Unique. That describes Belle and Sebastian. They’re a band who do things their way. That’s been the case since Stuart Murdoch and Stuart David formed Belle and Sebastian in 1996. The two Stuarts met at Stow College in Glasgow. That’s where they formed Belle and Sebastian. They released their debut single and album on a college’s record label. 

Two years later, and Belle and Sebastian were released to Jeepster. They released their third album The Boy With The Arab Strap on 7th September 1998. It reached number twelve in the UK and was certified gold. This resulted in Belle and Sebastian’s third consecutive gold disc. Belle and Sebastian were one of the biggest indie groups. Still they were determined to do things their way. 

A year later, in 1999, somewhat belatedly, Belle and Sebastian won a Brit Award for best newcomer. Just a few months later, Belle and Sebastian were hosting their own weekender. At the 1999 Bowlie Weekender, Belle and Sebastian happily mingled with their fans. Belle and Sebastian were a rarity in music, an ego free group. That’s despite The Boy With The Arab Strap which will be rereleased on vinyl on 7th October 2014, transforming  Belle and Sebastian’s career. It brought their unique brand of melancholy pop to a wider audience. For Belle and Sebastian, they couldn’t believe how far they’d come in three years. 

Belle and Sebastian were formed in 1996, at Stow College, in Glasgow. The band was formed by two students, Stuart Murdoch and Stuart David, and was named after Cecile Aubry’s 1965 book Belle et Sebastien. Since then, many members have joined and left the group, one of the most influential being, Isobel Campbell, who joined in 1996 and left the group in 2002, singing vocals and playing cello. Other members include Stuart David, Chris Geddes and Sarah Martin.

Whilst at college, in 1996, Belle and Sebastian recorded some demo tracks with the college’s music tutor Alan Rankin, who played keyboards and guitars in The Associates alongside the late Billy Mackenzie. The Associates released three albums, The Affectionate Punch  in 1980, Fourth Drawer Down in 1981 and Sulk in 1982. He also released four solo albums in the 1980s. By 1996, Alan Rankin was a tutor at Glasgow’s Stow College.

The demos Belle and Sebastian recorded with Alan Rankin came to the notice of the college’s business studies department. Each year, it released a single on the college’s record label. Belle and Sebastian, by then, had recorded a number of songs, enough to fill an album. Having been so impressed by Belle and Sebastian’s music, that year, the label decided to release an album, called Tigermilk. The album was recorded in three days, and one-thousand copies vinyl were pressed.


Tigermilk was well received and the album sold out quickly. Nowadays, original copies of Tigermilk are collector’s items. Copies don’t change hands often, but when they do, prices are in excess of £500. Back in 1996, Tigermilk was just the demo of an unknown Glasgow band. They wouldn’t be unknown for long.

The success of Tigermilk  lead to Stuart Murdoch and Stuart David deciding to become a full-time band. Soon, new  members joining the band. Isobel Campbell joined on vocals and cello, Stevie Jackson guitar and vocals, Richard Coburn on drums and Chris Geddes on keyboards. Not long after this, Belle and Sebastian signed to Jeepster Records in August 1996.

Now signed to Jeepster, Tigermilk was rereleased. When critics heard Tigermilk, they were bowled over by Belle and Sebastian. They were very different from the Britpop sound that was prevalent. Belle and Sebastian’s music was much more understated, cerebral, dreamy and wistful. It was the type of music that would be heard in thousands of student bedsits. That proved to the case.

With a major indie backing Tigermilk, the album reached number thirteen in the UK charts. Tigermilk was certified gold. Almost overnight, Belle and Sebastian became one of the hottest indie bands in Britain. This was just the start of the rise and rise of Belle and Sebastian.


 If You’re Feeling Sinister.

Buoyed by the success of Tigermilk, Belle and Sebastian  released their second album If You’re Feeling Sinister in November 1996. Critics were won over by Belle and Sebastian’s sophomore album. Released to widespread critical acclaim,  If You’re Feeling Sinister is often perceived as Belle and Sebastian’s Magnus Opus. American magazine Spin, liked the album so much, that they put it at number seventy-six in their top one-hundred albums released between 1985-2005. Rolling Stone magazine put the album in its list of essential albums of the 1990s.

On its release in November 1996, If You’re Feeling Sinister reached number nineteen. This resulted in If You’re Feeling Sinister being certified gold. It seemed that Belle and Sebastian had the Midas touch. Everything they touched turned to gold.

After the release of If You’re Feeling Sinister, the group released series of EPs during 1997. The EPs were Dog On Wheels, Lazy Line Painter Jane and 3.. 6.. 9 Seconds of Light. Dog On Wheels was actually four songs that were recorded prior to the group’s formation. It reached number fifty-nine in the UK charts. Lazy Line Painter reached number forty-one in the UK charts, and 3.. 6.. 9 Seconds of Light became the group’s first top forty single, reaching number thirty-two in the UK charts. However, in 1998, Belle and Sebastian would enjoy the most successful album of their nascent career.


