Ten years ago, a keen young List reporter grabbed the first ever interview with Arab Strap. Now that the Falkirk duo are going their separate ways, the same reporter, Brian Donaldson, looks back over a decade of magical musical miserablism.
It’s September 1996. A message is being left for me by Arab Strap’s Malcolm Middleton. ‘One of us looks a bit like Chris Evans, the other looks like, em, Tony Slattery.’ As a means of setting up a face-to-face interview with people I’ve never seen before, the advice proves helpful in its own way. Two days later I’m on a bus heading towards Falkirk to meet the men from Arab Strap in what proves to be a world exclusive (as the tabloids who were soon to get their teeth into them might boast). The people from a shortlived London style magazine Blah Blah Blah were due to have met up with Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton a few days earlier, but for whatever reason (each side blamed the other for the mix-up) it never happened.
I feel nervous and excited while weighed down by a bout of confusion. Arab Strap are soon to appear at Glasgow music festival Ten Day Weekend; their imminent first album will be called The Week Never Starts Around Here and their debut single is called ‘The First Big Weekend’. Not having heard the song, all I have to go on is that it’s crassly described as ‘the musical equivalent of Irvine Welsh’ and makes reference to The Simpsons and the England defeat of Scotland in Euro 96. I’m told that the lads themselves are fond of their beer and their women. John Peel has become an admirer. Steve Lamacq will follow suit. And before long the marketing folk at Guinness will help keep the lads in beer money by buying a piece of ‘The First Big Weekend’ for one of their monochromatic head-scratching ads.
It’s September 2006. A message appears on the band’s official website. ‘Yes, it’s the end for Arab Strap. After ten years, six studio albums, three live albums and all manner of everything else, we’ve decided the story should come to a close. There’s no animosity, no drama, we simply feel we’ve run our course and The Last Romance seems to us the most logical final act of the Arab Strap studio adventure. Everybody likes a happy ending!’
As I get off the bus at Falkirk (yes, it’s slightly raining) two men who could be described as mild doppelgangers to the aforementioned ginger DJ and ad-libbing depressive approach and politely, hungoverly, introduce themselves. Five hours later we have supped coffee in a greasy spoon café and sipped alcohol in local pub Behind the Wall and the key thing I’ve learned is that Malcolm’s gran would have far preferred the band to be called Central Belt. In between the coffee and the alcohol, I have taken some Polaroid snaps of the pair (see overleaf) as publicity shots are non-existent.
Some months later when proper pictures of Arab Strap are circulated to the press by their PR company, one of my horribly amateurish photos surfaces in a rival publication, plucked covertly from The List’s secret archive by a desperate hack. Word has it that the pair are not best pleased. When I interview Malcolm in 1999 for the release of their third album Elephant Shoe, I am able to set the record straight and considering that quite a lot has happened to the band in three years, it’s easy enough for Malcolm to accept my alibi. He goes on to tell me that ‘elephant shoe’ is what Falkirk’s bairns would mouth across a crowded classroom to the one they fancied because it would look exactly like ‘I love you’. Despite the clever-for-five-seconds description of them as ‘arch miserablists’, trundled out for each passing album, Moffat and Middleton are actually far closer to being incurable romantics.
The myths and controversies surrounding Arab Strap, particularly in the first half of their lifespan, are wildly entertaining. The fine burghers of Falkirk council took great exception to the band’s lyrical content with its grim imagery and seedy lifestyle choices which were deemed to reflect poorly on their birthplace. Provost Alex Fowler railed: ‘These people are a disgrace to Falkirk and everything they say about our town is wrong.’ The Daily Record ran with this ‘story’ and for a moment, it seemed the pair would be chased out of their hometown by hordes of vigilantes armed with pitchforks. The hellraiser motif was barely erased by stories of chairs being thrown around at London gigs while Malcolm went out with Lauren Laverne, the pop pixie from Kenickie.
There was a brief inter-indie spat with Belle and Sebastian when they called one album The Boy with the Arab Strap, which alluded to an ex-girlfriend of Aidan. In 1998, Aidan’s then girlfriend was the cover star of Philophobia, painted completely naked. Aidan himself appears on the back, similarly non-attired and sketched. A huge poster of this image welcomes you into the offices of Chemikal Underground. Perhaps most intriguingly, while they sang approvingly of Kate Moss on their debut album, it was Danish übermodel Helena Christensen who took a shine to them, leading to The Face coming up with the notion of bringing them together in a room and taking some photos. Claire Danes was rumoured to be another unlikely devotee.
But now that it’s over, bar the shouting at those final farewell gigs, what is their legacy? Well, they helped spawn Sons and Daughters with half of that band (David Gow and Adele Bethel) being regular Strap contributors and it could be argued that The Streets’ urban hymns of bad trips and worse relationships owe as much to Arab Strap as they do to Dizzee Rascal. While they may never have worried the business end of the singles chart, critical acclaim was never in short supply.
