Belle and Sebastian are a fey Glaswegian band who made a name for themselves with witty, understated songs about unhappy schooldays, and quietly amassed a following of millions as if in spite of themselves.

Their first couple of albums, Tigermilk and If You're Feeling Sinister, were essentially bare folk-rock vehicles for Stuart Murdoch's writing and singing, aside from oddities like Electronic Renaissance; on The Boy with the Arab Strap Stuart David, Stevie Jackson and Isobel Campbell also joined in, and the result was more musically varied. On Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant Murdoch stepped further back from centre-stage, and Sarah Martin joined the other singer-song-writers with the excellent Waiting for the Moon to Rise; but by and large the album was a little disappointing. Their EPs have never been a let-down, however, and their latest offering - the Storytelling sountrack album - has several tracks about as good as their best work, although it is conspicuously short and not served very well by the fragments of movie dialogue scattered throughout.

Stuart David left the band at around the time of Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant, in order to concentrate on his own band Looper, and on writing books (Nalda Said, The Peacock Manifesto). 'Belfast' Bobby Kildea from Glasgow, who is also in V-Twin and The Reindeer Section, joined the band as a bassist and guitarist at around the time of Jonathan David.

Isobel Campbell, the group's most hesitant singer and possibly their most versatile instrumentalist, left not long after I'm Waking Up To Us came out, amid unsubstantiated rumours that the title track - a tunefully catchy but scathingly bitchy number about a former lover - was about her. Her final contributions to the band can be found on the Storytelling LP. Before that, she released two albums of her own as The Gentle Waves (featuring most of Belle and Sebastian): Green Fields of Foreverland and Swansong for You. Her next album, Amorino, was released under her own name, as was the 2006 Milkwhite Sheets. She also released two albums with Mark Lanegan out of Screaming Trees.

A while after Storytelling came out, Jeepster - the record label they had largely sustained since its inception - quietly announced that due to a lack of money it was not going to put out any more records, and its signings would be looking for new contracts elsewhere. Although some doubted that they would keep going at all after the demise of their label and the exit of Isobel Campbell, in the end it didn't take them long to sign up for a four-album worldwide deal with Rough Trade Records; they put their names to the contract on July 12, 2002. The contract also marked the end of their association with Matador Records in North America (barring the re-packaged EP album, Push Barman to Open Old Wounds). The sixth Belle and Sebastian album, Dear Catastrophe Waitress, came out on the 6th of October - see A DVD of the videos for their songs, together with documentary footage of the band and so on, came out on October 20, 2003, titled Fans Only.

Stevie Jackson put out a solo album in mid-2012, (I Can't Get No) Stevie Jackson. Stuart Murdoch has been working on a film-and-album project called God Help The Girl; the album came out in 2009, and the film (which he is directing as well as writing) is supposed to be getting made this year (2012). Belle and Sebastian have also put out two albums of other people's music as part of the LateNightTales mix-disc project.

For the record, Belle and Sebastian weren't really formed during a three-day stint in an all-night café, whatever you might have read - the sleeve notes of Tigermilk are a tissue of lies. The current line-up of the band (which I am linking to even though none of them have entries here) is:

The records

  • Tigermilk

    Album: EHR LP 005 JPR CD/LP/MC 007 April 1996, 12th July 1999

    Their first album was released as part of a college project for a Music Business course. Stuart Murdoch had enough songs for an album, so they sat down as a six-piece, recorded ten songs, pressed 1000 copies and distributed them to local music shops. Under-produced and low-key, it is made by its wry, often wistful songwriting, tragic and comic by turns.

    By around the time of The Boy with the Arab Strap, copies of Tigermilk were changing hands for a couple of hundred pounds a piece, and tapes were circulated excitedly among fans; eventually Jeepster re-issued the album with new cover artwork, but without doing away with its cheerfully amateurish feel.

  • If You're Feeling Sinister

    Album: JPR CD/LP/MC 001 18th November 1996

    The first album to get a proper full-scale release, Sinister came out without fanfare and sold slowly at first, but was greeted with such enthusiasm by the fans it won that it eventually sold an impressive number of units. With what may be Murdoch's finest writing, the album is more or less universally recognised as one of Belle and Sebastian's finest hours. I'm tempted to rave here about my favourite songs from it, but I just haven't got room to talk about every track.

    The album is of a piece with Tigermilk as far as its musical style and its schoolboy-confessional lyrics go (could he really be in his thirties!?), but with a good deal more polish. It still sounds like it could just about have been recorded in someone's bedroom, but at least this time they took enough care to keep out things like the sound of a cardigan unzipping; and they were obviously coming into their own better as a band. Like most of their work, the album is sometimes bleak, often funny and musically pretty catchy in a self-conscious sort of way.

