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A few years back, a friend of mine went to see Belle and Sebastian at the Fillmore, where he soon found himself surrounded by a gaggle of young moppets wearing “Who the fuck is Steve Malkmus?” T-shirts. The renowned former Pavement frontman had recently played with his new band at the legendary San Francisco venue, and these scrappy Belle fans were sending a message loud and clear: Stuart Murdoch is our indie god.
“Indie god”: It’s a term that Glaswegian arts writer Paul Whitelaw uses unashamedly in his new book, Belle and Sebastian: Just a Modern Rock Story. The biographer is clearly smitten with his subject—which is both blessing and curse. As its press demurely attests, Whitelaw’s book is “THE FIRST BIOGRAPHY OF BELLE AND SEBASTIAN—WRITTEN WITH THE BAND’S COOPERATION!” And that cooperation surely came courtesy of a couple of well-placed smooches.
The language in between Whitelaw’s interviews with the band members floats often into the purple—and his italicized fictional interludes are downright embarrassing—but he does manage to squeeze some decent personal insights out of the notoriously publicity-shy Belles, most notably Murdoch, the unquestioned mastermind behind the recording-project-turned-band. Born in 1968 and raised in a middle-class family in Ayr, Scotland, Murdoch was exposed to music at an early age, did well in school, excelled at football, and, by all accounts, was a popular, well-adjusted kid. Not quite the picture of misfit adolescence that he paints with his melancholy lyrics, and Whitelaw goes on at great length about how Murdoch is a study in contradictions. One point of fascination is Murdoch’s teenage devotion to prog-rockers Yes:
As unlikely as it might seem, these earnest longhairs taught him that music could be beautiful and enigmatic, and that a distinctive vision could be created through a firmly held commitment to a firmly held aesthetic. Fortunately, he realized before it was too late that a commitment to foolish capes and Tolkien-esque drivel wasn’t the kind of aesthetic he wished to embrace, but it’s clear that some kind of lesson had been learned.
Notice Whitelaw’s rationalization of youthful poor taste; it’s a relief for all concerned when Murdoch’s attentions turn to the more suitable Felt, Orange Juice, and the Smiths.
However frightening, this early foray into cape-rock is a proper canvas for Whitelaw’s notion of Murdoch as internally incongruous. Another point of undue interest, to not only Whitelaw but also the music press in general, is Murdoch’s Christianity. The occasional warped ecclesiastical reference aside, Belle and Sebastian’s music cannot be described as particularly spiritual, but the fact of its songwriter’s professed faith does set him apart from most modern popsters—and engender Whitelaw’s ridiculous assertion that Murdoch is “probably the only practicing Christian in indie-pop (or at least, the only one willing to admit it).”
But despite such singularity, it wasn’t until his third year at Glasgow University that Murdoch felt the true sting of isolation. Diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, he dropped out and spent years dragging arse and writing melodies on his parents’ piano. This period of arrested development is part of what Murdoch credits for his music’s later preoccupation with childhood and the schoolyard: “I honestly feel that my personality is more in line with what I felt when I was twelve, which was a golden age for me.”
After returning to Glasgow in 1995, more to try out his music at local open-mike nights than to finish a degree, Murdoch became involved in a program for on-the-dole musicians called Beatbox. Because of his shy stage presence and odd wardrobe (plastic pants, a teddy-bear sweater), he became known around town as a curiosity—in fact, Whitelaw rather creepily tags him “the curious boy” throughout the book. However inscrutable his manner, his songs, with their pure, rock-solid melodies, were instantly comprehensible. At the end of 1995, a demo full of Murdoch’s gentle, tuneful pop was chosen for a university-funded EP project. And so, Seven Samurai–style, Murdoch set out to find “the musicians who would make flesh the sounds he heard in his head.”
Those musicians were Stuart David (bass), Stevie Jackson (guitar), Chris Geddes (keyboards), Richard Colburn (drums), Mick Cooke (trumpet), and Isobel Campbell (cello). Whitelaw sums up the band dynamic in true fan-porn fashion:
It’s actually not too much of a stretch to cast Belle and Sebastian as a family, dysfunctional or otherwise, with Stuart as the eccentric and unpredictable patriarch, Stevie the long-suffering wife, Richard the bluff and good-natured uncle, [violinist] Sarah [Martin] the quiet daughter, Mick the cheeky son, Stuart David the enigmatic older brother, forever locked away in his room, and Isobel and Chris as the wide-eyed and hyperactive children.
The EP project quickly turned into an LP, recorded in less than a week. In the years to come, many would rightfully proclaim that the resulting product, Tigermilk, set an artistic bar that Belle and Sebastian have yet to reach again. Even the adoring Whitelaw acknowledges that Murdoch toiled the next several years in pursuit of something as fresh and energetic. (Still, the author believes that the Belles’ second full-length, 1996’s If You’re Feeling Sinister, is their finest, “a near-perfect collection.” Murdoch & Co. were disappointed with the production.) But the small number of initial Tigermilk pressings eventually became quite scarce; due to airplay by John Peel and Radio One’s indie show The Evening Session, Belle and Sebastian’s “cult was growing by the hour,” writes Whitelaw. “[S]ince copies of Tigermilk were so hard to come by, their nascent apostles had no choice but to contact the group directly.”
