I know this effort will not get anything like the same attention as #11 in the series for the simple fact that there are far more fans out there with a knowledge of and an opinion on The Clash than there are when it comes to Arab Strap. But for me, this narrowing down to just ten tracks was every bit as impossible a task and one that I will complete and immediately look at it and feel I want to make a change.
The reason for turning to this particular band today is quite simply down to the fact that they are due to feature in tomorrow’s Saturday series and I was stumped as to which song and from which era to plump for. So I decided it would be best to have a go at the imaginary compilation LP and then add something else in for the Saturday series.
Arab Strap are probably my favourite Scottish band of all time, although The Twilight Sad are vying for that top spot. It’s probably only the fact that Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton continue to produce so much in the way of outstanding post-Strap material that keeps their former band at the top of that particular chart.
They released six albums between 1996 and 2005 along with a dozen or so 45s/EPs, one live album, a number of limited edition pressings and finally an end of career compilation followed by a box set. Of all of these, only the live album (as so often with many bands) proved to be a bit of a letdown coming nowhere close to capturing how good they could be on stage.
Their material offers much from a musical point of view. There were nods to indie, dance and techno in much of the material as well as Middleton displaying an incredible talent for all forms of guitar playing from melancholy acoustic string-plucking right through to axework worthy of the rock gods he grew up worshipping. Lyrically there was and still hasn’t been anything quite like them with Moffat using his distinctive Central Scotland brogue to half-speak and half-sing what seemed like highly personal tales of a drug and drink fueled existence that all too often ended in pain, misery and regret. And there was never any thought given to cleaning up the langage….this was music set to discussions you would have with your mates in a pub or at the football….it was authentically working class and it was more authentically Scottish than anything I had ever heard before.
And so, without further delay, here’s what I’ve come up with for today’s imaginary compilation LP:-
1. Packs Of Three (from the album Philophobia, released in May 1998)
“It was the biggest cock you’ve ever seen
But you’ve no idea where that cock has been
You said you were careful – you never were with me
I heard you did it four times
But johnnies come in packs of three”
Has there ever been such a shocking and heart-wrenchingly opening few lines to any song as to this opening number to the band’s second LP? If so, please enlighten me….
The lyric is so powerful that it initially distracts you from the wonderfully understated guitar work going on in the background and then, for that final emotional punch in the guts for the final minute and a half the melancholic cello kicks in……
2. The Shy Retirer (from the album Monday at The Hug & Pint, released in April 2003)
The opening track from the band’s fifth album set to a tune that is worthy of being classified as an indie-disco classic – it’s the sort of thing you could imagine appearing on a Belle & Sebastian or indeed a Go-Betweens record although while Stuart Murdoch/Robert Forster/Grant McLennan (RIP) have written many a fine and poetic song about the pain of unrequited love they never quite got to the nitty-gritty in the way that Aidan Moffat does in this instance.
Everyone involved knew that this song deserved a much wider audience than one of its lines with its stark lyric would have allowed and so a radio edit was put together and issued as the lead track on an EP but it didn’t chart.
3. The First Big Weekend (single, released in September 1996)
This is the song with which Arab Strap announced themselves and is, in effect, a true short story of what a group of close friends got up to over the course of a long weekend from a Thursday afternoon through to a Monday afternoon, set to a tune driven by an acoustic guitar and a drum machine.
I can actually pinpoint the weekend in question – Thursday 13 to Monday 17 June 1996 – with the big clue being the reference to this big international football match on the Saturday afternoon. I can vouch that the weekend in question was ridiculously hot and sunny and I spent it in St Andrews with a group of mates getting drunk and playing golf and of course watching that very football match.
As much as I enjoyed myself that big weekend, there’s no doubt the packed few days of canteen quizzes, Glasgow night clubs, chatting up girls, getting high and drunk, coming down and starting all over again with an interlude of watching an episodes of The Simpsons was much more fun. But then again, on the eve of my 33rd birthday my crazy days were over…
It actually turns out that the debut LP, The Week Never Starts Round Here, was already finished but Chemikal Underground suggested a single to precede it would be a useful tool. It was written over a morning and recorded the same afternoon. It was very quickly picked up by John Peel and Steve Lamacq on BBC Radio 1 and indeed would go onto be voted as #2 in the 1996 Festive Fifty.
4. Don’t Ask Me To Dance (from the album The Last Romance, released in October 2005)
From the first of the band’s songs to one of the last and it perfectly demonstrates just how much their sound evolved, developed and matured over the decade they were together. It’s an album that has far more of a rock element than any of their others and the closing minute and a half enables Malcolm Middleton to demonstrate his guitar god credentials.
Nobody knew at the time that the band had decided to call it a day on the back of their sixth album and certainly none of their fans would have anticipated that both would go on and have successful solo careers, but the hints of what the seemingly lesser-appreciated/valued member of the duo was going to be capable of in the coming years can be heard on this and many other songs on what is a hugely underrated record.
