Belle and Sebastian-1996-2016: The First Twenty Years.

Over the last fifty years, many bands have been formed at university or college.  Many of these bands went on to hone their sound on college and university circuit. However, only one of theses bands went on to release their debut single and album  on their college’s record label. This might sound fat fetched, but it’s not. Stow College in Glasgow has its own record label, and it’s where Belle and Sebastian first came to prominence twenty years ago. 

It was back in 1996, at Stow College, in Glasgow that Belle and Sebastian were formed. 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 Chris Geddes and Sarah Martin.

Whilst at college, in 1996, Belle and Sebastian recorded some demo tracks with the college’s music professor Alan Rankin. Yes. That Alan Rankin, formerly the keyboardist and guitarist in The Associates alongside the late Billy Mackenzie. The demos came to the notice of the college’s business studies department, who each year, 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. 


Tiigermilk, which was produced by Alan Rankin,  was recorded in just three days. Only 1,000 vinyl copies were pressed, and the album was released in June 1996. Tigermilk was well received and the album sold out quickly.

Nowadays, the original copies of Tigermilk are collector’s items, and prized possessions amongst Belle and Sebastian fans.  Little did the members of Belle and Sebastian realise who prized copies of Tigermilk would become, However, following the success of Tigermilk, Belle and Sebastian decided to make a career out of music.

Stuart Murdoch and Stuart David decided that Belle and Sebastian would become a full-time band. Soon, further members joined the band. Isobel Campbell joined on vocals and cello, Stevie Jackson on guitar and vocals, Richard Coburn on drums and Chris Geddes on keyboards.

If You’re Feeling Sinister

After Tigermilk’s success, the group signed to Jeepster Records .in August 1996. Just four months later, Belle and Sebastian were preparing to released their sophomore album If You’re Feeling Sinister. It had been produced by Tony Doogan, who would play an important part in the Belle and Sebastian story.

On 18th November 1996,If You’re Feeling Sinister was released and went on to reached 191 in the UK. Since then, the album has  been certified gold. That’s not surprising, Many people believe that this is Belle and Sebastian’s finest album. Indeed, American magazine Spin, liked the album so much, that they put it at number seventy-six in their top one-hundred albums released in the twenty year period between 1985-2005. Rolling Stone magazine put the album in its list of essential albums of the 1990s.

After the release of If You’re Feeling Sinister, the group released series of E.P.s during 1997. The E.P.s were Dog On Wheels, Lazy Line Painter Jane and 3, 6, 9 Seconds of Light. Dog On Wheels featured four songs that were recorded before the formation of Belle and Sebastian. It reached number fifty-nine in the UK charts. Lazy Line Painter then reached number forty-one in the UK charts, before 3, 6, 9 Seconds of Light became the group’s first top forty single, reaching number thirty-two in the UK charts. That was the start of the rise and rise of Belle and Sebastian.

 The Boy With The Arab Strap.

September 1998, saw Belle and Sebastian release their third album, the Tony Doogan produced  The Boy With The Arab Strap. It reached number twelve in the UK charts and was certified gold. Unlike previous Belle and Sebastian albums, Stuart Murdoch doesn’t feature on vocals. Instead, they’re shared amongst Isobel Campbell, Stevie Jackson and Stuart David. The album received mixed views from the music press. Long time supporter of Belle and Sebastian, Rolling Stone and The Village Voice praised The Boy With The Arab Strap, while others weren’t as impressed. However, since its release, many people, myself included, believe The Boy With The Arab Strap to be Belle and Sebastian’s finest hour. Despite the success of The Boy With The Arab Strap, Belle and Sebastian changed direction musically. However, before that, Tigermlk was released.


Three years after Tigermilk was first released,  Belle and Sebastian’s debut album was rereleased by Jeepster in 1999. This made sense. Belle and Sebastian’s fans wanted a copy of the band’s debut. However, when Tigermilk was originally released, only a 1,000 copies were pressed. They were now collectors’s items. So a decision was made to reissue Tigermilk. It reached number thirteen in the UK, and was certified gold. With a new millennia fast approaching, Belle and Sebastian were one of the rising stars of British music.

Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant.

Two years after the release of The Boy With The Arab Strap, Belle and Sebastian returned with Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant. It was the second album to be produced by Tony Doogan,  would become  Belle and Sebastian’s music successful album.

Released to critical acclaim in June 2000, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant reached number ten in the UK and was certified silver. Across the Atlantic, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant became Belle and Sebastian’s first album to chart. It reached eighty in the US Billboard 200. This was as a result of a change in direction from Belle and Sebastian.

Their music is best described as chamber pop. Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Present has a much more laid-back, mellow sound. The tempo is slower, while vocals are shared amongst band members. Then there’s the strings. They’re used more extensively. Sadly, this was the last album to feature founder member Stuart David. For their next album, Belle and Sebastian would try their hand at writing a film score.


Although Storytelling was both Belle and Sebastian’s fifth album, it was their first film score. Released in June 2002, the album reached just twenty-six in the UK and15o in the US Billboard 200. This was hugely disappointing, although not as disappointing as what happened next.

Only six minutes of the thirty-five minutes of music recorded by Belle and Sebastian made it into Todd Solondz’s movie. It sounds as if the experience was somewhat frustrating for the band. They had problems communicating with Todd Solondz. Worse was to come.

Belle and Sebastian were about to lose one of their most important members… Isobel Campbell. Having released and toured Storytelling, Isobel Campbell left Belle and Sebastian. She decided to pursue a solo career. Many critics wondered what effect this would’ve on Belle and Sebastian? They came back, but briefly, were different band 

Dear Catastrophe Waitress.

Much of the summer of 2003 saw Belle and Sebastian recording their sixth album. Losing Isobel Campbell wasn’t the only that had changed since the release of Belle and Sebastian previous album. No.They had left Jeepster, and signed to Rough Trade. Tony Doogan was also replaced as producer. His replacement was Trevor Horn. This seemed a somewhat strange decision.

Previously, ex-Buggle Trevor Horn had been an award winning producer and songwriter. Recently, though, he had been working with Charlotte Church and Lee Ann Rimes. Considering Belle and Sebastian were one of the hottest indie bands, they seemed strange and awkward bedfellows. It seemed Trevor Horn had been brought in to polish of the band’s rough edges. Rough Trade, a supposed indie label, were polishing away part of the group’s charms. Many onlookers were horrified, afraid of the direction Trevor Horn would take Belle and Sebastian.

In some ways, those fears were justified. Gone was the folksie, melancholy, chamber pop of Belle and Sebastian’s roots. These fears were justified. Dear Catastrophe Waitress was the polar opposite of previous albums. Replacing Belle and Sebastian’s trademark sound  was the slick, poppy charms of the Trevor Horn produced Dear Catastrophe Waitress. It was an album that divide the opinion of fans and critics.

Before the release of  Dear Catastrophe Waitress, critics gave the album favourable reviews. Critics on both sides of the Atlantic were won over by the new sound Belle and Sebastian showcased on Dear Catastrophe Waitress, but stalled at just twenty-one in the UK and eighty-four in the US Billboard 200. Despite this Dear Catastrophe Waitress was certified gold, and was was nominated for an Ivor Novello award.  However, despite the positive reviews Dear Catastrophe Waitress received, thankfully, Belle and Sebastian and Trevor Horn never renewed their acquaintance when they released their next album, three years later.

Between the release of Dear Catastrophe Waitress and 2006s The Life Pursuit, Belle and Sebastian kept busy. In 2005, they released a twenty-five track compilation entitled Push Barman To Open Old Wounds. Featuring a series of E.P.s Belle and Sebastian had released, critics adored the album. Hailed as vintage Belle and Sebastian, they were crowned the best indie band. Very different from Dear Catastrophe Waitress, Push Barman To Open Old Wounds was the Belle and Sebastian their fans knew and loved. Push Barman To Open Old Wounds wasn’t Belle and Sebastian’s only release during 2005.

