It happens once every few years in pop. An unforeseen event divides people into two camps – those who expected it, and those who are left scratching their heads. You’d have to rewind five years to the death of Kurt Cobain to pin-point last time it happened. While ITN reported his suicide seven stories into the news, the pop-literate kids grieved, and grunge eventually gave way to Britpop. It’s what pop thrives on, this marking-out of territory. And it happened again on Febuary 23rd this year, when a bunch of Glaswegian Orange Juice fans called Belle and Sebastian pipped Steps to the Brit award for Best British Newcomer. No matter that The Boy With The Arab Strap was the octet’s third album, and that Fatboy Slim pointedly proclaimed never to have heard of them – less still that socialite du jour Tamara Beckwith felt “betrayed” by the decision.
Such reactions merely re-enforced those battle lines. Steps’ supremo Pete Waterman took defeat especially hard. His call for an investigation was turned down by Radio 1, who had organised the phone vote. His ire didn’t fall on completely deaf ears, though. In the programme notes to 200 Troubled Teenagers – a recent Belle and Sebastian night held at the New Cross Paradise Bar – fans were asked to vote for their favourite B&S songs: “We’ve invited Pete Waterman to oversee procedures and make sure everything is fair.”
It’s no coincidence that the last band to attract such intense adulation from such a marginal section of the pop electorate were The Smiths. Belle and Sebastian fans don’t look too different to the fey young fops who turned up to Smiths shows with flowers in pockets. Both bands, too, boast songwriters who seemed to incubate in isolation. In the case of Morrissey, no-one had heard his lyrics until the mythical day Johnny Marr knocked on his door and subsequently teased out a whole interior world set amid the post-war estates that Morrissey had patrolled as a youth.
The emergence of Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch as a songwriter came as a similar surprise to those who knew him. “Stuart was a popular character in Glasgow,” says Duglas Stewart, producer of a forthcoming B&S documentary and singer with BMX Bandits, “but no-one knew he wrote songs until about four years ago when he just got up and performed three songs at a club put on by The Pastels.”
“They were called Rhode Island then,” recalls Mark Jones, co-owner of the band’s record label, jeepster. “This demo came to my attention and I was blown away. I played it to a friend at Geffen Records, and he sent it to Seymour Stein [president of Sire in America, and the man who signed Madonna]. Within 24 hours of receiving it, he was making plans to come over. It was at that point that I sensed how much impact this might make.”
In January 1996, as Murdoch stood in a friend’s bedroom and played songs like The State I’m In and String Bean Jean to talent scouts from 25 record companies, he must also have sensed that his life was about to change. “It was amazing,” laughs Jones, “to see subsidiaries of the same labels squabbling for the band’s signature. Most groups would have been flattered by the attention, but I think the band felt that the record industry was a rip-off. For Stuart, choosing a label was a case of damage limitation. At least we were able to offer a 50/50 royalty split.”
Belle and Sebastian chose Jeepster, but not before the fledgling label was given a taste of the single-mindedness that, in time, they would have to get used to. The band’s drummer, Richard Colburn, was attending a music industry course at Stow College in Glasgow, for which students were required “sign” a band and put a record out on the students’ own label. It was for this project that Belle and Sebastian formed. “I was left in a strange position,” reflects Jones. “Stuart gave me his pledge, but wouldn’t sign for another eight months, after they’d recorded Tigermilk for this course. When the day finally approached, I phoned him and said, “‘Are you excited about signing with Jeepster tomorrow?’ And he replied, ‘Oh, we already did it today, with a local lawyer.” I was like, ‘Well, cheers for telling me!’”
With all 1,000 copies of Tigermilk sold out, London got it’s first taste of Belle and Sebastian in November 1996 when they arrived to promote the release of their second album, If You’re Feeling Sinister. According to the band’s publicist, Chris Stone, “The Borderline show was one of those gigs when you know you’re watching history being made.’ The buzz was already deafening: the Charlie Brown piano patter of Seeing Other People, and the sexual playground politics of Stars of Track and Field were already stoking the curiosity of fans. At this point it seemed inevitable that Murdoch’s slender frame would soon be gracing the cover of every music magazine in Britain.
