The distinct identity of Arab Strap, as an instrumental and lyrical unit, was matched by the visual aspect. By this, I don’t mean the everyman air of Middleton and Moffat, but the imagery with which they chose to adorn album and single sleeves across their career. Like their music, the artwork of Arab Strap walks a sure-footed tightrope of casual appearance to deliberate effect.
We’ll return to the first single “The First Big Weekend”, and start with the pastel cover drawing on 1996’s The Week Never Starts Around Here by Moffat’s brother, Gavin. It’s perhaps a view of the Isle of Arran but to make sure things don’t get too bucolic a crude boat has been drawn in. That mix of beauty and irreverence looks like Arab Strap’s entire career.
On the inside of The Week Never Starts Around Here was a mildly voyeuristic shot of a girl taken over someone’s shoulder — faces cut off. The inlay credits Laura Liddell for ‘hedgehog’ which I assume refers to this image. It’s the tentative start of the dominant Philophobia-era approach: making Falkirk’s teenagers into public artwork to be sent around the world.
“The Girls of Summer” EP (1997) got things into full swing with the aforementioned Laura Liddell on the cover relaxing in ‘Gareth’s back garden.’ There are also shots of Arlene Campbell and Anne-Marie McGregor at a table ‘in Soho’, then Morag Campbell is immortalized partying at Pennies, a now-closed Falkirk bar which hosted a club night called The Engine Room.
On three further singles the private photo album expanded. “The Smell Of Outdoor Cooking” (1997) rendered an unnamed friend as the star. On the cover, Middleton looks cheerful but it’s impossible not to focus on the wide-eyed fella with the pint on his head. On the back, the same bloke gives a determined two thumbs up while Moffat looks like he’s still working it out. The blank walls, the coat-hooks, it’s hard to tell if it’s a private home, a school, a bar. This was followed by “(Afternoon) Soaps” (1998) which featured headshots of two girls, while “Here We Go” (1998) went with Middleton in a fond embrace next to a ‘break glass’ fire alarm.
This aesthetic wrapped up on two releases in 1999. The best-known is live LP, Mad For Sadness, featuring Adele Bethel and Alidh Lennon applying their makeup. The Japan-only Singles compilation is rare in that Moffat and Middleton appear in solo portraits…Except they still refuse to play it straight. The cover is Malcolm in a rubber wolfman mask in front of a Grease poster, the back is Aidan with his face wrapped in Sellotape in a check-floored kitchen.
These seven releases possess numerous shared traits. First, Moffat and Middleton shy away from the camera, either ensuring someone else is the centre of attention, focusing on friends and girlfriends, or refusing normal popstar portraiture (it’s also food for thought that the one release with portrait shots only came out in Japan). The context for these images hints at an endless party in down-at-heel venues or people’s homes.
Looked at in retrospect, these photos are artifacts that don’t exist in our current age where cameras are everywhere and reshoots are both free and instantaneous. It’s a gallery that’s also thoroughly committed to things off-centre, people awkwardly positioned, random background details — exactly the kinds of things that would get them deleted in 2021.