Book review: In the All-Night Café by Stuart David -
In the All-Night Café
by Stuart David
Sometimes we listen to bands that we truly love. And sometimes, if we're lucky, it seems as if the bands we love are listening to us.
That's certainly how it felt to me when, like many thousands of young men and women across Britain, I became smitten with Belle and Sebastian at the tail end of the 1990s.
The indie pop band from Glasgow sang recorder- and xylophone-accompanied songs about foxes in the snow, rhymed "discus" with "Liverpool and Widnes" , and, loth or too shy to appear in the music press, came across as an appealingly recessive salvation army. Their winsome melodies stalked my subconscious, gave consolation and delight in equal measure, and served both as mirrors and shelters to their listeners' tatty yearnings.
Opposing all rock'n'roll was central to Belle and Sebastian's appeal. According to Stuart David, the band's original bassist and author of this quiet and winning memoir about their early days, what he and vocalist-songwriter Stuart Murdoch had in common was that they "didn't like blues music or drugs, neither of us drank very much or smoked, and we were both anti-machismo".
In the All-Night Café, which chronicles the period up to and including the recording of Belle and Sebastian's first and best two LPs - Tigermilk and If You're Feeling Sinister - portrays the group as a ragged gang of outsiders from different backgrounds (drummer Richard Colburn was a snooker semi-pro) who came together from a desire to realise the singular beauty of Murdoch's early songs. Although the singer remains inscrutable here, his conviction shines through: he abandoned early shows because the sound wasn't to his liking, and persuaded the music college which issued the first record to bankroll an album rather than a CD single.
David is illuminating on how the warm, gauzy sound of those albums was achieved. Murdoch, who sang relatively quietly, insisted on the folk technique of having the vocal rather than the beat leading the song. Their albums were recorded at the church where he was a caretaker and where "every sound reverberated around the wooden surfaces and became coated in the same honey-rich-toned glow of the light". It's this sense of space and vulnerability that gives the LPs a tenderness missing in slicker records.
David's vignettes are masterful and often moving. At the end of the recording sessions for Tigermilk, keyboardist Chris Geddes looked a bit teary and confided to the bassist: "This has been the best week of my life. But I'm not sure if it's just because I've had a shite life up until now or not."