5. I Saw You (Peel Session, recorded in March 1997)
I find it astonishing that the boys never released this until they had called it a day. It’s a song that was part of many of their early live shows but given its fast tempo and rocking tune it didn’t fit in all that well with the material that would eventually find its way onto Philophobia in 1998. And so the Peel Session was the only time it was ever recorded and it eventually saw the light of day on the Ten Years of Tears! compilation released in 2006.
Arab Strap had a great relationship with John Peel. As mentioned earlier, the debut single featured highly in the Festive Fifty and it was no surprise that early the following year they had a debut Peel session. One of the other tracks they recorded was a re-worked version of The First Big Weekend with the lyrics re-written to document the trip to London to do the session. on which Stuart Murdoch and Chris Geddes of Belle & Sebastian also performed.
1. Love Detective (single, released in January 2001)
The band also used a fair bit of piano and keyboards to great effect on many of their songs, particularly in the second half of their career and this #66 hit single (and subsequent track on the LP The Red Thread) is a very fine example. It’s also another frighteningly imaginative lyric in which Aidan recounts to a friend almost breathlessly over the telephone how his world has crashed around him after he broke into the box where his girlfriend keeps some secret things including a personal diary.
2. Here We Go (single, released in March 1998)
I didn’t pick up on Arab Strap until well after the debut LP had caught on and so this was the first thing of theirs I ever bought on its release and which I helped get to #48 in the singles chart (the highest position any of the singles ever reached). This is a song that I listed at #17 in my 45 45s at 45 rundown back in 2008 and if I was to repeat the exercise today it would still feature so highly in any rundown. I’m sure we’ve all been in this place at some point in our lives – sitting or standing looking at the other half of your relationship and wondering just what it is that has led to the two of you temporarily hating the sight of one another…..
3. I Would’ve Liked Me A Lot Last Night (from the album Philophobia, released in May 1998)
The second successive track lifted from Philophobia, one of the most brutally warts’n’all albums ever recorded with equally brutal warts’n’all artwork with a painting of a naked woman (Aidan Moffat’s girlfriend) on the front sleeve and a painting of a naked man (Aidan Moffat) on the back of the sleeve.
The word philophobia is defined as “the abnormal, persistent and unwarranted fear of falling in love or emotional attachment; the risk is usually when a person has confronted any emotional turmoil relating to love in the past but can also be chronic phobia”
I’m guessing that those who suffer from philophobia will also have a huge degree of self-loathing. If so, they would instantly relate to this incredibly sad and moving tale.
While it true that the 66 minutes that make up the record is never a comfortable listen it is also a work that manages to hold your attention all the way throughout. It is the sort of record that really could only be made by people in their mid-20s as the subsequent decades of experiences would make them far better equipped to deal with the situations they are facing and the lyrics wouldn’t flow so easily. But take yourself back to your teenage years and the decade that follows and I’m sure, having listened to Philophobia, that you will ne recalling all sorts of sordid and embarrassing memories and episodes. It’s way cheaper than a psychiatrist.
4. Cherubs (single, released in August 1999)
Having enjoyed a load of critical success in the wake of Philophobia the band were the subject of a few offers to tempt them away from Chemikal Underground, one of which was accepted.
Go! Beat Records was the dance offshoot of Go! Discs one of the great indie labels of the 80s although by the time Arab Strap signed for them it was just another arm of the Universal Music Group. Arab Strap had a thoroughly miserable time of it at the new label and within 18 months, after one album and one EP, they were knocking on the door at Chemikal who had no hesitation in taking them back with no hard feelings whatsoever.
If there was one good thing to come out of the time at Go! Beat it was this, the lead track on the EP the video of which I recall seeing on nationwide terrestrial television which would I reckon have been the first and possibly one time that happened in the band’s history. It’s a fine blend of a punchy upbeat drum machine, fine strumming and a rinky-dinky keyboard behind a minimalist and faintly optimistic lyric. Yes, that’s right an optimistic lyric….of sorts.
5. There Is No Ending (from the album The Last Romance, released in October 2005)
The closing track on the closing album. After dozens of songs that dealt with teenage and 20-something angst here’s one that celebrates love lasting forever until you grow old.
For a band that had to face up to so many accusations of being latent miserablists this is an extraordinary way to sign off and it captures Aidan Moffat for what I think he is – romantic at heart. For the most part in the Arab Strap canon he’s been a sad and depressed romantic all too often seeking solace in the comfort of the bottle or from the drugs cabinet but now at last he’s happy and looking forward to the future and he wants the world to know it.
A joyous and wonderful anthem to finish things off.
mp3 : Arab Strap – Packs Of Three
mp3 : Arab Strap – The Shy Retirer
mp3 : Arab Strap – The First Big Weekend
mp3 : Arab Strap – Don’t Ask Me To Dance
mp3 : Arab Strap – I Saw You
mp3 : Arab Strap – Love Detective
mp3 : Arab Strap – Here We Go
mp3 : Arab Strap – I Would’ve Liked Me A Lot Last Night
mp3 : Arab Strap – Cherubs
mp3 : Arab Strap – There Is No Ending (7″single version)
That’s almost twelve hours since I typed the first word of this piece. I’m away for a lie-down.