1. The State I Am In
“I was surprised, I was happy for a day in 1975 / I was puzzled by a dream, stayed with me all day in 1995.” A delicate knockout of a first song and first lyric was a hallmark of Belle and Sebastian’s richly evocative first three albums, but nothing else unlocks the appeal of this Glasgow ensemble quite like the opening couplet to The State I Am In – track one of their 1996 debut Tigermilk, the softly creaking door into their sweet, strange, drolly funny and not a little sinister world, where it’s always a backwards-glancing daydream. Over a Velvet Underground-do-Dylan bed of gently thrummed acoustic guitar and purring organ, our somewhat erratic protagonist watches his brother stand up with his sailor friend on his sister’s wedding day to announce that he’s gay, before marrying a pal to stop her getting deported, kicking the crutches from a crippled friend, getting his child bride drunk on whisky and gin, then giving himself to an understandably hesitant God (“There was a pregnant pause before he said … ‘OK’”). For purposes of comparison, dig out the scrappy, proto-B&S demo of The State I Am In from the rarities compilation Push Barman to Open Old Wounds, and between the two you can practicallyhear the group coalescing around Stuart Murdoch’s reflexively poetic songs, as the band formed via a college music course for the unemployed and a local open mic night, with magic clearly crackling in the Glasgow air (read former Belles bassist Stuart David’s memoir In The All-Night Café for a wonderfully detailed and funny recollection of the group’s first year). By the pristine Tigermilk version Murdoch’s lyrics find their textured match in Stevie Jackson’s shimmering guitar line and Chris Geddes’s swirling keys, and Belle and Sebastian’s slanted charm comes alive.
2. If You’re Feeling Sinister
Murdoch gifted one of the test pressings of Tigermilk to his church minister, which seems appropriate, given that faith is an integral aspect of his songwriting – albeit in a way that’s far more whimsical and quizzical than preachy (not to mention often juxtaposed with profound impiety). The group rehearsed in a church hall in their early years, and even the recording studio where they made their first four albums, CaVa Sound, was a former church. If You’re Feeling Sinister, from 1996, is Belle and Sebastian’s masterpiece. The gossamer bop of its title song – a deceptively dark rumination on faith and death– opens with field recordings of playground ambience made at a nearby primary school, before swelling electric guitar chords and a brisk drum beat enter, followed by a deftly sprinkled piano melody (a lift from a ubiquitous Renault car advert of the age). Thereafter it’s all stark lyrical imagery, touching on loneliness, boredom, lethargy, suicide, and the fallibility of “the vicar or whatever” when it comes to saving mixed-up souls (and all this from a churchgoing Christian). “She was into S&M and bible studies / not everyone’s cup of tea”, runs one memorable line – perhaps the most memorable in the whole of the Belle and Sebastian canon. Darker still is the last chorus, which makes Sinister one of two songs on this list to resolve with a blunt reference to self-interference. “If you are feeling sinister go off and see a minister / chances are you’ll probably feel better if you stayed and played with yourself.”
3. Lazy Line Painter Jane
Hyndland Parish Church, in which Belle and Sebastian rehearsed back in the early days, makes its reverb-heavy presence felt clearly than on this cloistered retro R&B jam, probably the band’s best-loved non-album track. Its cresting finale, all Hammond organ whirls and raking electric guitar runs is the sound of the founding Belle and Sebastian line-up at the peak of their powers. The other obviously notable aspect of Lazy Lane Painter Jane is Monica Queen’s guest vocal – a lusty country-tinged lung-buster from a pal of the band on the Glasgow scene, who proves an unlikely foil for Murdoch’s seven-stone weakling tones. Its lyric is a cryptic lament for a free and easy but evidently muddled-up girl who’ll go with anyone, boy or girl alike, and picks up a dose of thrush from, ahem, “licking railings”, and Lazy Line Painter Jane has an out-of-control chemistry like two teens’ furtive fumble under the desk at the back of biology class.
