IN THE NINETIES, WHEN THE WORLD WAS YOUNG: Stuart David’s ‘In the All-Night Café’

This piece is part of our Life in the 21st Century City thread, an occasional series of reviews, essays and travelogues. It seeks to explore the felt reality of world cities today and the experience of living in them on both large and small scales. The series’ remit is necessarily and intentionally broad; it makes no claims of completeness. Rather, in gathering together a thematically diverse collection of documents, it aims to explore and interrogate the varieties of city life around the world. 


Stuart David In the All-Night Café (Little, Brown, 2015)

by R.A. Davis

1995, it’s just a kind of sunny wilderness… I spent it in a pretty much windowless, airless concrete box looking at the wall with a pair of headphones on, dreaming about the outside world. 

— Stuart Murdoch, Fans Only

…what’s the good of losing heart now, that’s what I say.
We should have thought of it a million years ago, when the world was young.

— Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

earlier text: We should have thought of it a million years ago, in the nineties.

1994: In a kitchen on Otago Street, Glasgow, a man called Alistair is introducing two Stuarts.

“Stuart,” he said, to neither of us in particular, “this is Stuart.”

One Stuart is a former physics student and gig roadie, recently recovered from chronic fatigue syndrome. The other is a former music student and unpublished novelist. The Stuarts and their host have just met through a government training scheme for jobless musicians. They pass a guitar around Alistair’s kitchen table, playing songs they’ve written. They discuss forming a band. Minutes later, Alistair invites them to see his sex dungeon in the basement, having somehow mistaken the Stuarts’ shared taste in leather trousers for an interest in S&M. The Stuarts politely withdraw. If not for the ulterior motive Alistair might never have invited the Stuarts round to the flat. The course of British popular music might have been very different indeed, because this occasion counts as the first musical encounter between the two founding members of Belle and Sebastian.

A stone’s throw from Otago Street, and almost exactly twenty years later, Belle and Sebastian will take the stage at the renovated Kelvingrove Bandstand, in one of the concerts marking the opening of the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Stuart Murdoch will be there, having recorded eight albums and toured around the world leading the band. Stuart David will not be, having left the band amicably in 2000. As of 2015 he has published three novels with small presses, while he and Karn David have recorded four albums of electronic music as Looper.

Back on Otago Street it all lies ahead of them, yet Stuart David’s memoir In the All-Night Café says little of the success which is to come, or his quiet exit from the band. In a succinct 200 pages he describes only the series of happy accidents that brought together six young people in Glasgow in 1995 and allowed them, within a year, to make the classic album Tigermilk.

When the truth of a band’s origins is deliberately obscured by the band themselves, myth and legend flourish. Notoriously, Belle and Sebastian began their career giving no interviews; not even appearing in their press photos. The sleeve-notes on Tigermilk told a short story, a fairytale. It was unlikely that the band were formed of a girl named Isabelle and a boy named Sebastian; at least a few of their early listeners would have recognised the name from the 1960s and ’80s adaptations of Cécile Aubry’s novel Belle et Sébastien. But without evidence, the least plausible rumours were reported as fact: Belle and Sebastian were all schoolchildren, all students, all went to church. The rumour that Stuart Murdoch was a professional boxer persists even to this day.

A lively and detailed history of the band’s first ten years already exists in the form of Paul Whitelaw’s devout biography Belle and Sebastian: Just a Modern Rock Story (2005). On screen, the band’s beginnings are illustrated in the 2003 DVD release Fans Only (compiled by filmmaker Blair Young) and the excellent Pitchfork Classic documentary on the album If You’re Feeling Sinister. Stuart David is not the first band member to publish. In 2011, Stuart Murdoch’s online diaries from 2002 to 2006 were released as a book, The Celestial Café (cafés being something of a motif in the band’s literature). Despite the narrative flourish of Stuart Murdoch’s verses, diaries and liner notes, Stuart David was the band’s designated prose writer from the beginning. He is seen in an early BBC Scotland interview penning vignettes he called “ink polaroids.” Two of his spoken word pieces, given to music, form the Belle and Sebastian tracks: ‘A Century of Elvis’ and ‘A Spaceboy Dream.’ The same shy storytelling is married to electronic music in his work with Looper.

In the All-Night Café is the work of a gifted prose writer, and is easily set apart from rock hagiography, documentary or diary by its sheer specificity. The book encompasses little more than a year in the life of its author and covers only the nativity of the band he joined. It is the memoir of a moment and a study in serendipity.

