Monday 5 February 2018

George Harrison Essay: Why The Quiet One Always Had So Much To Say!

'Unknown Delight - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of George Harrison' is available to buy now by clicking here

I hate labels as much as anyone, dear readers. I've spent my life growing up being known as 'the music obsessed one', usually with the word 'weird' or variations added alongside, as if it's the only reason I was created by whatever maker decided to throw darts randomly at a dartboard and create me that way, seen as the only part of who I am rather than the major part of who I am. And you don't get time to hang a sign on me. I mean, there's so much more to life than music - writing about it is quite important too. Laughing about music, that's a must. Talking about music is quite vital to my life too. Did I mention dreaming about it too? Alright, I'll come clean with you - sometimes labels serve their purpose as long as you don't get too carried away with them. Music may be a major part of who I am and may be my major means of communicating to everybody else on planet Earth, but it's not quite all of who I am and people change, with priorities that come and go. Well, sort of. Maybe. You see, it's a sort of Schrödinger's Cat in disc form and one of those chicken-and-egg questions for me: in contrast to what most people think I would happily give away half my CD collection to make room for the right person in my life - but equally, I'll only know I've found the right person when I find they've already been obsessing over the half of my CD collection I've just given away before we even met.
Of all the labels that ever existed the portrayal of George as 'The Quiet Beatle' is one of the most controversial. In many ways it's obviously true: for the public George was the quiet Beatle as Harrison - in the usual comparison - wasn't as sarcastic as John, as bursting with creative energy as Paul or as needing of love as Ringo and his Charlie Chaplin-style puns. George was the Beatle the media took longest to 'get' because he said less than the other three and he didn't have a character that was easy to pigeon-hole. George, too, often felt like the outsider in The Beatles being that bit younger than the others and felt that even more so when he began to discover more about Eastern music and religion before most Beatlefans (and Beatles) knew a sitar from a guitar. Compared to John and Paul, though, surely anyone would have appeared quiet (even Gerry Marsden, one of life's natural talkers, struggles to get words in edgeways during early competitive meetings between The Beatles and Gerry and The Pacemakers) and on early Beatle speeches (BBC sessions, concert chatter, Christmas flexi fanclub records and interviews) it's nearly always Ringo who doesn't say anything or has to be pushed into it. The truth is that George wasn't loud - he was more of a listener than a talker, more of a thinker than a doer and was more likely to be away working stuff out on his own than demanding the world follow his ideas or else (as per Lennon), leading by example (as per Paul) or never quite knowing how to shrug the cameras off (as per Ringo). The label has stuck because never once in the Harrison songbook is there a song as 'me me me' as 'The Ballad Of John and Yoko' or 'A Day In The Life' ('I Me Mine' indeed being a parody of such Beatle songs) and George is almost always the first Beatle to leave - whether it be the room the pressmen are waiting in, the idea of touring or the idea of being a Beatle in the first place.
But not being loud is not the same as being 'quiet'. Sadly until they're out officially most fans won't get a chance to hear them again but the shock of listening to the Beatles' radio shows complete is how funny George is. While John's humour rises and falls depending on his mood, Paul can be relied upon to be professionally cheeky and Ringo audibly rolls his eyes whenever he's called to get up off his drum-stool to say a few words every week, George's gags are the silliest, the daftest, the funniest and the most natural. Whether it's painting Buckingham Palace 'green with black stripes', his mum 'listening to Pop Go The Beatles while she's out digging the garden' or the list of Beatle nicknames for their teachers, George's wit is the cleverest and often the best. Equally most Beatle biographies assume that as the early chief songwriters Lennon and McCartney were the 'important' Beatles but that's only in many ways because they 'said' they were. Much of the key early Beatle sound is George's, whether it be the awesome opening ringing chord to 'A Hard Day's Night', the reinvention of the band as hip groovy beatniks on riff=-heavy songs like 'Day Tripper' and 'Paperback Writer' or something as simple as the cute 'thinking dance' when George loses his concentration during his guitar solos on early Beatle TV appearances. In the studio too I sense that George wasn't a seeping silent partner but the lynchpin who helped the magic happen. There's only one Beatle song recorded without George (there are several without John, a couple without Ringo - only Paul turned up to everything bar 'Revolution #9') and it's a mess, The Beatles struggling through twenty-odd takes of 'She's A Woman' (while George stays in a hotel room suffering from a cold) before they reluctantly allow the sloppiest, messiest Beatle recording up until 'Helter Skelter' through quality control.
