In-depth reviews of classic or neglected albums, mainly from the 1960s and 70s, plus a weekly newsletter featuring all the latest news, views and music. Artists covered include Beach Boys, Beatles, Belle and Sebastian, Buffalo Springfield, Byrds, Crosby Stills and Nash, Dire Straits, Grateful Dead, Hollies, Jefferson Airplane/Starship, Kinks, Nils Lofgren, Monkees, Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones, Searchers, Simon and Garfunkel, Small Faces, 10cc, The Who and Neil Young.
You can buy 'Wild Thyme - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of Jefferson Airplane/Starship' by clicking here!
Paul Kantner, Grace Slick and David Freiberg "Baron Von
Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun" (1973)
Ballad Of The Chrome Nun/Fat/Flowers Of The Night/Walkin'/Your
Mind Has Left Your Body//Across The Board/Harp Tree Lament/White Boy
(Transcaucausian Airmachine Blues)/Fishman/Sketches Of China
the baron and the nun and the gardener should be friends. Oh the baron and the
nun and the gardener should be friends. One likes to act militarily, one likes
to pray with me, the other likes to plant a tree, and all of them believe
that's the way to be free, so there's no reason why we can't all be friends.'
Not for the first or last time on this site, you can
blame David Crosby. All anybody ever seems to want to know about this third
spin-off joint project from the Jefferson Airplane/Starship members made
in-between bands is how it got its name. Crosby liked giving his friends
nicknames (Stills was 'Captain Manyhands' and Nash 'Willie', while Young was called
lots of things, not many of them to his face) and Paul and Grace were two of
his closest and dearest friends. So let's get this out the way first: Paul is
'Baron Von Tollbooth', Crosby jovially mocking his alleged 'German' ancestry
and regimented, occasionally uptight smile (in a previous life where hippies
didn't exist Kantner might have made a fine military leader, albeit only if he
believed in the right of the cause - which given the stupid reasons most of our
wars have been fought in historical memory means he probably wouldn't). While
Grace is the 'Chrome Nun' - streamlined, focussed, dedicated (in a previous
life where belief was the norm Grace would have made a fine Christian figure,
though probably something less chaste than a nun - think Boadicea on acid). As
for poor David Freiberg, the third named-member of the party, he's such a new
boy he doesn't even get a nickname, which is a great shame and rather sets the
tone for the way the fine singer/bassist/keyboardist from Quicksilver Messenger
Service will be treated throughout his bumpy thirteen year ride with the
Jeffersons. He deserves a nickname of his own, though, so how about 'Mr
Topiary' (a reference not just to his impressively thick crop of hair - which
he still has to this day - but to the fact that both of his 'contributions' to
this album concern gardening). So here we have the nun, the baron and the
gardener - what could these three possibly have in common? (And what could
possibly go wrong?!)
'Lots' is the answer (to both questions). There are
songs here about nurturing and growing, songs about keeping the faith that
something will work out for the best and an awful lot of people put in front of
the firing range. Like many of the Jefferson family albums, this album's
overall theme is of searching for peace everywhere - and finding that
ultimately peace might only come the hard way. The final part of the Jefferson mid-trilogy (for Paul and Grace
anyway) is in fact, much as you'd expect: a continuation of 'Blows Against The
Empire's daring science-fiction epic assault on the powers that be and
'Sunfighter's worry about what kind of world the present is to bring up a baby
(some think of these albums as a quartet rather than a trilogy, with Grace's
Paul -and-David produced solo album 'Manhole' coming last). Both albums ought
to be diametrically opposed (one is fiction and one is fact, after all) but as
we've seen already on this site the pair of them fit together pretty neatly as
both are really tied up in the present: where America is going, where it went
wrong at the end of the 1960s and how the flame for peace and quality needs to
be carried (yet again, by force if necessary). In some ways 'Tollbooth' is the
'past' to Blows' 'future' and Sunfighter's 'present', concerned less with what
the world might be like in the future or the cross-roads of all the different
ways it might follows than in the 'seeds' that can be grown now into something
great in the future - and those that were already planted in the past.
However there is something very definite 'missing'
from this album: the confidence that one day in the future all will be well, if
only we can survive the present. By 1973 holding a world together was looking a
bit dodgy seeing as Jefferson Airplane couldn't even make an album together
anymore (although both Jack and Jorma both bring their characteristic 'rumble'
to 'Your Mind Has Left Your Body') and for all the band's many and vocal
followers (and those of bands like them) they weren't numbering enough to vote
Nixon out of office, stop the Vietnam war or turn the world into one glorious
hippiefest. And while we cover many other AAA bands who had the same dream, the
Jeffersons were the ones who sang, rallied and spoke about this movement the
most. By 1973 a dream that was looking increasingly desperate album by album is
officially no more (Nixon's re-election in 1972 was a sign for many that the
'dream' was well and truly over). Peace, love and particularly flowers are key
themes across this record still, but there's no rallying cries of 'gotta
revolution!', no songs about uniting together and certainly no utopian futures.
Despite what the uniquely OTT cover art that depicts Grace, Paul and David as
near Gods presiding over a tiny Earth might tell you (Jefferson covers tend to
be either quirky, personal or muted - this self-aggrandising one by artist Drew
Sturzan - better known for his film poster work, including the first Star Wars
film - comes way out of left field) this album is actual quite small and
constrained, with the topics that once covered the whole universe and more
restricted largely to what the songwriters see around them (even 'China', a
song about a country in the future, was written due to naming their child
'Chynna'). David's contributions are a little different for now, but Paul and
Grace aren't trying to change the world here - they're simply trying to save
While both previous albums had melancholy twinges,
they are both largely upbeat albums, where the hippies hijack a starship and
find a peaceful utopia or where the pair's newborn baby at least has the chance
of growing up without the oppression her parents faced in the 1940s and 1950s.
By comparison 'Tollbooth' seems rather more mournful, a 'goodbye' rather than a
'hello', with several sad slow ballads that become increasingly desperate to
make the 'hippie dream' of peace and quality a reality. The overall 'sound' of
this album is one long drawn out wailing unchanging note: ironically the same
sound that used to signify excitement and newness (in Kantner's wonderfully
inventive Airplane song 'The Ballad Of You And Me And Pooneil') now represents
a stark, never-changing 'empire' that will never change. It recurs again and
again across this album, usually on guitar (Paul) but sometimes by piano
(Grace), Organ (David) or pedal steel (a guesting Jerry Garcia), occasionally
via sound effect/backwards guitar loop (probably Paul again). This gives the
album the feeling of running in slow motion, of a slowly unfolding text that's
set in motion so firmly it cannot be changed (only the two Grace Slick songs
that open each side back in the days of vinyl are anywhere near 'loud' or
'rock' and even the second of these contains a single organ note more or less
throughout).Notably the album ends not with another song about 'holding
together' or peace and love but with a fatalistic piece about the strength
about another culture altogether ('Sketches Of China'...'Somebody's bound to
lead you, sooner or later you're bound to go'). A less narrow-minded and
two-faced world power than America had been recently, sure, but far from the
utopia of previous Jefferson compositions. Paul and Grace (and David to a
lesser extent) aren't quite as sure in the 'dream' anymore but aren't yet as
'unsure' as on the more prog rocky early 'Starship' years (which become
increasingly more about myths and legends that concrete changes until Marty and
Grace leave and they re-invent themselves as a punk band asking the same
questions of society in 1979). That makes for an interesting comparison with
the next Jefferson album (passing over 'Manhole' for the moment) 'Dragonfly'.
The most upbeat, determined and 'see? We told you so' album of the Jefferson's
entire career the main difference between the two is the date: in 1973 Nixon
was a re-elected hero of the conservative elders; by 1974 and Watergate he's a
disgraced crook that even his biggest supporters feel betrayed by. What a
difference a year makes, eh?
