There was a brief span of time, between, say, 1984 and 1987, when Morrissey and Michael Stipe ruled the world. The Smiths in England and R.E.M. in America spoke for a whole generation of loners and misfits who were not being communicated to or represented on the public airwaves or in the mainstream media. Against the stifling backdrops of Ronald Reagan’s corporate America and Margaret Thatcher’s England, R.E.M. and The Smiths created personal pop music against a political firmament that threatened to eclipse the individual and crush the soul of cultural diversity.
Even when fans in America didn’t understand the particularly British references that Morrissey was tossing them, or when British audiences could not untangle Michael Stipe’s distinctly idiosyncratic Southernisms, there was still communication between the artist and the listeners. Huge cultural gulfs were crossed through the sheer force of identification and affinity.
But, who had the better jokes?
Both Morrissey and Michael Stipe were unlikely anti-heroes because they had reputations as melancholy troubadours, outspoken poets for the doomed and the damned. “And if a double-decker bus/Crashes into us/To die by your side/Is such a heavenly way to die,” Morrissey considers. “The trees will bend, the cities wash away/The city on the river there is a girl without a dream,” Michael Stipe reports.
But, through all of the dour ruminations, both bands would ease humor into their songs, such as the R.E.M.’s “Leonard Bernstein, Leonid Brezhnev, Lenny Bruce, and Lester Bangs,” or The Smiths “She said: ‘Eh, I know you, and you cannot sing’/I said: ‘That's nothing - you should hear me play piano’.” Or, “Hand in glove/The sun shines out of our behinds.” Or, “I dreamt about you last night/And I fell out of bed twice.” The Smiths probably win in the “better jokes” stakes.
By 1988, that phase of college rock had ended with The Smiths broken up and R.E.M. signed to the corporate Warner Bros. College rock morphed into indie rock, which then turned into alternative rock when the music being produced wasn’t so “indie” anymore. Grunge rock raised its matted head in 1991 with the overwhelming success of Nirvana’s Nevermind, but died as quickly as a merchandisable genre upon Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994. By this time, alternative rock was given over to Alanis Morissette, the Goo Goo Dolls, and Weezer.
In 1993, a young University of Glasgow student named Stuart Murdoch, frustrated with the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome that had plagued him for years, decided that a change of location could possibly heal his condition. With a friend, he travelled to San Diego, California, a city he had never visited before in a country he had never visited before. Prior to arriving in San Diego, though, his plane landed in San Francisco where he disembarked, found the town amenable, and elected to stay.
Busking around San Francisco, sleeping when and where he could, and making connections within the fertile artistic scene, and just the sheer novelty of being outside of his hometown, gave Murdoch a new perspective on life.
It was in San Francisco that Murdoch first began performing, passing himself and his friend off as an already established band. After returning to Glasgow, Murdoch formed Belle and Sebastian with a group of similarly unemployed musicians as a sort of art project at school. In 1996 they produced their first album Tigermilk, a decidedly low-fi affair that somehow managed to capture the detail of eight musicians playing in the same room at the same time. Belle and Sebastian had rehearsed the material enough to create a dynamic soundscape sympathetic to Murdoch’s unusual narrative lyrics live without resorting to the standard recording techniques of studio trickery or overdubs.
The album began:
I was surprised, I was happy for a day in 1975
I was puzzled by a dream, stayed with me all day in 1995
My brother had confessed that he was gay
It took the heat off me for a while
He stood up with a sailor friend
Made it known upon my sister’s wedding day.
The cover of Tigermilkfeatured a female friend of Stuart Murdoch’s breastfeeding a toy stuffed tiger. The liner notes featured the fictional tale of Belle and Sebastian, two star-crossed acquaintances who met outside of the subway in Glasgow and “are not snogging.” All of Sebastian’s songs have the word “Nineteen Ninety-Five” in them, we are told, and he suspects that Belle might “kick with the other foot.” They recruited the rest of the band, we are further informed, by spending three full days in their favorite café, gaining weight and pissing off waitresses in the process.
It seemed as if Britain’s musical world had found a sly new comedian to rival Morrissey.
Tigermilk was printed independently in a limited edition of 1,000 copies and set the stage for Belle and Sebastian’s next masterpiece, also released in 1996, If You’re Feeling Sinister. This album too featured an unidentified female on the cover, lying in bed, with Franz Kafka’s The Trial propped up on the pillow beside her. If You’re Feeling Sinister began with the lines:
Make a new cult every day to suit your affairs
Kissing girls in English, at the back of the stairs.
There was something vaguely 60’s about the whole Belle and Sebastian presentation, whether it was the tinted cover photographs, or their sound which resembled Nick Drake sitting in on a Burt Bacharach session, or Donovan leading some early 1970’s version of The Kinks, or even some bizarre singer-songwriter take on Motown as conceptualized by Lambchop. Ultimately, what Belle and Sebastian create is an unclassifiable amalgam of sources that is evocative of the best parts of 60’s sensibilities, and yet thoroughly modern and singular.
And Stuart Murdoch’s lyrics were always the skeleton that Belle and Sebastian’s musical body was formed around:
And the head said that you always were a queer one from the start
For careers you say you want to be remembered for your art
Your obsessions get you known throughout the school for being strange
Making life-size models of the Velvet Underground in clay.
Like Morrissey, like Michael Stipe, Murdoch could take a mysterious turn of phrase, sprinkle it with a knowing wink, and make even the most obtuse musing a personal statement for the marginalized and the strange.
But if you are feeling sinister
Go off and see a minister
He’ll try in vain to take away the pain of being a hopeless unbeliever.
There is a live clip of Belle and Sebastian performing “The Boy with the Arab Strap” in 2013 that demonstrates the joy the band brings to its audience. It is a relatively crappy clip, shot from somewhere deep in the audience, and the lyrics to the song can barely be deciphered, but that doesn’t matter. Audience members are invited onstage to dance around, and little by little they take over the stage. When the dancing is finished there is arm waving, and hand clapping, and finger snapping.
For such a supposedly serious, soul-searching, and enigmatic band, Belle and Sebastian make a joyful noise.
Anthony Galli currently lives in Athens, Georgia. He shares a birthday with his black cat, Magic, and they both claim Wings of Desire as their favorite film. Anthony has published two books of poetry, Amnesia for Insomniacs and Invisible Idiot.