Before Arab Strap’s live comeback was confirmed, we asked some fans and musicians to share their own stories about the band
Arab Strap are one of the rare examples of a band whose reputation only seems to have grown since they called it a day.
Over the course of six albums, from The Week Never Starts Round Here in 1996 to The Last Romance in 2005, the duo of Aidan Moffat and Malcolm Middleton offered a unique perspective on small-town life; a much-needed, darkly funny and biting antidote to the last days of Britpop.
So last weekend, when people started to notice a website called arabstrap.scot with the message “Hello Again”, a wave of excitement swept across social media in Scotland, and beyond.
Update: Arab Strap confirmed their live reunion on Steve Lamacq’s BBC 6 Music show this evening.
They have announced three live dates so far:
13 Oct: Brixton Electric, London
14 Oct: O2 Ritz, Manchester
15 Oct: Barrowland, Glasgow
Tickets go on sale on Friday (17 June) at 9am.
They also unveiled a new version of ‘The First Big Weekend’, reworked by the talented producer and fellow Chemikal Underground artist Miaoux Miaoux.
Twenty years since the release of their landmark single ‘The First Big Weekend’, we asked some fans and fellow musicians for their personal take on the Falkirk duo.
‘No other band sounds anything like them’ – Alan Bissett
I grew up in Falkirk, as did Arab Strap. Aidan was at the same high school as me, two years above, but I didn’t really know him. He was a ‘mosher’ (as they were kent at the time), the kinda grungy, alternative kids who were few and far between in Falkirk, so they stood out. Also, Aidan worked in Sleeves, the local independent record shop, so I knew his face from there. Malcolm was also very recognisable about the toon cos he had long, curly, bright ginger hair. I do remember that Aidan and Malcolm were sort of idolised and followed round by this group of younger mosher girls, who I later realised provided most of the inspiration for songs on the first Arab Strap record, ‘The Week Never Starts Round Here’.
— Alan Bissett (@alanbissett) June 11, 2016
I came into their orbit when a high school mate of mine, Ewan Burnside, asked if I’d write some lyrics for the grunge band he was in, Pigtube, which featured Malcolm on bass. They liked the lyrics and invited me join their band as singer, but that sort of broke down when I asked why they couldn’t sound a bit more like INXS. It was never going to work, really.
Not long after that Malcom and Aidan formed Arab Strap and not long after THAT I published my first novel, Boyracers. We were all writing about Falkirk in our different ways, which is a rare thing, but I only reconnected with them at an Arab Strap gig in Brooklyn in 2005. Much to my surprise, New York hipsters loved them. They’re more popular in NYC than they are in Falkirk! We got chatting after the show about the old days and soon after Roddy Woomble paired Malcolm and I together for a song on the album Ballads of the Book, which was getting writers and musicians to collaborate. Our track ‘The Rebel on His Own Tonight’ worked out really well, but I’m not kidding myself that I was a better foil for Malcolm than Aidan.
I’ve got a lot of time for them, even beyond the Falkirk connection. They sang about life in a provincial town in their own accents, and there’s absolutely no other band that sounds anything like them – in Scotland or beyond. They blazed a singular and unique trail. They never compromised. Their solo efforts are fantastic too, but their reunion will hopefully remind Scotland of what we lost when they split up. The narrative of British indie rock in the Nineties is that it bloomed around the middle of the decade with Britpop but then faded towards the end. As everyone churned out their Oasis covers and Britpop segued into the blandness of Coldplay, Scotland was having a renaissance in the form of Arab Strap, Mogwai, Belle and Sebastian and The Delgados. It really was a golden age, and Aidan and Malcolm were central to that. And, of course, ‘The First Big Weekend of the Summer’ is one of the all-time great Scottish youth anthems. I love Arab Strap. Long may they run.
Alan Bissett is a novelist, playwright and performer, alanbissett.com
‘They sang what they saw’ – James Scott
I first heard Aidan Moffat sing aged 14, on the track “Whodunnit?” from the Reindeer Section album Son Of Evil Reindeer. I’d never heard a voice like that on record – drawling, barely in tune, unpolished, and perhaps even a little worse for wear. Aidan sang with an unrestrained Scottish accent, and the song seemed to be about me and every girl that I fancied at school. It was honest, hopelessly romantic, and completely self absorbed.
