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Three Songs No Flash

We Rule The School – Belle & Sebastian And Indie’s Troubling Cult Of Childhood
The Quietus , June 27th, 2016 10:01

As Belle and Sebastian perform their first two albums at the Royal Albert Hall, Fergal Kinney examines indie’s long standing infatuation with all things adolescent, taking covering C86, twee, Orange Juice and the Smiths

Photograph by Tom Bowles

For much of the rock & roll era, pop music was supposed to be a salacious, adult product marketed at teens – product for the dancefloor, but at the same time product for those sat at home yearning for the day they could go out and follow their older siblings out onto the dancefloor. For a subsection of British indie music, something here flipped. Part political rejection of the stultifying sexual codes of mainstream rock, sure, but there’s more. Take indie’s obvious penchant for kitsch, its [postured] rejection of drugs and alcohol, the asserted chasteness of so much of its lyrics – for a lot of British indie, childhood and youth became something to be celebrated and explored, rather than something to be swiftly exited.

Across two nights at the Royal Albert Hall, Belle And Sebastian are performing their debut Tigermilk and its sister record If You’re Feeling Sinister, both released at alternate ends of 1996 with the latter generally regarded as the superior. From the juvenile persistence of ‘I Don’t Love Anyone’ to the cast of troubled teens central to ‘She’s Losing It’, more so than any other Belle And Sebastian record, Tigermilk stands at the school gates for its inspiration. It’s something Murdoch has taken further – not just across Belle And Sebastian’s recording output, but also in the 2014 film he wrote and directed, God Help The Girl, focusing on a young girl’s recovery from anorexia as she forms a band in Glasgow. This focus on adolescence and school, is it something that a band should be able to get away with in 2016? Take ‘Expectations’ – it’s markedly clear that Murdoch’s sympathies are with the schoolgirl protagonist rather than the teacher looking up her skirt, but why are Belle And Sebastian in this zone in the first place?

The group have played the Royal Albert Hall many times before tonight, but there’s a hushed reverence that greets the opening bars of ‘The State I Am In’ that befits the surroundings – this passes as Stevie Jackson’s woozy and glistening guitars enter focus. The decision post-If You’re Feeling Sinister to opening up songwriting to the rest of the band may have contributed to the band’s longevity, but it’s striking tonight to remember quite how remarkable their output was when guided solely by the vision of Stuart Murdoch. As affable a man you’ll ever see at the front of a stage, for the first few tracks tonight Murdoch is uncharacteristically quiet between songs and highly engrossed. His singing on ‘The State I Am In’ is gorgeous and tracing paper fragile, often little more than a whisper whilst delivering some of the most lucid and sharp lyrics of his career – a whistlestop tour through Glasgow bedsit land, religion and despair in sensible shoes.

If indie’s cult of childhood starts anywhere, it’s with post-punk – specifically Orange Juice. “I felt like Paul from the Bible,” Stuart Murdoch once memorably explained, “because I wasn’t there when Jesus, ie Orange Juice, was around, but the legend seemed to be all around the place”. Orange Juice more than any other band set the template that would be repeated ad nauseam as their strand of post-punk hurtled towards C86 and twee. “Worldliness” sang Edwyn Collins, “must keep apart from me”; the band wore schoolboy fringes, above the knee shorts and carried all the wonky exuberance of getting properly drunk for the first time. If indie has a cult of childhood, then its mascot is the Postcard Records emblem of a cat banging on a drum from a jumble sale storybook. Orange Juice rejected masculinity in lyrics like ‘Consolation Prize’s thrilling sentiment, “I’ll never be man enough for you”, but sonically also shoving two fingers up at macho rockism with an obsessive disco and soul influence. This is something their floppier indie standard bearers missed. The sonic experimentation – that ability to absorb any influences – became neutered as C86 and twee bands adhered to an increasingly rigid code.

Tigermilk for Belle and Sebastian fans is a record dense with mythology. It was written in recovery from a debilitating period of ill health for Murdoch – who has continued to live with ME and has written and spoke eloquently on the illness – and was recorded as the culmination of a college project. It’s this intoxicating blend of lo-fi DIY aesthetics and supremely high songwriting aspirations that marks the best of B&S mark one – watch interviews with Murdoch about this period, and it isn’t, say, the Pastels or Felt to which he’s looking to, but Paul Simon. ‘We Rule The School’ tonight is a clear highlight. When so much of Tigermilk is distant character study, ‘We Rule The School’ feels cheek by jowl close. Multi-instrumentalist and sometime vocalist Sarah Martin is at this point on viola, and I’d forgotten – with this being certainly the most guitar based Belle And Sebastian record – just how pastoral and folk influenced the record is. The baroque pop of The Left Banke, the soaring Forever Changes orchestration (evidenced tonight by Tigermilk era b-side ‘Dog On Wheels’), whilst the instrumentation of ‘Mary Jo’ and ‘The State I Am In’ are pure Nick Drake (albeit the Nick Drake instrumentation that Nick Drake didn’t very much care for). Why, I wonder, is Murdoch back here? Not performing these tracks, but the place that ‘We Rule The School’ goes to – a schoolchild, carving a crush’s name on a beech tree. Certainly, the dark period of incapacity that preceded the record is crucial here – it’s not hard to see why the language of innocence and childhood would feel so metaphorically valid after such darkness, such isolation. Murdoch has spoken since of feeling like a “second class citizen” as an ME sufferer, and that isolation – distance from the action – is a large part of why childhood and school is so central to this kind of indie’s aesthetics. This works to a point, though tonight listening to ‘You’re Just A Baby’ – tonight all chopping VU guitars and an indie shuffle upgraded to a rockabilly stomp – I wince at this rare example of Murdoch’s carelessness:

“You’re just a baby, baby girl
So kiss me on the cheek before you go to school
You’re just a baby, baby girl
So kiss me on the cheek before you know what’s cool.”

Much of indie and twee was a political rejection of rock’s macho codes, rightly carving out a non-sexist, non-binary way forward for pop, but this music – with its juvenile chic and quasi-ironic conservatism – veered close to going too far into repressive territory of its own. Especially as by the late eighties, mainstream pop was catching up on the gender and sexuality front. As Simon Reynolds wisely points out in Rip It Up And Start Again, despite British indie bands espousing a ‘perfect pop’ ideal, they were hopelessly out of touch with the actuality of pop at the time; defiant against an enemy that had long since exited the field.

Indie’s cult of childhood is central to this, where bands like the Shop Assistants – their ‘I Don’t Want To Be Friends With You Anymore’ seemingly straight from the lexis of the playground – and Tallulah Gosh littering their promotional images with pigtails and school uniform retro. Similarly, fanzines with names like Rumbledethump!, Big Bad Fire Engine and Are You Scared To Get Happy entrenched this obsession with childlike imagery - Belle And Sebastian’s name itself fits into this tradition, being named after a French children’s programme that aired on BBC1 in the late 60s. To be sure, Morrissey had regularly evoked childhood and "the old grey school" powerfully – ‘Reel Around The Fountain’, ‘Handsome Devil,’ ‘These Things Take Time’ – but always from the vantage point of the older Morrissey, never revelling in childhood imagery or folksy celebrations of adolescence. Listening back to the Wedding Present’s Seamonsters – produced by Steve Albini, it’s their moment of turning away from their shambling, jangle pop George Best years – and every bit as surprising as the grunge influenced dirge of sound on the record is that David Gedge sings with a new directness and maturity about sex and relationships.

Cultural obsessions with childhood and innocence are nothing new. Through the 19th century, Victorian society was nagged by a similar glorification of childhood – novels like Alice Through The Looking Glass and later Peter Pan were the defining depictions of this new celebration of fantastical, rosy purity. It was just that; fantastical. Child poverty was commonplace, whilst in the metropolitan cities child prostitution was an accepted part of life. More recently, the revelations that came to light in the aftermath of Jimmy Savile’s death have caused much – often facile – debate on our own double standards surrounding child protection.

The looping, skipalong electric piano riff to ‘The Boy With The Arab Strap’ signals a regular ritual of Belle and Sebastian gigs. About a dozen girls from the audience are invited up on stage, and are dancing around the band as they play. The makeshift dance troupe remain for a spirited rendition of 1999’s Eastern tinged blue eyed soul single ‘Legal Man’ – this makeshift dance troup should feel naff, or creepy, but it doesn’t. It’s inclusive – not female window dressing, but born of a similar spirit of inclusion as riot grrrl’s "girls to the front" demands. As many who watched Stuart Murdoch’s God Help The Girl will attest, indie’s cult of childhood is kind of a dead end – Belle And Sebastian are vital, but it’s time they graduated from a lazy fetish for adolescent glamour.