If Belle and Sebastian came together by chance, then the fates which wove the band’s fellowship did so in typically Glaswegian fashion: first the Beatbox workshop united the two Stuarts … the extra housing benefit meant Stuart David could move to a shared flat in Garnethill … where he shared a kitchen with Richard Colburn, a music business student at Stow College and a quietly brilliant drummer … etc … until all six places on the original B&S roll-call were filled. In their Pitchfork documentary, Stevie Jackson compares the band’s recruitment to scenes from The Magnificent Seven, with Stuart Murdoch counting up his chosen outlaws. But the context for each of the band’s first encounters – a workshop, a shared flat, an open-mic night, a string of parties – suggests the social life of the city was instrumental in channelling the group together.

After their first public full-band performance (occurring in Edinburgh, unfittingly) in front of the college students who would release Tigermilk and the owners of the indie label Jeepster who were poised to sign them, Stuart David remarks on their good fortune, thinking of other bands who had worked longer and harder:

And here we were as if by magic…

If it was magic, then it was Glasgow’s own. As much as In the All-Night Café demystifies the genesis of the band, it reveals the true magic of their origins. The magic is sociological, not fantastical.

*

In Social Sculpture, Sarah Lowndes’ history of the Glasgow art world, a chapter on the period 1996 – 1998 begins with the formation of Belle and Sebastian. Other emerging bands of the era such as Arab Strap and Mogwai are likewise presented as examples of those whose careers began when major labels had given up on signing Scottish bands. According to Lowndes, the mainstream’s desertion left room for artist-led independent labels (namely, Chemikal Underground) to release the debuts of bands who had developed in total disregard of commercial considerations. A similar process seemed to have taken place in the world of visual art.

When Douglas Gordon won the Turner Prize in 1996, Swiss curator and celebrant of artist-led initiatives Hans-Ulrich Obrist was quoted as describing the city’s emergence as “the Glasgow miracle”. The phrase has since become legend, and is now an ironic title for one of Glasgow School of Art’s visitor’s tours. It is hard to find a document or statement of Obrist’s to confirm his precise use of it. In Social Sculpture, the artist Ross Sinclair reports a talk given by Obrist at the Tate Gallery:

[Obrist] started going on going on about this idea ‘The Glasgow Miracle’… I think he was asking… how could it be that so many interesting artists develop in a place which was so bereft of culture… [1]

At the Tate talk, Sinclair objected to the miracle. “The dynamic of Glasgow was, in fact, a very tenuous proposition”; not only was Glasgow’s notoriety unsustainable in the long term, it had only come about through the “ambition and passion” of individuals. In other words, what was being recognised in Glasgow ought not to be dismissed as a miracle, being the product of human, rather than supernatural, agency. However precarious the success might have seemed in 1996, it was ultimately replicable and sustainable, with four Glasgow School of Art alumni winning the Turner Prize between 2005 and 2014. Roughly a third of the nominees for the prize during this period were GSA-educated.

Obrist’s supposed mystification of Glaswegian artistic achievement corresponds neatly to the oft-quoted dialogue between Duncan Thaw and his fellow art student Kenneth McAlpin in Alasdair Gray’s Lanark (1981), a novel as essential to Glasgow’s students of art as to its students of literature:

if a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively […] Imaginatively Glasgow exists as a music-hall song and a few bad novels. That’s all we’ve given to the world outside. It’s all we’ve given to ourselves.

The “music-hall song” is the only reference to music in Thaw’s speech. The art-forms he lists as vehicles for visiting “Florence, Paris, London, New York” are all visual or textual. Before Glasgow produced art that could transport people to the city imaginatively, the idea of such a thing might have seemed impossible, its occurrence miraculous. Duncan Thaw is speaking from the 1950s, from Gray’s own Art School days, to readers living through the dawning of the 1980s. This dialogue, like the entire novel, charts the long climb of the Glaswegian imagination out of ruin.

Into the mid-1990s the city retained the ability to astonish itself at what could be imagined out of Glasgow. Belle and Sebastian did not emerge from a vacuum. Their many musical precursors include Glasgow bands active from the turn of the ’80s, like Orange Juice and The Pastels. The career of Stuart David’s musical hero Momus (the writer and musician Nick Currie) originates in the same era, though at the other end of the Central Belt. A significant crop of mid-80s bands – The Soup Dragons, BMX Bandits and Teenage Fanclub – emerged from the North Lanarkshire town of Bellshill. That these bands had come from anywhere near Glasgow, or anywhere in Scotland, would have been encouraging to the generation who followed. Better still, listeners beyond Scotland could begin to recognise Scottish indie artists as part of a tradition.

