That’s not just because they’re mostly special one-off EPs that aren’t merely promotional tools for albums, it’s because they’re so choc-full of brilliant songs. Let’s start at the beginning then…
The winter of 1996-97 wasn’t a particularly easy time for me, for reasons that I don’t need to go into here, but one of the things that kept me going though the long dark nights was Mark Radcliffe’s late-night show on Radio 1. It was classic stuff and I still remember the evening in December when he broadcast a session by this new band from Glasgow that I had never heard before. There was something familiar about the name though, and then I remembered the record sleeve I had seen in the window of Missing Records on Great Western Road earlier that year – it had stuck in my mind because it was a picture of a girl who looked like she was breastfeeding a tiger. If only I had bought it, I’d be in the possession of something very eBay-friendly.
Anyway, the Belle and Sebastian website now tells me that the tracks aired that memorable evening were I Could Be Dreaming, Seeing Other People, We Rule the School and This is Just a Modern Rock Song. It made such an impression on me that the release of the Dog on Wheels EP in spring ‘97 was a big event for me. I had also eyed up the few copies of If You’re Feeling Sinister on sale in Tower Records at Piccadilly Circus but couldn’t afford it at the time. Dog on Wheels was more affordable and had me totally captivated. Here was a band which ticked all the right indie boxes for me. Dog on Wheels was quickly followed up by Lazy Line Painter Jane, an EP which I thought was probably the pinnacle of their achievements so far – not just the brilliant title track which is still one of their best moments, but also the other songs which aren’t too shabby either. The year’s triumvirate of EPs released by Jeepster Records was completed with the oddly-titled 3..6..9 Seconds of Light, another fine piece of work. By this time the long winter of discontent was long behind me, but there was something in the music, apart from the obvious quality of the songwriting, that had so many echoes of the Glasgow I missed, especially since I was far from what was familiar. Even now when I listen to tracks like A Century of Elvis (a sort of ‘version’ of the later track A Century of Fakers, making it the closest B&S have ever gotten to reggae) it takes me back, in a sort of misty-eyed way to my mid-90s days in the West End of Glasgow. Aaaahhh…
But I digress. By this time I could afford Sinister, and could appreciate it for the classic it was (and still is), so much that the release of the still-excellent Boy with the Arab Strap in autumn ’98 felt like a wee bit of a disappointment by comparison. It was also around this time (the day of release of Arab Strap to be precise) that I got to see the band for the first time at a gig at Shepherd’s Bush Empire where the sheer levels of enthusiasm of everyone there managed to turn what was probably a slightly under-par performance into a memory of a legendary show. In these days, live shows by the band were pretty rare, so we had to be happy with what we had. Later that year, the seasonal rush for Christmas number one was joined by the This is Not a Modern Rock Song EP, which was never going to be a hit, not with a seven-minute long title track nor the three others, which broke the current chart rules for inclusion anyway. This EP was business as usual for Stuart Murdoch and the gang, and though it now seems like one of their more minor works, the track Slow Graffitti was voted best B&S song shortly afterwards by the same campaigning group of fans circulating around the band’s website who propelled them to the Best Newcomer award at the 1999 BRIT awards, thus incurring the wrath of the Steps-managing Pete Waterman.
There were no more singles until 2000, the same year as fourth album Fold Your Hand Child, You Walk Like a Peasant. Legal Man, which typically wasn’t on the album, also gave them their highest chart placing (number 15) and a debut appearance of Top of the Pops. See that performance in all its glory below – it’s nice to see that they’re clearly not really trying very hard to mime their singing and instrument playing, and there’s also the amusing stage invasion by what looks like a hairy superhero.
The next year saw two more singles, their last for Jeepster. Jonathan David (still a big personal favourite) and I’m Waking Up to Us, which some thought was Murdoch’s take on his break-up with Isobel Campbell (though he denied this in the sleeve notes to The Life Pursuit). Campbell left the band a year later to pursue her own solo stuff.
The next single saw a big change in the world of Belle & Sebastian. They left Jeepster in 2002, signing a deal with Rough Trade Records which saw the end of their one-off singles. All their single releases since have been tracks from albums, and thus their entry into conventional single releases commenced. However, all was not lost. Unlike many, even most singles, these didn’t feel like mere throwaway promos for the album – they’ve maintained a commitment to stuffing them full of quality extra tunes, in many cases better than some of the album tracks.
For the first release on Rough Trade, the cheeky Step Into My Office Baby, we had the sweet Desperation Made a Fool of Me. I’m a Cuckoo featured a rare remix from the Avalanches and the glorious two-parter Stop Look and Listen, which follows the Simon and Garfunkel-like first part of the song with the instrumental burst of Shadows-style surf guitar which they used to open their gigs in support of Dear Catastrophe Waitress in late 2003. And when they released Wrapped Up in Books, it was styled as the Books EP, with literary themed tracks, including the excellent Your Cover’s Blown.
Last year’s The Life Pursuit was in my mind one of B&S’s weaker efforts, but that didn’t stop there being good b-sides. My final Belle and Sebastian CD single is the first release from that album, Funny Little Frog, which shows that I was buying CD singles as recently as January 2006. It must have been around this time that I moved decisively to 7 inch and downloads for my singles purchases, so I have no more tracks from singles off that album. Well, I do, but they’re not CD singles, and that’s the whole point of this ongoing feature. So I’ll end this little personal journey through the career of Belle and Sebastian, with some tracks from the various EPs and singles. Enjoy these. I certainly have as I’ve been writing this.
From Dog on Wheels (1997)
Download: Belle & Sebastian – String Bean Jean
From Lazy Line Painter Jane (1997)
Download: Belle & Sebastian – A Century of Elvis
From 3.. 6.. 9 Seconds of Light (1997)
Download: Belle & Sebastian – Beautiful
From This Is Just a Modern Rock Song (1998)
Download: Belle & Sebastian – Slow Graffiti
From Legal Man (2000)
Download: Belle & Sebastian – Legal Man
From Jonathan David (2001)
Download: Belle & Sebastian – Jonathan David
From I'm Waking Up to Us (2001)
Download: Belle & Sebastian – I’m Waking Up To Us
From Step into My Office, Baby (2003)
Download: Belle & Sebastian – Desperation Made a Fool of Me
From I'm a Cuckoo (2004)
Download: Belle & Sebastian – Stop, Look and Listen
From the Books EP (2004)
Download: Belle & Sebastian – Your Cover’s Blown
From Funny Little Frog (2006)
Download: Belle & Sebastian – Meat and Potatoes
Buy loads and loads of B&S tunes from emusic. They’re all there.