 The Boy With The Arab Strap.

For Belle and Sebastian the two previous years had been a whirlwind. In 1996, they were college students. Two years later, they were one of the most successful indie bands. Since the release of If You’re Feeling Sinister, Belle and Sebastian had divided their time between touring and recording. One of the bands Belle and Sebastian had toured with, Arab Strap, would provide inspiration for their third album, The Boy With The Arab Strap.

Before entering Glasgow’s Ca Va Studio, Belle and Sebastian had been busy. They’d penned twelve tracks. Unlike previous Belle and Sebastian albums, Stuart Murdoch does deliver every vocal. He shares vocal duties with Isobel Campbell, Stevie Jackson and Stuart David, sing vocals.Belle and Sebastian’s rhythm section was drummer Richard Colburn, bassist Stuart David and guitarists Stuart Murdoch and Stevie Jackson. Isobel Campbell played cello and guitar, Sarah Martin violin, Mick Cooke trumpet and Chris Geddes piano and keyboards. Ian McKay played bagpipes on Sleep the Clock Around. Producing  The Boy With The Arab Strap, which released on 7h September 1998, was Tony Doogan.

When The Boy With The Arab Strap was released in September 1998, the name of the album caused a minor controversy within the Scottish music scene. There was a band called Arab Strap who consisted of Aiden Moffat and Malcolm Middleton. They recorded and performed between 1995-2006. Adiden Moffat was none to pleased that the name of his band featured in the title of Belle and Sebastian’s new album. This lead to a minor war of words between two of the Scottish music scene’s then, leading bands. Thankfully, this was quickly forgotten and people concentrated on Belle and Sebastian’s new album.

On its release,  The Boy With The Arab Strap reached number twelve in the UK charts It received mixed views from music critics. Rolling Stone magazine, which had always been supportive of Belle had a different view of The Boy With The Arab Strap. Just like The Village Voice,  Rolling Stone magazine praised the album. Others weren’t as impressed. However, as is often the case, music critics decided to rewrite history. They’ve revisited The Boy With The Arab Strap.  Now critics believe The Boy With The Arab Strap, and not If You’re Feeling Sinister, is the band’s best album. 

In 1999 Belle and Sebastian, won the award for Best Newcomer at the Brit Awards. This was a strange decision. By 1999, Belle and Sebastian had released three albums. Each album was certified gold. Despite this, those responsible for the Brit Awards perceived Belle and Sebastian as newcomers. That’s far from the case. They were an experienced group. That’s apparent on  The Boy With The Arab Strap

Opening The Boy With The Arab Strap is It Could Have Been A Brilliant Career. This is a one of  Belle and Sebastian’s best ever songs. It’s beautiful, poignant song that features some really thoughtful and pensive lyrics. A tender wistful vocal is accompanied by an understated arrangement. This allows the vocal to take centre-stage. The vocal sounds as if it’s been influenced by Nick Drake. As for the lyrics, they’ve a strong narrative. They’re delivered tenderly with more than a hint of pathos. 

Sleep Around the Clock sounds totally different from It Could Have Been A Brilliant Career. The tempo is quicker, and sounds totally different from the opening track. What it has in common is the lyrics. Here the lyrics are strong, intelligent and tell a story. My one quibble with the arrangement is that the instruments, at times, almost overpower the vocal. That, to me, is a shame, given the quality of the vocal and lyrics. However, I still think this is a good song, albeit, one where the production could have improved the song, by making the vocal stronger, or more prominent in the mix.

Isobel Campbell sings the lead vocal on Is It Wicked Not To Care? She sings this song beautifully, and has just the right voice to carry the song off. Campbell has a fantastic voice, as she would later prove in her collaborations with Mark Lanegan. Here, she almost whispers the vocal, and is effectively accompanied by an acoustic guitar, and some glorious backing vocals. This track has a very retro sound, almost 1960s French feel to it. Is It Wicked Not To Care? has always been, and will always be, one of my favorite Belle and Sebastian tracks.

Ease Your Feet Into the Sea, is another of album’s best songs. The arrangement is perfect for the song. Stuart Murdoch gives one of his best performances on this track. His vocal, highlights the beauty of the song. Behind Murdoch, the band play beautifully, all the instruments come together beautifully. The use of purely acoustic instruments is highly effective, and Ease Your Feet Into the Sea, is a classic Belle and Sebastian track.

