Posted by: ben | March 21, 2009

focus: belle and sebastian – fans only

Fans Only Header
Occasionally, Ben or Dan will write a review of an artist, album, event, or another music-related subject. In this edition: Belle and Sebastian’s quirky DVD-only release, Fans Only.

Ben: Four or five years ago, it became pretty common for bands to release DVDs. The relative lack of concert videos coupled with the cheap production and distribution of the discs, normally tied in to a full-paying concert, meant that these releases were a great way to make some quick money. There are so many half-hearted efforts kicking about which you can pick up in Fopp for a few quid, though you’d be reluctant to do so for fear that you’d get another awkward concert piece focusing largely on whichever album was being promoted when the disc was recorded.

Occasionally – very occasionally! – a band produced a real gem of a disc. Belle and Sebastian’s 2003 release Fans Only is, without doubt, the textbook example of how bands should go about it.

Ironically, most bands wouldn’t be able to put something as good as this together. Belle & Sebastian, if you are unaware, started small, remained small, spiked in popularity when their third album The Boy With the Arab Strap won them the Best Newcomer award at the Brits, then coasted along at that level of success. They’re a group of vaguely arty, vaguely introverted, vaguely literate kids, the kind you always see hanging around libraries and university campuses, usually armed with a notebook and sometimes a camera. As a result, there’s a lot of scratchy little cinefilm and Super8 from their very early days – not quite from formation, but certainly from when they began to take the band as a serious proposition.

Fans Only is a roughly edited highlights collection of notable footage. As the title suggests, it is not something for the average viewer – it is full of pseudo music videos, little snippets of the band in various backrooms and studios, media reports and, joyously, lots of photo montages. The disc begins with a dizzying photo assault, throwing three or four images a second at an addled viewer whilst playing Scooby Driver from 2001’s Storytelling album.

It’s a brilliant opening, not only informing the viewer that this really is for fans only but also reflecting the sheer volume of material open to Blair Young, the film’s compiler. In a press release issued at the time of release, he noted:

I was approached by the band to compile the DVD about a year and a half ago. There was some concern that, however charismatic they are, the earlier videos may be a little testing when you watch them all in a row. So we set about digging around for material, and considering the band had a reputation for being “media shy”, found ourselves with around 50 hours worth of footage. We wanted it to summarise that era, but at the same time show the band in a slightly different light.

What we tried to do with the DVD was make something completely watchable from start to finish; it didn’t have to make sense, and it didn’t have to be strictly chronological. It was more important that it was good to watch, and although the technology of the DVD encourages random access, we wanted it to be like a film, where you get more from watching the whole, rather than just the parts. Its a bit like making a good compilation tape for a friend – you lay the thing out in an appropriate order, maybe throw in a few little samples from films, and try and make your friend want to make a compilation tape too. But as much as possible, you try to let them hear stuff they’ve never heard before, or notice songs they didn’t like previously.

Although the DVD does feel cohesive, Young effectively shows the band in two different eras.

The first half of the disc shows Belle & Sebastian as a young, carefree band making lovely little montage videos with next to no budget up in Glasgow. This is the bit that most fans will really love – as well as the long-hidden videos for Dog on Wheels, Lazy Line Painter Jane and the like, there’s lots of footage of the band looking as awkward and tongue-tied as the characters in their songs, impatiently performing soundchecks and waiting for gigs to start.

From an early video shoot

I Could Be Dreaming

The unquestionable highlight of the first half of the disc is a section from the STV programme Don’t Look Down in which the band all introduce themselves with little movies. Isobel goes to the park and walks her dog; Stuart David sits in Central Station drawing and writing in a cafe; Richard cooks badly in his flat above a church hall. It’s so intimate and cute, the sort of thing other bands simply would not ever have done. There’s something so smile-enducing in hearing Stuart Murdoch talking about his happiness in riding buses that’s completely undefinable. It’s the sort of intimate little moment that other artists would never, ever share. After their little home movies, the band then perform I Could Be Dreaming in the most carefree, relaxed way possible, playing with handpuppets, dressed up as school kids, dancing without any sort of form or structure and surrounded by pseudo laboratory equipment.