Grace is having a particular strong 1973 - so much
so that she'll have another album (a solo- well so the credits say, 'Manhole'
is really just another Grace/Paul/David record on which her Slickness doesn't
even appear on the final track!) out just eight months later. The birth of
China and motherhood has really inspired her (just as the pregnancy seemed to
inspire Paul) and far from soften her she turns in some of her most direct,
angry songs across this album (for pretty much the last time - her songs will
gradually get gentler during the Starship years). All of her favourite targets
are here: Christianity ('The Ballad Of The Chrome Nun'), sex ('Across The
Board'), people who have to be the same ('Fishman') and the rich and powerful
who abuse that power in the name of greed ('Fat'). All that's missing from that
little list is 'drugs' (and that's been covered quite nicely by Paul on 'Your
Mind Has Left Your Body'). Like 'Sunfighter' though, these targets sound 'real'
and heartfelt, rather than detached philosophical debates (as per 'Long John
Silver') and 'Across The Board' in particular is one of her best songs, a
sequel of sorts to 'Silver Spoon' in which she turns taunting into an art form.
Paul has less to do and his three solo songs for the album come at a similarly
languid, slow motion pace - always a favourite writing style of his but
particularly notable here without any 'Mau Mau (Amerikon)'s or 'Sunfighter's to
break up the tempo). None of them are among Paul's best (he seems to be going
through a bit of writer's block across 1972-75), but all are quite beautiful
and 'Your Mind Has Left Your Body' in particular is often hailed as one of the
key songs of the San Franciscan songwriter era (after all it has hallucinatory
lyrics, feedback, pedal steel and harmonies: what's not to love?) As for David,
his lovely but less immediate songs get a little overshadowed but he deserves
his co-billing, acting as a supportive 'number two' throughout. The shame is
that instead of a 'stepping stone' to a greater role in the Jefferson family in
Starship this is one of only two real albums where he gets a chance to shine
(the other is 'Dragonfly'). David's songs on that album are better, but all of
them suggest an overlooked talent.
This final part of the trilogy is a little more
'normal' compared to the other two (well, normal in the sense that we only
leave our bodies and go to China on this album, rather than a million miles and
a million years into the future as per 'Blows' or back on board the 'Titanic'
watching disaster after disaster unfold as on the latter). It's more what a
'normal' Jefferson Airplane or Starship album would have sounded like with half
the group missing rather than a 'themed' album as per the others. For the same
reasons many would say it's not as good - and it's true that there aren't quite
as many un-missable songs as per the earlier two albums. 'Baron Von Tollbooth'
and his partners always seem to get short shrift from fans for some reason,
perhaps because its surrounded by the final days of the Airplane on the one
hand (the very final record, a live one - 'Thirty Seconds To Winterland' - came out pretty much simultaneously with
this record and also features Freiberg as special guest) and overshadowed y
'Dragonfly', the Starship's first, on the other. Many reviewers dismiss it as
featuring merely the leftovers from this 'interim' period that weren't good
enough to be used on a 'band' record. However that would do this fine,
comparatively understated record a huge disservice: the band may be dancing
slower, with slightly less fire and rage, but in doing so we can see them dance
so much better.
I use the term 'dancing' because that and the idea
of being in and out of step with the world around us is the closest this album
comes to a 'theme'. 'Fishman' has the passionate chorus that 'we both dance
laying down' (Grace admits in her autobiography 'Someone To Love?' that she and
Paul were both awkward on their feet but discovered by 'chance' that they're
actually pretty good when they're not having to support the top half of their
bodies; of course this being a Grace Slick song its probably also about sex). Throughout
this album people are trying to get 'in synch' with either other people or
their planet, desperately trying to get in step only to find that the others
(or maybe a goal they wanted) is now out of reach. 'Chrome Nun' is the latest
Grace song to attack the Christian church (following on from her barbs on the
Airplane's 'Long John Silver') for being ever more out of touch with the real
world, mainly because people aren't taught what to think anymore. 'Fat' is
about people who go too far down on route in life, getting 'fat' from too much
of something (although Grace was always careful to point out that she didn't
just mean food). The singers' latest Jack Traylor cover (an old friend from
their early days) 'Flowers Of The Night' tells a historical tale of a
down-trodden mass of peasants rising against their cruel ruler against all the
odds - clearly someone else out of synch with the mood of his people. 'Walkin'
is about a slower form of dancing, saluting all the lovely people met 'on the
road to glory' - the one song on this album where everything seems to be
working. 'Your Mind Has Left Your Body' is a meditation-with-feedback about
trying to get mind and body back together once again, with Kantner's spirit
floating somewhere 'over the polar ice cap' without getting cold. 'Across The
Board' contains that great opening line 'Someone aimed you when you were young
- but no one ever fired', with a song about taking the wrong turning literally
having the person in the song in the wrong place (although, again, Grace is
also singing about sex). 'Harp Tree Lament' is a rare collaboration between
Freiberg and Jerry Garcia's usual writing partner Bob Hunter and is about small
acorns from the past growing to big trees in the present. 'White Boy
(Transcaucasian Airmahcine Blues') wonders where the white man came from and
why traditionally he became so aggressive to others from different races (is it
because he had no home of his own? Or is he just 'out of step' with everyone
else?) Finally 'Sketches Of China' is a vision of a future based on the past
repeating itself (very like The Who on 'Rael' on 'The Who Sellout'), exploring Paul and Grace's fascination with
the country that in 1973 seemed to be the one best placed to take over
America's crown as the world's leader (they named their daughter 'Chynna' in
part in case the United States were ever 'taken over' in the future 'and they'd
assume she was one of theirs'). Why do certain countries rule in different
eras? (The Greeks, The Romans, the British Empire, etc). Is it just that it was
meant to be or that one particular place is suited to answering the needs of
the world most at that point in time?
A quick word now about the guest stars. 'Tollbooth'
has less than Empire, certainly, but a lot more than 'Sunfighter'. David Crosby
didn't just come up with the title but sings harmonies on the first and last
tracks during what was, by CSN standards, rather a 'nothing' year. Jerry Garcia
appears too, often and variedly, playing 'normal' guitar, banjo and pedal steel.
His fellow Dead member Mickey Hart plays 'gong' on 'Sketches Of China' and
'water phones' on 'Your Mind Has Left Your Body'. This time there's no other
Dead musicians and no Graham Nash, but in many ways this is the last hurrah for
the 'Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra' (the ad hoc collection of players
from the Jefferson, CSNY and Dead families who play on each other's albums
repeatedly between 1970 and 1973). From hereon in each band will go their
separate ways - to the detriment of all of them, quite honestly. There's also
some bass work from Chris Etheridge, at the time a member of Byrds spin-off
'The Flying Burrito Brothers'. As well as the 'past' though this album also
features the 'future', with a fourth future member of Jefferson Starship -
Craig Chaquico - now all of 17 years old after his first appearance on
'Sunfighter' and playing some of the solos of his life on 'Chrome Nun'
'Flowers' and especially 'Fishman'. There's also drummer Johnny Barbata (who
joined in the dying days of the Airplane and will go on to cruise in the
Starship until 1976) and violinist Papa John Creach (actually a member of
Airplane spin-off band Hot Tuna first but a 'full' member for their last two
albums and a 'Starshipper' until 1975). The only members of Starship not here
yet are singer Marty Balin (still on his sabbatical from the Jefferson family)
and bassist/keyboardist Pete Sears. Both will be in place by the time of the
Starship's big launch the following year on 'Dragonfly'.
In all, then, 'Tollbooth' isn't a 'great' album in
the same way that both 'Blows' and 'Sunfighter' and for that matter 'Dragonfly'
is. The overall 'message' we've come to expect from the Jeffersons isn't as
fully formed and there's a lot of filler alongside the major album highlights
('Walkin' is cute but it's hardly a prime cut; 'Fishman' is a one-note in-joke
with good production skills; 'White Boy' is Kantner on auto-pilot; 'Harp Tree
Lament' is lovely but deeply out of touch with the Jefferson sound). In short,
you can see why this album got 'forgotten' compared to those around it and it's
comparatively poor chart performance (#120) for an era when the band were
relatively hot suggests that utopian San Franciscan solo releases were - to
hark back to what we were saying earlier - out of synch. Because of all the
above I really didn't expect much from this album when I came to it fairly late
on in my record collecting journey by Airplane and Starship - and yet I was
pleasantly surprised. 'Chrome Nun' and 'Fat' have a lyrical barb that only
Grace can pull off, 'Flowers Of The Night' continues the strand of fine Jack
Traylor ecological protest covers, 'Harp Tree Lament' might sound odd but Bob
Hunter's poetry and David Frieberg's folk lilt melody makes for a fine match
and 'Sketches Of China' has more
interesting ideas packed into it than most whole albums from the same era. Best
of all, both 'Across The Board' and 'Your Mind Has Left Your Body' are prime
Slick and Kantner respectively, as taut as a whip or as relaxed as a beach
holiday; both of them masterpieces that are the equal of anything the writers
had done or will gone to do. There is much to love about 'Tollbooth' and even
if ultimately it isn't quite up to the A* standard of the other albums around
it, the record still scores a very creditable A- with a highly pleasing mix of
nurturing, faith and discipline. The Baron, The Nun and the Gardener should all
feel very proud.