Knowing that George hated the tag 'The Quiet Beatle' there was a push from fans to call him the 'musical Beatle' in order to make him feel better. But George hated that idea too, saying that they were all musical Beatles - he just happened to the Beatle who rehearsed the most and spent the most time with his guitar! No, George was the humblest Beatle, the least concerned with ego out of one of the most ego-driven bands ever (The Stones have nothing on The Beatles in that respect!) - but without his ideas, given so loudly that in other bands I'd have been the go-to 'leader', The Beatles wouldn't have worked half as well. If the other fab three had stopped talking long enough, they'd have seen just how many ideas were whizzing through his brain. Don't get me wrong: I love the Lennon and McCartney solo songbooks too. John's honesty, contrasted with his sweet songs pursuing or trying to recover Yoko in the 1970s make his six 'finished' albums a joy to behold (with one or two soggy moments and a rock and roll covers album that 'doesn't count) while given the space to be more than just John's sparring partner Paul grows into a one-man band who can do anything he chooses, with a wider musical arc than any other writer out there. Even Ringo's solo catalogue is pretty good, usually when his Beatle mates are helping out.
But George's growth is the most remarkable and it starts early. While 'Don't Bother Me' is impressive for a twenty-one-year old novice and 'You'll Know What To Do 'I Need You' 'You Like Me Too Much' and 'If I Needed Someone' are all under-rated love songs for first wife Patti, it's from 1965 that George finds the 'dual style' that will last in his work to the very end. On the one hand George is deliciously grumpy, sour in a way that the other sweeter Beatles were never allowed to be (with a freedom John only discovers once he meets Yoko and starts taking his clothes off). What other twenty-three-year-old near-millionaire is so wrapped up in the minutiae of his finances that he could write a song like 'Taxman'? Or be discussing ego-betrayal on songs like 'I Want To Tell You' and 'Think For Yourself'? And yet simultaneously be writing the purest, sweetest songs of love and joy like 'Something' or 'Here Comes The Sun'?
And then there's one of the biggest and most unlikely changes The Beatles ever brought, masterminded in an 'I've just discovered a new obsession and thought you might like it too?' George kind of a way. Who would have guessed, after hearing 'Love Me Do' or watching the first Ed Sullivan Show appearance or even listening to the 'Beatles bigger than Jesus' debates of 1964 that by 1967 The Beatles would have made Eastern religions a thing in Western society? George may not have tugged on The Beatles' collective apron strings very often but when he did it was in a big way, such as getting the others interested in meditation and the Maharishi. George's interest in the sitar may have come after The Byrds', thanks to their enthusiasm on the one hand and the Indian instruments featured on the set of 'Help!' on the other, but his performance of the instrument on Beatles song 'Norwegian Wood' was a 'first' for the pop world. Even more extraordinary than that is that George didn't restrict this to a one-off novelty but sought out the 'right' players and got them to play his second 'Indian' song 'Love You Too', an even more exotic and other-worldly collection of sounds, with multiple sequels including '. Again, George had a lot to say for the Beatle fans who wanted to hear it. Would, in truth, any band member used to not being listened to have ever felt the need to record a song as defensive as 'Not Guilty'?!
The single biggest change in Beatle styles though came with the lyrics of George's songs of the second half of the band's career, which is the root of George's solo work too. Up until George's songs in 1966 the Beatle sound can largely be summed up with the thought that 'being young is fun' and that 'life doesn't have to be black-and-white'. You see it in the endless enthusiasm of the 'Hard Day's Night' film, dance to it on the Merseybeat songs played in discotheques throughout the world and hear it on your very own stereo. But slowly George's songs say a great deal more than many music-reviewers or fans quite realise with some of the deepest lyrics in The Beatles' canon. Was there ever a more spiritually guided lyric than 'The Inner Light', where knowledge is travel that broadens the mind? A more intellectual lyric than 'I Want To Tell You' filled with thoughts of ego-expression and the spaces between human beings? Was there ever a more damning portrayal of greed than 'Piggies'? A sadder song about missed opportunities than 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps'? Or a more spiritual song about the afterlife than 'Long Long Long' as George reaches out to God and allows his soul to be reunited with his cosmic consciousness? All of these songs have plenty to say and show that far from keeping quiet George had way too much than any position in one band could afford him.