In the All-Night Café is a fragment from Scotland’s musical history, one which still records a sense of anomaly, a slight astonishment at the idea that art can flourish in (and advance outside of) Scotland. Stuart David remembers himself as a dreamer, biding his time jobless in Alexandria writing his novels and taping his songs, refusing to submit to employment in “the factories in the valley and the nuclear missile base on the other side of the hill: the twin evils I’d been born and raised to provide cheap labour for.”

And here he was, about to make an album, as if by magic. Was it the band’s humility that made their signing and breakthrough seem magical, rather than a reward for their idealism and perseverance? The explanation is again more sociological than mystical. Glasgow is Scotland’s largest city. Within the borders of the UK, it is the third largest. It is the logical catchment for the majority of geographically-mobile artists from Scotland who choose to remain in Scotland. But despite its core population of about half a million, Glasgow offers its citizens the compelling but irrational impression that it is a village. When two strangers in Glasgow meet for the first time and identify a mutual friend (or several) they will shrug and say “Glasgow’s a village.” Perhaps the same is said in Chicago, or Moscow. Either Glaswegians are profoundly predisposed to real-world social networking, or Glasgow’s ‘small world’ phenomenon is imagined. The term Benedict Anderson applied to nations, his “imagined communities”, can also be applied to cities:

the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” [2]

Of the world’s 195 sovereign nations, about twenty (mostly small islands, but also Iceland and Luxembourg) have a population smaller than the city of Glasgow. Anderson’s living image of communion is perhaps more visible in a city of wide pedestrian streets, popular methods of public transport and tenements, than in cities of cars, suburbs and single-household dwellings. The areas of Glasgow where well-maintained or renovated Victorian tenements dominate are also those favoured by the city’s mobile creative population, not withstanding increasing rents and changing fashions: the West End adjacent to the University, the Southside (with a locus around Shawlands) and increasingly the East End around Dennistoun.

Glasgow is a big city inside two small countries. If the entire world truly requires only ‘six degrees’ to separate any two unacquainted individuals, a population as small as Scotland’s should never require more than three. (For example, anyone who has lived in Scotland long enough would find the series of coincidences central to James Robertson’s Scottish epic And The Land Lay Still perfectly plausible and far from magical; outwith Scotland, readers might think them Hardyesque.)

In the introduction to Canongate’s 2007 reissue of Lanark, William Boyd recalls how he knew of the novel five years before reviewing it for the Times Literary Supplement.

Blake Morrison could have had no idea, I think, that I had heard of Lanark long before he gave me the opportunity to read it. …when I was studying […] there was occasional talk of Lanark amongst my circle of friends. Alasdair Gray was someone known to me by sight (we had mutual friends) and by reputation… Doubtless we drank in the same pub…

There are degrees of separation in Scotland’s artistic communities, but they are few. From institutions as large as universities to those as small as pubs, Glasgow is highly socially networked and functions as Scotland’s cultural hub. Boyd also reports the coincidence by which he happened to know Lanark’s publisher, Stephanie Wolfe-Murray, years earlier as the lady who gave him lifts when he hitchhiked to a summer job at the age of twenty. They lived in the same valley. Small world.

That Gray’s complete vision, so long in the making, had survived to publication seems to have astonished his early reviewer: “finally, to have Lanark in my hand a few years later was something of a shock…”vi Boyd was perhaps doubly surprised. Not only had the novel found its way out of Alasdair Gray, it had found its way out of Glasgow.

*

Not to be forgotten in the story of Belle and Sebastian is the role of the welfare state. At the time that JK Rowling was completing the first Harry Potter novel on benefits in Edinburgh, Stuart Murdoch and Stuart David were also receiving state support. It was the conditions of their benefits that led them (even forced them) to enrol in the Beatbox workshops where the first Belle and Sebastian songs-to-be were eventually demoed. Those demos were submitted to Electric Honey, in-house record label for the music business course at Stow College (now Glasgow Kelvin College), who later supervised the recording of Tigermilk. One savvy student on the course was also acting as an A & R scout for Jeepster Records of London.