'The Ballad Of The Chrome Nun' is a one-off
collaboration between Grace (lyrics) and David (music) and it's a shame they
didn't write more songs together because they clearly have a 'feel' for each
other's week. Grace's lyrics mocking religion are as strident and merciless as
any on Airplane album 'Long John Silver', but David's more upbeat music softens
the blow without taking out any of the bite away. Grace's latest character is
being made to feel guilty, seeing the devil when they look in the mirror and Grace's
'now hold it!' interruption (that you are indeed odd looking but not as 'odd'
as the 'God' whose making you feel guilty) is hilarious for anyone who doesn't
necessarily believe in every word in the Christian church. Grace's latest
sentiment is that religion doesn't need to exist anymore: that she feels the
same 'community' service once restricted to church every time she laughs with
her friends and associates and ends with her character 'falling flat on her
face' as she tries to fall to her knees and prey. While religion is kind of
easy pickings now in song, it was still a relatively rare subject to tackle in
1973 and anyone (me included) whose been through the brainwashing Christian
education system will be cheering 'right on!' somewhere around the chorus.
Grace's take has always been that people's responsibility have only ever been
to themselves and others, not powerful institutions and by concentrating on the
individual rather than the system (as she did on her earlier 'Easter') she
comes up with easily the most successful of her series of songs attacking
religion. While few church-goers probably agree with the lightly blasphemous line 'cross my forehead, cross my knees' this
song's message of each person being responsible for their own actions would
probably find even a church-goers nodding their heads anyway. David Freiberg's
restless, urgent melody is a good one too keeping the song bouncy and light on
its feet and inspiring some lovely 'ba ba be dah's from a guesting David
Crosby, turning this song into more of a celebration of the character's 'release'
from the guilt of the Christian church rather than a song about its oppressive
Grace's 'Fat' is a much quieter, reflective song
that will become the template for much of her 'Starship' songs to come: a
mid-paced piano ballad mixed strangely so that we rather strain to hear what
she's singing. That's a shame because it's the lyrics rather than the tune on
this one that stick in the memory, apparently a song about a character so fat they
can't fit through doors anymore and who keeps rolling out of bed. Grace has
always been keen to point out that this song is about so much more than just
'body fat' however: it's really a song about excess in all forms, of people who
have had so much of the things they love in life that it's beginning to
interfere with their daily life. You wonder what inspired Grace to write this
song, which is noticeably much kinder that most of her songs (Grace, of course,
who so often writes about herself is stick thin even now). Perhaps she's
actually talking about the fading 'hippie dream' and the fact that six years on
from the summer of love most hippies were caring more about feeling good than
making the world feel good: that would fit with this album's general tones of
shoulder-shrugging and the sudden unexpected appearance of The Pointer Sisters
(fresh from releasing their first album in 1972) does make this one sound like
some sort of communal song. Alas while most of Grace's songs are so crystal
clear you can understand every sentence, this one is a bit vague and the melody
tends to gently twitch a bit from time to time instead of being beautiful or
Band friend Jack Traylor sings lead on his own song
'Flowers Of The Night' , a sequel of sorts to 'Earth Mother' from 'Sunfighter'.
Like a lot of this album this follow-up isn't quite as special or well thought out
but it's still a good song and very Jeffersony, reflecting on how change may
seem slow but will come and that 'seeds' planted by one generation often don't
sporut till the next (Paul and Grace may have been thinking of now-toddler Chynna
when they picked this song). 'After all, it's happened before' is the message
of this song, with references to 'Paine' (Presumably Thomas Paine, a key writer
in the early days of the American Revolution), 'Pierce' (possibly the Governor
of Oregon who in 1925 fought a decision to force compulsory religion on every
child at school in his state, oblivious of background), 'Robespierre'
(definitely the French Revolution figure who gave an often illiterate mob a
'voice'), 'Juarez' (the former president of Mexico who booted out the French),
'Danton' (another key French Revolutionary who pushed to overthrow an outdated
monarchy), Luther King (civil rights leader and legend, assassinated in 1968)
and most interestingly of all, Patrick 'Lumumba', the first democratically
elected leader of the Congo who was executed in 1961). The rest of the lyric then
goes onto jumble up time and see all revolutions as one and the same,
overthrowing pockets of the same strict authoritarians who don't have the lives
of their people at heart, arguing that even if the rebels were put down heavily
in full view there's still no stopping truth and right: that 'plants that
cannot bloom by day must flower in the night'. A fittingly turbulent and
angular melody makes this song seems like a struggle, punctuated by moments of
pure magic and hope (Paul and Grace's often wordless harmonies simply rise up
to the sun at the end of every verse). The musical backing is interesting too,
with an exotic mellotron part unusual for the Jeffersons fleetingly passing
through the song like the 'winds of change' flying in the face of the rather
bass-heavy backing track and an exquisite guitar solo from young Craig Chaquico
that's one of his best and positively electrifying. Only the lack of a chorus
drops this song a couple of points compared to Traylor's 'Earth Mother', but
it's still a fine song wonderfully performed.
'Walkin' is a bit ordinary, though, by Jefferson
standards with Slick's lyrics and Kantner's music surprisingly awkward
bedfellows. The pair have gone off for a 'walk' through their neighbourhood,
which serves as a metaphor for the 'long road to freedom' for the San
Franciscan community. There's a slightly strained chorus that warns of danger ('I'm
going down and if I don't come back, tie all my dope on a wire wheel track')
but the overall feeling is one of happiness and joy - with the feeling that while
the hippie philosophy hasn't quite haven't quite worked out as quickly as
they'd planned, 'the dance' is still the best place in the world to be! Fittingly
for a song about community spirit there's a real mix of friends old and new on
the backing track, with Jerry Garcia making a rare appearance on banjo, Papa
John Creach soaring away on his fiddle and new boy Johnny Barbata at last
getting a chance to show off his laidback rock shuffle drum style. The result
is fun, but lacks the depth of the other songs on this album with a 'wo-wah-a-a-oh'
chorus more like something Harry Belafonte would write and seems very out of
keeping with Paul and Grace's usual style.
'Your Mind Has Left Your Body' is either everything
that's right or everything that's wrong about the Jefferson sound. It's slow to
the point of putting you asleep, has lyrics best described as 'of their time'
talking about astral projection and a backing track made up from the unique
combination of feedback (Jorma), pedal steel (Jerry) and drums (Johnny). While this sound is in danger of making the rest of the album seem rather passionless, simply drifting away on a sea of production values, it works well on this track; perhaps Katner's ultimate hippie song taking in everything from the afterlife to multi-layered consciousness to mankind's creation. In the
right mood this Paul Kantner epic shimmers with a real beauty, slowly
unfolding through a memorable melody that in the hands of another writer would have
been speeded up five-fold and turned into a top ten hit. The lyrics aren't just
about going on a bit of a journey without your body too but what this ability implies:
that time is a structure that works outside the way mankind experiences it,
that 'if you can fasten on that moment and expand through the afterglow, you
can reverse your mind in time and travel back to where the Earth was formed. Considering
that this song is so slow and contains such few words it covers an awful lot of
ground, with the implication that there's yet more to find 'another day, beyond
you'. One of the closest musical experiences you can have to a real drug trip,
'Body' is an extraordinary track, one that defies most logical song
constructions to work to an internal logic all of its own.