The key song, though, might well be 'Within You Without You' which displays perhaps more than any other Beatle lyric what George was thinking. There's a good tale here, told by F1 legend Damon Hill, whose father Graham had been a close friend of Harrison and who revealed after George's death that the Beatle had funded his early motorbike career at a time when the Hills had no money and were stuck in legal limbo following Graham's death in a light aircraft crash. Damon, enthusiastic about his first trip in an F1 car, phoned George to say how much he loved the power and much he longed to go into space on a rocket to see how that felt like. 'No son' George replied down the phone, 'the answer's in inner space, not outer space'. That's pretty much this song lyric: that mankind has the answers to all his questions if he could only 'know' and reach inside himself to put them right. In this song's discussion of ego George says that being hung up on such a thing is pointless, that life will go within him and without him oblivious to what he does. Far from being a sighing song of 'what's the point?' the way so other writers would have made it though, this 'lecture' about free will is designed to uplift us, to make us clear that we have the answers to our problems, not our gurus, mystics, heroes or even our Beatles. Maybe that was why George was being 'quiet', so his vision wasn't drowned out by extraneous noise? And yet, in a lifelong contradiction, the next major Beatles event after this for George was taking the band to visit The Maharishi. I find it fascinating too that despite being the one most longing to leave The Beatles behind it's George whose the Beatle who most recognises and praises their fans' dedication in music, not John or Paul, in the delightful [32] 'Apple Scruffs', a song delivered with all the love and affection of George's songs for wives Patti and Olivia.
Once George leaves The Beatles he's gathered up a huge backlog of material with which to communicate to the world with about the new insights he's gained from his shared interest in Hindu and Hare Krishna religions (George piecing together his own belief cut-and-paste-style from the passages that rang true to him). The biggest single thing a band as youthful and full of life as The Beatles could never do comfortably about aging and death, but George was the one who hints at this possibility (as early as 'I Want To Tell You' with its fast-moving years and most magnificently on 'Long Long Long'). He dives into the idea head-first on 'All Things Must Pass', easily the best known of his non-Beatle works. This is for several reasons: it may be George's most melodic work, it's easily his most thorough and it's a collection of the most typically George-like lyrics that no other writer could have offered, a discussion of how much nicer the world would be if we all 'behaved' ('Everyone has choice when to and not to raise their voices' 'Run Of The Mill'), avoided distractions from ego and paranoia and 'maya' ('Earthly illusion') (on 'Beware Of Darkness'), understood that we are all loved ('No one will say they love you today and throw it all away tomorrow', 'Run Of The Mill' again) and that we all have the power to help each other if only we actually tried ('Isn't It A Pity?') It remains the greatest lecture given by 'The Quiet Beatle' as he most feels the courage of his convictions and - thanks partly to the success of [23] 'My Sweet Lord' - George has an audience to listen to it. But I think there's another 'clue' why this album did so well in a post-Beatles world. George hated Phil Spector's typically epic production, imagining a humble little album full of little songs about small realisations and man's tiny position in the place of the bigger picture. Many of George's later albums will be exactly this humble, especially the happy 'family' albums like 'George Harrison' from 1979 that are more from the 'heart' and less from the 'head'. But Phil Spector's production combined with George's vulnerable voice is the perfect sound of what George was really all about: The Quiet Beatle trying to make himself heard over a noisy world that wouldn't stop talking. Every earthly distraction, every booming flashy guitar solo, every cavernous drum sound, every extraneous guest star makes you struggle to hear the words and concentrate on what is 'really' being said, above the distracting noise. Only on the closer ('Apple Jam' aside) 'Hear Me Lord' does The Quiet Beatle start singing in full force, desperate to be heard - but notably it's not by 'us' his fanbase, but by his 'God'.
Again there's a contradiction though. The whole moral of 'All Things Must Pass' is, much like 'Within You Without You', that we only have responsibility to ourselves. Far from being hands-on Gods itching to interfere in human society, in George's worlds his Gods watch on the human race like humans do their pets, allowing them free will and access and hoping they can 'heal' themselves where they can without the need for intervention from a cosmic 'vet'. Every Harrison character, especially on 'All Things Must Pass', has the power of control, over re-acting to a situation and making it worse ('Run Of The Mill'), over absorbing life's lessons instead of ignoring them ('Let It Roll'), reaching into their hearts to find a pathway to God ('My Sweet Lord') or a pathway away from hiding your true inner self ('Behind That Locked Door'). In George's world the greatest art to living is dying, preparing and cleansing the soul to the point where we're left with as few mortal hang-ups as possible, no guilt shame or missed opportunities so that when we its time to re-join the overall consciousness away from our Earthly bodies we have all learned our Earthly lessons well. We cannot be taught this, although we are being taught how to do this every day, via a succession of teachers of whom George is only one (and a 'quiet' one at that, certainly compared to the noisy teachers I had at school). However, what's George's next move after telling us that the only person who can 'save' us is ourselves? He asks us to help out with a fundraiser for the people of Bangladesh, organising a string of benefit concerts to raise money for other human beings. However that might not be the contradiction it seems because in George's world that's the 'right' thing to do; that the people who already have offer to help those who don't whether it be in terms of the 'material' or 'spiritual' world, it's all the same to George.
