I’ve just returned from the premier screening of Stuart Murdoch’s directorial debut, God Help the Girl. It wasn’t great. Murdoch, one of Britain’s best songwriters and, arguably also one of our most gifted storytellers, did not translate well on the big screen. The film came across as a rather lazy pastiche of a Belle and Sebastian song, thin on the ground plot wise and, though peppered with some great songs and a few good one liners, somewhat naively written. However, after sitting through 90 odd minutes of mediocre musical, those audience members still in attendance were treated to a short Belle and Sebastian gig. When I say treated, I really mean treated. We were offered a handful of old school B and S brilliance, songs from the film’s soundtrack sitting comfortably beside recent classics like “Piazza, New York Catcher” and legendary favourites like “Photo Jenny.” The band were tight, refreshingly ordinary-looking and seemingly have a brilliant time playing to a live Edinburgh audience and a larger number of voyeuristic cinema goers scattered throughout the UK and Ireland. I was enthused, (possibly sang along), and was once again reminded of all the very many ways Stuart Murdoch has played an influential role in my artistic development and why, despite this evening’s display of crimes against cinema, I’d still rate him alongside some of my all time favourite artists.
I was sixteen when I first heard Belle and Sebastian. Somebody older and infinitely hipper than me, put “Century of Fakers” on a mix tape and the line, “if you ever go lardy or go lame, I will drop you straight away,” came at me like bullet train. I’d never heard anything like it before. I went straight out and bought Tigermilk. I’ve bought every record since, every single and EP. I’ve bought T-shirts (and T-shirts for my infant niece and nephew who, too young to protest, were B and S fans long before they’d heard any of their songs). I’ve seen them 4 times now, once in the fractured months just before Isobel Campbell’s departure. I have bootlegs, badges, an entire 90,000 word novel called Another Century of Fakers, written as a piece of B and S fan fiction and instantly binned, due to the fact it was utter shite. I’ve walked past Stuart Murdoch pre-sound check in the Ulster Hall and, so over-awed by his genius, was not able to utter a single word, (even something truly banal like “would you like me to show you where the dressing rooms are?” or, “what a jaunty hat you have on tonight). I have been a Belle and Sebastian fan/obsessive for more than half my life.
When people ask me about influences upon my writing I’m always quick to point out that it wasn’t just writers or books which drew me to words. Musicians have played their part too. Dylan taught me the power of a carefully crafted sentence. From Wilco, (and more specifically Jeff Tweedy), I learnt huge lessons about the rhythm and cadence of words; the way they pair and part to create their own peculiar music. And, I shall always be thankful to Stuart Murdoch for showing me how to write a story in three and a half minutes.
Aside, perhaps from Pulp, there is no British band I know of, who so succinctly tell stories with their songs. The earlier Belle and Sebastian records are particularly cutting. Hiding behind the larger than life characters and jaunty pop tunes, Murdoch, much like Jarvis Cocker, delivers pen portraits quietly critiquing a fin de siecle Britain where the working classes are in danger of becoming a caricature and gender anxiety is rife and anyone who challenges the status quo is marginalised and lonely. (“And the Head said that you always were a queer one from the start”). Murdoch has always had both a blinding imagination and an eye for the bizarre: the dogs on wheels, lonely fat girls and cross-dressing kids who populate his songs. He is an irreverent writer, keeping his tongue firmly in cheek as he forces allegory, imagery and rhyme out of their comfort zone, delivering the sort of devastating couplets, which could easily have made MacNiece’s cut for Autumn Journal, had it been written in the late nineties, (“all she wants is a cigarette and a thespian with a caravanette” “we’re four boys in our corduroys, we’re not terrific but we’re competent”). His one line observations are perfectly placed to invoke a wry smile and often reveal an entire, complex story in a single sentence.
Tigermilk and The Boy With the Arab Strap dropped into my late teens like localised explosions. It was a revelation to me that storytelling could be, in the one instance, both heartbreakingly honest and absolutely hilarious. I relished Murdoch’s gothic sensibilities; his delight in the freaks and odd characters who populated the Glasgow in which he lived. I noted and relished the way Belle and Sebastian itself was surrounded in myth; the band having grown out of a now-legendary story, each band member, with their funny little outfits and cameo roles in home movie-esque music videos, characters in the bigger narrative of being Belle and Sebastian. I loved the way Murdich layered up his cultural references piling Dylan, on top of Kerouac and Thin Lizzy; Catcher in the Rye, eyeballing the Women’s Realm. No distinction was made between high and low brow references and the effect was giddyingly brilliant. These were believable characters who liked what they liked because they were real and just as liable to enjoy fish fingers as caviar with their champagne. They were not subject to over-simplified stereotyping. They were intriguing and complex like the people I wanted to write, and indeed, befriend.
Finally Murdoch taught me not to take myself too seriously as a storyteller. He is a self-deprecating writer. In the world of B and S, “get me away from here, I’m dying” is an absolutely appropriate response to a Brit award nomination and “we’re not terrific but we’re competent” a perfectly honest overview of the band’s artistic talent. Apart from a brief period around the turn of the century, when the departing Isobel Campbell upset the band’s equilibrium, Belle and Sebastian have always looked like a group of people thoroughly enjoying themselves on stage and in the studio. They don’t posture. They just tell the kind of stories I want to listen to. This, is perhaps the most important thing I’ve learnt from a decade and a half’s worth of devotion.