Saint Etienne

TrackAlbum / Single
Nothing Can Stop UsFoxbase Alpha
Carnt SleepFoxbase Alpha
Like The SwallowFoxbase Alpha
Join Our ClubHeavenly Records HVN15
Hobart PavingSo Tough
AvenueSo Tough
ActionFinisterre
AmateurFinisterre
Lightning Strikes TwiceTales From Turnpike House
Over The BorderWords and Music by Saint Etienne

spotify-logo-primary-horizontal-dark-background-rgb-sm

 

Contributor: Craig Austin

I came of age in a post-industrial South Wales town that for a host of sound reasons had little time for either pomp or delicacy. At the dawn of the 90s its pop cultural roots remained deeply embedded in the post-punk hardcore scene of America’s industrial mid-West, and upon the global explosion of grunge it had clung doggedly to its grubby cheesecloth shirt-tails as if it were the Turin shroud. Yet one night, from this club-scene Catherine wheel of hair, sweat and denim, emerged an immaculate blossom of confidence and possibility, a thrilling vinyl jolt of urban futurism that rendered everything around it immediately redundant. A sound so utterly in the moment that even its introduction was pitch-perfect: and now ladies and gentlemen as the sampled dialogue of its 70s cabaret club compere would have it, what you’ve been waiting for

I’ve never felt so good / I’ve never felt so strong / Nothing can stop us now

Saint Etienne was not the reason I moved to London – though much like the band’s suburban-dwelling members Bob Stanley, Pete Wiggs and Sarah Cracknell, I had fetishised and been captivated by the city from an early age – but it was almost certainly the driving force behind when I chose to do so. Here was a band not just in love with a city, but an age – the present, and (at that point) the not too distant past. Or to quote one of the band’s fellow travellers, Lawrence of Denim, in his gleefully petulant ’92 glam-rock stomper I’m Against The 80s: Well I’m for the ’70s / Oh, and for the ’90s too. Yet from the permanently obscured vantage point of 2015 it’s easy to forget what a key role Saint Etienne ultimately played in rehabilitating the image of the much-maligned 1970s, a decade whose defining qualities had long since been consigned to a skip that was at the very same time being rifled through by the emerging pop urchins of Pulp, Suede, and The Auteurs (a band who sought to gleefully explore the decade’s darker, more unsavoury recesses). Saint Etienne meanwhile delved deep into their own childhoods (both real, and reimagined), a world of dystopian TV, Kicker boots, and the Children’s Film Foundation, and fused it seamlessly to both the present, and an unrealised idealistic future, via a sublime melange of electronica and Northern Soul. This embryonic period of (e)cstacy and creativity was ultimately captured in what I will forever argue remains the greatest pop album of the 1990s, the spectacular and inspirational Foxbase Alpha. A record that encapsulates the then nascent Britpop zeitgeist in a thrilling individual package of communal celebration and shared discovery, and one that will forever shame the clumsy efforts of the lumbering, oafish sorts who would later stumble into the band’s glittering pop slipstream and get it all so spectacularly wrong.

This is an album in love. In love with The Barbican, in love with The New Piccadilly café, and in love with a decade still in its wide-eyed infancy, one that had eagerly shed its lizard-like 1980s skin to emerge both renewed and reinvigorated. Most importantly perhaps, and especially given the rag-bag of grubby nationalistic hubris that followed in its wake, it’s an album that eulogises London (and notably, its less-celebrated suburbs) whilst at the same time acknowledging its relatively tiny place in the wider scheme of things; an ethos best captured in the mantra-like global travel sequence of Girl VII as Cracknell’s breathy Bond-girl vocals reveal an unlikely travelogue of suburbia and exoticism: Primrose Hill, Staten Island, Chalk Farm, Massif Central, Gospel Oak, Sao Paolo, Boston Manor, Costa Rica, Arnos Grove, San Clemente, Tufnell Park, Gracetown, York Way

Foxbase Alpha, much like the kids who took it to their hearts, remains the album that wilfully refuses to know its place. Having since been revisited in its entirety by Saint Etienne within a live setting it was remixed, or perhaps more appropriately, reimagined, eighteen years on via producer Richard X’s splendid Foxbase Beta. A standalone album in its own right rather than the cutesy fan curio it could easily have become it’s worth seeking out for those either in love with, or even completely unaware of, its source material. 1991 gem She’s The One in particular is completely reinvigorated by the introduction of a relentless electro-Northern core, while the addition of a children’s choir to the pulsating, heart-stopping Like The Swallow only accentuates the ethereal majesty of its original incarnation.

Fast-forward a couple of decades, to a different time, and a radically different city. The kids have become the adults, some even becoming parents themselves, yet adult life has done little to diminish either Saint Etienne’s core belief in the redemptive liberating power of pop music, or the band’s fastidious quality control over its own artistic output. Over The Border, the first song on Saint Etienne’s most recent album, Words and Music by Saint Etienne is one of the finest in its creative canon. Its opening line, When I was 10 I wanted to travel the world, invites the listener into the development of a deeply personal and life-long love affair with the visceral joy and infinite possibility of pop music, its trappings and its artefacts; an unashamed fetishisation of green and yellow Harvests, pink Pyes, silver Bells, and the strange and important sound of the synthesiser, a world of first kisses and terrible chat-up lines but where, in the end, the conversation always turned to music. As a love letter to the object of its desire it is both entirely celebratory and unreservedly peerless, the perfect encapsulation of a band in love, and in hock, to its chosen art form. In this spirit Saint Etienne continue to create music for a cleaner, brighter, better time. It’s an approach entirely and refreshingly free from the prevailing lazy reflex settings of cynicism, disparagement and scorn, and one that has routinely set them apart from many of their supposed peers. At the height of Britpop’s pantomime absurdity Liam Gallagher laughably sought to deride both Saint Etienne and Stereolab as ‘student indie’, a term that did nothing more than expose one man’s ignorance and insecurity about the genre from which he had parasitically suckled. Alternatively, I’d make the case that given the band’s predilection for skilfully alloying the past (‘the fourth dimension’) to the present the term ‘nostalgic futurism’ seems far more appropriate, a means of harnessing the evocation of memory in a way that neither stifles nor constrains. Or as Ian McShane declares, in his role as the languid narrator of the band’s marvellous new film about London ‘How We Used to Live’, ‘the past is always with us. But who wants to live in an antique shop?’

 

The official website of Saint Etienne

Bob Stanley website

Saint Etienne biography (iTunes)

Craig Austin (@TheCraigAustin) is a writer and contributing editor for Wales Arts Review . His review of ‘Yeah, Yeah, Yeah – The Story of Modern Pop’ by Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley can be found here.

TopperPost #400

3 Comments

  1. Craig Thomas
    Jan 14, 2015

    Lovely article. I also grew up in a South Wales town, while it was in the process of becoming post-industrial and moved to London in the 80s, ostensibly to go to college, but mostly because I was inspired by music and magazines such as The Face. I still live in London and have become middle-aged and a parent myself. So, Over the Border also spoke to me on a profound level and still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up every time I hear it (it makes an appearance on shuffle on my iPhone fairly regularly). One of my favourite tracks from recent years, by a long way.

    • Craig Austin
      Jan 14, 2015

      Cheers, comrade. The first paragraph refers to TJ’s in Newport.

  2. Nairn Davidson
    Jan 15, 2015

    Excellent piece, Craig. Your connection with The Et is similar to mine – moved up from Reading, set up in a deeply unfashionable part of North London, mainly as a consequence of the sleeve notes of FBA! Nothing Can Stop Us was very much my epiphany, so fresh and so clean. And then a “cigarette, cup of tea, a bun” became my mantra for life! Of the great run of albums, I tend to pay special attention to “Good Humor”, which has some really strong and undervalued tracks on it (Postman, Dutch TV). Cheers.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

↓