The next few solo albums are quieter in production terms but louder and less humble in others. There's a reason so many fans don't like 'Living In The Material World' even though it may well be the most melodic of George's solo recordings and despite the fact that it features in [47] 'Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth)' the sweetest, most Beatley single in Harrisondom (the special case of pastiches [101] 'All Those Years Ago' and [132] 'When We Was Fab' aside). It sounds like we're being lectured. I love George when he's being a student of life alongside us, learning little nuggets here to pass on to us - I like him less when he's decided his way is the only way and we're all doomed to an afterlife of misery and hell if we disagree with him, oblivious of our actions on Earth. Songs like [53] 'The Lord Loves The One Who Loves The Lord' come from a far darker, angrier place in George's nature where we don't have the answers - only God does. This is the point at which 'The Quiet Beatle' starts being loud, like one of those Bible-bashers you try so hard to avoid in the market square or the Radna Krishna flower-givers who assume that a busy time-sensitive airport is the best place for you to give up all your time to save your soul. George is no longer learning at the speed of the rest of us but so far ahead of us that it's hard for him to remember how to talk to 'us' so he talks 'down' instead, haranguing us for not being like 'him' after so many years of patience. Of all the passages in Beatle books this is the only period when you want to give George a slap (John, Paul and - oddly - especially Ringo are up for a few, as would be most human beings if 'scanned with a microscopic glass' to be fair!), especially in Patti's book where George sings about saving the world with life but shows only his darker side to the world, while alternating between 'dipping his hand in the prayer beads and the drug box'. This is the only time when the Quiet Beatle is a bully, refusing to be patient with those who can't keep with pace with him or listen to what anyone else has to say and it reveals just why George was seen as 'The Quiet Beatle' for so much of the time: because he was otherwise always so good at listening, open to ideas from all walks of life and not obsessed with the sound of his own voice.
There are of course mitigating circumstances. The failure of his first marriage wasn't all on George's side and Patti's liaisons with Eric Clapton, painted as 'inevitable' in so many Beatle books, really wasn't (even if George was first, with a long-standing affair taken out with Ringo's first wife Maureen which George admitted to jokingly as 'incest'). The failure of The Beatles was a bigger worry, with endless court cases, followed by another that in the public eye at least stripped George of the 'moral' joy of his biggest selling solo single [23] 'My Sweet Lord' (I still say, as I did in the 'All Things' review, that George did rip this song off, but from The Edwin Hawkins Singers' 'Oh Happy Day', not The Chiffons' 'He's So Fine'). EMI/Apple and Allen Klien too were giving him needless headaches as after all that hard work on 'Bangladesh' the precious funds got diverted for years after the label insisted on grabbing a 'tax' percentage'. It seemed that all the good George had tried to do was for nothing - and as so much of George's religious beliefs depended on the idea of 'karma', of what you sow coming back to haunt you or hail you when you 'reap' it, I do wonder in retrospect if George was 'crosser' at his religion than he let on. And, despite his moniker as 'The Quiet Beatle' George got loud when he was upset, unable to hide from his feelings. George was after all left without an audience and left struggling despite trying to pass on the 'good word', an event further exacerbated when he went down with a nasty cold just as he launched into his 'Dark Horse' tour of 1974, dates on which his voice was so hoarse more often than not he became the guitarist in the band as Billy Preston filled in for him. Even for 'The Quiet Beatle', that was ridiculous - George hated being silenced, by fate, by other Beatles and by the concerns of the 'material world'. A guilty fourth record 'Extra Texture' follows, begging for forgiveness from deity and public alike, recorded in more characteristically humble voice as George learns to take his own advice again.
The next few albums find George shrugging his shoulders and leaving his fans more or less to fend for themselves. Only now, circa 1979, does The Quiet Beatle truly become quiet, finding solace in the arms of his second family and writing his songs in a far more inclusive way than before. Whilst the later Harrison albums are every bit as spiritual and religious as before, they're more ambiguous works that could work just as well being sung about girlfriends as Gods and significant others as much as spirits. George finally learns to follow his own advice and allow people to find their own answers after all without telling them what to do, whilst giving them a little bit of a nudge at the same time. It's a combination that's at its most powerful on songs like [100] 'Life Itself' (where life revolves around a loved one, of any sort), the karmic [88] 'Love Comes To Everyone', the beautiful [95] 'Your Love Is Forever' (written for God and Olivia at once, the comparison being one way of making your wife feel good about herself), the natural beauty of nature on [90] 'Here Comes The Moon' and the gloriously noisy [112] 'Wake Up My Love' (where, in a twist on the 