 A Summer Wasting sees a change in style and tempo. The song starts slowly, and then the song quickens. When the drums enter the song, they play a  strange beat. This makes you focus on the song. When you do, you hear lyrics about a student spending the summer relaxing, no work to do, books to read, just spending time not doing anything much, just watching time passing them by. This song is one any former student will be able to relate to. Although this is a just a short song, it is two minutes of beautiful music.

Seymour Stein sees Stevie Jackson take the lead vocal on this song. Immediately, the start of the song makes me think of a Nick Drake track. The chords and style are similar to those Drake used to such great effect. Here, Stevie Jackson’s vocal is a contrast to Stuart Murdoch’s vocal. The lyrics are cerebral, witty and perceptive. They’re about Seymour Sten, a record industry mogul, who is one of the most influential players in the music industry. Towards the end of the song if you pay close attention to the lyrics, they say “he reminded you of Johnny, before he went Electronic”. This is Johnny Marr, formerly of The Smiths and later, a member of Electronic. Cerebral, perceptive and witty, this track epitomises everything that’s good about Belle and Sebastian.

A Space Boy Dream, features a spoken word performance from Stuart David. It’s another example of Belle and Sebastian pushing musical boundaries. The music that plays behind David’s vocal features some nice rhythms. They’re yang to David’s yin.

Dirty Dream Number Two sees Murdoch retake the lead vocals. When you listen to the track carefully, there is a Northern Soul influence to the track. Take away the vocal, and what you have is almost a Norther Soul soul track. You could be transported back to Wigan Casino in an instant. This is a stomping track, one of  The Boy With The Arab Strap’s best.

The title track The Boy With The Arab Strap, sees once again, the style and tempo change. On the track, the vocal is accompanied by handclaps, a piano and drums. They all play a prominent role in sound, later a Hammond organ enters the fray, and what sounds like a recorder. All of this melee of instruments and sounds, somehow, join together to produce a great track. The lyrics to the song  are intelligent and witty. They tell a story about jailbirds, errant lovers and the seedy underbelly of city life. The Boy With The Arab Strap, is another mini-masterpiece from Belle and Sebastian.

Stevie Jackson returns to take the vocal lead on Chickfactor. The lyrics tell a tale about a young man going to New York and meeting a girl he falls in love with. They then enter into a long distance relationship, and the song tells about his insecurities when he can’t contact his estranged love. Reading the lyrics, they tell a story well, so well, you can almost imagine the scenes, but a couple of lines have an almost Lewis Carroll feel to them. For example, “something’s gone wrong, said the spider to the fly”. When I listen to the lyrics, I see parallels with the literate quality of the lyrics, on Lloyd Cole and Commotions albums, especially Rattlesnakes. Quite simply, another compelling track.

Simple Things is a short track. However, what it lacks in length, it makes up in quality. The lyrics feature an enigmatic young man, singing to the young lady of his dreams. In the track, he tells her how he feels, and what she has to do to to win his affections. Although the song only contains four verses, it tells a story, and has a cinematic quality.

The final song on The Boy With The Arab Strap, is The Rollercoaster Ride. While Simple Thing was a short track, this is, by far, the longest song on the album. Murdoch’s vocal is made for this song. He sings the song slowly, and is accompanied on backing vocals by Isobel Campbell. Their voices blend together beautifully. The remainder of the band play quietly in the background, their performance tailor-made to bring out the beauty of the lyrics. They never overpower the vocal, yet do not give a subdued performance. The guitars and drums provide a simple, yet effective backdrop, for Murdoch and Campbell’s voices. Belle and Sebastian have chosen a great track to close the album with, as the song almost winds down, slowly, gently, bringing the album to a glorious conclusion.

The Boy With The Arab Strap has only twelve songs on the album, and it lasts a mere forty five minutes. However, for those forty-five minutes your eyes and brain is  given an aural treat. Throughout the twelve tracks you will experience a multitude of emotions, from joy to sadness. You will find yourself laughing and crying, sometimes within the space of a couple of minutes. Belle and Sebastian are wordsmiths of the highest standard. Their lyrics can paint a picture, or tell a story. On  The Boy With The Arab Strap, they do this wonderfully. If you have never heard this album, or heard Belle and Sebastian’s music, this album is a must have for any record collection.

Even after releasing eight studio albums, Belle and Sebastian are one of Scotland and the music industry’s best kept secrets. Once you’ve heard a Belle and Sebastian album, you enter a love affair with their music. The best way to begin this love affair is with The Boy With The Arab Strap, which will be rereleased on vinyl by Jeepster Records on 6th October 2014. This will be the start of a long lasting love affair with Belle and Sebastian’s music. However, this is love affair where you won’t be cheated on. Nor will you walk away. There’s no chance of that. Once you’ve discover and experienced Belle and Sebastian’s music, you will neither  stray nor regret, your new found relationship with the beautiful, thoughtful and intelligent music on  The Boy With The Arab Strap.



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