4. Sleep the Clock Around
The bagpipes have a chequered – by which I mean generally dismal – history in pop. With Sleep the Clock Around, Belle and Sebastian subtly reclaimed Scotland’s national instrument from AC/DC, Paul McCartney and Rod Stewart et al to genuinely stirring effect. Arguably the best track on their 1998 breakout third album The Boy With the Arab Strap – the one that earned them a Brit award, much to the consternation of Pete Waterman – culminates in a gorgeous, swirling, swelling instrumental, the final minute or so of which is embellished by Fender Rhodes, trumpet, synthesiser and the dulcet drones of you-know-what. Coming towards the end of a prolific three-year period – three albums and four EPs – worthy of the 60s beat groups the Belles so plainly admired, The Boy With the Arab Strap was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the point at which Murdoch’s hitherto perfectly formed kitchen-sink vignettes started to feel a little frayed around the edges, and as such became the first album on which other members of the band (guitarist Jackson and cellist/vocalist Isobel Campbell) began contributing to the writing. Sleep the Clock Around seems to allude to Murdoch’s struggles with writer’s block in places (“put down your pen / leave your worries behind”), while its title may be a reference to the chronic fatigue syndrome that caused Murdoch to sleep through large parts of his late teens and early 20s (hence the recurring youth-fantasies of his lyrics). But this one is all feeling, born from New Orderish tinkerings with primitive music software on an Atari computer before growing into a handsomely serene wig-out somewhere between Tindersticks and Billy Ocean’s Red Light Spells Danger. It has become a rousing staple of the Belle and Sebastian live show typically reserved for the encore or the pre-encore slot.
5. The Boy With the Arab Strap
It would be churlish not to feature Belle and Sebastian’s most recognisable song on this list, a number without which no indie disco is complete. For a song that skips along on a rolling Fender Rhodes-riff and features a playground melody at one stage performed on an instrument none more pre-pubescent than a recorder, not to mention a number that has brought untold joy to countless many, The Boy With the Arab Strap isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs. As well as obliviously name checking a cock ring, the title more deliberately references another cult Scottish group of the era and indulges in some sporting mocking of their singer, the titular boy (“we all know you’re soft ’cause we’ve all seen you dancing / We all know you’re hard ’cause we’ve all seen you drinking from noon until noon again”). Skint, knackered and forever stuck on or missing his bus, our narrator’s fed up but suffers in silence like the Asian minicab driver in Old Compton who has a “love hate affair with his racist clientele”, even as he’s surrounded by sleazebags from the London cool set including one who guy who’s forever updating a hit parade of his “10 biggest wanks” (a lyric almost chopped off as the song fades out, for reasons unknown). If ever there was a formula for a floor-filling breakout single then the discomfitingly joyous The Boy With the Arab Strap plainly isn’t it.
6. This is Just a Modern Rock Song
Practically the ballad of the band, This Is Just a Modern Rock Song was the title track of a near-forgotten EP released in 1998 off the back of the burgeoning success of The Boy With the Arap Strap. Locked out of the charts by new regulations on running lengths, and for reasons unclear the only Belle and Sebastian release never to be put out in America, it was eventually elevated from obscurity by inclusion on the Push Barman to Open Old Wounds compilation in 2005. The longest song they’ve ever recorded, it’s a Velvetsy dirge that starts at a pensive amble, its first half full of fairly standard Belle and Sebastian tropes (Murdoch doesn’t just get knocked back by a girl in this one so much as knocked out – “she put me on the ground with judo”), before picking up pace in the middle with a beautiful, swaying trumpet and cello-led instrumental passage. The second half shifts narrative perspective to become an at once self-mythologising and self mocking meta-commentary on being in a modestly successful bookish indie band (making it a partner piece in a way to the much peppier Get Me Away from Here, I’m Dying from If You’re Feeling Sinister). Stevie Jackson takes over lead vocal in his best Lee Hazelwood cowboy croon to sing the spine-tinglingly climactic line: “This is just a modern rock song, this is just a sorry lament / We’re four boys in corduroys, we’re not terrific but we’re competent.” Archly self-effacing they may have been, but Belle and Sebastian knew where they were positioning themselves in the Scottish indie pantheon – the Smithsesque cover art for the This Is Just a Modern Rock Song EP featured Alan Horne on the cover, mercurial impresario of Glasgow’s hugely influential 1980s proto indiepop label Postcard Records.
