Arab Strap: unlikely to ever win a Nobel Prize, but still brilliant

Niall McCann


Niall McCann


Arab Strap: unlikely to ever win a Nobel Prize, but still brilliant

Literary types the world over have always held the so called "lower" arts such as pop music in something approaching contempt; song lyrics, they have no trouble telling us are not poetry and they never can be.

Someone should have reminded the Nobel Prize for literature committee this before they handed this year’s award to that master of song lyrics and song writing Bob Dylan, for amongst the increasingly bonkers world news which we are spoon fed every day, presumably to help keep us tired confused and unhappy, came the truly wonderful and deserved news that the former Mr Zimmerman had been awarded the coveted Nobel Prize for literature.

Personally it is hard to think of anyone who deserves it more.

It didn't take long however for the knives to come out and the familiar tut-tutting of those who know best could be heard echoing around the echo chamber that is social media and beyond.

Everyone from Irvine Welsh to Roddy Doyle amongst many more have had their tuppence worth, while thankfully most of the Irish writers I have heard asked to vouch their opinion have received the news warmly and without bruised egos.

For that is arguably what all this points to, some people are troubled by this award because it threatens them, it threatens their preconceived notions and the art form they love by associating it with something as lowbrow as simple songs.

This is of course ignoring the fact that songs and poetry have been entwined for as long as the two have existed and are in many ways the one and same thing.

From Shakespeare to Yeats, from Burns to Ginsberg, songs have been central to the very core of poetry. One is reminded of the lyrics to one of Dylan's most brilliant songs: The Times They Are a Changing when one considers the naysayers and dissenters.

"Come writers and critics

Who prophesize with your pen

And keep your eyes wide

The chance won't come again

And don't speak too soon

For the wheel's still in spin

And there's no telling who that it's naming

For the loser now will be later to win

Cause the times they are a-changing."

Perhaps what some are forgetting is that first and foremost the body of work Dylan has produced over his life represents one of the richest produced in the 20th/21st centuries.

This is a man who has inspired so many other great artists and will continue to do so.

Great art is great art whether it be on a screen, a canvas or some prose and great writing is great writing, even if you can sing it to a tune.

From one of the greatest songwriters and lyricists ever to another; the last few days allowed me to knock another must see live band off my indie bucket list when I was lucky enough to attend the 20th Anniversary gigs of Arab Strap one of my favourite bands ever in the glorious Barrowlands Ballrooms in my favourite city, Glasgow.

Arab Strap are a Scottish indie rock band whose core members are Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton. The band were signed to independent record label Chemikal Underground in the mid 1990’s, and split in 2006.

As indicated by the title of Belle & Sebastian's third record, The Boy with the Arab Strap, and by Aidan Moffat's involvement in the two Reindeer Section albums, they were a central part of Glasgow's influential late 1990s music scene.

Vocalist Aidan Moffat and multi-instrumentalist Malcolm Middleton grew up in Falkirk, and bonded over their mutual love for Drag City recording artists such as Smog and Will Oldham.

They began collaborating in 1995, fusing these influences with a distinctly Scottish, painfully honest dissection of all things chemical, sexual and relationship related.

Their debut album, The Week Never Starts Round Here, was released the following year to unanimous critical praise and Guinness even picked up their hit song The First Big Weekend of the Summer for an advertisement, though they famously got a nicely spoken English man to pronounce all the words correctly.

Over the course of their ten-year existence, Arab Strap would release six albums proper, along with numerous compilations and singles. Noted for Moffat’s distinctive Scottish vocals, gritty yet comic social realism and the varying uses of different musical styles, from dance to post rock, disco to folk, Arab Strap are rightly regarded as one of the seminal and important bands to have emerged from Scotland in the last few decades and Saturday night's triumphant reformation gig was as emotional as it was electrifying.

Playing songs from all their records and included audience requests in their encore, the two Falkirkians were joined on stage with a full band, trumpets and violin players included, as they infused their back catalogue with an intense sense of vitality.

Indeed, these songs, the words, the music, the humour and the performances if anything sounds more vital now than it did do first time around.

The concert is a reminder of just how great a band Arab Strap actually were and how much of a shame it is that this will not lead to a full reformation complete with new recordings. Thankfully Moffat and Middleton still perform as solo artists and I’m sure will grace us with the live incarnation of the Strap someday once more, as one of the last songs they play to the sold out Tennents full crowd in the Barras, There Is No Ending has it:

“Not everything must end

Not every romance must descend

Not every lover's pact decays

Not every sad mistake replays”

By the time they leave the stage tonight the audience knows it has been treated to something special and what we just witnessed took on almost biblical importance to the surprisingly gender balanced crowd.

They may not ever get awarded a Nobel prize but you’d be hard pressed to find bigger stars in the world tonight than the ones on stage in Glasgow tonight.

20 songs for 20 years by Arab Strap is out now on Chemikal Underground and is highly recommended.