No. Belle and Sebastian released their first live album, If You’re Feeling Sinister: Live At The Barbican. Released in December 2005, this allowed Belle and Sebastian to revisit their 1996 album If You’re Feeling Sinister and rectify what the band believed to be the mistakes of the original album. That night in September 2005, Belle and Sebastian took the Barbican by storm, playing an encore lasting over an hour. This encore would prove to be somewhat prophetic.

The Life Pursuit.

When Belle and Sebastian released The Life Pursuit in February 2006, it proved to be their most successful album. The Life Pursuit was produced by Tony Hoffer, who previously, produced Air, Turin and Beck. He was a much better fit than Trevor Horn. On its release, critical acclaim accompanied The Life Pursuit, which reached number eight in the UK and number sixty-five in the US Billboard 200. This resulted in another gold disc for Belle and Sebastian. Funny Little Frog then gave Belle and Sebastian the biggest hit single of their ten year career. Despite that, it would be four years until Belle and Sebastian released their next studio album.

Following the release of The Life Pursuit, Belle and Sebastian headed out on tour. They were now well versed in the album, tour, album, tour routine. To ensure their fans didn’t forget them, Belle and Sebastian released The BBC Sessions in November 2008. A double-album, the first disc featured many songs that featured Isobel Campbell. These songs had never been heard before. So for fans of Belle and Sebastian this was a real must have. As for the second disc, it features Belle and Sebastian live in Belfast, which sees the group cover Thin Lizzy’s The Boys Are Back In Town. While The BBC Sessions kept Belle and Sebastian’s fans occupied, the group recorded their most successful album to date.

Belle and Sebastian Write About Love.

October 2010, saw Belle and Sebastian released their eighth studio album. Entitled Belle and Sebastian Write About Love, it was the second Belle and Sebastian album produced by Tony Hoffer. Recorded in Los Angeles, rather than Glasgow this surprised some people. Tony’s decision to take Belle and Sebastian out their comfort zone worked. He was proving to be the perfect foil for Belle and Sebastian’s foibles. Featuring contributions from Norah Jones, Sarah Martin and Carey Mulligan, Belle and Sebastian and friends struck musical gold.

Reaching number eight in the UK, Belle and Sebastian Write About Love reached number fifteen in the US Billboard 200. Critically acclaimed and a hit worldwide, this was a long way from recording Tigermilk in three days as part of a college project. Belle and Sebastian were indie Queens and Kings. Despite this, the continued to things their way.

While many bands would’ve headed straight back into the studio and had a followup to Belle and Sebastian Write About Love release A.S.A.P, this isn’t the Belle and Sebastian way. No. Not only do Belle and Sebastian do things their way, but they care about their fans. So, whilst taking their time recording a followup to Belle and Sebastian Write About Love, they’ve released a nineteen track retrospective, The Third Eye Centre.

This nineteen track retrospective, The Third Eye Centre, features rarities, remixes, B-SIdes, non-album tracks and tracks from E.P.s. The music spans Belle and Sebastian’s career. There’s tracks from albums produced by Tony Doogan, Trevor Horn and Tony Hoffer. Bonus tracks sit side by side with remixes, while B-Sides and charity singles. In some ways, The Third Eye Centre allows the listener to hear another side to Belle and Sebastian. The Third Eye Centre was the perfect amuse bouche until Belle and Sebastian released their ninth studio album.

Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance,

Work began on Belle and Sebastian’s ninth album back in 2014.  By then, the members of Belle and Sebastian had written twelve tracks. These tracks would become Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance, which somewhat surprisingly, was produced by Ben H. Allen III. 

This was a strange, and somewhat controversial decision. Many people thought Tony Hoffer, who produced Belle and Sebastian’s previous album, Belle and Sebastian Write About Love would return.Belle and Sebastian Write About Love was the second Belle and Sebastian album produced by Tony Hoffer. The first was The Life Pursuit. Tony seemed to bring out the best Belle and Sebastian. However, this being Belle and Sebastian, it’s always a case of expect the unexpected. After all, previously, Belle and Sebastian hired Trevor Horn, who gave their music a slick, polished sheen. So maybe, bring in Ben H. Allen III to produce Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance would work?

