Don’t let the name, Belle and Sebastian, fool you. This isn’t a pair-up of a female and male duo that won over a global audience as performers. This is a band that was founded by Stuart Murdoch and Stuart David out of Glasgow, Scotland. In 1994, these fellow college students were enrolled in Stow College’s Beatbox as unemployed musicians. While there, they had the help of professor Alan Rankine to record some demos. The quality of music these men produced resulted in a series of songs that were picked up by the college’s label, Electric Honey. The first album Belle and Sebastion recorded was Tigermilk. As for the band’s name, it was taken from a French novel, Belle et Sebastien. That story was about a little boy and his Great Pyrenees dog, Belle. So, there you have it.
It took three days for Belle and Sebastian to record Tigermilk. One thousand copies were pressed and sold that now fetch a much higher price as a collector’s item than what they originally went for in 1996. Encouraged, Murdoch and David turned Belle and Sebastion into a full-time band. In the process, they recruited Isobel Campbell, Richard Colburn, Chris Geddes, Stevie Jackson, and Sarah Martin to complete the lineup.
Just like Tigermilk, If You’re Feeling Sinister was released as an album in 1996. To this day, it remains a major fan favorite that also won the approval of music critics. After this album’s success, a series of EPs were recorded and released in 1997, starting with Dog on Wheels. It featured four demo tracks by Belle and Sebastian before growing into an actual band. In those recordings was also Mick Cooke and his trumpet performance but he wouldn’t become an official member of Belle and Sebastion until a few years later.
Lazy Line Painter Jane was the second EP, which came out during the summer of 1997. It was recorded in the church of Murdoch’s hometown and featured the vocals of Monica Queen. The third EP, 3.. 6.. 9 Seconds of Light, was released in the fall. The EP’s title single earned NME’s Single of the Week, as well as with Melody Maker.
In 1998, Belle and Sebastian released the band’s third studio album, The Boy with the Arab Strap, as well as its fourth EP, This Is Just a Modern Rock Song. These recordings earned favorable reviews from many music critics, including Rolling Stone and Village Voice. It was while this album was in the works that trumpeter Mick Cooke was asked to join the band full-time. In 1999, Belle and Sebastion won a BRIT Award for Best Newcomer, thanks to the success of the band’s third album.
1999 also marked the year Tigermilk was given a full release by the label, Jeepster before the band worked on its next album, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant. This was the first album that would earn a top-ten spot on the UK Official Albums Chart.
As Belle and Sebastian began to achieve global fame, the band started to appear in film and television. 2000’s High Fidelity mentioned the group as performers as the character, Jack Black, made comments about the band’s playing style. It also featured a clip from “Seymour Stein,” which was a song from The Boy with the Arab Strap album. “The Boy with the Arab Strap” was played during the end credits for the UK television series, Teachers.
Also in 2000, co-founder Stuart David opted out of Belle and Sebastian so he could focus more heavily on his own project, Looper. Looper was a Scottish-based electronic pop band that was formed in 1997 that still has David as the frontman. Like Belle and Sebastian, Looper also earned international fame as a band.
With Stuart David out of the lineup, he was replaced by V-Twin’s Bobby Kildea. In 2001, “Jonathan David” was a released single that was sung by Stevie Jackson. This was followed by “I’m Waking Up to Us.” Both of these non-album singles became top forty hits on the UK Singles Chart. The success led Belle and Sebastian to go on a tour that included a trek into North America.
Going Through Changes
However, Isobel Campbell chose to leave in the spring of 2002 while the group was still in the middle of its North American tour. This was also the same year Belle and Sebastian changed labels from Jeepster to Rough Trade Records. In 2003, Dear Catastrophe Waitress was the first album where the band made a stronger effort to produce what was deemed friendlier radio music. Apparently, the formula worked as the album became certified gold by the British Phonographic Industry. It would be the fourth and final time Belle and Sebastian would earn this achievement. Tigermilk was the first, then If You’re Feeling Sinister, and then The Boy with the Arab Strap.
Incidentally, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant became certified silver, as did The Life Pursuit. The second of these two albums followed Dear Catastrophe Waitress as a release in 2006. In 2010, Write About Love was the third and final album Belle and Sebastian recorded and released through Rough Trade Records before switching labels again.