'Across The Board' is the album's other brilliant
song, a spiky piercing Grace Slick rocker that finds the narrator haranguing
some poor person (possibly Grace herself) for not doing enough and being
helpless. The first two verses are all about that American dream again, that
after 'pointing in the right direction' no one ever lit the fuse to let the
'gun' go off and now the movement (or at least this member of it) is getting
'old and tired'. Somewhere along the way, though, this second verse changes gears
and ends up as a feminist anthem, bemoaning the old 'can't live with them,
can't live without them' adage. Even by the standards of Grace's earlier risque
'Milk Train' this is pretty daring stuff for the day ('You can't cock yourself
woman!...Man's only got one finger, he don't need anymore') and together with
Grace's piercing full-throated war cry sounds deeply threatening. Throughout
the song comes the metaphor of being 'across the board' from where the action's
happening, both sexual and political, with Grace lonely on the other side
trying to nag, cajole and force 'him' towards her: her scream on the words 'all
the way' at the end of every verse, navigating what's really quite a difficult
middle section full of twists and turns, is brilliantly exciting and Grace is
rarely in better voice (although in a couple of places she stops short and
messes up her words, suggesting this is a 'rehearsal' take the musicians built
around, figuring it too good to waste). The song has a real swing in its step
which really makes it stand out in the context of what is quite a sleepy album
and keeps jumping from simple to compound time and back again, making it sound
ever more dramatic and thrilling as Grace hits louder and louder notes. Reduced
to the bare bones of Grace's piano, David's mellotron, Chris' bass and Johnny's
drums plus a simple Jerry Garcia guitar solo near the end (Paul is absent yet
again on this session) the ad hoc backing band cope very well with what sounds
like a live take and leads into a
terrifically fiery jamming session at the end of the song (Etheridge rounding
the song off with a fun 'comedy' riff as the song slowly falls apart). Easily
the album highlight and one of Grace's greatest songs of all, 'Across The Board'
was incredibly brave for 1973 and still sounds remarkable now, but has a great
song behind all that shock value too.
David Freiberg and Bob Hunter's pretty 'Harp Tree
Lament' is a soothing balm and while it doesn't fit in with the rest of the album
it's still an enjoyable track. As any Grateful Dead fans will know, Bob Hunter's
natural tendency as a lyric writer is to turn to the Bible or some older work
and try to show the similarities between then and now. That should be highly
fitting for an album all about the 'seeds' of an era blossoming later, but a
combination of David's unorthodox lead vocals (he has a voice with a similar
pitch to Paul's but quite a different 'feel') and the highly lyrical tone of
the song (like many a Hunter song there's an awful lot of words, which works on
albums full of songs with lots of words but not as a one-off) makes it seem
rather off on its own. The general tone, that 'there is time to deliver' also
seems to fly in the face of the urgency of a song like 'Across The Board', but
is part of a typically clever and engaging Hunter lyric about mankind
overcoming all obstacles despite the odds and would have fitted well on the
Dead album of 1973 'Wake Of The Flood' ('Raise up your bottles and drink up the
blood, you planted the vine here in spite of the flood'). Later verses have the
land of 'Harp Trees' as a magical land halfway between life and death ('His
time is not ready but he's still turning old'), watching the 'seeds' planted
earlier springing up from a distance. The song ends by paraphrasing nursery
rhyme 'Oranges and Lemons', another song of revolution (the French this time)
and the mixture of 'lights' showing the way and threats to the perpetrators of
injustice: 'Here's one for the candle that lights you to bed, and one for the sword
that hangs over your head'. Hunter's songs have such a strong internal rhythm
they must be hell to set music to (I don't know how Jerry Garcia did it!) and
while Freiberg's music is fitting, with a particularly nice chorus, you get the
sense that this tune would be forgettable without the lyric to sing along to. Still,
it's a shame the pair never wrote together again because they're certainly
sympathetic to each other. Hunter seems rather proud of the song too, adding
the lyric to his compendium 'Box Of Rain' and reflecting that 'this song
appeared on a fine but overlooked pre-Starship album' and that 'the title is
taken from a piobaireachd for Highland Pipe' (i.e. a Scottish song composed for
bagpipes, not that there are any on this performance). So now you know.
'White Boy (Transcaucasian Airmachine Blues)' is a
second slow-burning Kantner epic trying to trace back the journey of his white
ancestors to the beginnings of time. The strange thing is, nobody really knows
where the 'white' men lived: every other 'tribe' can be traced back somewhere
(America, India, Africa, Australia) but Europeans just kind of appeared in the
'Caucasian mountains of Russia'. Surprisingly given Kantner's known love of
sci-fi (see 'Blows') and the rise of writers like Erich Von Danikyn in the
early 1970s Paul never actually comes out and says what we're all thinking (aliens
who don't belong on the Earth and tried to colonise it for those reasons) which
might have made for a more interesting song. Instead we get a short history
lesson from then to now which, in true Kantner form, comes out in the form of a
list rather than a lyric ('You made mountains for the Incas, built pyramid for
Pharoah man'), but does contain a few nuggets that sum up mankind's precarious
existence since tribes began to discover each other ('You build and you burn,
create then destroy'). The music is excellent though, made up of more mellotron
and Jack Casady's ever fat and full bass and unwinding so slowly it's as if
we're hearing several millennia of human civilisation unfold in real time. The
song also ends ominously with the white people finally being 'sent away' (is
this where the start of 'Blows' kicks in?!) - another brave statement to make
in 1973 in the context of race riots and freedom, with Kantner basically saying
his own 'race' is in the wrong. Like many Jefferson songs, fans will love it
and outsiders will shake their heads and wonder at how the band got away with a
song that doesn't really have a melody and such controversial lyrics. We all
know better though don't we?!
'Fishman' is a short and peculiar Grace Slick
in-joke, based around her 'discovery' that while she and Paul felt un-cordinated
and clumsy on their feet they were both pretty good at 'dancing lying down'. As
for the 'Fishman', it seems as if this song is yet more wordplay based around
the idea of mankind being 'in' or 'out' of synch with his surroundings: that,
going back to the last song (and again referring to past history) man and water
were 'at one' and the hybrid fish-man we evolved was mega-coordinated and could
really shake some moves; however the further we get away from our ancestor on
the evolutionary scale the more 'out of synch' with nature we become. This
being Grace of the early 70s there's also yet more risque references, that 'I
was making love to a fishman, swim over my body with the sea in his hands' (put
something in your tea, Grace, or take a cold shower!) before the declaration
'fishman, I love you'. Whilst the backing is slightly more 'normal' than usual
(drums, piano, bass, several guitars) the sheer weirdness of the lyrics still
make this one of the stranger songs on the album, even if the mesh of guitars
do a good job at making the second half of the song sound as if its slowly
sinking under water.
The album then closes with 'Sketches Of China', a
final epic Kantner song (with some lyrics from Slick) that is once again set in
the dim and distant past. In keeping with the lyrics of 'White Boy' the saviour
is born, not a European as is so usually the case but in China, 'carrying
strife and harmony to all the people on the mainland'. He's then joined by a
warlord (boo!) and a pretty lady (yay!) before the lyrics become more and more
surreal (were there a few verses cut from the final version?) and everyone ends
'drunk in a beautiful garden celebration'. You wonder quite what Kantner meant
by this pretty but pretty strange song: is this another song about ancient
lands rising again in the present day (China was quickly catching America up as
a world power in the 70s - hence, partly, baby Chynna's name)? Is this a tale
of war and conquest that proves man are the same all over at all times and
needs to change now? Is the mysterious 'oriental lady' who stops a war through
a night of sex with a war lord proof that love can conquer war? And what of
that oft-repeated chorus ('It ain't what you want, it's what you need', a kind
of American reinvention of the Rolling Stones' 'You Can't Always Get What You
Want'): is greed simply a substitute for love? Usually Jefferson-family songs
excel by offering up questions and not answers, but like the similar 'Rael' by
The Who (a rock opera about Israel in the past and future cut down to six
minutes and turned intelligible along the way) this seems like a trailer for a
later full album that never came rather than a song in it's own right.