'Quiet' theme, George feels ignored, whether by lover or deity, and demands attention the way a toddler wants their mother). Only posthumously on [155] 'Brainwashed' does George return to the lecturing of his old days and it's a glorious older and wiser finale, as George shows us basically that life talks to us too much, distracting us from what we should be hearing and that, for him, religion is the music he can hear in his heart, longing for other people to find that out for themselves but no longer bashing us over the head with it. A final track combining all sides of George's nature in one (humour, seriousness, darkness, lightness, joy and hope, suffering), it's the only way his catalogue could have 'properly' ended, the 'Quiet Beatle' once more finding so much to say and saying it in every medium he can think of, because from another quoted lyric from another album track ([144]) 'if you don't know where you're going any road will take you there!'
There are perhaps two other great ways to say goodbye on the patchy 'Brainwashed' album, both interestingly involving being quiet. On [146] 'Pisces Fish' George at last learns to celebrate his 'contradictions', using astrology to show how his whole life has been spent 'going where the other half's just been', finding the 'answers' as a mute observer of life not an active participant. And then there's [150] 'Stuck Inside A Cloud' where George at last learns all the life-lessons he could ever want to know and senses that he's the only person listening to them properly, but the 'Gods' he believes in have prevented him from speaking, feeling lost and helpless as he struggles to come to terms with the fact that he can't help them - that they can only help themselves by finding 0ut the 'answers' at the 'end'. It's a fitting way for the 'Quiet Beatle' to (nearly) end his career, George silent not because he has nothing to say but because he has so much to say but can't express it. After a lifetime of trying to find a way to talk to us through humour, sarcasm, peace, hatred (was there ever an angrier song than [48] 'Sue Me Sue You Blues' or [52] 'Living In The Material World'?), the brilliance of nature, the noise of F1 racing cars, the wonder of permanence and the inevitability of impermanence, the longing to talk and the desperate need to listen, George finally finds the best 'fit' for his music. He can see how wonderful the world can be and the brilliance of the next but his hands are tied - all he can do is tell us that it is there, cross his fingers and hope we'll follow him. That's a message that rings out loud and true across every song George touched, sometimes in garbled form, sometimes clearer and it makes George not 'The Quiet Beatle' but the musician who perhaps had the most to say of anyone out there, if only the world could pay the time to listen to what he had to say. For rather than being shouted through a megaphone, delivered through a string of catchy commercial hit singles (again it speaks volumes about George's contradictory nature that his catchiest production and melody on [98] 'Blood From A Clone' comes with damning lyrics about how stupid and empty the commercial world is) or shouted from the pulpit the best of George's music comes from the quieter music, the songs where you have to go away and listen, study the lyric sheet and come to your own conclusions. Even at his quietest, George was surely the loudest Beatle with the most to say - and he taught us oh so much.
Going back to where we began, with our take on 'labels', I've also been struck by how much difficulty other biographies of George (and there are a few now) have coming to terms with his contradictory nature (more on this on our 'bookshelf' column near the back of the book). Some authors, like Geoffrey Gilluiano and Alan Clayson, painting him out to be a monster, grumpy to fans and musicians alike and hiding drug addictions behind fake religious beliefs. Others, like Joshua M Greene and Ian Ingles see George as a Saint, unable to put a foot wrong and a guru everyone can look up to and yearn to be like. This book is, if you hadn't noticed already, slightly different. George was a three-dimensional being who loved exploring his contradictions in song, to the point where he comes over as such a complex character that there truly isn't really a contradiction. Because George could be anything as the mood demanded: patient or impatient, as likely to write a 'love song' for his fans as growl at them to leave him in peace, as likely to ask God to help us and save our souls as have him give us what's coming to us, as obsessed with earthly restrictions as the rest of us but somehow seeing more to life too. 'Our' George, portrayed in this book is, I hope, the one that he'd have recognised the most: the flawed hero capable of transforming hearts and minds as he is making mistakes, a musician who knew he could be difficult and cantankerous and easily frustrated with human beings whilst carrying such love for humanity as a whole and someone desperate to tell the truth and get on with the work he felt he was here to do, who nevertheless spent long years in hibernation away from the media spotlight. Once constant, though, is that George never stopped trying to better both himself and by association us and spent a lifetime speaking up for people with even quieter voices than his. The Harrison back catalogue is, truly, as wonderfully full of noise and vibrancy and power and feeling as any musicians' out there, for all that the music released outside the halcyon and most successful years of 1970 and 1987 remains largely an 'unknown delight' still, even now.