Certainly, they will go down as having some of the most audacious opening lines to albums in living memory. Philophobia starts with: ‘It was the biggest cock you’d ever seen/But you’ve no idea where that cock has been’, while The Last Romance kicks off with ‘Burn these sheets that we’ve just fucked in/My weekend beacon, I’ve been sucked in.’ But as harsh (and, dare it be whispered, ‘miserablist’) as some of the sentiments might have been, many will remember the humour and the warmth. For every ‘And the room stinks of poppers/The bog’s full of bile’ there’s an ‘I see cherubs swarm around the bed/And swooping down to kiss your head.’ And each: ‘I said with me around she’d never come to harm/And then she took a fork and stabbed herself in the arm’ can be countered with: ‘Not everything must end, not every romance must descend/Not every lover’s pact decays, not every sad mistake replays.’
Splitting now will allow them to avoid making some sad mistakes. Maybe Aidan and Malcolm always knew this moment would come, with solo projects already having produced quality goods. It leaves many bereft but believing that if the likes of the Pixies and the Pistols can manufacture reunions, maybe some day the Strap will return. It’ll be some party when they do.
Cabaret Voltaire, Edinburgh, Fri 1 Dec; ABC, Glasgow, Mon 4 Dec. The Last Romance and Ten Years of Years are out now.
Ten years of Arab Strap
Mark Robertson asked some of the duo’s friends and affiliates to name their favourite song from Arab Strap catalogue. He received a deluge of replies. We reproduce abbreviated highlights here.
Stuart Braithwaite of Mogwai
‘Where We’ve Left Our Love’ from 10 Years of Tears
‘As with all great Arab Strap songs it is full of beauty, romance and a sense of longing. For a band that have a reputation for dwelling on the mundane they can be totally transcendental. Also, considering that this song was an out-take from their last studio album they were also quite daft!’
Annemarie McGregor, cover star of the Girls of Summer EP
‘New Birds’ from Philophobia
‘I would recommend Arab Strap records to anyone, always suffixed with, “it’s not just because I know them”, because they had an undeniable talent. Granted I would also be boasting that I regarded my friends as the funniest, cleverest and most honest songsmiths around. It’s difficult and frustrating to see that a lot of their work wasn’t given the recognition and rewards it deserved. My favourite lyrics are from ‘New Birds’ and I remember getting very outraged in London when Aidan altered them in a live performance as I always loved the sentiment in it about fidelity. A few years later he confided to an audience in Australia that in fact he had gone for a fumble with the girl in the story and I think that made me love it even more to know we’re all human. My favourite memory of Arab Strap is of a Radio 1 show where Steve Lamacq did a Mr & Mrs trivia quiz on the two of them and Aidan revealed on air that Malcolm’s most outrageous and successful chat up line had been “can I cut your bra off with a knife?”’
Stewart Henderson, of the Strap’s label Chemikal Underground and formerly of The Delgados
‘Don’t Ask Me to Dance’ from The Last Romance
‘It’s one of their best live songs and it will always remind me of driving them around Scandinavia on their final tour. Aidan always sat up the front of the van and rolled the window down even though he had a jumper and a parka jacket on - it was fucking freezing. Selfish bastard.’
Johnny Lynch aka The Pictish Trail
‘Love Detective’ from The Red Thread
‘That song in particular, for me, encapsulates everything that is great about them - the lyrics are about Aidan reading through his girlfriend’s sex diary (“I had to stop reading it cause I started to feel sick”), and a rolling rhythm that makes you dance like a pervert. I like dancing like a pervert.’
Jon, of Jon’s Indie Disco
‘Screaming in the Trees’ from The Red Thread
‘Played during a warm summer evening in France at the La Route De Rock festival a couple of years ago; it was a perfect Arab Strap moment.
Noj, friend, tour DJ and atmosphere co-ordinator to Arab Strap
‘Chat in Amsterdam, Winter 2003’ from The Last Romance.
‘Aidan and I travelled to Amsterdam for a holiday and it was around the time that he had just met his future girlfriend. We went out for a few(!) beers and he was unsure whether to phone her. Eventually he saw the romantic side to calling her from abroad and I am glad to say they are still a very happy couple to this day. I didn’t know Aidan would write a song about that day but he did let me hear it once it was recorded and I felt very flattered to have been part of that whole situation . . . especially as it is done in the style of Ivor Cutler.’
Stuart McHugh, editor of Is This Music? and www.jockrock.org
‘Hey! Fever’ from Girls of Summer EP
'Hey! Fever’ is early evidence that the Strap weren’t always dour - a decidedly chipper tune that even ropes in Stuart and Chris from Belle and Sebastian for a big gospelly singalong.’
Tam Coyle, one-time Arab Strap manager
‘The First Big Weekend’ from The Weekend Never Starts Round Here
‘An obvious choice, but at the time, it simply blew me away every time I heard it - from the numerous radio plays to the Guinness advert. And we now have the bonus of great new music coming from Aidan [as Lucky Pierre] and Malcolm’s solo recordings . . . here’s to the next 10 years!’