Overall, then, 'Baron
Von Tollbooth' and his family are hard people to get to know. Sure the album is
clearly about a time now over 40 years in the past and many of the references
here were made for an audience that would 'know' a lot of this stuff without
having to look it up (when revolution is in the air, revolutionaries' names are
often dropped in conversation) but I'm
used to putting myself back a little in the past to hear Jefferson-family
albums; there's something more than that going on with this album, which seems
like a concept album about the past turning into the future and building on the
seeds of before that keeps getting 'distracted' with songs about sex, religion
and greed. I've played this album many times down the years and yet I've never
felt like I've ever really got to 'know' it the same way I did with predecessors
'Blows' and 'Sunfighter'. However, that doesn't mean you shouldn't spend time
with the baron, the nun and the gardener: even by the Jefferson's high standards
in this era this is a fine LP, full of nuances, big questions and some great
ensemble performance pieces that make it one of the most undeservedly
overlooked albums in their canon. And to some extent much of its promise came
true: it's fitting, somehow, that an album about seeds today becoming trees
tomorrow should be the album that seems to be the 'birth' of Jefferson Starship
(with only Chris Etheridge going back to his old band in favour of Pete Sears),
a band which - at first anyway - build on the best of this album and go even
further, with debut record 'Dragonfly' featuring all the grace and beauty of
this album but with the knowledge that Starship are once again 'in synch' with
their audience and country. Even out of step, however, 'Tollbooth' and friends
and mighty fine company. Other Jefferson family reviews from this website you might be interested in reading:
'Winds Of Change' (1982) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2016/07/jefferson-starship-winds-of-change-1982.html
'The Empire Blows Back'# aka 'The Planet Earth Rock
and Roll Orchestra (Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship) (1983) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2016/10/paul-kantnerjefferson-starship-planet.html
The Alan's Album Archives Guide To Belle and Sebastian 'Rollercoaster Ride' Is Available To Buy Now By Clicking Here
Welcome to the second in a planned series of discussions of all the surviving TV footage we can find of each and every AAA band - written partly to bulk out the planned AAA books we should have accruing somewhere around 2017. Belle and Sebastian are an interesting problem for this article given that they're a comparatively modern band by our standards and have had about 20 years less than most of our bands to record anything. Belle and Sebastian are also notoriously camera shy, so there aren't anything like as many concerts/interviews/tv appearances as there are for most other AAA groups. On the plus side, as a product of first the MTV and then the Youtube era there are lot more music videos than average (some of them even include the band!) and thankfully given that the first release comes some two decades after companies decided to recklessly start destroying old video tapes, pretty much everything the band ever did exists...somewhere. Naturally covering such a wide amount of material means there might be something important we either haven't come across or forgotten about - if that's true and you're feeling smug about owning something we don't know then why not drop us a line and let us know? (note - we're not counting videos of concerts shot by fans but items intended for broadcast somewhere in the world, even if they never actually were).
To date the only place you can find all of these recordings officially is the 'For Fans Only' DVD (2003), although as the band seem to spend half their question and answers page on their official website pointing fans after rare footage in the direction of Youtube it seems only fair to do the same here and hope that B and S release a second 'Fans Only' DVD one day (most of the ones from 2003 are on the official website at www.belleandsebastian.com/video anyway!) For copyright reasons we can't show you the links but have a follow of our Alan's Album Archives page on Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/user/AlansArchives) and check out our Belle and Sebastian playlist!
1) I Could Be Dreaming (College Music Video 1995)
The earliest surviving footage of Belle and Sebastian features a ridiculously young group fresh from recording their masterpiece 'Tigermilk'. While no singles were taken from the album and the album initially only had a limited 5000 copy run, the band were studying encouraged by their student record label Electric Honey to do things 'properly' hand have a bash at making a promo for it. This is the result - a simple, straightforward video with an almost bequiffed Stuart Murdoch miming to his vocal while the rest of the band play nervously along, often on the wrong instruments (Sarah is on keyboards, for instance). Murdoch soon gets bored and is already subverting the normal way of going about things by getting a puppet of a fox dressed as a super hero to mime the words from the second verse on, while he nods alongside (Stuart always had a thing for foxes and crop up in many of his songs). The video was most likely shot by Isobel (although not credited here, unlike the next video, it's very similar, full of arty shots of test-tubes and the like) and is notable for two things - how young the band all seem (especially Stuart) and how bouncy Stuart is, dancing like a madman across the stage (a trademark of later B and S shows, but surprising given how soon the sessions come after his seven years with me/cfs - perhaps he's just pleased to have some spare energy again?!) The video - or most of it anyway - was included on the 'For Fans Only' DVD (2003), although sadly that version fades the song early.
2) Dylan In The Movies (College Music Video 1996)
The 'For Fans Only' DVDF lists this as the first film footage of B and S, but surely that's wrong? The song is younger and the band look older, albeit still terrifically young. I also quibble with the dating of '1998' (surely its 1996 when the song came out and by which time B and S had already made at least three promos), although the credit to 'Strathclyde University' is probably accurate for the backdrop. Isobel is given the credit for this video which features lots of lingering shots of dogs (she's clearly getting practice for the 'Dog On Wheels' promo to come!) and the band looking as if they are rehearsing properly this time. Alas the only footage to have survived to date is the fragment included in the 'For Fans Only' DVD, which replaces the original sound with the record and quickly segues into later performances of the song (at least one of which seems to be the 'Later...with Jools Holland show' mentioned later).
3) Dog On Wheels (Unknown Live c.1997)
Included in the 'extras' section of the 'For Fans Only' DVD, there's sadly no mention of where this great live version of an early band favourite comes from. Murdoch still has his longer-than-normal haircut and seems a very edgy performer so it's likely that this video is earlier rather than later, so we've plumped for it in the list around here. Stuart gets two of his lyrics round the wrong way ('Promise me you'll always be around when I call and when I fall') and the backing is best described as shambolic, but the song already sounds like a good one and the band like one to watch.
4) Dog On Wheels (Music Video 1997)
Picked as the first 'proper' video on the 'For Fans Only' DVD, this can be seen as the first 'professional' B and S video clip. Stuart's brought the same fox featured in 'Dreaming' out on location with him as he wandered around location on Glasgow, 'searching' for a toy dog on wheels to buy by the end of the clip. This video was shot by Karn David, the girlfriend of bassist Stuart David who became an 'honorary' member of his spin-off band 'Looper' (she's the one referenced in the first album 'Up A Tree's sleevenotes as randomly picking Stuart's name out of her university friend's address book and starting up a correspondence that results in marriage). According to Jeepster's Youtube account this video cost a whole £54 in costs to make and yet looks like it cost a lot more (that's an awful lot of cups of tea for cast and crew, although costs are cut down by only having Stuart - and the title character - appear!) I hear our very own AAA mascot Max The Singing Dog is auditioning to appear in the next B and S video...
5) A Century Of Fakers (Music Video 1997)
One of the loveliest of all of B and S' songs, the band typically deliver their daftest video yet to accompany what's actually a very earnest and serious song about the 20th century being full of 'fakers'. Isobel appears on a video for the first time to 'helpfully' interpret the lyrics into 'sign language' for us. Goodness knows who most of the other people in the video are though - most of them seem to be random passers by on a hot Summer's day in Glasgow in 1997, although some of the band do 'cameo' Hitch-cock style (that's Chris Geddes hiding behind the crates being moved in the middle of the song and eventually the whole band in the queue outside the 'Half Bar' pub - which seem to specialise in deliveries of guitars given the goods that disappear into the shop! Note, too, Sarah Martin's distinctive taste in head-gear while waiting in the queue!) In case you hadn't already guessed, this video was also included in the 'For Fans Only' DVD and is the only B and S music promo directed by Stuart Murdoch to date.
6) Lazy Line Painter Jane (Music Video 1997)
My personal favourite of all the B and S music videos, this is a terrific video to accompany a terrific song. Stuart Murdoch's original is a gloomy doomy song about guilt and abortions, but the video is closer to a comic-strip, with a young girl played by Karla Black causing havoc Minnie The Minx style, to every passer by she passes (all of whom just happen to be members of Belle and Sebastian). All these incidents involve 'lines' of some description: They are, in turn, Stevie Jackson (busy painting yellow line in the road), Chris Geddes (waiting for a bus before Painter Jane pulls off part of his T-shirt), Stuart Murdoch (who is innocently walking past a hole in a wall when Jane decides to spray some graffiti on it; his 'grr' reaction is the single best moment on the DVD!), Richard Colburn (hanging out his washing in the exact place he would have used in real life, before Jane steals his washing line!), Stuart David (who reads until falling asleep in the road - Jane draws a line around him 'police investigation' style!) and Isobel Campbell (busy reading a book on a park bench until Jane 'pulls' the words off the book!)Better still are the inter-spliced shots of the band genuinely recording the song in Glasgow's Hyland Parish Church where they used to practice (and above which Stuart Murdoch and Richard Colburn were living at the time), with guest vocalist Monica Queen part of the band. This video was also shot by Karn David and features all the haunts the band must have known well whilst going to rehearsals in the church.
