Arab Strap were an indie rock band from Scotland that consisted of core members Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton. The band were signed to independent record label Chemikal Underground, and split in 2006. As indicated by the title of Belle and 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 (who at the time recorded under the name Palace Brothers). They began collaborating in 1995, and their debut album, The Week Never Starts Round Here, was released the following year.
Over the course of their ten-year existence, Arab Strap worked with a number of musicians, including Jenny Reeve and Stacey Sievewright, as well as Adele Bethel and David Gow, who went on to form Sons and Daughters. Stuart Murdoch of Belle & Sebastian featured on the album Philophobia, but the Belle & Sebastian album/song “The Boy With the Arab Strap” would later create something of a feud between the two singers.
Arab Strap’s marked characteristics include sordid, personal, yet honest, lyrics – described by the NME as “fly on the duvet vignettes”. Like fellow Scottish band The Proclaimers, their lyrics are sung in their native Scots tongue. At first essentially an electro-acoustic band with a brooding, spare sound, later albums and gigs saw them develop a fuller sound that drew deeply on both indie and dance music.
Arab Strap’s first two albums, The Week Never Starts Around Here (1996) and Philophobia (1998), depicted the desperate decadence of post-Thatcherite Britain. The former album’s “The First Big Weekend”, a five-minute piece of drunken mayhem that end with a joyous singalong, “Went out for a weekend, lasted forever / Got high with our friends, it’s officially summer,” which was the chorus to “Hey!Fever,” one of the tracks on the EP The Girls of Summer. The 1999 live album, Mad for Sadness, demonstrated how the sometimes spare recorded sound of their early music could lift into a celebration of a sexually empty, drug- and alcohol-dependent life.
After these albums, Arab Strap’s music became much more musically polished, but continued to focus on drink, drugs, and existentially bereft versions of sexuality.
In keeping with the theme of sexual allusion (see arab strap (sexual device)), Moffat records as a solo artist under the name Lucky Pierre (later changed to L Pierre)– slang for the man in the middle of a gay threesome. This work is also characterised by a brooding, spare sound, but is instrumental in nature. Middleton also has a solo career under his own name, releasing two albums with Chemikal Underground and three more via Full Time Hobby Records.
On 9 September 2006, the band announced on their website that they were to split up. They celebrated the ten years since their first studio album with the release of a compilation record, Ten Years of Tears. They went on tour in Europe for the last time at the end of the year, and played their final show at the end of a secret tour of Japan at Shibuya O-Nest on 17 December 2006.
In a 2008 interview, Middleton stated: “It was a good time to call it a day. Unless there’s a definite need and desire for us to play, I don’t think we should ever get back together. We always said we would [collaborate again] when we split up, but I think maybe it’s still too soon. Maybe in a few years when we’ve got time, we’ll maybe try something for a laugh. Who knows?”
In December 2009, Monday at the Hug and Pint, The Red Thread and The Last Romance entered The Skinny’s “Scottish Albums of the Decade” list at #7, #12 and #25 respectively.
In April 2010, the Scenes of a Sexual Nature box-set was released, featuring early albums, live recordings, and a newly-recorded track.
In August 2011, Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton released a cover version of Slow Club’s new single, “Two Cousins”, under the name “Two Cousins 1999”. Moffat noted, “It’s not an Arab Strap performance as such, rather it’s the two guys who used to be Arab Strap recording their own, informed pastiche”.
And as regular readers know all too well, one of my all time favourite bands And I’m awfy fond of the post-band work from both of them. Thought long and hard about which single to feature and ended up going for one from the short period circa 1999-2000 when they left Chemikal Underground and signed for Go! Discs.