heard on the wire

B is for…


…two of the bands closest to my heart, Ballboy and Belle and Sebastian, the products of a Scottish music scene who avoided the deadening impact of 1990s “Britpop” to produce some of the most perfect music of the past 20 years.

Ballboy and the brilliant songwriting of Gordon McIntyre hail from Edinburgh, while Stuart Murdoch’s Bell and Sebastian formed in Scotland’s other great city, Glasgow. Meanwhile Snow Patrol were beginning to do their thing in Dundee en route to stadium concerts and international commercial success—as I’ve said before, there really is no justice.

Belle and Sebastian released their first LP in 1996. Tigermilk remains many a fan’s favourite, especially those fans who picked up one of the 1,000 original vinyl copies.

Resale value aside, the record is packed full of great tunes, not least the two that open side one: The State that I Am In and this.

Belle and Sebastian :: Expectations

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Tigermilk was always going to be a hard act to follow, even more so when the follow-up was released in the same year. But If You’re Feeling Sinister confirmed Murdoch’s huge songwriting talent. Murdoch has said that he considers it to be his finest collection of songs, but was never entirely happy with the production. So in 2005 the band released a live version, whence this track comes.

Belle and Sebastian :: Like Dylan in the Movies

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Having been spoilt by the proximity of these first two LPs, fans had to wait two years for the third, The Boy with the Arab Strap. Its intriguing title managed to offend fellow Scots, Arab Strap, whose humourless reaction—“They’re taking away something from us.”—was entirely in keeping with their dreary records. Offensive or not, the title track is simply one of the greatest songs of all time.

Belle and Sebastian :: The Boy with the Arab Strap

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Meanwhile Ballboy had released their first recordings on a no-longer-available SL Records sampler, It’s a Life Sentence, before starting work on a series of EPs, the second of which doubtless offended many.

Ballboy :: I Hate Scotland

A third EP followed as the band began to stake out their musical territory, before all three were gathered on the 2001 restrospective, Club Anthems.

Ballboy :: They’ll Hang Flags from Crances upon My Wedding Day

While Ballboy were finding their feet, Belle and Sebastian oozed a confidence that was reflected in the ambitious fourth LP, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant (cue offended peasants). The result was an uneven record that failed to reach the stellar heights of its predecessors, but it’s not without its moments, like this beautiful lament.

Belle and Sebastian :: Don’t Leave the Light on Baby

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If the LP were slightly disappointing, two subsequent singles were not. Both were later included on Push Barman to Open Old Wounds, a collection of the band’s non-LP singles and other miscellany. It’s a great retrospective that among many gems offers up this diamond, the Steve Ovett of b-sides.

Belle and Sebastian :: The Loneliness of a Middle Distance Runner

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If there were ever a record that deserved to be bought on the strength of its name alone then it would be the fourth Ballboy EP, 2002’s All the Records on the Radio Are Shite. John Peel once played it twice in the same show. And why not, if only for the fantastic trumpet sound.

Ballboy :: All the Records on the Radio Are Shite

That EP was a precursor to the Edinburgh outfit’s first studio LP, A Guide for the Daylight Hours. There’s only so many times I like to repeat myself, so you’ll have to refer back to the magnificence of Something’s Going to Happen Soon. Meanwhile marvel at another genius song title.

Ballboy :: You Can’t Spend Your Whole Life Hanging Around With Arseholes

Belle and Sebastian had spent 2001 working on the soundtrack to the eponymous Storytelling movie, which was released early in 2002 but only included about six minutes of the band’s music. Conversely the soundtrack had several snippets of dialogue from the movie among the 12, mostly instrumental tracks. This is not one of those snippets.

Belle and Sebastian :: Consuelo

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Following their brief Hollywood excursion, Murdoch and co began work on their 2003 LP, Dear Catastrophe Waitress, employing notably successful, former Frankie Goes to Hollywood–producer Trevor Horn to give the record a more polished, poppy sound. Ironically the record failed to chart as high as its predecessors, perhaps because the change of emphasis lost more old fans than it attracted new ones.

Belle and Sebastian :: Wrapped up in Books

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Ballboy headed in the opposite direction with a stripped-back LP that was largely the work of singer–guitarist Gordon McIntyre. The Sash My Father Wore and Other Stories’ highlights include McIntyre’s acerbic, brilliant title track, a cover and recovery of Bruce Springsteen’s attack on the American War in Vietnam, Born in the USA, and this tearjerker.

Ballboy :: Stronger Hearts than Mine Lie Empty

Three LPs in three years is a big ask for any band (unless you’re The Fall), but Ballboy quickly followed “The Sash My Father Wore” with 2004’s The Royal Theatre. It was a return to the full-band sound of A Guide for the Daylight Hours, full of great songs and bittersweet lyrics.

Ballboy :: Let’s Fall in Love and Run Away From Here

Belle and Sebastian’s decision to employ Trevor Horn paid off with their next record, 2006’s Life Pursuit, a top-10 LP that spawned two top 20 singles, including what would prove to be their biggest hit, Funny Little Frog. But the outstanding track was one that measured up to anything they’d done. It was my 2006 choice for a song from each year of my life, but (and you’ve heard this before) it’s always worth hearing again.

Belle and Sebastian :: Another Sunny Day

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Having released three LPs in three years, Ballboy understandably took some time off before recording their fourth and to date their last. That I Worked on the Ships doesn’t really scale the heights reached by those three records, it’s full of those Ballboy trademarks: great tunes couple with bittersweet lyrics that make you want to dance, laugh and cry, all at the same time.

Ballboy :: Cicily

There was also a four-year wait for the next (and, again, the last to-date) Belle and Sebastian record. Released in 2010, Write about Love gave them another number eight chart placing and some more great songs to add to a live repertoire that must be the envy if almost every band in the worlds. And few can possibly be as good live; if you get the chance to see this band live, seize it and for an hour or so, your world will stop.

Belle and Sebastian :: I Want the World to Stop

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Photo: b^36 by Tom Magliery; some rights reserved

Related posts: A is for Adam and the Ants

Twitter: Ballboy; Belle and Sebastian

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