7) Dirty Dream #9 (Music Video 1998)
An unusual song to be given a video, this first of three songs from the 'Boy With The Arab Strap' album is against all odds the first to not actually feature the band much. Perhaps not co-incidentally, it's also one of the weakest with shots of lots of models doing strange things and posing in strange places, although perhaps thankfully none of them re-enact what's actually going on in the song's rather risque lyrics! Oddly enough it's the first B and S music video directed by someone who had practice at this sort of thing - director Lance Bangs, who started his career in 1993 making videos for the likes of Moby and Sonic Youth. Another song included on the 'For Fans Only' DVD.
8) Is It Wicked Not To Care? (Music Video 1998)
Isobel's turn in the spotlight features the band having a picnic (presumably it's an outtake from this video that was used on the 'Arab Strap' cover - the DVD contains many outtakes from this video which are actually more entertaining than the clip itself!) The video (directed by Sarah) is shot artfully in monochrome and starts with a quote from Jacque Cocteau ('What uniform can I wear to hide my heavy heart?') which seems rather at odds with what should be a fun song. Much more fitting are the shots of Isobel trying to read out C S Lewis' 'The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe' to a bemused looking toy lion!
9) The Wrong Girl (Music Video 1998)
A third video from 'Arab Strap' stars Stevie Jackson and switches locations between Glasgow Hospital, Queen's College, a Glaswegian record shop (Stevie checks out a copy of Bob Dylan's 'Blonde On Blonde'). Trafalgar Square and a suitably cold looking beach. Jackson drifts through the video with a series of catastrophes captioned with increasingly frustrated captions ('Why Me????') Finally happiness is restored at the end of the video when Stevie spies his true love...a guitar!!! Apparently the Teenage Fanclub's Norman Blake (then the second biggest act signed to B and S' record label Jeepster) is in there too. B and S clearly spent more time on this video than most and the captions and dead-pan looks on Stevie's face are hilarious, but somehow this video seems a lot more rushed than the others. The directors were Stevie and Lance Bangs, which might explain why this video has such a mixture of scale and smallness. It was, you guessed it, included on the 'For Fans Only' DVD, although its rather out of place coming between 'Legal Man' (2000) and 'Wandering Alone' (2002).
10) This Is Just A Modern Rock Song (Music Video 1998)
The first of what I consider the 'mainstream' B and S recordings is much more than just another music video; the second to be shot by Sarah and the first to be made up of loosely cut video footage without a narrative. This is famously the song that breaks the fourth wall and speaks about the band ('Stevie's full of good intentions, Richard's into rock and roll, Stuart's staying in and he thinks it's a sin that he has to leave the house at all'). However the band aren't in the video at all, it's Glasgow that's the 'star' of this video though and is shown in all its greying fading glory: trains arrive in barren grassland, passers by play Scrabble in the road-side (as if there's nothing better to do), people get lost and ask for directions and a graveyard is shown, mysteriously without any Sukis in it. The result is atmospheric, but a little dull (much like the song in fact, which by B and S standards is long and slow). And yes, before you ask, it is indeed included on 'For Fans Only'.
11) 'The Black Sessions' (1998)
This fascinating 12-song concert was recorded for a French radio station named 'France Inter' that featured a programme titled 'The Black Sessions' (it's a French thing, apparently, a pun on their creator Bernard Lenoir's name which didn't really survive translation). B and S are in great form and feature a nice mix of old favourites and new songs that weren't often performed. The full track selection is as follows: The Boy Done Wrong Again/Dog On Wheels/Seeing Other People/I Know Where The Summer Goes/A Century Of Fakers/Mayfly/The Wrong Girl/Dirty Dream #2/Poupee De Cire Poupee De Son/Slow Graffiti/I Don't Love Anyone/Sleep The Clock Around. There are two songs you might not know: 'Paper Boat' (an otherwise unreleased B and S song by Stuart David) and 'Poupee De Cire', which is an Isobel-sung cover of a Serge Gainsbourg song that's exclusive to this set, although it's actually the only performance here to secure an official release as part of the 'Fans Only' DVD (both will be covered in our 'unreleased tracks' article). Personally I'd have gone for the cracking performance of 'Dirty Dream', the elongated jam at the end of 'Sleep The Clock Around' and the gorgeous rendering of 'The Boy Done Wrong Again' but at least they're available on Youtube to savour. Along the way Stuart Murdoch interrupts 'A Century Of Fakers' to tell the crowd this is their 'chance to say hello to your mum' and Stevie tries to announce 'The Wrong Girl' in French but only gets as far as 'la femme...err...wrong!' As pretty much our last chance to see the original line-up of Belle and Sebastian working together and having fun, this concert is hard to beat with perhaps the finest single setlist of the small handful of B and S concerts available legally and illegally.
12) Bowlie Weekend (1999)
A sign of just how big Belle and Sebastian had become by 1999 was their role as 'hosts' of the second ever 'Bowlie Weekender' festival. This gig took place at the unlikely venue of Pontin's Holiday Camp in Essex and has become legendary in B and S circles, the entry point for many curious fans who booked to go to the festival for fun and only discovered how good the band was later. The show was professionally filmed but only extracts from it have ever been seen: Lazy Line Painter Jane (seen briefly on the 'For Fans Only' DVD), The Boy With The Arab Strap (seen in full on the 'For Fans Only' DVD), a cover of The Who's The Kids Are Alright (seen as one of the extras on 'For Fans Only'), 'Landslide' (an otherwise unreleased Isobel Campbell song with the 'Maisonettes' from 'Legal Man' singing along, available as an extra on the 'For Fans Only' DVD), a cover of Glenn Campbell's 'Rhinestone Cowboy' (an extract is seen in the DVD main feature) and Dog On Wheels (seen on Youtube). The result looks an awful lot of fun and features some unusual songs in the track listing but was perhaps one of those 'you had to be there' moments, with B and S giving a spirited but rather ramshackle performance.
13) Documentary (Unreleased 1999)
We don't know what it is, we don't know why it was made and we don't know what the full gist of it is but we do know that someone somewhere tried to make a documentary of Belle and Sebastian in 1999. Extracts of it appear on the 'For Fans Only' DVD and are highly revealing but frustratingly short. Stuart Murdoch talks about 'not remembering' writing his early songs, 'which is kind of lucky, I guess, because it means I still like a few of them' but gets cut short just before he talks in full about the most important years of the band's life. Otherwise there's some priceless footage of the band rehearsing 'Seeing Other People' in Stuart and Richard's church in 1996, which ought by rights to be treated separately above but seems to have been a 'part of' this untitled documentary long before the 'Fans Only' DVD included it and is seen in extracted form rather than in full.
14) Brit Awards (1999)
A good demonstration of how out of step with the mainstream musical world Belle and Sebastian were is that their biggest competitors for the 1999 Brits newcomers award was Steps, that artificially constructed collection of dancers who could sing, a bit and released their debut album in a media publicity drive that made Michael Jackson look underexposed. By contrast B and S' real debut came in 1995, on a student record label, in a limited edition of 1000 copies. As a result it wasn't until after the release of album three that anyone on the panel of judges considered Belle and Sebastian as eligible for the award of 'newcomer'. The band certainly weren't expecting to win and only two band members turned up (the rest were busy recording the 'Legal Man' LP), leaving a bemused Richard Colburn and Mick Cooke to mischievously tease ignorant music fans everywhere that 'tonight I'm Belle and he's Sebastian'! So sure was everyone that Steps would get the award that there were claims of a 'fix' - and its fair to say that an early use of an internet poll (back in the days when you didn't have to log in to everything all the time and could vote as many times as you wanted, as many passionate Steps-fearing fans did) probably helped. The result, however, was a triumph for music lovers (Steps are the best of a bad bunch from the period, actually, but should have had their own category for 'best pre-teen dance troupe' rather than 'best music newcomer') and makes for priceless footage - especially if you can see the clip in full (on Youtube) and see what a bizarre mixture of music was winning back in 1999. The 'For Fans Only DVD' included an extract of Richard and Mick's acceptance speech as well as a local Scottish news programme interviewing the rest of the band about why they didn't go (Sarah's pleased because her mum would only have 'moaned at me for not wearing the right dress', while Chris was upset when he found out that Richard and Mick were sharing a table with Muhammad Ali!)
