8. Star – Belly When: 1993
It began, as befits a great love story, on Valentine’s Day 1993. Unlikely as it seems, it began in Leicester.
She brought her mates. I turned up alone. She was cool, confident, talented and sassy. I was growing out a haircut gone bad. She was from Boston, Mass. I was from Bristol, Avon. It probably wasn’t meant to be…
She was Tanya Donelly, her mates were her band, Belly, and whilst I might have wished it otherwise our romance never progressed beyond adulation from afar. There are certain bands, certain singers, that you just get a little territorial about – that you claim as your own and stick with regardless. There are just some bands and some singers that you just feel like you get. In this case, as is often the case, timing played its part.
In 1993 I was in my second year at University – or sophomore year at college, if you will, given we’re discussing a band synonymous with college radio in the early 90s. Not that college radio was something that we had in Leicester, not, you know, being actually in America. It was just something that seemed mildly exotic if you spent that time listening to Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr., The Pixies, Throwing Muses, Buffalo Tom and Mudhoney. I digress. Second year, very single, going to gigs on my own… You get the picture ? Yes, we see. It’s not too difficult to imagine that a young man in such circumstances, melodramatic impulses twitching out of control (it was Valentines Day, stick with me) could be receptive to one of those epiphanous moments that music sometimes delivers. And I use the word epiphanous advisedly. If not correctly.
It was also one of those relatively rare occasions when I saw a band promote an album that I hadn’t yet bought – relatively rare now in days of more money than sense, streaming, and Youtube. More common then when the opportunity cost of a record was a night out. Believe me, I sometimes look at that Faith No More live album and wonder at the fun I could have had: it was a double, that’s practically an all-dayer. The upshot of this rudimentary economics diversion was that Belly played a set of unknown (to me) songs and there’s just something more arresting about falling in love with a band in person than on record.
So, worlds turned, the planets aligned, Belly take the stage, and for an hour or so time stands still. I won’t pretend that I can recount the intimate details of that performance, it was too long ago, but, even now, fragments linger. A vulnerable take on “Untogether”, performed by Donelly alone, a joyous, exhilarating rush through “Slow Dog”, and a soaring, spine-tingling, heart-bursting-out-of-your-chest climax of “Stay”. Those were the three clinchers. I’d heard the singles (“Feed The Tree”, “Gepetto”) but it was these album tracks that turned what might have been a fling into a love affair.
“Star” was released in 1993 in the period following Nirvana’s break through in ’91, breaking down the door that Pixies, Sonic Youth, and others had pushed ajar. I guess it would be filed under “alternative”, that entirely unsatisfactory genre definition – alternative to what ? It is certainly different. Beguilingly so.
The album opens with “Someone To Die For”, its chiming, circular guitar figure like a music box slowly rotating, opening its secrets. Slightly eerie, a little sinister. Donelly’s voice floats in, slight reverb lending it a dream like quality; now it feels (and much of the album feels) like that curious state between sleep and waking. There’s a nagging voice here, gently questioning:
Poor thing, poor thing… do you have a sister ?
Would you lay your body down on the tracks for her ?
It’s all a little creepy, somewhat menacing; there’s some unknown danger, threat here which can’t quite be seen. It sets the tone for the rest of the record. I’d like to wake up now.
The sleeping / dreaming theme recurs throughout. Second song, “Angel”, bluntly asserts “I’ve had bad dreams, so bad I threw my pillows away”. It’s a record of the subconscious, images that bubble up in dreams, suggestions of themes – loss, death, nature, childhood – conveyed in fragments, the whole picture never quite revealed.
The menace never leaves: “Witch”’s “you’re not safe, in this house”, “that kid from the bad home came over to my house again, decapitated all my dolls” from “Gepetto”, “see this child twice stolen from me” from “Full Moon, Empty Heart”, “somewhere to scrape your body off my feet” from “White Belly”. It’s twisted and dark, fairy tale nightmares given voice, an exposure of those veiled, dusty recesses of the mind.
The irony is that these dark songs are wrapped in the sweetest melodies and, in some cases, are gloriously catchy. Listen to “Gepetto”, you will be singing along by the end, cheerfully bellowing “decapitated all my dolls” on second listen before then realizing what you’re singing. It tricks you this record. Breezily dances around you, pulling you in, before revealing the trouble in its heart. It’s like a spell. It’s the apple offered to Snow White, the vial marked “drink me” that tempts Alice – take a sip and it will take you somewhere you haven’t been before, somewhere magical, somewhere that’s not quite here. Not everything there is quite as it should be.
The trick works so well that it produced a hit. “Feed The Tree” just broke the Billboard Hot 100, scraped the Top 40 in the UK, and was a staple of MTV. Not bad for a song about commitment and respect told via the metaphor of gathering around the tree at which family members would be buried. It’s an unusual hit but, like “Gepetto”, offers a carefree sing-along if that’s all that you want from it. It also probably would have been the more obvious choice as one of the 42 but I think the album works more effectively as a complete piece, rather than picking out an individual song. It’s a record that I can happily play start to finish and think it works more effectively like that, the recurrence of images and overall mode slowly seeping in. Its follow up, “King”, suffers in comparison by being less coherent. It’s a fine collection of songs (“Seal My Fate” might even be my favourite Belly song) but, to me, lacks the cohesion of “Star”.
So, why lead the piece with that line from “Untogether” ? I’m not sure I fully understand “Star” but I’m not sure that the point is to understand it. It gets under your skin, my unconscious recognizes some of what it’s trying to say even if I can’t consciously process it and pick it apart. It came at a time, the first time really, in my life when I had lost certainty; there was a version of me that I might become and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to. It wasn’t the first (or last) time in my life that some people didn’t like me but it was the first time that their reasons for it bothered me. Too sharp, too self assured, too quick to pick an easy laugh regardless of the impact or victim. I guess it was a lack of confidence masquerading as confidence, sarcasm masquerading as wit. Whatever it was it wasn’t something that I was altogether comfortable with and so began the slow process of unpicking and rebuilding. On some level an ongoing attempt to “change the unchangeably untogether”. The resonance of this record is specifically that it deals below the conscious, gives voice to worry and anxiety in an indirect way, attaches stories and images to feelings that can’t quite be articulated in a straightforward way. I very much doubt that I was even aware that it was worming its way into my head, giving safe outlet to parts of myself that I wasn’t sure how to reconcile, but I suspect that’s exactly what it was doing. It spoke to me and still does.
I saw a lot of bands in ’92 and ’93. Saw a lot of bands on my own. It wasn’t something that I thought then concerned me but despite having a wide circle of friends, there is a slight sense of loneliness that I associate with that time. It might be too trite to describe music as the constant, as my companion through that time in my life (through most times in my life) but there is something of truth in it.
Star became one of my favourite records that year and its twisted, fractured pop sound-tracked the rest of that twisted, fractured year. For that night in the Union Hall though, all of that was remote, temporarily forgotten. Falling in love, even if it’s with a band, is about possibilities, about being at peace in the moment and, on a winter’s night in the East Midlands, the possibilities were endless and I was at peace.