Stuart Murdoch’s and Stuart David’s benefits, just like JK Rowling’s, provided them with enough support to be privately productive, and in both cases the investment by the taxpayer was amply rewarded. The Beatbox program, flawed as it was, at least provided the demo. It is remarkable that this much support (a ten pound increase in Stuart David’s housing benefits allowed him to rent a city centre room) was available during the John Major years, even after fifteen years of Conservative government in an un-devolved Scotland.

Stuart David testifies both to the joy of finding an audience at home (one overcrowded early performance took place in the flat he shared with Richard Colburn) and to the absurdity of courting commercial interest at the highest level. Sire Records boss Seymour Stein (later the eponymous muse for an excellent Belle and Sebastian song) met the band under the supervision of Jeepster records to discuss licensing their second album in the U.S.. Ultimately, the band’s restricted approach to touring, to allow for the completion of Isobel Campbell and Chris Geddes’s degrees, was enough to dissuade Stein. Stuart Murdoch’s commitment to the indie ethic ensured that word of mouth publicity was always as strong as commercial PR.

A new tool was also at their disposal. Stuart David writes of the quarter-of-an-hour wait he happily endured to download thirty second clips of songs from Momus’s website, taking up the phoneline at the Beatbox studio and racking up enormous phone bills, simply to delete the clips each time as they took up the computer’s entire hard drive. This was the state of the internet in 1995, but Belle and Sebastian’s early fanbase would use it, instantly ensuring word-of-mouth in France, Japan and the US before albums were distributed there. The band’s internet following was formidable. Votes for Best British Newcomer at the 1999 Brit Awards were cast online via the BBC’s Radio One website. Belle and Sebastian were the surprise winners, beating nine other acts including pop band Steps, leading pop impresario Pete Waterman to cry foul, alleging that a considerable proportion of the votes could be traced to two computers at a UK university. (Ironically, Waterman would later sit on the original judging panel of vote-based reality TV show Pop Idol, which also surrendered voting to electronic means. Waterman was openly critical when the public chose Glasgow’s Michelle McManus to win the series. He left Pop Idol shortly after.)

Belle and Sebastian was a band born out of ambition and enterprise as much as coincidence and moral support. Without even a hint of theatrical backslapping, Stuart David praises Stuart Murdoch’s peculiar determination, his drive to achieve the standard set by his indie heroes. He maintained control over every detail of the band’s musical and visual output, without compromise. The label at Stow College were only offering to make a CD single, but Stuart Murdoch had other plans:

“Singles have to be on vinyl,” he said.“Seven inch.”

He explained that a seven-inch single was a magical thing, and that CDs were nothing at all.

Alan hesitated, but he eventually said we could probably do it on vinyl, if we really wanted to.

Stuart gave that some thought then shook his head.

“I don’t know,” he said,“How about we made an album?”

In the All-Night Café is full of such dialogues, made dramatic in memory. The choice as to which song would open the album might seem trivial, but it is a tense scene in the book. At a café meeting, Stuart David stands firm when Stuart Murdoch suggests ‘I Could Be Dreaming’ will be a better opener than ‘The State I Am In’ (Tigermilk devotees will find the substitution unthinkable). In this way, the two Stuarts needed each other. The book is the history of their platonic love. Mingling with the story of the band is another love story, that of the protracted and chaste courtship between Stuart David and his future wife, Karn. Chapter 17 describes in beautiful detail a shy and awkward seaside date. Just as the band’s future is not described, neither is theirs. Nowhere is it written but in every line, this book carries an implicit dedication to Karn David.

An explanation of the title is not given until the final pages. The book is a substitution for “the little myth” originating in the liner notes of Tigermilk that the band had formed one night in a café. In fact, there were many nights, and many cafés. The place that recurs in Stuart Murdoch’s writings is a metaphysical one, The Celestial Café, perhaps his version of paradise, as in the song ‘Sunday’s Pretty Icons’ from the eighth album Belle and Sebastian Write about Love:

Somebody asked me

What heaven was like

Lunch in the happening canteen of souls

The book ends with the night of the launch party for Tigermilk, with a concert in Ca Va Studios, Bentinck Street, where it was recorded. Electric Honey pressed 1000 copies of the album. Many were given away on the night of the launch. By the end of the party the vinyl records were being thrown like frisbees through the streets. Surviving copies of the record would soon sell for over £800, nearly twice what the album had cost the label to record. In the drunken minds of some of the band’s first supporters and friends, the artefact was a ridiculous anomaly, its future value indiscernible.