Were this made by any other band, it would seem forced in order to portray a certain image. Here, though, you feel that this really is the band. It’s how they are. The preceding intimacy followed by this wholly innocent video for a song about fighting over a woman is utterly endearing.

After a few videos in a similar vein, Young has the masterstroke of splitting the entry for Dylan in the Movies in two. It starts off as Isobel’s wonky homemade video, based largely her rescued guide dog, before seguing into the band’s performance of the same song on Live at 54th Street a few years later. It cleverly shows how the band are still this tiny little unit whilst under the attention of a much wider audience, reinforced later by videos of live performances where they’re quite chatty to the audience and apologise when things go a little awry.

The middle of the film is based on the sessions around the time of Fold Your Hands being recorded. As well as the inevitable Brits footage, there’s a local news report with an extremely shy Sarah and Beans and, brilliantly, a little ten minute band-made documentary, made seemingly to try and get the band some exposure. Beans mentions that they’re selling albums but they’ve been told that they probably won’t get much of a wider audience doing what they’re doing, giving the impression that the bigwigs at Jeepster have told them that they must make something they can give to press types, or else. The resultant film is another dreamy montage of them talking about furniture, discussing things, hitting a few drums and, for thirty seconds or so, playing The Model. It’s fairly clear why their label never sent it out – it’s a little too honest, twee, and unglamorous, even by their standards.

A great live version of The Boy With The Arab Strap

A great live version of The Boy With The Arab Strap

Once Young moves beyond these little Glasgow films, he tries to avoid well-trodden territory. Yes, the Top of the Pops performance is there but it’s tucked away as a hidden bonus. Otherwise, the footage is largely obtained from when the band started touring extensively. There’s a wonderful version of The Boy with the Arab Strap performed at Coachella, filmed as the sun began to fall and whilst the band were obviously really enjoying themselves. People on the sides of the stage dance, Murdoch ad-libs lyrics about the other artists on the bill and Stevie improvises a wondrous blissed-out guitar solo ending.

The other highlight, and one of the few things which Young has included in its entirety, is an appearance by the band on a Brazilian chat show. As well as the obligatory performance there’s an utterly surreal interview by the show’s host that focuses on:

  • how big the band is
  • how Beans is less of a man because he is a vegetarian
  • how big the band is.

The band (ever realised how big they are?) are clearly utterly bewildered by the whole process. Though Stevie gallantly improvises a quick round of A Minha Menina, the other band members spend pretty much the whole time trying not to laugh themselves stupid.

~~~

It’s such a varied film and so difficult not to love. Young wanted to make something watchable from start to finish and he succeeds wildly, managing to tell the story of the band without narration with with just a few three or four sentence interviewed comments from each band member scattered throughout. There’s no narration and no proper narrative yet this really isn’t a video compilation or a highlights package – it is something to be watched and savoured from start to end. It exudes a love, not just for ‘the business’ but for music itself. It makes you want to pick up the dusty acoustic guitar in the corner and strum idly, much as the band seem to, and bathe in the same warmth.

Fans Only is not necessarily just that. It’s something which anyone with a genuine love for music should watch and enjoy. If you don’t end the disc with a smile on your face, you have no soul at all.

Ensemble

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Responses

  1. I’ve been looking for this DVD in the shops for ages but haven’t found it and now you’re basically forcing me to buy it online. That’s what my story is, and I’m sticking to it.

    And now I’ve put Tigermilk on.

    • Hooray! Tigermilk is my favourite album ever, Belle and Sebastian are my favourite band ever, and theFans Only DVD is sheer joy from start to finish.

    • I could gain indie kudos by saying that I bought my copy for £7.99 secondhand in Glasgow’s ultra-tree Monorail. In fact, I shall!

      If you have the funds, you’d be crazy not to buy it. It brings such joy.

      • Can I gain indie kudos by saying that I had it first and let you borrow it?

        • Yes, you may.

  2. May I say I still want to see the video for Dog on Wheels!!!!


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