  • Lazy Line Painter Jane

    The first three EPs between them amount to a body of work just as good as any of the albums, so it was no surprise when Jeepster decided to re-release them a slip-cased set in 2000. Once again, the EPs are stylistically and lyrically in keeping with the first couple of albums, ranging from winsomely playgroundy to quietly mournful. Like most of their EPs, these tend to be just a little more upbeat than the LPs from out around the same time.

  • The Boy With The Arab Strap

    Album: JPR CD/LP/MC 003 7th September 1998

    Their second album to be released on Jeepster is really about as good as the one before, which is to say it is absolutely great if you like that sort of thing. It feels a little bit more grown up than Sinister, and again the musicians have audibly grown together as a band. Isobel gets her first lead singing role with the rueful, pretty Is It Wicked Not To Care?, and Stuart David opens the second side with A Space Boy Dream, one of his spacey prose poems with a groovy backing track which sounds much more like his work as Looper than A Century of Elvis had.

    The album opens with what may be its weakest track, the remorselessly depressing It Could Have Been A Brilliant Career, and closes with the other top contender for that title, detached and slow-moving The Rollercoaster Ride, but in between is the some of the best work of their careers; dreamy and gorgeous Sleep The Clock Around follows the opener; track two on side two is Dirty Dream Number Two, a driving, comical rock and roll song about a wet dream; that's followed by the finger-snapping, irresistible title track. To my ears every song on the album has much to recommend it, though I know not everyone agrees.

  • This Is Just A Modern Rock Song

    Single: JPR CDS/12 009 7th December 1998

    The songs on their first release after TBWTAS, and their last for almost a year and a half, would not have been out of place on any of their albums to this point, in terms of quality or style - although the title track would have been hard to fit in anywhere thanks to its epic nature. Uncharacteristically guitar-driven, and downright languourous at seven minutes seven seconds (the lyrics sheet refers apologetically to an 'interminable three chord break' about half way through), it sets the mood for the rest of the EP. Next up is I Know where the Summer goes, slower than the opening number with a rather moping feel to it. Isobel's regretful but not not pessimistic The Gate follows - a slightly sour song, but pretty; quite representative of her work. The EP closes with the beautiful, melancholy Slow Graffiti, apparently written for the soundtrack of The Acid House.

  • Legal Man

    Single: JPR CDS/12/7 018 22nd May 2000

    Summery in music and theme, the title track of Legal Man hints at the Belles' coming shift towards retro-sounding, very musically tight pop-rock. The whole thing is vastly cheerier and more upbeat than Modern Rock Song. On Side B we get the bouncy instrumental Judy is a Dick Slap, followed by Stuart David's only real song released with the band (as opposed to monologues-to-music), the lovely Winter Wooskie.

  • Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant

    Album: JPR CD/LP/MD 010 5th June 2000

    The fourth album was greeted with a general feeling of disappointment, but the truth is it's really not a bad album; just conspicuously worse than anything else they've done, to most people's ears. By my reckoning about half the album is really great; songs like the sad and beautiful opener, I Fought In A War, the rich, piano-driven Womens' Realm and the closing track There's Too Much Love live up to all but the very best of their work. However, while the music is fairly strong throughout, the songrwriting never quite matches the moments of sheer lyrical brilliance which made the first three albums so likeable.

    A disappointment then, but not entirely a failure; the band explored some interesting enough musical directions, and even if nobody else in the band has quite managed to match Murdoch's songwriting genius, their efforts are certainly worthwhile, and by no means without promise.

  • Jonathan David

    Single: JPR CDS 022 12th June 2001

    For those who needed it, the Jonathan David EP provided reassurance that the band hadn't really lost it after all. The title track is a rollicking number about growing apart, led by Stevie Jackson with the other singers providing rich harmonies; track two is a sad, defiant and caustic song about retirement, Take your Carriage Clock and Shove It. The EP closes with the classic The Loneliness of a Middle-Distance Runner, which could very easily have been an A-side itself; there seems to be wide agreement that it is one of their best songs ever.

  • I'm Waking Up To Us

    Single: JPR CDS 023 27th November 2001

    An intensely harsh song about realising the true awfulness of a relationship that's ended, it is widely suspected - but unconfirmed - that the bitch-fest of a title track is about Isobel; this would certainly explain her rather sudden departure from the band. Track two, I Love My Car, is only gently barbed, and hides it beneath a cheerily whimsical tune and lyric - 'I love my dog; I love my pussycat, I love the rat that lives under the floor and makes his bed from novelettes - I wish I could say the same for you...' The closing number, Marx and Engels, is a beautiful song about rejection and intellectual aloofness.