'Extra Texture (Read All About It)' (1975)
'Thirty-Three And A Third' (1976)

'George Harrison' (1979)

‘Somewhere In England’ (1981)
‘Cloud Nine’ (1987)
'Brainwashed' (2002)
'Hidden Harrison - The Best Unreleased Recordings'
Live/Compilation/Spin-Off Albums Plus The Occasional Wilbury
Non-Album Recordings 1968-2001
Surviving TV Appearances 1971-2001

Essay: Why The Quiet Beatle Always Had So Much To Say
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Songs

Belle and Sebastian: Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

'Rollercoaster Ride - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To Belle and Sebastian Is Available By Clicking Here


I don't know about you, dear reader, but so far this book/website has seemed awfully studio-bound: yes there are the odd live albums dotted round in the discographies but a touring life was usually as important if not more so to our AAA artists. Even we can't go through every gig they ever played however, so what we've decided to do instead is bring you five particularly important gigs with a run-down of what was played, where and when and why we consider these gigs so important, along with one particularly good one that summed up the band's setlist during their live peak (or one of them, anyway). Think of these as a sort of 'highlights' covering from first to (in some cases) last, to whet your appetite and to avoid ignoring a band's live work completely!
Belle and Sebastian aren't the most natural live act on the planet. Though it's been tidied up and tightened a lot in the past ten years most B and S fans still go to gigs expecting them to 'stay loose', with much in-joking, tuning up, random off the wall covers and audience karaoke participation. No two shows are ever alike, though not always in a Grateful Dead eclectic could-go-anywhere sense but more in a how-did-we-do-this-the-last-time? sense. Still, their audience almost always walk out having had a good time and the band, sweetly, still generally play small venues (or more recently small-ish festivals) rather than the arenas they could probably get away with. Would we really want them any other way? This is a band, after all, that only formed to make one record for one course project - nobody gave any thoughts to going on the road back when 'Tigermilk' was made in 1995 and it took nearly two years for the band to play any gigs at all, while they still haven't clocked up all that many (468 at my count) - less than any AAA band to have lasted the twenty years B and S have. There are still lots of highlights though including these five listing what they played when (at least when we know it!)
1) Where: Institute Of Contemporary Arts, London When: November 7th 1996 Why: First Gig Setlist: [30] Beautiful [1] Dog On Wheels [15] Seeing Other People [2] The State I Am In [45] This Is Just A Modern Rock Song [23] Judy And The Dream Of Horses
Belle and Sebastian's first concert took place just eleven days before the release of the first wow-I-can-actually-buy-this-in-a-shop-and-everything-album 'If You're Feeling Sinister. Curious Londoners, who were either lost, curious or unusually hip joined a bunch of loyal Scots on a ragged but memorable away day. The setlist is short (Belle and Sebastian's sets are never what you might call 'long', even now) but did its job, starting with one of Stuart's earliest scratchy demos, moving through 'Tigermilk' (the first time the 'extended' Belle and Sebastian had played any of it and the first time any of the band had played it since recording it) and moving onto the just written, just recorded 'Sinister' and then a preview of EP track 'This Is Just A Modern Rock Song'. The pattern had been set: low on rehearsal, high on charisma, Belle and Sebastian are more than Scottish student-tourists cashing in on a sudden flurry of fame: this is a band with their own unique style already and one to watch. As the band's publicist (yes, I'm surprised they have one too) Chris Stone commented 'It was one of those shows when you feel like history was being made'. Many in the know in music circles were already predicting that Belle and Sebastian would be huge and all they had to do was to play more prestigious shows like this one - instead the band 'retired' for about six months, refusing to do things the record industry way.
2) Where: West 54th Street, New York When: May 9th 1997 Why: The Turning Point? Setlist: [35] Is It Wicked Not To Care? [17] Like Dylan In The Movies [36] Ease Your Feet In The Sea [26] A Century Of Elvis [48] Slow Graffiti [38] Seymour Stein [21] Mayfly [24] Lazy Line Painter Jane [34] Sleep The Clock Around 'I'll Be Your Mirror' [44] Rollercoaster Ride [70] Loneliness Of The Middle Distance Runner
For any other British band a debut appearance in America would have been a mammoth colossal event - the door to international fame, fortune and glory. For Belle and Sebastian it was a little like pulling teeth and very nearly didn't happen. A first planned gig in New York was called off at the absolute last minute (after the support band had played their set) because Isobel was poorly (it wasn't lost to the music press that Isobel didn't actually play or sing that much in early band setlists, but was all part of an early B and S 'Robin Hood' mantra that either all of them would show or none of them would show). The second gig when the band did turn up featured a shambolic, under-rehearsed outfit who famously spent so long tuning up between songs that Stevie Jackson busked an entire rendition of Bob Dylan's 'Like A Rolling Stone' - not a short song and he sang it complete. The band also played an eccentric setlist which featured no less than five currently unreleased songs, hardly anything from well received second album 'If You're Feeling Sinister', Stuart David spent five minutes regaling the shocked audience with the comedy dialogue 'A Century Of Elvis' and the band played a one-off cover of The Velvet Underground song 'I'll Be Your Mirror' which the band never played again. The show was also kept deliberately short - partly because the band hadn't rehearsed that many songs and partly to keep the strain on Stuart's m.e. down to a minimum. The Ed Sullivan shows this wasn't and the re-action was hostile mixed with confusion: the music press, expecting the next great thing somehow recognised the next big thing but dressed up in a very different packaging to what they had been looking for. Most of them stayed away from Belle and Sebastian who by most rock and roll band's standards simply disappeared after this, while others called for the band to apologise. Which they did, in a Belle and Sebastian sort of a way. Stevie commented 'Right now we agree we're a shambles, but we could never be deliberately contemptuous of an audience', while indie music fanzine Chickfactor were one of the few to be supportive: 'It's born of perfectionism, not rudeness' they commented in one of their issues. They were right, but a music business brought up on people eager to work hard, on their terms, never quite understood it. This is the moment when Belle and Sebastian could have been huge and they decided they'd rather be tiny and live on their own terms. A sense from promoters that they're a 'difficult' band started here though and exists to this day.