In the minds of early fans, Belle and Sebastian could do little wrong. The buzz started before the musicians had even agreed that they were a band. And the group went on to win a Brit Award in 1998—equivalent to an American Grammy, with all of the commercial bullshit that implies—before most of the U.K. had even heard of Belle and Sebastian, on the strength of votes placed over the Internet by college fans who had access to the relatively new technology.
This instant acclaim was “overwhelming,” to use one of Campbell’s favorite words, for a group that was assembled basically as a favor to Murdoch. The songs were entirely his on Tigermilk and Sinister, but for the third full-length, 1998’s The Boy With the Arab Strap, he installed a sort of faux-democracy. Rather than blossoming within their new creative freedom, writes Whitelaw, the other musicians became confused about the band’s vision and argued over details endlessly at band meetings. And more often than not, according to band interviews, Murdoch ended up imposing his own ideas anyway. Arab Strap, with its mishmash of songwriters and styles, is decidedly disappointing—and with its description, we see Whitelaw giving his darlings their first gentle thrashing:
The Boy With the Arab Strap is a disappointment as a whole, hardly a disaster, but an undoubted letdown after the impeccable highs of the first two albums….The differing voices make it a far less cohesive effort than the first two; it’s less complete, less assured, more of a patch-quilt than the seamless musical tapestry of Tigermilk and Sinister.
But by most accounts, the major rifts in the group were a result of Murdoch’s on-and-off intimate involvement with Campbell, a “sensitive soul”—as she’s described more than once by Whitelaw—several years younger than Murdoch. Other members maintain that Murdoch was quick to protect her interests at band meetings. “[T]he rest of the group seemed to view them as a power-wielding two-headed beast,” writes Whitelaw, “someone/thing who would eventually call the tune regardless of the others’ wishes.” And the author himself hardly remains impartial on this matter; it’s more than clear on which side his bread is buttered. On Campbell’s dislike of touring:
“But I don’t think I travel very well,” she frowns, suddenly changing tack, before offering one of the most ridiculously trivial reasons for touring aversion ever heard in the history of rock. “You’re always fishing around for things in your suitcase, it hurts your back.”
Whitelaw takes cheaper shots at Campbell’s solo music. He calls her first effort, recorded under the name Gentle Waves, “a sporadically engaging, almost intangibly fragile record,” “[m]uch of it…quite insufferably twee.” He returns to the insult later, when Campbell, who left the Belles two years ago, intimates that she eventually grew tired of making Murdoch’s music: “[I]t has to be said that most of her solo output deserves the ‘twee’ criticism more than anything Belle and Sebastian have ever released.” And said and said.
“Twee”—probably the most overused descriptor for gentle, melodic pop—ain’t a word the critic takes lightly; the subject of it raises his ire, not to mention that of Neil Robertson, Belle and Sebastian’s longtime manager, a man Whitelaw describes as “about as twee as shite in a pint glass”: “‘[The band is] not twee in any way,’ [Robertson] grumps. ‘When we all get together we’re a right bunch of bastards.’”
A corollary accusation is that the band members—particularly Murdoch, with his delicate warble—are fragile, bookish souls, uninterested in the typical British pursuits of sport, pints, and sex. Whitelaw works hard to dispel these “clichéd assumptions,” while at the same time preserving the image of Belle and Sebastian as a breath of fresh air among the mid-’90s Britpop craze.
With a few exceptions it was basically a boy’s brigade, one which celebrated the stereotypical male pursuits of beer, birds, and football. The press crowed meaningfully about the whole thing being a refreshing antidote to years of stifling political correctness, but that was only so they could print pictures of oiled tits again, all under some spurious banner of postmodernism.
And Whitelaw means for us to see Belle and Sebastian as the antidote to “the boy brigade.” The lyric “Do something pretty while you can” (from Tigermilk’s “We Rule the School”) is conjured again and again as a direct and “brave” challenge to the decade’s lunkheads, truly punk in its defiance.
But the band’s need to challenge has softened in the past few years, and its famously timid and spotty live performances have become stronger and showier. A turning point came with the Belle-sponsored Bowlie Weekender music festival in 2000, a two-day party/bill that included Mercury Rev, Broadcast, and Murdoch faves (and Belle clones) Camera Obscura. The release of the perky, even dancey Dear Catastrophe Waitress in late 2003 advanced the progress of a new, more user-friendly Belle and Sebastian; this same change in attitude presumably played into the band’s decision to cooperate with Whitelaw.
Though the author never makes this connection, he does gush about the transformation like a proud papa watching his child find his bearings. “[Murdoch] let his feet take him unconsciously through the paths he’d walked so many times before,” writes the author in his final imagining, “a new song floating serenely around his head….And with a final prayer for the night and day ahead, the curious boy settled down to dream.”
Belle and Sebastian: Just a Modern Rock Story is loaded with such silliness, but for a die-hard fan, such moments won’t detract from Whitelaw’s massive pile of band interviews and trustworthy detail. And his worshipful tone is, of course, entirely appropriate for the official hagiographer of the next generation’s “indie god.” CP