7. Jonathan David
Stevie Jackson’s songs, steeped in pop classicism, have become an essential component of every Belle and Sebastian album from The Boy With the Arab Strap (Seymour Stein) through to 2015’s Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance (Perfect Couples). Jonathan David probably wouldn’t rank highly on the average Belle and Sebastian fan’s top 10, but it’s a favourite of mine that’s got most of the hallmarks of a Jackson classic – lush harmonies, insanely catchy chorus, heavy 1960s baroque-pop overtones à la the Left Banke and the Zombies. Namechecking the biblical duo of Jonathan and David – evidently Murdoch’s religious imagery was contagious – it’s a sparky piano- and organ-propelled three-minute wonder with lots of unexpected melodic twists and turns. It also inspired one of Belle and Sebastian’s funniest videos – a French new wave cinema-inspired romp in which Murdoch and Jackson more or less act out the song’s love triangle lyric, which concludes with none more fantastically drippy a note of jilted resignation than: “You and her in the local newspaper / you will be married and you will be gone.”
8. Piazza, New York Catcher
After seven years and four studio albums in their Glasgow bubble, Dear Catastrophe Waitress saw Belle and Sebastian evacuate their comfort zone to make a high-sheen, brass-dappled album in London produced by Trevor Horn. It was a paradigm-shifting return to form for the band after the relatively muted response to 2000’s much underrated Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant and their ill-starred 2002 soundtrack to Todd Solondz’s movie Storytelling. Piazza, New York Catcher is entirely atypical of not just that record (it was also recorded separately, back up in Glasgow), but indeed the entire Belle and Sebastian catalogue. Contrary to what the casual disparaging observer may assume Belle & Sebastian are all about, it’s the band’s only studio recording to feature a solo Murdoch singing over a solitary acoustic guitar. It’s also a collector’s item in the respect of being about as straight up a ballad as you’ll hear Murdoch pen – a love-drunk ode to eloping on a whim to San Francisco with a girl (his future wife) to watch a baseball match (who had him down as a baseball fan?). It’s not without a few wry tangential observations, of course – including a reference to rumours surrounding the titular away team catcher Mike Piazza’s sexuality (“is he straight or is he gay?”) – nor a little Left Banke homage (“You’d settle for an epitaph like ‘Walk Away, Renee’”). There’s no chorus, just six perfectly formed verses and barely a breath of a pause between them. A home run of a song.
9. I Didn’t See It Coming
Probably not even the band, who have become given to gazing back on their 1990s purple patch with almost as much gratitude and amazement as fans do, would deny that their more recent output isn’t a patch on those timeless early records. But every new Belle and Sebastian album delivers a clutch of fine new additions to the canon and their live show – a live show which, from fairly shambolic beginnings, has become better with practically each passing tour. The opening track from their eighth album 2010’s Write About Love (they’re still great at opening tracks – see also Nobody’s Empire from Girls in Peacetime Want To Dance), I Didn’t See It Coming shuffles on a distinctive Richard Colburn drum beat, breezy piano chords and a twanging, star bright guitar riff. The lead vocal on this one is carried by multi-instrumentalist Sarah Martin, latterly in boy-girl call-and-response exchanges with Murdoch to illustrate the song’s hope-filled exchange of affections between cash-strapped lovers. After a cosmic synth-powered middle section, the spine-tingling clincher comes with the poptastic fade-out refrain: “Make me dance, I want to surrender.”
10. Electronic Renaissance
To finish, we’ll loop back to Tigermilk and an experiment in DIY electropop that imagines an entirely different trajectory for Belle and Sebastian, inspired not by the acidic jangle of the Smiths, Felt and the Pastels, but by the primitive synth-prodding of The Wake and early New Order (spot the similarities with the latter’s Procession). Electronic Renaissance tends to pretty much split fans down the middle – dropped into the centre of the album like a radio broadcast from an alternative reality, for some it’s bizarre folly, for others it’s a carefree masterstroke. I’m firmly with the latter lot. Inexpertly recorded on Cubase music software alongside an early working version of Sleep the Clock Around, and completed after Murdoch cajoled a nerdy guy on his music course called Keith into loaning him a 1970s Korg synthesiser for all the brilliant bubbling, gurgling sounds that give the song such atmosphere, it’s a diversion into the world of machine music not revisited until 2014’s The Party Line (the lyrics feel like a rejection of dance culture: “Monochrome in the 1990s / You go disco and I’ll go my way”). The version of Electronic Renaissance featured on Tigermilk comes from a radio broadcast: when the original CaVa recording was played on BBC Radio Scotland’s Beat Patrol programme. Murdoch recorded it on a beatbox, and was so taken by the tinny compression, tape-hiss and ghostly second-hand quality that he insisted this should be the final definitive article, and so it was. Prevailing wisdom dictates it should never have worked, but it did, and how. Which is Belle and Sebastian all over, really.