  • Storytelling

    Album: JPR CD 014 3rd June 2001

    With only six actual songs, Storytelling only barely qualifies as an album. Those six songs are all very nice, though, and they're backed up by several truly gorgeous instrumental pieces, of which my favourite is Fuck This Shit, a glum tune led by a bitter-sounding harmonica. There is a feeling that since it is a soundtrack album - although much of it never made it into the film - the songs here were written more to fit in with its plot and themes than to express things the songwriters wanted to say. As such, they tend to have less of a personal edge than most of Belle and Sebastian's work - but having said that, if I had to pick one song as representative of where the band is coming from I'd be very tempted to pick I Don't Want To Play Football.

    This is their most smoothly produced, musically together album to date, but it's also the one on which they sound least like themselves and most like a generic 1960s Rock and Roll band.

  • Dear Catastrophe Waitress

    Album: RTRADECD 080 6th October 2003

    Their latest album continues the trend of getting more and more tight and well-produced and 60s-ish, but it feels a lot more substantial than Storytelling. It is lush and funny and I love it.

  • Step into my Office Baby

    Single: RTRADECDS 128 17th November 2003

    The first single from Dear Catastrophe Waitress, worth buying for the fantastic video by Graham Linehan. Stuart and Stevie take turns on lead vocals on this raucous comedy number.

  • I'm a Cuckoo

    Single: RTRADSCD157 16th February 2004

    A great little EP, the title track is backed up by Stop, Look and Listen, by another version of I'm a Cuckoo by The Avalanches which occupies a strange area between a remix and a cover version and bears surprisingly little resemblance to the original despite keeping the vocal track, and by Stevie's gorgeous, Simon and Garfunkel-esque (I believe in) Travellin' Light.

  • Books EP

    Single: CD - RTRADESCD180 / 12" - RTRADES180 / DVD - RTRADEDV180 June 21st, 2004

    The second EP with a title track from Dear Catastrophe Waitress. Good stuff.

  • Push Barman to Open Old Wounds

    Album: JPR DP/LP 015 23rd May, 2005

    Going a step further than the Lazy Line Painter Jane boxed set, this album collects on two discs all seven of the band's EPs and singles on Jeepster - the record label still being not quite dead yet. These releases are pretty much consistently excellent; if you're a fan, but don't already have the original EPs, go and get this now!

  • The Life Pursuit

    Album: CD - RTRADCD280 LP - RTRADLP280 CD with bonus DVD - RTRADCDX280 6th February, 2006

    Probably their most accessible recording to date, the 2006 album is packed with pop tunes which are catchy, but not obnoxiously so, with just a few lower-key, thoughtful numbers like the subtle and ambivalent Dress up in You. This is Belle and Sebastian that you can dance to all the way through, and sometimes it's hard not to. As if to prove this point, the original release included a bonus DVD on which you can see me and diotina dancing behind their piano at the BBC studio in Glasgow.

  • Write About Love

    Album: Rough Trade Records, 11th October, 2010

    More catchy, danceable pop. There are guest vocals on here from Norah Jones and Carey Mulligan. Rather a lot of the album is Christian-themed, which unsettles me slightly. When I saw them play in 2011 I was reassured to find that Stuart Murdoch still isn't too Christian to sing 'if you're feeling sinister, go off and see a minister... the chances are you'd probably feel better if you stayed and played with yourself'.

Radio Sessions

Many of the songs from these made it onto 'The BBC Sessions', released in 2009.


The original Belle and Sebastian was Belle et Sébastien by Mme Cécile Aubry: A French children's story about a boy and his Pyrenees mountain dog, on which a well-known cartoon series was based. The band also share their name with a song from the Dog on Wheels EP. The song is probably not really about the band - at various times they denied that the Belle of the title was really Isobel Campbell, although I don't know if Stuart Murdoch has ever denied being Sebastian...

I left the school I left my job
You saw me looking like a slob
When I was young you were the only fun in town

Everyone thought it was a shame
For Belle and the boy Sebastian
Belle was okay but oh Sebastian
Went too far again
Crashed his car in the rain

He wants to love and he wants to care
But boys are queuing up to tell her she's a star
Poor Sebastian is heading for a fall

Everyone thought it was a shame
For Belle and the boy Sebastian
Everyone thought it was a shame
Belle was okay but oh Sebastian
Went too far again
Crashed his car in the rain
Oh Sebastian wrote his diary that
He would never be young again
But you will
Fellow, you are ill
You'd better take a weight off of your mind and listen
To what other people say
Cause things are going wrong your own way

CST approved

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