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Blog : Posts tagged with ‘Belle & Sebastian’

Changing tunes

Thoughts from the history of music

I mentioned the other day about having a backlog of ideas to write about without forgetting what they are. Some of them have been bubbling around for a few years now, when I’ve read a book or watched something on the telly. For example, a few years ago I was given a copy of the book Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story Of Modern Pop by Bob Stanley. For the past thirty years or so, Stanley has been one third of the band Saint Etienne, who I’ve loved almost as long, and who right from their start in the late 80s have made pop music that cuts across categories, combining fantastically catchy pop hooks with lyrics that are pitched at just the right level between meaningful and slightly inane; but at the same time squeezing in London hip hop, club beats and art school sound collages. Their first album combines pop bangers like “Nothing Can Stop Us” with voice clips of Richard Whiteley and Willie Rushton; the second has excerpts from the 1960s British films Peeping Tom and Billy Liar, and a man ordering chicken soup.* Their songs “Like A Motorway” and “Hate Your Drug” are arguably the best attempt anyone has ever made to revive the 1960s “death disc” genre,** but at the same time they care as deeply about London psychogeography as Geoffrey Fletcher, Iain Sinclair or Patrick Keiller. In short, they cover such a broad area in their music, that it is not surprising Stanley wrote a broad, broad book.

Yeah Yeah Yeah is a history of British and American pop music from roughly 1945 to 2005 or so; the start and finish dates are a little vague, but it was intended to be the history of British and American pop music over the years that the 7” vinyl single was the dominant distribution format. Naturally, though, it is a history of pop music that doesn’t at all mention Saint Etienne; they are gracefully elided from the chapters they would naturally fit into. I wasn’t really surprised; it would seem a bit gauche to pretend to write about yourself in the same detached and journalistic style as the rest of the book. It left me thinking, though, how would Bob Stanley have written about his own band if he hadn’t been in his own band himself? It’s another of those impossible counterfactuals, one even more unlikely that most, but nevertheless I find it an interesting thought.

I personally became interested in pop music at the end of the 80s and the start of the 90s, something of a strange period that’s often considered a somewhat empty one, a period in which music was doing little more than treading water waiting for the 90s to start. Music from before that period is something I largely know about purely by the regular processes of cultural assimilation (aside from that covered in the folk-focused Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music by Rob Young). The Parents had a very curious, eclectic and limited record collection, which I naturally went through as a teenager, but it gave me a very one-sided view of things. The Mother seems to have been a sucker for the slightly-novelty single when she was younger: her 7”s included “Deck of Cards” by Wink Martindale, the original Doctor Who theme, and “Dominique” by The Singing Nun. She’s also rather liked rock or pop versions of older orchestral music; in the 60s she was buying “Grieg One” by The Second City Sound***, and at the start of the 80s she often listened to the band Sky, with their electronic versions of classical standards.**** Naturally, my knowledge of popular music from before “my own time” ended up being very strange, patchy, but with a deep knowledge of some curious corners. Yeah Yeah Yeah therefore was a fascinating synthesis, a map and a guide to a vast and complex landscape where previously I’d only seen the summits of the mountains peeking through the clouds.

The last portion of the book, though, I found less satisfying. Not just because Saint Etienne weren’t in it, but because in general my own musical tastes have tended towards the slightly niche and obscure, and those particular niches just don’t get swept. In particular I used to be a big fan of Belle and Sebastian. More recently I have gone back and explored some of their own influences, such as Felt, or some of the bands which recorded on the Sarah Records label. These are niches that tend to be seen as not just obscure but wilfully obscurantist, even though that is a very long way from the truth.***** I wasn’t surprised that my own particular hobby-horses were not deeply investigated, but it felt a shame that the 90s in general seemed to be quickly skimmed over. Possibly this was because Stanley felt unable to handle the days of the CD single; I wondered more, though, if it was a general reluctance to deal with the area he felt personally involved in.