Fast forward four years, Arab Strap were on the verge of splitting up, and their charms had finally fully seduced me. But I couldn’t get a ticket to any of the shows, and I thought that was my chance gone. In the years that followed, I obsessed over their studio albums, live recordings, EPs and early demos, trying to fill in for that missed opportunity, with late night walks home soundtracked by the roaring guitars and beguiling atmospheres of live album Mad For Sadness.
— James Scott (@JMSSCT) June 14, 2016
Arab Strap taught me about honesty in music, integrity to your sound, and to your voice. While their tales could be debauched, they seemed true to Aidan and Malcolm’s lives, they sang what they saw, and there was no glamourising or dressing it up, which rang true with me as well. They were uncompromising with their sound, and created unpolished gems that required the listener’s full attention.
Since the countdown went up on the website at the weekend, I’ve been revisiting some of my favourite songs and stories of theirs. Perhaps I’ll finally get the chance to see them live, and while it might not quite be the same band I’ve waited for all these years, it will undoubtedly be well worth the wait.
James Scott is one half of CARBS. They play Solas Festival on July 18 and the Leith Late Afterparty on July 23, and are currently working on the follow-up to Joyous Material Failure, an album we featured last year. www.jamesescottmusic.com
‘This guy doesn’t give a f*** about your art installation’ – Ziggy Campbell
When I was a teenager I used to listen to loads of classic rock. That stopped when I discovered a throng of Scottish bands like The Vaselines, The Pastels, Belle & Sebastian and Arab Strap. I was 15 when I first heard The Week Never Starts Round Here. I used to always rewind ‘Kate Moss’ because I liked that improvised bit where Aidan says ‘I have to sing quite loud so it goes on to the f***ing tape’.
I went off to Uni in Aberdeen and the first gig I went to was Arab Strap. They were playing in a venue called The Works on Belmont Street and the show was a triumph. They played Aberdeen again the following year in the Lemon Tree, somewhat incongruously billed with Pyschonauts. It didn’t go well. They walked off and muttered to the hostile crowd that they’d never play Aberdeen again. In some ways I thought that gig was even more triumphant.
Years later I ended up collaborating with Aidan on a sound installation called #UNRAVEL. I remember trying to explain the concept of the installation to him on the phone, having never met him, and thinking to myself ‘this guy doesn’t give a f*** about your art installation’. Mercifully, he did give a f*** about the installation and #UNRAVEL worked out well.
Around the same time I met Malcolm on the Isle of Eigg and we had a discussion about classic rock. He was just getting into it. If I had a tape of The Week Never Starts Round Here I would have given him it.
I wonder if Arab Strap ever played Aberdeen again?
Ziggy Campbell is a member of the Edinburgh-based art collective and band FOUND. foundcollective.com
‘I was there. Well, not *there*’ – Stuart McHugh
It’s actually some of the other contributions here that got me re-appreciating Arab Strap. Specifically, I hadn’t realised how lucky I was to experience the band first hand, when others, born that bit too late, can only listen to their albums and watch (mainly) latter-period YouTube videos.
However, I was there. Well, not *there*, not as such. I somehow missed the band’s first ever show, and certainly wasn’t clambering over a playpark fence 20 years ago on The First Big Weekend. Although I was starting to write about music just when the band were starting to make it.
But after countless reviews and interviews and two covers features in is this music?, I decided that the magazine had run its course, just when the band made the same decision. “If we did do anything in the future, we wouldn’t call it Arab Strap,” Aidan offered as a parting shot.
Since then, the band have proven to be much more than the sum of their parts – Malcolm’s fine run of wry and accomplished solo releases, Aidan’s work with Bill Wells, his electronica under the L. Pierre moniker, and his exploration of the Scottish folk tradition in the Where You’re Meant To Be film.
But it is as Arab Strap that the two will be remembered and whatever comes next – a session, a run of gigs, or even new material – it will certainly be something I look forward to with feverish anticipation. Though not as much, I suspect, as by those who missed out first time round.
Stuart McHugh is a music journalist and founding editor of is this music? magazine. www.isthismusic.com