Some sceptics had their doubts. After all, Ben H. Allen III’s C.V. showed that previously, he had produced Animal Collective and Washed Out. This was very different to Belle and Sebastian. However, maybe, Belle and Sebastian and Ben H. Allen III would prove a potent partnership.

For their ninth studio album, Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance, Belle and Sebastian penned twelve tracks. Much of the recording took place in Atlanta, Georgia with producer by Ben H. Allen III, .Additional recording took place at other studios in Minneapolis, Minnesota and at Glasgow’s Castle Of Doom Studios with Tony Doogan. He’s previously, has produced four Belle and Sebastian albums. However, they were very different to Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance.

When Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance was released on 19 thJanuary 2015, mostly, the reviews were favourable. Critics noted that Belle and Sebastian were still, among the most talented modern day songwriters. However, critics noted the Belle and Sebastian’s music had been given a makeover, They headed for the dance -floor on several tracks, before returning to their more traditional sound, that took shape over their first four albums. After that, Belle and Sebastian became musical chameleons.

Belle and Sebastian have their own unique sound. It took shape on the quartet of albums produced by Tony Doogan. From 1996s If You’re Feeling Sinister, through 1998s The Boy With The Arab Strap, Fold Your Hands Child, 2000s You Walk Like a Peasant and 2002s Storytelling, Belle and Sebastian’s trademark sound gradually take shape. Then came the Trevor Horn Dear Catastrophe Waitress. That was a one-off.

Tony Hoffer then produced 2006s Belle and Sebastian Write About Love and 2010s The Life Pursuit. However, Tony Hoffer didn’t return for Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance. Instead, Ben H. Allen III took his place on what’s a quite different album from Belle and Sebastian.

Before the release of  Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance, it was hard to imagine Belle and Sebastian ever making a dance album. However, with Belle and Sebastian, never rule anything out. They’re a contrarian band, always determined to do things their way. This includes making a dance album. It’s interspersed with Belle and Sebastian’s more traditional sound.

This means the sound that took shape between Tigermilk and Storytelling. The music on these albums showcase the literary and musical talents of Belle and Sebastian. They’re wordsmiths extraordinaire. Each song features lyrics that are cerebral, eloquent, emotive, joyous, melancholy and poignant. Beauty is feature of many of the lyrics. However, others are full of pathos and sadness, and relentlessly tug at your heartstrings. Especially when delivered by Stuart Murdoch, Sarah Martin and Stevie Jackson. However, Belle and Sebastian are no one trick pony.

Far from it. They’ve been making music for twenty years, and that music has evolved since 1997. Belle and Sebastian are musical chameleons, who constantly reinvent their music. This ensures their music stays relevant. It also seem that Belle and Sebastian enjoy being taken out of their comfort zone. Maybe that’s why they’ve worked with so different producers, some of which have seemed a strange fit for Belle and Sebastian. However, those who have followed the band’s career aren’t surprised.

Belle and Sebastian have always had a contrarian streak. They’ve alway been determined to do things their way, and can never be described as a corporate band. Far from it.  Belle and Sebastian do things their way, or not at all. if they want to change producer or direction musically, so be it. Similarly, if Belle and Sebastian decide to take  four or five years to release an album, so be it. There’s a reason for this. The members of Belle and Sebastian realise that there’s more to life than music.

They’re one of the few bands whose members put the band on hold on hold to spend time with their family. Only Belle and Sebastian could do this. That’s why they’re a one off, and so many people hold them and their music dear. That’s been the case since Belle and Sebastian released Tigermilk in 1996. Twenty years later, and Belle and Sebastian are still going strong. They’ve released nine studio albums, three live albums and two compilations since 1996.  These albums feature the inimitable and chameleon-like Belle and Sebastian, as they constantly reinvent their unique brand of enchanting music in their search for musical perfection.

Belle and Sebastian-1996-2016: The First Twenty Years.






1 Comment

  1. A band I hold very dear. I’m of the belief they still make some of their best work

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