Awkward charm of how the other Stuart survived the wrong trousers, writes Aidan Smith
In The All-Night Café
Little Brown, £16.99
I knew In The All-Night Café wasn’t going to be a standard rockbiz memoir with groupies queuing along hotel corridors, TV sets flying out of the bedrooms and sharks found in compromising positions. So it was quite a surprise that as early as page 12, the author of this charming book about his band’s early days turned up wearing – cliché alert – leather trousers.
Now you might be thinking: how can a pop biog be charming and how is that a good thing? Well, it can, and it is, if the band are Belle and Sebastian. Fey, wan, shy – not an esoteric Japanese designer, but three ways of describing B&S’s music and their devoted fans. The faithful all resemble “the one awkward kid in the class at school”. And the two Stuarts are a bit like that too.
There’s Stuart Murdoch, the leader of the band, composer of songs about “disaffected ponies” which are never going to frighten the horses, and there’s Stuart David, the bassist, who’s always hoping the other Stuart will teach him the secret of great songwriting but this never quite happens. He has, though, done himself, the band, the Glasgow music scene and “bowlies” everywhere proud with this book.
Bowlies is the name Murdoch gives to the crowd that turns up for a B&S event or happening called The Hipster Cafe Tradefair before the band are properly B&S. “I couldn’t work them out,” writes David. “Most of them didn’t seem to know each other, and yet they’d all turned up here in the same place, at the same time, dressed in a similar way.” It was as if Murdoch had stood at the end of Byres Road with a conch shell and summoned them, and in charity-shop threads they’d crawled out from under stones with their Viewfinders and 1970s children’s annuals.
Unsurprisingly, the leather breeks caused David a problem. On a course for unemployed musicians he met Alistair, who thought, on account of the strides, that David might like to see inside his S&M dungeon. Murdoch, on account of his big boots, was there too. The pair made their excuses and left, quickly drawing up a band manifesto. “We didn’t like blues music or drugs, neither of us drank very much or smoked, and we were both anti-machismo,” writes David. B&S weren’t going to be S&M either.
The Stuarts and Alistair had musical differences. Alistair liked to use a drum machine “that sounded exactly as if Stock, Aitken & Waterman had thrown it out a few years before”. He liked to rip off his shirt mid-song. Well, he was at least 20 years older and a bit more desperate for his big break. Another hapless hopeful was the guitarist known as London, fond of heavy soloing in the wrong places, and of course in B&S-world they’re all wrong.
The chapters on the music course known as Beatbox are hilarious. It was housed in a windowless bunker beneath a slip road. While the recording studio stayed mysteriously locked, the barely-taught students were left to make the wrong trouser associations and play computer golf. It turned out the course was a ruse for the launching of the boy band 911. They went on to sell a few million records but Belle and Sebastian, in their sweet, winsome, dreamy way, did all right too.
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