Arab Strap in their own words: 20 Songs for 20 Years
Duo pick their favourite songs from upcoming compilation album
While Glasgow awaits the live return of Arab Strap to the live stage at the Barrowlands next month, the Falkirk-founded duo's old label Chemikal Underground are releasing a new compilation entitled Arab Strap: 20 Songs for 20 Years, featuring one disc of greatest hits and another of Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton's most-loved B-sides and rarities. Here, they each pick five of their favourite songs from the new collection for The List.
'The First Big Weekend', on The Week Never Starts Round Here LP (1996)
Aidan: I'm still not sure why 'First Big Weekend' worked the way it did. It was probably the least amount of work we put into our early recordings; as far as we were concerned, the first album was finished, but Chemikal Underground wanted to test the waters with a one-off 7". I didn't have any lyrics left so I just typed out what had happened at the weekend, went round to Malcolm's mum's house, ran through the song once in the morning, and it was recorded and mixed by the end of that day. I just thought it was a bit daft, a novelty record, but I think it caught on because it's an honest, unapologetic tribute to being young and having a good time. Hardly the most original theme for a song, but folk seemed to like it, and they still do. I've always hated that drum machine sound, but its shiteness is all part of the charm, I suppose.
'The Clearing', on The Week Never Starts Round Here LP (1996)
Malcolm: This has always been a favourite of mine since we recorded our first bunch of 4-track demos on Stuart the Postman's borrowed Tascam. It's the first song we did that made me take notice and realise that there was a third element to myself and Aidan's individual inputs. It's a really simple song but it creates an interesting tone, with a very sad wee solo at the end amid poignant feedback. That's all totally accidental.
'(Afternoon) Soaps', on the Philophobia LP (1998)
Aidan: 'Soaps' is on Philophobia, and it works on that album but I'm not a big fan of it. We needed another single from the album, so we went and gave it a complete overhaul and came up with this. It was the first time we worked with the producer Jason Famous, who ended up doing most of our more electronic stuff. We'd only ever recorded to analogue until then, and working digitally and using proper samples was a bit of an eye-opener. I really love this mix, although someone sent me a tweet quite recently to tell me it was shite. I don't think they realised it was me and Malcolm who remixed it! We made quite a fancy video for it too, directed by Ewan Morrison before he became an author, that had actual actors in it. The whole thing seemed like a bit of a turning point, at the time. It was the last single we released for Chemikal Underground . . . until we went crawling back two years later.
'Here We Go', on the Philophobia LP (1998)
Malcolm: I don't remember much about this one, but back then I was a terrible guitar player, so I'm not quite sure how I pulled this off. Mimicry sometimes leads to advancement. It's a song where the words and music fit perfectly and all run in the same direction, although we missed a trick by not putting a 'here we go, here we go, here we go!' chant in the middle.
'Cherubs', on the Elephant Shoe LP (1999)
Malcolm: We did a handful of songs with Jason Famous: 'Cherubs', 'Turbulence', 'One Four Seven One', '(Afternoon) Soaps' and 'The Shy Retirer'. He was always our main guy when we needed to use samples and more electronic elements. I think round about this time we also had a song with a massive James Bond sample, but then that awful Robbie Williams song came out so we ditched it. 'Cherubs' was supposed to be our first big hit from our major label album, we even had an expensive video and everything - with catering! It wasn't. But it's a lovely song. We've never played it live but will give it a go in October, possibly.
'Rocket, Take Your Turn', on the FUKD ID #2 EP (2000)
Aidan: I still don't really know why this wasn't on The Red Thread album, it's the best song we recorded for those sessions and the first time, I think, the guitars and dance sound actually came together. It all started with an 808 drum machine. CaVa studios had just picked one up, but it was broken and you couldn't program it properly, so I spent a whole day with Geoff Allan, our engineer for years, muting flying faders on the desk to get the structure. And this was recorded on tape too, which is a hassle I never want to go back to. When I was young, I bought into that analogue-is-best nonsense, but then I grew up and realised nobody actually cares. A good song's a good song however it was recorded. Real people aren't listening for the warmth and hiss of the tape, they want to be moved and entertained. Anyway, we've been rehearsing this one for the gigs and it's the highlight of the set for me.
'Blackness', on the FUKD ID #2 EP (2000)
Malcolm: As in Blackness Castle, near Bo'ness - not a degree of black, or old-school Scottish poverty. Along with 'Rocket, Take Your Turn' this was our first recording back at Chemikal after the major label expedition. It's a bit post-rocky and tries to go a bit Mogwai at the end, but it was always fun to play live. We have a demo version which is really nice and gentle and is probably better. We never really did 'loud' that well in the studio, apart from one unreleased song, 'Black Indie Metal', which hopefully we'll finish some day.
'To All a Good Night', single (2000)
Aidan: Booze, drugs, casual sex, and bodily fluids – the Christmas single, Arab Strap style! I've always had a lot of love for this wee song, and the story's still very vivid in my mind. It also has me doing a Stylophone solo, which might be my greatest musical moment on all of our records. You wouldn't believe how proud I was of that. And, of course, there's sleigh bells. Can't have a Christmas song without sleigh bells.
'We Know Where You Live', the B-side of 'Love Detective' (2001, video unavailable)
M: I think we always had the most fun in the studio when we started new songs from scratch by just messing around on guitar and drums together. Anti-jamming. Songs were written quickly this way, before any concern for structure could creep in. The recording here is probably the second or third run-through, it has a good dynamic and the lyrics are suitably bitter. They're about a guy we both knew from Falkirk.
'Where We've Left Our Love', on the Ten Years of Tears compilation (2006)
Aidan: Another song we bafflingly left off an album. This was recorded for The Last Romance and only turned up on the Japanese version, until we realized the error of our ways and put in our Ten Years of Tears goodbye record. I think it's lovely, and I've always really liked the words to this one, but I suppose it didn't fit in with the album. An album to me has to make sense as a coherent whole. Every album I've ever made has some kind of story running through it when you look for it, and sometimes that means dropping the best songs. And now that I've said that, I've just realised how daft it sounds.
The compilation Arab Strap: 20 Songs for 20 Years is out on Chemikal Underground on Fri 30 Sep. Their tour dates include the Barrowlands, Glasgow, Sat 15 and Sun 16 Oct.
Scottish rock duo (Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton) reunited for the group's 20th anniversary.