15) Legal Man (Music Video 2000)
By 2000 we fans (we should have a name, everyone else has, how about 'Belle-boys'?!) were beginning to wonder what a big budget B and S production might sound like. 'Legal Man' was it (sort of), with a much heavier sound than normal and a much tighter and rockier feel than normal. The video for 'Legal Man' continued the theme, having the band dressed up to the nines and performing in some ancient looking club, while a judge - also seen in a newspaper headline about 'mysterious circumstances' - watches them from afar, wig still attached. Impressively the band hired no less an actor than Gareth 'Blake's 7' Thomas for this role! (Perhaps this is an in-joke, with B and S often referred to as a 'seven-piece' by a press who clearly can't count - their numbers fluctuating between six and 14 depending on how many string players you count! For those who don't know Blake's 7 didn't feature seven people either and included either grumpy computer Orac or sat-nav-with-attitude Zen as part of the numbering, which should really have been either 'Blake's Six' or 'Blake's Eight'). For those who got the 'spoof' nature of the video (which is very much a product of the 'Austin Powers' era) the results are hilarious with Belle and Sebastian 100% the 'wrong' band for the rather staid and proper band seen on stage complete with tuxedos and ball gowns. Isobel is having great fun and actually directed the film, one of the last things she did with the band (she got the giggles often while making it, as you can see in an 'outtakes compilation' seen at the beginning of the video on 'For Fans Only') while Colburn is easily the most natural band member on stage. One odd thing though: where are Sarah and Bobby on this video? (The latter might not have been counted as a full member yet but it seems odd that Sarah isn't there).
16) Legal Man (Top Of The Pops 2000)
For most bands an appearance on Top Of The Pops was the pinnacle of your achievements (or at least it was before the Jimmy Saville scandals!) and if they were lucky enough to get the rights would be displayed proudly for all to see. Belle and Sebastian hide their one and only appearance away as a 'hidden extra' on the 'For Fans Only' DVD, which can be seen only if you let the film run past the end of the credits. The band clearly aren't taking their roles as top 20 superstars (this song peaked at #15, the second highest to date!) too seriously: just check out Stuart's 'Dennis The Menace' T-shirt and Isobel's school uniform, while Stevie gives up miming playing the guitar halfway through and simply jives his way to the end of the song!
17) Press Conference (2001)
Belle and Sebastian only ever held one press conference in their lives, to promote fourth album 'Fold Your Hands, Child, You Walk Like A Peasant'. The idea of B and S holding a press conference about anything seems laughable and the band never tried it again afterwards - they seem to have been treating it as a laugh here anyway. The band are asked simply 'why?' in regards to the back picture of the album with Stuart David as a 'monkey butler', respond 'excuse me?' when asked if they're heading in a more hippie direction and best of all is Richard's ad lib when asked which of the Belle and Sebastian off-shoots (Stuart David' 'Looper' and Isobel's 'The Gentle Waves') is better (how do you mean? In a fight?!) A journalist from the world's greatest music magazine (well, it was at the time when it was edited by Peter Doggett anyway) is told off for being 'too young' and to 'get out of there' before its too late! Extracts from the press conference were wittily re-titled 'Fold Your Notepad, Child, You Walk Like A Journalist' when included as an extra on the 'For Fans Only' DVD!
18) Jonathan David (Music Video 2001)
Another rare example of a 'properly' shot video - or should that be two videos? Stuart Murdoch and Stevie appear dressed up first in 1960s clobber and then 1970s gear despite the fact that the interior of the house they borrowed for location seems more 1950s to me. Belle and Sebastian, of course, don't go for the obvious story (the title is taken from the bible, of two warriors who were strangers under they bonded together in a war) and instead treat the song as a simple menage a trois. Stuart Murdoch is the lucky one who gets the girl while Stevie pines away in the corner. Wacky as this is, some of the usual magic of a Belle and Sebastian video seems to be missing from this one. Included in the 'For Fans Only' DVD.
19) Later...With Jools Holland (2001)
The band only made one appearance on this long running programme and played three songs: 'I'm Waking Up To Us' 'The Magic Of A Kind Word' and The first of these is one of the most fascinating clips on this list, this is Isobel in one of her last appearances sitting at Stuart Murdoch's feet while he emotionally sings this nasty song of betrayal and hurt about their relationship. 'We're a disaster' spits Murdoch, desperately trying not to look at his ex as the rest of the band look the most serious I've ever seen Belle and Sebastian (even Murdoch can't look away, however, and glowers at her, right at the end of the solo). Thankfully Jools Holland's moments have been cut so he never gets to spoil the mood or say something hopeless along the lines of 'I really love your new CD...who are you again?' like he usually does. 'The Magic Of A Kind Word' is much calmer all round, although Stuart does appear to turn his back on Isobel as she and Sarah sing the mellow opening lines. This is clearly a band in transition - note that there's no Stuart David and Bobby Kildea is for now, weirdly, covering the guitarwork (mainly so Stuart M and Stevie can dance!), with trumpeter Mick Cooke doing a good job covering on bass. For once, only the first of these two songs appears on the 'For Fans Only' DVD.
20) Programmo Do Jo (2002)
This rare example of Belle and Sebastian appearing on a foreign TV show is true car crash television. The host Jo Soares, speaking in clipped English, has clearly never heard of the band before and is astonished at the amount of flute, string and trumpet players in the band. He asks some weird questions too (I've never heard a band asked who was the best cook before - its Chris by the way and seems to think the whole band are teenagers, asking if they're mothers know they're in Brazil - for the record most of them are early and mid 30s by now), not helped by the fact that he's asking lots of questions about the vocals to the member sat next to him, who just happens to be non-singing drummer Richard Colburn. Highlights include Stevie trying to sing a song he's just been handed in Portugese (with Stuart's help) and a spirited performance of 'Wandering Alone' from 'Storytelling' with almost all the audience clapping along with the distinctive riff. Isobel has only just left the band at this stage but everyone seems remarkably upbeat. Almost the entire clip can be seen on the 'For Fans Only' DVD.
21) Coachella Festival (2002)
Another well received B and S festival appearance and another starting point for many fans who'd never heard the band before going. Many fans filmed the gig - Youtube is full of footage shot that night - but only two 'professionally shot' clips have made it into the public domain to date: a spirited 'Boy With The Arab Strap' and a one-off cover of The Beach Boys' Darlin' where big 1960s music fan Stevie talks about having to 'cover one of Carl Wilson's best vocals on 'Darlin' and gets visibly nervous before Stuart's dancing means the performance will never get taken seriously anyway! Both are included in the 'For Fans Only' DVD, the former as part of the main film and the latter as one of the 'extras'.
22) Glastonbury (2002)
Not being a big fan of mud, loo-queuing or noisy shrieky unknown punk bands who damn you to hell while you're trying to eat a breakfast, I've never actually been to Glastonbury. I do feel a kind of camaraderie of spirit, however, because back in the days before digital TV and set-top boxes that could record programmes Glasto used to mean an annual event of staying up late and sitting through five hours of torturous coverage for a decent 5 minutes that was usually faded out under the end credits anyway. I did this for Belle and Sebastian in 2002 and am the proud owner of a much chewed video tape featuring 'The Boy With The Arab Strap' and 'Wandering Alone', complete with a field of people clapping along to the distinctive rhythm. The band also played 'The State I Am IN' that night, which sadly didn't make the coverage at the time but was the only song from this set to feature in the 'For Fans Only' DVD which, sniff, makes a last appearance in this list! Despite being without Isobel and Stuart David for more or less the first time in public the band do well. More interesting, though, is the comments around it: The late John Peel, who so often had his finger on the pulse of interesting music, is surprised at how good Belle and Sebastian were and unusually ashamed that he's been avoiding her music for so long; Lauren Laverne, meanwhile, is her usual dismissive self (in all her many years of Glasto coverage has she actually found a band she likes yet? She always seemed to me like she was in the wrong job...)