The rise of streaming services is often given as something which has fundamentally changed the popular music landscape; and it is indisputable that the music scene today has changed completely from what it was 20 years ago. Personally, though, I feel the change wasn’t driven so much by streaming, but by communication; by MySpace letting every single band in the known universe put up their shopfront and become known across the world. It immediately broadened the scope of every music fan: the trickle of information about new bands that came from the weekly music press suddenly became an unstoppable flood. I, for one, felt that in 1995 I could at least be aware of all the bands in the genres I cared about, but by 2005 that was becoming completely impossible. I can also see how, if you were to write a book about pop music, continuing it past 2005 would seem impossible too.

When I reached the end of the book and read the acknowledgements, I wasn’t surprised. Yeah Yeah Yeah was put together with the help and influence of a number of key members of the ILX forums. Personally, I haven’t used ILX for more years than I really want to think about; but when I saw many named I recognised from ILX in the back of the book, I suddenly realised why some of the book’s arguments and standpoints felt so familiar to me. Of course, given I was a fan of Stanley’s music all along, given I have always been a fan of syncretic, holistic thought and of “reconciling the seemingly disparate”, I would have agreed with much of it in any case. As books go, this one will be staying on the bookshelf.

* One piece of trivia I only discovered when fact-checking this post: the woman on the sleeve of their first album, Foxbase Alpha, is apparently also the woman who says “Can I take your order?” on “Chicken Soup”.

** Yes, it’s a real genre. You probably know the most famous “death disc” track, “Leader Of The Pack” by The Shangri-Las. Incidentally Saint Etienne’s discography is awfully complex and only partially available on streaming services; “Hate Your Drug” was a B-side to the single “Hug My Soul” and an album track on some versions, but not all, of Tiger Bay—it wasn’t on the original UK release. For reasons I have never understood, the rear sleeve of “Hug My Soul” features a black and white photo of a kitchen with random items labelled in Icelandic.

*** If you’ve never heard of The Second City Sound, it’s OK: I suspect The Mother only knew of them because she lived in said second city and they were a local band.

**** Later on still, when she no longer came across new music herself, I managed to get her into William Orbit and The Penguin Cafe Orchestra: I figured they were exactly the sort of thing that would follow on from her previous musical habits.

***** Incidentally over the years I’ve seen many people say they thought Belle and Sebastian would have been a perfect Sarah Records band, if Sarah had still been around when the band formed. I don’t think is true at all; moreover, I feel anyone who says that can only have a wild misunderstanding of Sarah’s aims and purpose. That, though, is a topic too large to fit into this footnote.

The Artist's Dilemma

In which we discuss music and advertising

It’s a question that must come to every artist and musician who starts to get successful. Sell out, or not sell out? And what is “selling out” anyway? What about advertising? Do you license your music for use in advertising, knowing you’ll effectively lose control over how it’s presented?1 Maintain artistic integrity, or go for the money? There are some bands whose oeuvre will, forevermore, be thought of as “oh, it’s that song off that advert, you know, that one for thingy, that stuff.” – the Penguin Cafe Orchestra being a prime example.2

I was rather pleased when I was idly watching late-night telly the other month, and a bouncy Casiolike tune popped up in the ad-break. It was “Summer’s Gone”, an early track by a very good (and little-known) Scottish band, Aberfeldy. if you want to track it down, it’s on their first album, Young Forever, released by Rough Trade.3 Good to hear a little-known band on the telly; good to think they’ll be getting some money for it.

Less good, though, to see that it was being used to advertise an online gambling company. If I was Riley Briggs – the chap who formed the band and wrote the song – I’m not sure I’d be happy about that. I wouldn’t want my music to be used that way. I wouldn’t want to be associated with gambling; the only saving grace being, 99.3%4 of the people who see the advert will never have heard of the band.5 The song will seep into their memories without them really knowing it, until they hear it again by some offchance on the radio and think: hang on, don’t I know this from somewhere. It’s a hard call. Do you take the money and the airplay, or do you take the high moral stance? I’m glad it’s not a question I’ve had to face yet in life. What would you do?

1: Or, for that matter, for TV. Belle and Sebastian, another of my favourite bands, have been used many times over the years as TV and soundtrack filler material; most famously, the title track from their third album The Boy With The Arab Strap was used, without lyrics, as the theme music of the Bristol-set comedy-drama series Teachers. I’m sure I recall, when the band were asked, saying that they weren’t able to say yes or no to that or any other specific TV use of the music; they’d granted a blanket license and that was that. On the other hand, unsurprisingly for a band with a socialist and Presbyterian background, they don’t (I think) let their music be used in advertising.