3) Where: BAM Festival, Barcelona When: September 19th 1997 Why: First Festival Setlist: 'Tigermilk' [43] Simple Things [42] Chickfactor [36] Ease Your Feet In The Sea [34] Sleep The Clock Around [24] Lazy Line Painter Jane [45] This Is Just A Modern Rock Song [35] Is It Wicked Not To Care? [70] Loneliness Of The Middle Distance Runner [26] A Century Of Fakers
Given that Belle and Sebastian are, by and large, painfully shy, hate large crowds and had still only played seven gigs together suggests that Belle and Sebastian's first festival would prove to be a disaster. In fact it was a huge success and festivals have been the band's vehicle of choice ever since. Not many people at the BAM festival had heard of Belle and Sebastian when they took the stage somewhere near the bottom of the bill and even fewer in the Spanish crowd understood the poetic long-winded Murdoch prose. But there was something about this band connecting with this crowd that really took off and it turned out to be one of those really special events when band and audience are in total harmony. B and S still didn't do things the easy way: they started their setlist with an unreleased instrumental they barely ever played, stuck to the more obscure songs from their setlist and most of them came from their third album 'The Boy With The Arab Strap', rushed into the shops after this festival so fans could buy the songs...a full twelve months later!  Primal Scream were the other headliners, bur their more professional, less audience friendly set was blown off the stage by Belle and Sebastian's cute amateurism. More festivals will follow in Spain, Brazil and Argentina and - twice - in Glastonbury, England (where John Peel declared them his 'favourite' band of the festival in 2002 after admitting he'd never really heard of them!)  To this day Belle and Sebastian have a much higher profile with Spanish speaking audiences (including Latin America) than they do with English or even Scottish speaking ones, with everyone in the audience it seems telling everyone they met 'look out for this band...' when they got home. 
4) Where: Bowlie Weekender, Camber Sands, UK When: April 23rd-25th 1999 Why: B and S' Own Festival! Setlist: [48] Slow Graffiti [15] Seeing Other People [1] Dog On Wheels [54] The Wrong Girl [28] A Century Of Fakers [46] I Know Where The Summer Goes [62] Winter Wooskie [43] Simple Things [20] If You're Feeling Sinister 'Paper Boat' [41] The Boy With The Arab Strap [27] Photo Jenny 'Landslide' [24] Lazy Line Painter Jane 'The Kids Are Alright'
Belle and Sebastian weren't exactly famous when they decided what the musical world needed was a three-day festival curated by them (and featuring only their friends, influences and label-mates). Then again Pontin's Holiday Camp wasn't an obvious place to host a free-flowing music festival either. Nor was naming the festival after an unfashionable 'bowl' haircut, of the sort linked with geeks and nerds. Somehow though it worked, with Belle and Sebastian free to be 'themselves' for perhaps the first time on a live stage and by presenting a musical festival that wasn't too big or too pretentious. Belle and Sebastian have always had an unusual relationship with their fans and the chance to see so many of them in the audience must have been a strange feeling indeed after years of playing town-halls and small clubs (in actual fact Belle and Sebastian had still played less than 20 gigs together by this stage, so weren't exactly veterans!) The music press kinda got it too, enjoying the different kind of atmosphere on show and the friendly vibe from stage that B and S didn't always show at their bigger gigs (they were especially astonished when the band turned in an 'unofficial' first set, standing out in the rain with the crowd, singing every unplugged song they could think of!) The result was a fun show, repeated a second time in 2010 when the crowds were somewhat bigger!
5) Where: Royal Albert Hall, London When: June 29th 2001 Why: Biggest Home Gig? Setlist: [29] Le Pastie De La Bourgeoisie [59] There's Too Much Love [65] The Magic Of A Kind Word [11] My Wandering Days Are Over [1] Dog On Wheels [68] Jonathan David  [53] Don't Leave The Light On Baby [50] The Model [67] My Girl's Got Miraculous Technique 'The Final Countdown' [2] The State I Am In [43] Simple Things
The last high profile B and S gig in London, at The Who's old home in Shepherd's Bush, had been a disaster. The band turned up hours late to catcalls and a heckler shouting 'you better be effing great!' who then debated with half the audience noisily why even a band as talented and unique as Belle and Sebastian shouldn't keep their fans waiting for this long. Four years later, though, everything is different: the band might not be 'faultless to a tee' as they put it in their second song, but they're pretty close and play one of their tightest and most professional gigs. By now the band have played another 30 odd gigs, coalesced as a band with a lot of tight rockers (this was in the era when it was cool to kick B and S for being 'fey' - the naysayers must have never been to this gig which rocks with a passion) and they also play a full 100 minutes in their set, about double what they had been (though you never fully recover from m.e. Stuart's was close to being under control at this stage so could play for longer - especially left in a singing rather than playing role for most of the set). Somehow, though, Belle and Sebastian still managed to make the big and scary Victorian building feel like just another B and S gig, as if the band were playing down their local club and there are some very B and S moments no other band would have delivered at such a prestigious gig - after all, who else would have chosen this moment for a one-off performance of not-that-well-known 'Europe' cover 'The Final Countdown'? Or opened with an obscure EP B-side? Or played two songs in 'The Magic Of A Kind Word' and 'My Girl's Got Miraculous Technique' that the band will only ever release on a set of BBC sessions?!? One of the last gigs played with Isobel still in the group (who gets a starring role on more songs than normal in this period), this is the 'first' Belle and Sebastian at a peak, playing the pop game this time around but doing things on their terms still this time around.


