I have been party to a couple of pub conversations regarding Belle and Sebastian recently, and I still can’t quite understand why their song Jonathan David gets such a kicking. I think it’s one of their best singles, and part of a run of good form in 2000 and 2001 (good form on singles, anyway – the albums weren’t any cop).
This is a deeply unfashionable view among “true” B&S fans, of which I evidently am not one: to me this later run of singles is better than the first three EPs they released. I suspect this is because I came to them (ie the first three) somewhat after the event: hearing them in the context of the death throes of Britpop in the mid to late nineties must have been revelatory, but hearing them in the context of music that came subsequently, and that they influenced, makes them seem a bit less special. See also the first album by Suede: by the time I finally got round to picking it up, Britpop was long since dead and buried, and that record seemed like old hat, even though I can see the impact it must have had when it was released.
But that’s not what I wanted to talk about. Why do I have so much time for Jonathan David when everyone else thinks it’s rubbish? Perhaps because it’s a riff on one of my favourite themes: being a miserable sod, I’m a sucker for songs about unrequited love (as I mentioned in relation to a single by Cure-a-like Black Kids earlier in the year). For some reason, it seems to produce extremely satisfying songs.
Jonathan David does it really well: the protagonist sacrifices his own romantic happiness for the sake of that of the object of his desire, as well as that of his friend. It did take me quite a long time to twig that’s what the song’s about – maybe that’s why it doesn’t get the credit it deserves. On an identical theme is I’m Throwing Rice by Eddy Arnold, although I’m familiar with the Half Man Half Biscuit cover version: the protagonist not only lets his beloved slip away into the arms of his friend (though unlike the B&S song, it sounds like he at least managed to get it on with her at some point), but he is on-hand to congratulate them at the wedding. Ouch.
That Black Kids single and Joe Jackson’s Is She Really Going Out With Him both articulate the punch in the guts of seeing someone you love arm-in-arm with someone else, as does Percy Sledge’s seminal It Tears Me Up; but even more cruelly, John Hiatt’s She Loves The Jerk zooms into the future, as he laments that his beloved is stuck in a loveless marriage, knows she would be better off with him, but still won’t leave her husband. Again, I encountered this via a cover – this time by Elvis Costello, on the bonus disc to the reissue of Goodbye Cruel World; it’s a rendition that hints at the black tone he was striving for on that album, believe it or not. (He also covered It Tears Me Up at around the same time, though rather less successfully.)
Costello himself has provided one of the best examples of a slightly different take on the issue: in Still Too Soon To Know, his loved one has hooked up with another man and he is left asking whether their relationship can be saved. The criminally under-rated Paul Burch explored a similar theme in his song Tonight, Tonight – only this time, even crueller still, he sees the moment at which his beloved meets the gaze of “the one I’ll lose you to.” Frustratingly, the lyrics to that one don’t appear to be online anywhere.
So if you’re ever hoping to be given Now That’s What I Call A Depressing Compilation Tape 64, I’m your man. Alternatively, all of those songs are well worth tracking down as MP3s… just make sure you’re not in a good mood when you do so – you’ll spoil it, I guarantee.
EDIT: since I can’t find the lyrics to Tonight, Tonight online anywhere, I thought I might as well type them up from the inlay. It’s an interesting experience, actually: it has underlined what a bleak song it is, when the words are separated from the music (which is nonetheless excellent – if anything, it has such a pleasant tune it makes the words sound melancholy rather than devastating). So here they are: Tonight, Tonight by Paul Burch.
I saw the one I’m gonna lose you to
You and him [sic] were talking
And somehow I knew
Tonight, tonight I heard the bells ringing in the news
And it may not be tomorrow but
There’s nothing I can do
You tell me of your happiness
You hold your body to mine
And on my neck I feel your kiss
You tell me all you want is this
But I have seen tomorrow and
I know that you will too
It came in a look that only I would know
Like the first one from me to you
Tonight I saw the one I’m gonna lose you to.
I saw something I don’t want to see again
I have seen the future
What will be from what has been
I wish for a reason I should know
That I have to let you go
At the time I fall for you
Yes all my days are numbered
That I have left with you