2: PCO might have been helped slightly by the death of MFI, who used their well-known “Music For A Found Harmonium”; I doubt, though, that anyone now who hears their best-known track “Telephone And Rubber Band” thinks of the band first. The Jesus And Mary Chain might be heading this way – we’ve heard “Just Like Honey” an awful lot on TV lately, most strangely as incidental music on Hollyoaks.

3: and it must have come out a long, long time ago now, going by where I lived when I bought it. For that matter, their second album – released just before Rough Trade dropped them – must also be a few years old, because I picked it up in Avalanche Records on my last trip to Glasgow.

4: If there’s one thing I learned from the vegetarian food roadshow we went to, it’s to use invented and ridiculously precise statistics with panache and confidence.

5: According to that famous encyclopaedia, the same song has been used to advertise Diet Coke in the USA. So I’d bet that by far the vast majority of people worldwide who have heard an Aberfeldy song, have heard that song, on an advert.

Slip-up (part two)

In which tastes keep changing (again)

When Belle and Sebastian released their last album, a couple of months back, I wrote that clearly I’m not a true fan any more, because I didn’t buy it until the second day of release.

Well, it took me an entire week to realise that they’d released another single. By today, when I finally bought “The Blues Are Still Blue”, it was already in the charts.

Of course, I still had to buy it, on lovely blue vinyl. Apart from being a sad geek, it’s one of my favourite songs on the album, with a particularly glam feel to it. The sleeve is blue, of course, but it’s a warm, dusky, beautiful shade. All round, it’s a great piece of work.

Slip-up

In which we listen to music

Clearly I’m not a Belle and Sebastian fan any more. I can’t be, because I forgot to go out and buy their new album on Monday, when it was released. I did remember to go and get it yesterday, though, and now I’ve got around to listening to it.

If I was still a fan, I probably wouldn’t like it very much, because it isn’t in quite the same style as their first three classic albums. On the other hand, as it says in the sleevenotes, in a response to criticisms like that:

Do you think and do the exact same things you did nine years ago?

One track does sound rather like an attempt at a T-Rex impersonation; but, in general, I have to say: I like this record more than I was expecting to.

Growing up

Or, remembering what we used to like

Tastes change as people grow up. Things you are a huge fan of will slowly fade away, and other things will come along to replace them. Your tastes will change, as you change.

Some of you might have heard of Alexis Petridis, rock and pop critic at The Guardian. I don’t always agree with what he writes, but I tend to pay attention. Because, back in about ’97 or ’98, Petridis was a semi-frequent contributor to Sinister, the mailing list for fans of Belle and Sebastian. I was only a lurker, but I remember his posts, on topics such as: do Belle and Sebastian sound better when you’re on drugs? And if so which ones?*

Since then, when Petridis has mentioned them in the Grauniad, you get the feeling that he doesn’t so much like what they’ve become. He doesn’t think much of devoted fans, but he still loves their early work. And I have to sympathise with that. I, too, used to be a devoted fan.

I’m still a bit of a fan. I’m still the sort of person who will go and buy a new single on its first day of release, for example, like I did yesterday. And then, I get it home, and find that I’m not really very interested in it any more. Compared to their old songs, it’s lost something. It’s brassy and polished, shiny and bland, the sort of track that has never been at all interesting or inspiring for me. Their sleeve designs get better and better,** as the music gets ever-more over-produced. The B-sides are better, but even so it’s not something that I would have bought if it were by any other band.

* No, really, this was something he wrote. The list archive doesn’t work nowadays, so I can’t link you to it; but I strongly remember reading it. I have no idea now if he was being serious or not.

** although I was disappointed to see that they are still crediting Patrick Doyle with helping with the sleeve photography. He’s someone else who was on Sinister, a few years later, one of those people who hero-worshipped Stuart Murdoch and would desperately and deliberately try to appear as twee, fey and indie as possible because he thought that was how a B&S fan should look.