Sometimes when artists pick up that musical baton they pay tribute to their heroes by covering their favourite songs. Here are three covers that we consider to be amongst the very best out of the ones we've heard (and no we haven't heard them all - do you know how many AAA albums out there are out there even without adding cover songs as well?!) Belle and Sebastian songs are, by their very nature, hard for another band to record. You're either going to sound just like the original or you're going to change things around so much that the quirk and feel of the original is going to lost - these aren't a 'one size fits all' band like, say, Wings. Perhaps realizing this there aren't actually that many Belle and Sebastian covers out there - maybe four to the best of my knowledge and only two you can actually buy in shops- so rather than a 'top three' this time round you're getting what's more like an 'only three!'
1) Rasputina [18] "Fox In The Snow" ('My Fever Broke' EP 2002)
Ouch! You wait all those years for the world's first Belle and Sebastian cover and when we get it, it makes your ears bleed! Rasputina has a lot of familiar ground going for them: they're a democracy dominated by low-key singer/writer Melora Creager and their sensitive singer-songwriter material has a distinctive classical vibe (Melora is herself a cellist of some talent). Many of their recordings are excellent - alas this one is pretty awful all the way through. The original 'Fox In The Snow' is a haunting song about hopelessness, of wondering why people continue and survive when their odds of happiness are nil and wondering when they'll learn to take 'a holiday'. In many ways it's Stuart Murdoch's most personal song, his perfectionism played out through a metaphor of his favourite animal lost and cut-off from his natural habitat by a nasty bout of cold Winter. This version sounds like a chicken being plucked with a cello bow while Melora sings in an octave at least seven too high for her natural range. Well, what do I know anyway? It's just something you read in a book tonight.
2) Mates Of State [34] "Sleep The Clock Around" ('Crushes: The Covers Mix Tape' 2010)
By contrast I know absolutely zero about American husband-and-wife team Masters of State and yet from this cover alone I'm a fan for life. The original of this song is small, humble, desperate and wonderfully strange. The cover of this song is large, confident, taut and yet still somehow wonderfully strange. The band keep the pinging electric sounds of the original synthesiser bleeps intact but they also add flutes and a brass fadeout that add a real folkie/soulful vibe to the track. The vocals sound like a posh English version of Kraftwerk, with lots of robotic voices intoning rather than singing. The original's slight sense of naughty hope hidden within all the sadness it totally reversed: this is a song that's mostly joyous and carefree, with just a slight hint of cognitive dissonance and melancholy. And oh the production: this is what Trevor Horn came close to doing with 'Dear Catastrophe Waitress', channelling Belle and Sebastian's eccentricity through arrangements instead of doing what most producers get wrong and trying to tidy up their natural mess. Though the album itself sadly died a death (this is the best thing on it, but the rest is pretty decent too) this song does appear the film soundtrack 'The Art Of Getting By'.
3) Reavsey [13] "Mary Jo" (Youtube)
There is not third official Belle and Sebastian song, so instead this is the best of the (many) simple yet enthusiastic B and S covers out there on Youtube. Full marks for the rare choice song and the 1980s punk vibe that sounds not unlike a 'Felt' or 'Orange Juice' cover of a Belle and Sebastian song (albeit played unplugged style), something that seems rather apt. Even pared back to the basics, what was on the record one of the most elaborate and 'posh' of all B and S recordings sounds mighty impressive.

Other Belle and Sebastian related madness from this website you might be interested in reading: 

A Now Complete Link Of Belle and Sebastian Articles Available To Read At Alan’s Album Archives:
‘Fold Your Hands, Child, You Walk Like A Peasant’ (2001)
'Storytelling' (2002)

'Push Barman To Open Old Wounds' (EP compilation 2003)

'Dear Catastrophe Waitress' (2004)
'The Life Pursuit' (2006)

'Write About Love' (2010)
'God Help The Girl' (Stuart Murdoch Film) (2014)
Girls In Peace Time Just Want To Dance (2015)

Belle and Sebastian: Existing TV Clips
Belle and Sebastian: 12 Unreleased Songs
Belle and Sebastian: Non-Album Songs
Belle and Sebastian: Solo/Live/Compilation/Rarities Albums
Essay: B and S Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions