influences

Belle & Sebastian: A Treasure Hunt to Find the Influences Hidden in Their Music

Like Bowie in the seventies and the Smiths in the eighties, Belle & Sebastian have created a myth for themselves by celebrating those of other artists’, both famous and obscure. For nearly fifteen years, leader Stuart Murdoch and the band have used dozens of touchstones from the last half-century of pop culture as material for B&S’s music, lyrics, and image, and lifelong fans revel in spotting them. On the eve of their first album in four years, Belle and Sebastian Write About Love, out October 12, we’ve put together a scrapbook of some of the best B&S shout-outs, name-checks, and swoons. Of course, there’s no way to peg all of them, so please tell us what we missed in the comments (or save them for your diaries).

The band took their name from the late-sixties TV adaptation of French actress Cecile Aubry’s Belle Et Sebastien series, concerning the countryside adventures of a 6-year-old boy and his beloved, polar-bear-like Pyrenean mountain dog.
In early band photos, former member Isobel Campbell channeled the pale, close-cropped, big-eyed look of Godard’s doomed nouvelle vague heroine.
Campbell’s style was also influenced by the Altered Images singer and actress Claire Grogan, circa Gregory’s Girl.
“Piazza, New York Catcher,” off 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress, is an acoustic jaunt about a visit to the ballpark, which prompts a moment of pondering over rumors of the ex-Met great’s often-contested heterosexuality: “Piazza, New York catcher, are you straight or are you gay?”
The B&S 2001 B-side “The Loneliness of a Middle Distance Runne,” name-checks Tony Richardson’s British new-wave classic, which stars Tom Courtenay as a working-class teen who finds peace and meaning in cross-country racing.
The nineteenth-century French realist’s most famous painting (of a red fox contorted on a snow bank) inspired Belle & Sebastian’s greatest lament, “The Fox in the Snow,” a high point of their own masterpiece If You’re Feeling Sinister.
On “Le Pastie de la Bourgeoisie,” Are You There God It’s Me Margaret’s young-adult-fiction empress makes an appropriately scandalous appearance in the hands of the song’s bucktoothed heroine: “Reading Judy Blume, oh but you came too soon.”
The band’s glam-rock pastiche “The Blues Are Still Blue,” from 2006’s The Life Pursuit, name-checks this best-selling memoir from 1963 about Pastor David Wilkerson’s inspirational mission to the mean streets of New York City, where he turned a number of juvenile delinquents away from drugs and gangs and onto the Lord.
Belle & Sebastian’s narcotized piano ballad “Chick Factor” is a Velvet-like cruise through the casually vicious, downtown demimonde, and B&S’s sweet “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying” nods to the V.U.’s Mo Tucker–sung 1969 track, “After Hours.”
“And if they follow you, don’t look back,” Stuart Murdoch instructs in If Your Feeling Sinister’s track “Like Dylan in the Movies,” name-checking Bob Dylan’s classic placard-holding performance of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” from the D.A. Pennebaker documentary Don’t Look Back.
Stuart Murdoch’s vocal style often conjures the plagued British folk singer, but Belle & Sebastian’s 1997 release “Lazy Line Painter Jane” single and EP pay specific tribute to Drake’s own “Hazey Jane,” off Bryter Lyter.
Bleached, often-secondary colors, and black-and-white portraits of real emotional beauties: Belle & Sebastian’s album covers, from their debut Tigermilk up to their latest cover for Belle & Sebastian Write About Love owe much to the Morrissey-designed “sleeves” of the Smiths’ fetishized classic LP’s and singles.
On their 2006 “White Collar Boy” single, B&S included a (somewhat horrid) cover of a tune by another great romantic of Scottish descent, updating the Mod’s 1983 hit “Baby Jane.”
The rhythm and piano of “Seeing Other People,” off Sinister evokes the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s holiday standard “Linus and Lucy.”
In “Photo Jenny” on 1997’s Lazy Line Painter Jane EP, B&S rhyme “What’s on the box?” with “Paula Wilcox,” in tribute to the early-seventies British sitcom that inspired Three’s Company (Wilcox originated the “Janet” part).
Other inspirations often cited by the band include: The Zombies, the Go-Betweens, Felt, Scott Walker, Orange Juice, the Shop Assistants, the Buzzcocks, the Kinks, T. Rex, Roxy Music (name-checked in “Me and the Major”), the C 86 N.M.E. compilation, and the Left Banke (whose “Walk Away Renee” is referenced in live fave “Piazza New York Catcher”).
In B&S’s rock-snob Hallelujah “I Love My Car,” the band used the notoriously cranky and litigious Beach Boy Mike Love to emphasize the extent of their near-religious peace with all things: “I love my Carl, I love my Brian, my Dennis and my Al. I could even find it in my heart to love Mike Love.”
The influenced becomes the influence: Carey Mulligan’s Nick Hornby–penned debut An Education was tres Belle & Sebastian. Now she guests on the new album’s title track; a retro B&S (read: twee pop) bit of cubicle grumbling: “I hate my job. I’m working way too much … every day I’m stuck in an office!”
Belle & Sebastian: A Treasure Hunt to Find the Influences Hidden in Their Music