A few weeks ago a copy of the first ever biography of Belle And Sebastian landed on the FT doormat. The FT doormat gave it to me, and I decided that I would use my extensive contacts amongst reformed members of the feared Sinister ‘massive’ to pick a reviewer. Alix Campbell, who has followed the band since their first record, stepped up to the plate and this is what she thought of it…

Belle And Sebastian: This Is Just A Modern Rock Story by Paul Whitelaw

I’ve spent some of the last few weeks trying to find something nice to say about this book, and so far all I’ve been able to come up with is praise for the detailed appendices. I will, somewhat unwillingly, admit that Whitelaw has succeeded in giving a comprehensive account of Belle and Sebastian’s career to date. I had supposed, that as a fan of many years, I would probably enjoy any book about the band I love, but after the novelty wore off I started to get irritated and annoyed by the style, the content and the attitude of the author.

Whitelaw spends a lot of the book trying to convince us that B&S are not twee. I agree that twee is not the best word to describe them, but it’s probably the easiest one to use, and B&S are pretty damn twee at times. Whitelaw doesn’t want anyone to think this about them though. He’s mean about the fans, and blames them for the fact that the everyone thinks B&S are twee, failing to acknowledge that B&S are largely responsible for this state of affairs by dint of writing sweet and sensitive songs, and failing to do very much press or touring. Whitelaw seems unwilling to concede that B&S were ever twee, but with his approval of their more recent, less twee work, there is an unspoken inference that the earlier stuff was twee.

The numerous interviews with B&S are enjoyable and one of the best things about the book, but Whitelaw tends to be uncritical of the band, preferring instead to acquiesce with their opinions (although, as usual Isobel is treated with some scorn). Earlier B&S records were less well produced than later records and the band point this out on a few occasions, and the author agrees with them each time. By doing this I think Whitelaw fails to understand something about B&S records and why people liked them so intensely in the beginning – it was the music and the song writing, rather than the production that was important, and that lent the records their charm. There’s nothing wrong with good production, but it isn’t the most important aspect of music. Whitelaw is all to keen to throw the baby out with the bath water, and this does B&S a disservice. Poor production does not equal poor songs.

It seems like Whitelaw didn’t much like B&S until quite recently, despite having been familiar with them since early on. He is clearly much happier now that they’ve sloughed off the quieter members (Isobel, Stuart David) and gained rockier members (Belfast Bob). It’s almost as if he views the first few years as an annoying gestation period, which he’s glad they’re over, so they can now be the professionally produced Thin Lizzy worshipping rock band they were meant to be all along. I think the book would have benefited from more discussion of the music itself, and some thought about what it is about B&S and their songs that appeals to their followers. Although Whitelaw might not approve of the fans occasionally obsessive tendencies, surely there’s something interesting about the various fan communities that have sprung up in B&S wake? By dismissing some of the fans he is probably insulting a large percentage of his readership, which is just plain rude.

Too much in this book the author is trying to mould our perception of B&S into the shape he thinks it should be, omitting details he thinks aren’t interesting when it suits him. I would prefer that he just documented things and let us make our own minds up. Although I did enjoy reading this, it was mainly due to the contributions from the band. Whitelaw’s treatment of their history is patchy and uneven in its emphasis, and his discussion of their songs is similarly unreliable and deeply subjective. There is no way I would consider this to be a definitive biography of B&S, and it annoys me that there is a chance that it will be seen as such by some people.