In 2005, a poll created by The List was cast to determine who was Scotland’s greatest band. Belle and Sebastian came out on top, beating Franz Ferdinand, Idlewild, Simple Minds, The Proclaimers, and Travis. Also in 2005, Belle and Sebastian embarked on a tour with the UK War on Want’s charity concerts that took place in Israel and Palestine. This resulted in the recording of “The Eighth Station of the Cross Kebab House,” which became one of the highlight singles of the charity’s album, Help! A day in the Life.
While Belle and Sebastian were recording the group’s seventh studio album in California, Jeepster released Push Barman to Open Old Wounds, which served as their first compilation album. This prompted The Life Pursuit, a 2006 release that would be Belle and Sebastian’s final studio album that would earn a BPI certification. That same year witnessed the band play at the Hollywood Bowl on July 6th to a sold concert that featured The Shins as the opening act. For Belle and Sebastian, this was a landmark event that served as one of the greatest highlights in their career.
Before 2006 was over, Belle and Sebastian collaborated with other major bands such as Franz Ferdinand to record a CD collection of new songs for children, Colours Are Brighter. In 2008, The BBC Sessions was a release that featured Belle and Sebastian’s musical material that spanned between 1996 to 2001.
On July 17, 2010, Belle and Sebastian returned to the UK, performing before an audience of thirty thousand fans at the Latitude Festival in Henham Park, Southwold. It was at this concert they performed two new songs, “I Didn’t See It Coming” and “I”m Not Living in the Real World.”
A couple of months later, Belle and Sebastian released their eighth studio album, Write About Love. In 2013, Pitchfork TV aired a documentary that focused on the band’s 1996 album, If You’re Feeling Sinister. It was at this time the negative reviews Pitchfork had on the album after it was first released switched to positive. This led to a second compilation album, The Third Eye Centre. Also in 2013, Mick Cooke decided his run with Belle and Sebastian was done, opting to bow out on good terms in pursuit of other interests.
Belle and Sebastian’s Legacy
In 2014, Belle and Sebastian earned an Outstanding Contribution to Music Award from the NME Awards. To this day, they still maintain the status as one of Scotland’s greatest musical acts of all time. The group still continues to record with the band’s eleventh studio album, A Bit of Previous, which was a May 2022 release.
Originally, A Bit of Previous was supposed to be recorded in Los Angeles, California. However, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the group to remain in Glasgow. This would be the first time since 1999 that Belle and Sebastian would record an album from their home nation. The album’s title was borrowed from a phrase the father of Bobby Kildea used as an expression to acknowledge past relationships. Among the critics, this album served as a reflection of the band that returned to the roots of what made them fan favorites, to begin with.
Founder Stuart Murdoch, along with Richard Coburn, Chris Geddis, and Stevie Jackson, remains as part of Belle and Sebastian’s original lineup. Sarah Martin, who joined shortly after Belle and Sebastian first came together as a band, still performs with them as well. Stuart David’s replacement as of 2001, Bobby Kildea, is also still with the group. As for Dave McGowan, he started off as a touring musician with Belle and Sebastian in 2012 and has since become a full-time member. These seven individuals sum up the current roster.
Top 10 Belle and Sebastian Songs
#10 – Write About Love
In Mexico, “Write About Love” peaked at number seventeen Mexico Ingles Airplay chart after it was released as a single in 2010. Coming from the album, Belle and Sebastian Write about Love, was Belle and Sebastian’s biggest hit on North American soil aside from Canadian top ten favorites, “Legal Man” and “Jonathan David.” In 2011, the EP was certified silver by the Independent Music Companies Association after selling over twenty thousand copies throughout Europe.
#9 – A Century of Fakers
One thing about Belle and Sebastian was the group’s ability to point out obvious flaws in society through a song like 1997’s “A Century of Fakers’ and yet still come across as a whimsical music group. In the lyrics, Stuart Murdoch’s observation of how lax the human race seems to be when it comes to issues such as world hunger suggests he’s out to hit them with a major wake-up call. However, there’s nothing mean-spirited in the delivery as his gentle voice seemed to lament about realities about the world’s brand of madness. In a way, it felt like “A Century of Fakers” was a rallying cry for people to snap out of a corporate coma that has a history of spewing out deception.
#8 – I’m Waking Up to Us
Released as a non-album single, “I’m Waking Up to Us” became a number twenty-two hit on the Scottish Singles Chart, as well as a number thirty-nine hit on the UK Singles Chart. This 2001 release perhaps saw a maturing Belle and Sebastian step into a state of reality that now was the time to grow up. The spirit poured into this song was further enhanced by the collection of minor orchestral elements that literally felt like a subtle little wake-up call.
#7 – Step into My Office, Baby
“Step into My Office, Baby” peaked as high as number thirty-two on the UK Singles Chart, and as high as number twenty-five on the Scottish Singles chart. Released from the album Dear Catastrophe Waitress in 2003, served up a comical tale of a drunk worker attempting to earn a raise. Again, Stuart Murdoch’s Belle and Sebastian wittingly apply humor to a song that was designed as a salty classic.
#6 – Jonathan David
What made “Jonathan David” stand out as a single was Stevie Jackson’s performance as the band’s guitarist and lead vocalist. The song’s title, as well as its story, was inspired by the biblical hero, David, along with his best friend, Jonathan. Actually, Jackson assumed a somewhat modernized role of Jonathan, David’s friend, in what was an orchestration that felt like it came from the 1970s era of rock and roll.
In Canada, this became a number-nine hit. On the Scottish Singles Chart, it peaked as high as number sixteen while on UK Singles Chart, it peaked as high as number thirty-one. Released in 2001, this was a non-album single that marked the second occasion Belle and Sebastian realized another top-ten hit, at least among Canadian fans.
#5 – She’s Losing It
From the debut album, Tigermilk, “She’s Losing It” was a short and whimsical tune that featured Stuart Murdoch’s witty songwriting at its finest. Belle and Sebastian earned a solid cult following that went from regional fan favorites to global. The beauty behind this song, as well as Tigermilk, was music coming from a band that performed music as artists true to their original form. Before commercialization and industry expectations, songs like “She’s Losing It” is what make classic music, regardless of genre, become favorites that earn their place as folksy favorites.
#4 – Legal Man
“Legal Man” was a non-album single that peaked as high as number fifteen on the UK Singles Chart in 2000. It was even more popular in Canada as it peaked at number four on its Canadian Singles Chart. Belle and Sebastian made a name for themselves as an indie pop band that made a niche out of music that beat to the style of a different drummer. The appeal behind “Legal Man” was the groove of its psychedelic delivery as a song that was loaded with the boogie of bongos. This song remains a favorite on the dance floor at clubs that favor the indie music scene.
As a songwriter, Murdoch is as witty and as thought-provoking as they come. “Legal Man,” as a song, remains one of the finest examples of musical talent that illustrated the genius poured into what makes classic rock and roll the most dominant genre in the industry.
#3 – I’m a Cuckoo
In 2004, “I’m a Cuckoo” from Dear Catastrophe Waitress became a number fourteen hit on the UK Singles Chart after it was released as a single. In the lyrics, there was the mention of Thin Lizzy, which both fans and music critics felt was a wonderfully organic tune. The combination of wind instruments and percussion served as a whimsical performance that was part of Belle and Sebastian’s trademark sound.
#2 – Funny Little Frog
On the UK Singles Chart, “Funny Little Frog” became a number thirteen hit in 2006. This was the highest charting single for Belle and Sebastian in the UK, as well as in Scotland as it peaked at number three. The vowel stretching that went into “Funny Little Frog” was Stuart Murdoch using metaphors to explain a photo that was on a refrigerator. For Murdoch, this was one of his personal favorites, and have it recorded many times over. The Life Pursuit was the album that first featured this quirky tune, which played an instrumental role in the record’s success as it became certified silver by the BPI.
#1 – Piazza, New York Catcher
From the album, Dear Catastrophe Waitress, 2003’s “Piazza, New York Catcher” was a phenomenal song performed by Belle and Sebastian that could easily earn a notch as one of the best baseball tunes ever written. Fans of the New York Mets are likely to be drawn to this song at a much more personal level as it revolved around one of the greatest ball players that ever graced the sport. Mike Piazza’s awesome story as an athlete at the top of his game saw how much of an impact he made on an international level.
In “Piazza, New York Catcher,” this whimsical approach about the Mets came from a Scottish point of view and was an absolute gem. Piazza was seen as the player that led the New York Mets to the 2000l World Series. What Stuart Murdoch pulled off as a songwriter was capturing the grinding 162-game season, along with what happens to a sport as soon as corporate sponsorship turns it into a big business endeavor. The acoustic guitar performance by Murdoch, along with the vocal delivery, was his way of idealizing an international trip with the love of his life, Marisa Privitera. This was a song he wrote for her before the two got married.
Top 10 Belle & Sebastian Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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