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Arab Strap

Not particular favourites with their local council for apparently glorifying the town’s drugs and drink culture, sad-core Falkirk bairns Aidan Moffat (vocals) and Malcolm Middleton (guitar), courted controversy from the get-go. But for little over a decade, between 1995 and 2006, Brit-pop antitoxins ARAB STRAP became Central Scotland’s most revered (and at times reviled) examples of cult indie lo-fi.
Both Aidan and Malcolm had served their DIY apprenticeships in a number of Falkirk-based combos; the former with Dictaphone-in-a-bedroom band The Angry Buddhists. Suffering from the hangover-of-hangovers, Aidan gave up his long-standing day job at his local Sleeves Records retail outlet to team up (as drummer!) with songwriter Jason “JT” Taylor in his outfit BAY; two albums touched the surface in the mid-90s: `Happy Being Different’ and `Alison Rae’.
Aidan, meanwhile, was plotting his own breakaway group, ARAB STRAP (named after a device used for horse-breeding or better known to S&M/bondage stimuli), re-establishing a friendship with Malcolm, whose mutual passion for PALACE/WILL OLDHAM, SMOG and the Drag City label alumni, inspired their “fly on a duvet vignettes”; the rhythm section was completed by Gary Miller and David Gow.
The debut ARAB STRAP single, `The First Big Weekend’, was warmly received by the music press in September ’96; critics describing it as the inaugural “post-Trainspotting” record. Moffat’s rollercoaster drug/drink-fuelled life was represented in painful detail in a couple of the brogue-bleak narratives from the group’s parent debut album, THE WEEK NEVER STARTS ROUND HERE (1996) {*7}. Although not to everyone’s cup of char, the marmite man’s off-the-cuff, twisted sagas of “romantic” dalliances were squeezed between lo-fi mumblings of, on occasion, pure genius – several of these provided by their equally wasted pal, John Mauchline. Middleton’s guitar-plucking, meanwhile, came from the laid back school of cool, often played while literally lying in horizontal mode. The album was heralded by many (including Radio 1 icon, John Peel) as the next big thing in exotic sound. It also included seminal classics `The Clearing’, `Coming Down’, `I Work In A Saloon’, `Blood’, `Wasting’, `Gourmet’ and `Deeper’. Their live set (including an early sing-a-long-afternoon spot at Scotland’s “T In The Park”), was a mixture of apathy-in-concrete attitude with most people shouting for their first single favourite; the track was subsequently used as the backing (with an inherit coherent talker!) on the Guinness TV ad (yes, that one that says about 38 per cent of all strippers were educated in a convent!).
A year on, with word-of-mouth cult status ensured, ARAB STRAP finally achieved minor chart glory when `The Girls Of Summer’ EP dented the Top 75. Tracking a double-header tour with new drinking buddies MOGWAI, the bearded Moffat and his band delivered a surprise Top 50 entry, `Here We Go’ (a double A-side alongside `Trippy’), one of the many low-rent, x-rated semi-classics on their Top 40 follow-up PHILOPHOBIA (1998) (*8}; Matador Records would duly release this, and their debut set, in quick succession.
One (or two) things that instantly strikes one when one picks up the album, is the painting of a naked female on the front sleeve, while a birthday-suited Aidan, is, er… featured on the flipside! The shock effect continues via first line of the opening `Packs Of Three’ track: “It was the biggest cock you’d ever seen, but you’ve no idea where that cock had been”. Basically, as it suggests on the CD inlay: Middleton on most things musical, and Moffat on most things not, additional performances came by way of BELLE AND SEBASTIAN’s Stuart Murdoch (whom Aidan would fall out over the latter’s subsequent “The Boy With The Arab Strap” LP title), Sarah Martin and Chris Geddes on `Soaps’ (Gow and Miller, too), lyricist/co-singer Adele Bethel on the excellent `Afterwards’ and Cora Bissett on `I Would’ve Liked Me A Lot Last Night’. The MOGWAI-esque crescendo-like riffs were the highlight of 6-plus minute cue, `New Birds’, while Aidan plus reverbed tape-loop combined for `One Day, After School’; Alan Wylie’s trumpet on `The Night Before The Funeral’, was another that never disappointed the listener. Clocking in at well over an hour, the worthy set (aka “fear of love”) finds other acidic moments in `Piglet’, `My Favourite Muse’ and `Not Quite A Yes’.
