to this shaggy dog story of a song. Your response will tell you whether they are for you or not.

Over the quietest of strummed chords, in the softest of singing voices, Stuart Murdoch delineates the boundaries of his lyrical world and his approach to writing – a combination of knowing ambiguity and mundane specificity – in just a few lines.

I was surprised, I was happy for a day in 1975
I was puzzled by a dream, stayed with me all day in 1995
My brother had confessed that he was gay
It took the heat off me for a while
He stood up with a sailor friend
Made it known upon my sister’s wedding day

I heard this song for the first time in 1999, when Tigermilk was released on CD, and was knocked out by it. By this time, Belle and Sebastian were already indie favourites in Britain, big enough for kids like me to know about them without having to work too hard. My enthusiasm for the band was shared by a couple of close friends, but not by my wider social circle, who found them twee, precious and wimpy. My girlfriend Mel also finds them twee and precious, and doesn’t get why I like them (or why I’m writing this post).

Belle and Sebastian were an aural palate cleanser for me then. I’d spent my younger teens listening obsessively to American grunge and alternative rock music, and while I still wanted music played primarily on guitars (I was — am — a guitar player), I needed something other than angry guys screaming and playing loud and hard all the time. I was getting it anywhere I could find it. Belle and Sebastian were just one source.

But what does this music say to me now?

When you listen to music from your youth as an adult, it can be hard to listen objectively. Every song on Belle and Sebastian’s first three albums calls up memories for me. Walking to school; sitting at the side of a public tennis court with my friend in the summer holidays waiting for my turn to play a few games; being driven by my dad to my grandfather’s funeral; walking home from Southend town centre on a cold Sunday evening not long before Christmas; writing a philosophy essay for my theology A Level course. I listened to this band a lot for about a year and a half while at sixth form and pretty much stopped when I got to university. I have almost no adult memories tied up with this band.

I put I Could Be Dreaming on my iPod on the way to work the other day and it was glorious. Belle and Sebastian songs have a tendency towards the brisk. It’s part of their charm, as it makes their songs come over like over-excited kids, an impression strengthened by their primary-colour chord changes and simple arrangements, with Grade III-level touches on cello and trumpet. I Could Be Dreaming drops the school-music-lesson instruments and replaces them with a couple of lightly overdriven electric guitars and some beautifully cheesy 1970s synthesiser and beat-group organ. The group’s playing is spirited. The song is at a tempo that faces drummer Richard Colburn with that tricky decision: do you play propulsive eighth notes on the hats or looser, swinging quarters? He went with the quavers, giving the song an oddly Krautrockian feel; Neu! relocated to the Glasgow suburbs. The twee-est group of the nineties end the song having built up a surprising head of steam; Stevie Jackson thrashes away and Colburn bashes his cymbals, while someone (Isobel Campbell?) reads out a chunk from Rip Van Winkle.

Tigermilk is a fine album throughout, with only one misstep, Electronic Renaissance — not a bad song as such, but one that could scarcely be more out place, with its Boys of Summer drum machine pattern and Pet Shop Boys synthesisers. But even great songs like I Could Be Dreaming are not without their flaws. Something about Murdoch’s lyrics, which I used to think were brilliant, now rub me the wrong way. Other people’s sexual confusion, physical abuse by a partner or sexual abuse as a child are invoked in startlingly throwaway fashion, as if Murdoch’s unaware these things do happen to real people, and that they are not trivial events or mere grist to Murdoch’s lyrical mill. He sounds, being blunt, like a child trying to seem grown up, or a sheltered young man trying to seem wordly. But he was, still, a (fairly) young man then, possibly not knowing too much of where he wrote, and this tendency is less marked in what I’ve heard in his later songs.

This lyrical weakness aside, Tigermilk still sounds charming to me, and stronger than the two albums that followed it in quick succession. If You’re Feeling Sinister is hampered by too many songs of one tempo and key (E) and a drop-off in the album’s home straight (I really don’t get the high regard in which Judy and the Dream of Horses is held). The Boy With the Arab Strap, meanwhile, has some absolute belters (Dirty Dream Number Two, the title track), some charmers (Is it Wicked Not to Care?, A Summer Wasting) and some unbelievable dreck (Chickfactor). So I’d recommend Tigermilk as the only Belle and Sebastian you need to get if you’re only mildly curious, but B&S don’t tend to attract that many casual fans — rather, an equal proportion of haters and devotees who base their worldviews and aesthetics on their favourite band’s. Years after I last listened to them seriously, I can still hear why.

Tigermilk – Belle and Sebastian, Part 1

This is Stowe School.

stowe house

Stowe is a private school in Buckinghamshire in England, opened in 1923. It’s based in Stowe House, which was built by Sir Richard Temple in the late 1700s. The Temples were an enterprising bunch. As each son married shrewdly (that is, married an heiress), they became first the Grenville-Temples, then the Nugent-Temple-Grenvilles, and by the late 1800s the Plantagenet Campbell Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenvilles. Really. The really smart members of the aristocracy have always known there is more to be gained from making a good marriage than raising an army.

When I was about 16 and my friend told me that about a band called Belle and Sebastian, he told me that they formed at a school called ‘Stowe’. I didn’t know what Stowe looked like or where it was, but I knew there was a fancy public school called Stowe. I heard Stuart Murdoch’s wispy, somewhat feminine voice, clocked the band’s name (Belle and Sebastian was known to my generation as a rather lame anime that had been shown on Children’s BBC and was based on some French children’s novel that no one I knew had ever read), and figured I had the measure of them as upper-class, foppish and effete.

I’ve harked on before for the benefit of our younger readers how different the world was when you couldn’t necessarily find out anything you wanted to know after 60 seconds of Google searching. What I didn’t know (as if there was only one thing! I didn’t know) was that Stowe School was not the same as Stow College.

This is Stow College (now Glasgow Kelvin College):

stow college

From listening to the band properly I soon grasped that their actual milieu was Glasgow, and possibly the seedier end of it. They had made their first recordings at Stow for the students on the college’s Beatbox course. The school’s record label, Electric Honey, was run by Ken McCluskey from the Bluebells, Douglas McIntyre from Creeping Bent and Alan Rankine from the Associates. Several of the founding band members (Stuart Murdoch, Stuart David and Stevie Jackson) were already in their mid-twenties. Stuart David was only on the Beatbox course on pain of losing unemployment benefit.

Electric Honey usually released a single at the end of the academic year, but Belle and Sebastian had enough for an album. So out came Tigermilk in 1995, selling out its 1000-copy run by word of mouth and bringing them to the attention of fledgling London-based indie Jeepster, who picked them up as their first signing, and released the group’s second record, If You’re Feeling Sinister (1996), which seems to have become the consensus ‘best’ B&S album.

It’s not, I think. I like Tigermilk and The Boy With the Arab Strap (1998) far more.

In part 2, we’ll get into why Tigermilk is the the Belle and Sebastian album you should hear if you’re not familiar with the band.