What no one banked on was the fact that he wouldn’t want any of it. To this day, no group photos exist. In the absence of any willingness to entertain media intrigue, a view has gathered ground that Belle and Sebastian are contemptuous of anyone outside their immediate circle. Much of this can be attributed to their legendary shambolic 1997 shows. At the Union Chapel, one changeover between songs took so long that guitarist Stevie Jackson stepped in with an acoustic Like a Rolling Stone. In New York they left it till the support band came off to announce that they were cancelling, citing the illness of Stuart’s ex-girlfriend, multi-instrumentalist Isobel Campbell, as the reason. The impression given during this perion was clearly not lost on Jackson, who issued a statement conceding that “right now, we are a shambles, but…. we could never be deliberately contemptuous of an audience.”
“I was at the New York show,” says Gail O’Hara, whose fanzine Chickfactor inspired Jackson’s eponymous song, “and it was unfortunate, but as a band, they are incredibly protective of each other. If things aren’t perfect, they won’t play. It’s born of perfectionism, not rudeness.”
And yet the suggestion won’t go away. Perhaps Belle and Sebastian are perpetually doomed to rub folk up the wrong way. At last years Shepherds Bush Empire show, they took to the stage phenomenally late – to a mixture of boos and cheers. As the noise died down, someone shouted “You’d better be fucking good”, only to be heckled down by a cluster of devotees. What ensued was comical: Belle and Sebastian attempting to play their songs while opposing factions within the audience traded abuse. A certain parallel might amuse the man who wrote Like Dylan in the Movies: the last time such intra-audience tension divided followers from doubters was Dylan’s first electric tour.
“There is this perception problem,” agrees Jones, “and sometimes I get exasperated when, say, Radiohead or Pulp invite them on their world tour and they refuse, or when they turn down TV shows like Later because they can’t decide what song to do. But it’s because, live, they’re doing something different. It has its flipside, though – for instance, their refusal to release singles off albums. As people, they’re anything but contemptuous. Stevie used to work with Aids patients; Isobel used to teach disabled children with her cello; and Stuart’s just a sweetheart. Even at the beginning, when I offered to buy them train tickets, they said, ‘No, we’d rather hitch.’ And you have to respect that.”
Where to unravel the contradictions, then? “I don’t think there are any,” says one insider on the Glasgow music scene. “The media should let them be. Stuart’s never done anything to court stardom or its paraphernalia. He’s even held on to his old job as a janitor in the local church. The only bands he ever wanted to emulate were The Pastels and Felt, and that happened ages ago. He’s in uncharted territory.”
It’s a view echoed by Duglas Stewart. “Most of us can get starry-eyed by celebrity. But Stuart would much rather talk about the new railings they’ve just got for the town hall.” Perhaps he saw all this coming. On one early track, This is Just a Modern Rock Song, Murdoch sings, “I could tell you what I’m thinking / But it never seems to do you good…… I’m only lucid when I’m writing songs.” Tellingly, it’s one of the few lyrics that relinquishes the role of a spectator, “keeping an eye on the weather and the passer-by in case one of them ought to have a song written about them” (a quote from the band’s first, self-written press release).
For all the parallels between Murdoch and Morrissey, there’s a crucial difference. Morrissey bemoans being an outsider; Murdoch relishes it. “I remember this one gig in 1997,” begins our Glasgow source, “at which Belle and Sebastian were headlining. They were already quite big by this point, but Stuart just sat there in the corner just observing and writing. His songs came from anonymity. Why should he want to sacrifice it?”
Why, indeed, when this band have managed to negotiate such a position of power for themselves? The exciting thing about Belle and Sebastian is that no one before them has come so far while refusing so much – bar none. Seymour Stein wanted them, but Seymour Stein can’t have them. The NME would love to adopt them as one of their bands, but they can’t have them either. Over in New Cross, the bearded boys and lank-haired girls seem to have claimed them as their own. Who would begrudge them?