Having signed up with Go! Beat Records early in ’99 (Jetset in the US), ARAB STRAP proceeded to deliver a slightly disappointing stop-gap limited-edition in-concert set MAD FOR SADNESS {*6}. Basically “Philophobia” – but live, the duo dutifully droned their way through each sweaty song, sometimes sexually honest to the point of being downright brutal.
Four months later, the `Cherubs’ EP made amends somewhat; the track was one of the highlights of their rush-released third studio album, the coming-of-age ELEPHANT SHOE (1999) {*8}. A deflected meaning (Scots-wise) for that well-known hard-to-say phrase, “I love you”, the set took an emotional step towards sentiment and yearning, rather than a warped “joy of sex” look at life. `One Four Seven One’ continued the trend, Moffat never more so beaten and languid when he utters the immortal line: “Shut the fuck up”, while sombre and funereal come to mind for others like `Leave The Day Free’, `The Drinking Eye’ and the “Fargo”-esque `Aries The Ram’ – but this was expected. On another level, the tempo and brightness shined through on `Hello Daylight’, `Direction Of Strong Man’ and `Tanned’, plus, it must be mentioned that both Bissett and Wylie again guested alongside MOGWAI newbie Barry Burns.
Following a wee break from band activities, ARAB STRAP returned on Chemikal Underground/Matador with their deeply poetic fourth outing THE RED THREAD (2001) {*8}. Themed, as ever, around sex and love and drinking in the central belt of Scotland, the duo refused to change their style of song structure. But with single `Love Detective’ harking back to ARAB STRAP’s earlier moments (thumping house beats, accompanied by Middleton’s sparse guitar playing) and closing track `Turbulence’ delivering a fine closure, if not conclusion, it was a wonder why this pair of talented musicians even strayed from their nest in the first place. Aidan and a plethora of other, mainly Scottish musicians/singers, got together in 2001 for one set, “Y’all Get Scared Now, Ya Hear” under the REINDEER SECTION banner.
September 2002 was certainly an eventful month for MOFFAT and MIDDLETON with the release of both solo projects: the former with the LUCKY PIERRE minimalist instrumental set, “Hypnogogia”, the latter with his solo effort, “5.14 Fluoxytine Seagull Alcohol John Nicotine” – the jury was certainly out on MOFFAT’s noodling.
The Falkirk duo returned in 2003 with possibly their most courageous and adventurous work to date, the effective MONDAY AT THE HUG & PINT {*8}. A gloomy affair in places, but uplifting in others, Aid and Malc added local jazzman BILL WELLS (and Americans BRIGHT EYES) to the mix, along with pipers, wind instruments and cellists to create an altogether alt-Celtic album (check out the beautiful chanter solo of `Loch Leven Intro’). Other highlights included the stinging revenge song, `Fucking Little Bastards’ in which Moffat rebuked his “fake friends”, the eerie slide-guitar driven `Peep-Peep’, which was just classic ‘Strap, and the fact that Aidan attempted to sing in tune, and pulled it off, added to its appeal. Mainly from ARAB STRAP’s B-sides or the attendant `The Shy Retirer EP’, cover versions came via `Is Your Love In Vain?’ (BOB DYLAN), `You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk’ (PET SHOP BOYS), `New Year’ (Sugababes), `Why Can’t This Be Love’ (VAN HALEN) and `You Shook Me All Night Long’ (AC/DC).
After a quiet 2004, the following year saw the release of two ‘Strap-related projects: MIDDLETON’s sophomore solo album, “Into The Woods” and – though it seemed hard to believe – ARAB STRAP’s 6th studio set, THE LAST ROMANCE (2005) {*7}. The latter didn’t mean that Aidan was the last romantic, although the brassy `There Is No Ending’ almost approached BELLE AND SEBASTIAN levels of carefree abandon. Diehard miserabilists take heart though; most of the rest of the album found the Moffat man slouching between “Trainspotting” monologue and closing-time poetry. Sadly, it marked the final chapter in ARAB STRAP’s pre-“50 Shades Of Grey” vignettes – 50? more like a 100. Both MIDDLETON (now as HUMAN DON’T BE ANGRY) and MOFFAT (as LUCKY PIERRE or L. PIERRE) continued to their respective places among the indie elite.
© MC Strong 1999-2006/GRD / rev-up MCS Mar2013

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