*

A record’s-throw across Finnieston and nearly twenty years later, on the 22nd May 2015, Belle and Sebastian played to their largest ever hometown crowd at the SSE Hydro. In all but name, the event was an early twentieth anniversary celebration. For the waiting audience the show was prefaced with the forward-looking 1971 public information film Glasgow 1980, directed by Oscar Marzaroli for the Corporation of the City of Glasgow and notably edited by a young Bill Forsyth. It begins with narration:

This is a film for people, about the city they live in; how the city is changing for the people.

The hopeful vision of the modernised Glasgow draws amused laughter from the audience, who recognise some of the new buildings of the 1970s as those recently demolished. But there are also cheers for what has endured; the hope of the 1970s somehow rewarded. Before the band take the stage there’s another film, a history of the band presented by “Billy Connolly,” who stands outside The Belle on Great Western Road to tell us the band was named after the bar fight they had there with Sebastian Coe. Elsewhere on his “Bullshit Tour” Billy points out “the wee happy café where the band used to drink tea and write pop tunes. Happy days” in front of various derelict pubs and industrial landmarks. The band have always been willing to mock their mythology, while the home crowd has always been party to their self-deprecation.

The band celebrated in style, accompanied by the Scottish Festival Orchestra. The performance featured choreographed dance routines, T-shirt cannons and a balloon-drop. The encouraged stage invasion, now customary, saw at least fifty audience members dancing on stage (with the formally-attired members of the orchestra joining in). Adding a further gloss of absurdity to the celebrations, among those invading the stage were full grown adults not yet born when Belle and Sebastian formed.

Belle and Sebastian are not the only Scottish band celebrating double decades in 2015-16. Neither are they the only inheritors of indie tradition in Glasgow. In late 1995 another Stuart, and another group of Glasgow friends, came together to form Mogwai. A story deserving of its own memoir, Mogwai’s history runs parallel to that of Belle and Sebastian, demonstrating a radically different expression of the independent ethos in popular music. Theirs is a very different imagining of Glasgow.

Another branch of the indie tree yielded Idlewild (formed December 1995 in Edinburgh). Idlewild’s major-label trajectory has left an inconsistent back catalogue, but they celebrated twenty years with the admirable album Everything Ever Written. The chaotic art school punk of their debut ultimately gave way to folk-tinged rock, Scottish in accent and imagination.

1995 was also the year the prolific Welsh indie band Super Furry Animals released their first EPs. In 2015 they ended a five year hiatus for a career-spanning tour, to mark fifteen years since the release of the album Mwng. A biography by Ric Rawlins, Rise of the Super Furry Animals was published in February. Like In the All-Night Café, it retells all the band’s myths. In the cover the band’s principle songwriter, Gruff Rhys, claims that the book “hit on truths that are closer to what happened that what actually happened.” The Super Furry Animals’ story is also one of commitment to independent traditions. Like Belle and Sebastian and Mogwai in Glasgow, SFA (based in Cardiff and rooted in North Wales) began in one of the UK’s peripheral but culturally distinct environments. The sense of remoteness from the centre is palpable in the quintessential SFA song ‘Mountain People’: “They don’t care about you and me obviously/ no not us we’re the Mountain People.” Being Welsh and bilingual, politically radical and obsessed with communication, Super Furry Animals succeeded, sometimes accidentally, in bringing the cultural periphery to the centre.

Belle and Sebastian’s latest album Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, opens with the song ‘Nobody’s Empire’: “We’re out of practice, we’re out of sight/ on the edge of nobody’s empire”. The landscape around Glasgow has seen both the edge of one empire and been called the second city of another. Either we concede that we will always be peripheral, provincial, parochial – always a second or third city – or we reimagine ourselves as the centre of a community we have chosen to belong to.

Wherever we end up, we will need myths and music to imagine ourselves there.


NOTES

[1] Ross Sinclair’s piece The Glasgow Miracle vs. Utopian modernism done by Third World peasants, Circles, ZKM, Karlsruhe, 2003, pp 193-199, quoted in Sarah Lowndes Social Sculpture (Luath Press Limited, Edinburgh, 2010) pp 234-235.

[2] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (Verso, London, 2006) p 6.

 Special thanks to Laura Gaiger of GSA Enterprises
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