23) Weapons Of Mass Distraction (2003)
The title of this short lived embarassing-chat-with-comedy-and-some-music-that's-always-faded-early-because-of-some-inane-nonsense programme rather gives the era away: yes this is post-9/11, self-aware edginess starring Craig Charles from Red Dwarf/Robot Wars who frankly is too good for this sort of thing. B and S are plugging their 'Dear Catastrophe' album and perform two rather rough and ready versions of two singles from that album 'Wrapped Up In Books' and 'I'm A Cuckoo'. The most interesting feature of both is that Stuart M shuns his guitar and prowls around the stage like a madman during that last choice. To date these clips have never been made available commercially and at the time of writing aren't even on Youtube (I'm willing to post them if someone can tell me how the heck I'm meant to do it!) Don't worry though, you're not missing much.
24) Step Into My Office Baby (Music Video 2003)
The first music video from 'Waitress' is a fun romp through what a carry on film set in an office might have been like (you know the sort of thing, 'ooh do you think my files look big in this? Oh and is your photocopier spare? Sid James cackle etc). Some of these are hilarious - the moment when secretary and office worker get together is interrupted by spoof pictures of 'what's going on' seen in really bad sex education films: a rocket taking off, a tower being erected, bees in flowers, etc. However the band turn the implied sexism of this on its head: its the male office worker the staff are taking advantage of and he has to satisfy them all - even the OAP canteen lady! Drummer Richard, in a bad wig, takes his first starring role in a B and S video and does a great job (his wordless 'phew' as he comes to the end of his 'work' is priceless!), while the rest of the band cameo as guests at a rather drab looking 1950s party. Available from B and S' official website.
25) I'm A Cuckoo (Music Video 2003)
This video is largely a return to the scenes of earlier B and S videos and features the band hanging around Glasgow. For me, though, it speaks volumes that while the band haven't moved down to London like everyone else, they're now in the busy town centre rather than the quieter more rural parts of town. Stuart stars in this one as a runner on a strict training regime, while things fall apart: his girlfriend is more interested in a magazine entitled 'Ted Of The Month' (I want one!) Somehow, though, the video never quite goes anywhere - it simply 'ends' and the cursory shots of the other members (as 'Belle and Sebastian' rather than in cameos) is more shoe-horned in than normal. Not one of the band's better videos. Available on the band's official website.
26) Wrapped Up In Books (Music Video 2003)
This video, however, is pretty good. Belle and Sebastian perform in a library - a much more natural setting for the book-ish band and the use of models randomly holding up books to the camera's eye view is a neat recycling of an idea first used on 'If You're Feeling Sinister' (where the model on the front reads a book titled after one of the songs; this time around there isn't any significance though - or did I miss something really obvious?!) This video needs a little...something else to keep it interesting, however: especially the instrumental solo in the middle which is accompanied by lots of 'hidden looks' rather than the drama taking place in the music. Available on the band's official website.
27) Funny Little Frog (Music Video 2006)
Stuart - who now seems to have taken to wearing a hat in everything he appears in - re-arranges the furniture in his flat and rolls around on some wooden floorboards (ouch!) with an actress playing his girlfriend. The rest of the band, meanwhile, make a memorable appearance in a 'dream sequence' where they 'play-act' knocking him out (which of them wrote this bit in?!) Note that, for the second time in a row, the bulk of this video takes place in a bedroom and centres around Stuart being in bed - is this a reference to his years bed-bound with me/cfs (both videos also have Stuart at his most active, first jogging and then doing synchronised gymnastics - is this a comment on the difference between then and now? Or were beds a thing in music videos in the 2000s and I just didn't notice?!) The sheer its-so-wrong-it's-right factor of Stuart dancing his way through a video like some tone deaf boy band on an X factor audition just about lasts to the end of the video, although it would have been nice to have a typical B and S twist somewhere by the end. Available on the band's official website.
28) The Blues Are Still Blue (Music Video 2006)
Stuart and his hat are back again for a video that predictably (perhaps a bit too predictably) takes place in a launderette. If you don't know the song, it's a list of bad events culminating in the narrator getting his washing mixed up - the colours run together although 'the blues are still blue', which acts as a sort of message for his life. And yes, Stuart is dressed in blue. Someone involved with this video has clearly seen The Monkees episode 'The Monkees Get Out More Dirt' (1968) as a similar mixture of weird and surreal stunts happen throughout the video: a swimmer with snorkel appears in a washing machine, sand pours out of a machine, a man goes fishing, a bride opens her machine and puts on a wedding dress, etc. This video isn't one of the band's best, although it's very B and S (and Monkees again) the way that 'outtakes' are left in and Stuart either loses his place or gets an itch during the miming of some of his lines! Unusually, the rest of the band don't appear. Available on the official website.
29) White Collar Boy (Music Video 2006)
This is an unusual idea - the 'camera' is the 'white collar boy', drunk at a bar with Stuart on the stool next to him/you/us and singing the lines in his direction. Sadly thereafter this video goes off-track: there's already a great story in it even if it didn't make for a great song (an office worker stealing stationary made to do community service chained to an attractive rebel) which is ignored here: instead a random actress shouts at the camera. A lot. Again only Stuart appears and he isn't in it much, although in typical B and S style he gets the giggles at the end and there's a mad coda where a drunken bit-part player in the film carries on acting drunk because no one has had the heart to say 'cut'! Available on the band's official website.
30) Belle and Sebastian Write About Love (TV Special 2010)
Belle and Sebastian would probably have laughed if, in 1995, they were told that one day they'd be big enough to have their own TV show. A kind of half-hour coda to the 'For Fans Only' DVD, this is another bizarre mix of an oddly serious looking band miming to the singles from their latest album ('I Want The World To Stop' and 'I Didn't See It Coming'). This was the first time we'd seen the band for a while and they've all changed in some way: Stuart and Chris now have glasses, Richard's grown a beard, Sarah's thinner and Stevie's put on weight. Presenter Dougie Andersen chairs a question-and-answer session that's more informative than the 2001 press conference, but less fun, the highlights of which is Stuart plucking up courage to tell the boss of new record label Rough Trade that they might take a bit of break and being told 'good idea!' More B and S and yet somehow less funny is a 'spoof' bit of commercialism, with a record boss explaining to the media-shy band how to 'bombard' their audience with content! The highlight of the whole piece is the fan competition to advertise the band's title somewhere of their choosing, with some very inventive pics set to the sound of Stevie's under-rated classic B side 'Travelling Light' (our favourites are the ship in a bottle, the letters-on-a-clothes-line and the drawing of boy-and-dog that looks remarkably like Cecile Aubrey's series of books that gave B and S their name). Not yet officially available but is currently on Youtube.
31) Come On Sister (Music Video 2011)
Stuart - complete with hi-vis jacket with his surname on - clocks into work at a building site. One of the buildings he's about to demolish includes a now fully bearded Richard Colburn sitting in his pants in his flat watching 'The Wright Stuff' on channel 5 (the kindest and therefore best of all confrontational 'my aunt stole my cat and my seven lovers sold it on ebay' type shows - did Stuart choose it after Matt Wright's regular and unusually sensible debates on me and cfs?) There's lots for fans to look out for - Colburn writes his letter of protest off to 'Geddes Enterprises', Mick Cooke cameos as an ice cream seller, Sarah drives a big truck, a dazed looking Stevie runs a local butchers, Chris himself runs an opticians and Richard shreds his letters into a binbag marked 'Murdochs'! All in all one of the band's better videos, with appearance from all of them just like the old days!
32) Crash (Music Video 2012)
Finally for now (although we're hoping to extend this article when the band's award-winning 'God Help The Girl' finally comes out!) comes 'Crash', the one Belle and Sebastian song included on their second our-favourite-artists compilation 'Late Night Tales II'. An animator named Stephen Tolfrey animated the video for a song and turns Belle and Sebastian into 'box-people'! His caricatures are very spot-on (Stuart's even wears the hat he keeps being seen with since 2006 and has the same cute sticky-out ears, while Sarah is all teeth and hair, Stevie has some funky glasses, Bobby is of in his own world and the rest of the band just look plain scary!) Amazingly, no one crashes during the course of the song, despite travelling on first a hot air balloon and then a steam train!
A Now Complete Link Of Belle and Sebastian Articles Available
To Read At Alan’s Album Archives: