Monday, 18 April 2011

Saint Etienne-Join our club

I blame Dee-lite. After two decades making pop music, Saint Etienne are a band who should, by now, be heralded as a national treasure. Their posters should blu-tacked to every bedroom wall in Britain, their records held to the t-shirted bosom of every pop boy and girl. Milkmen should be whistling their melodies over the clink of empty bottles on every doorstep in the land. Instead, they are seen both as sadly nostalgic and a nostalgia piece. To think this is to miss the point unforgivably.

Even their first release was ballsy and way ahead of its time. It takes an unthinkable sense of self belief to take 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart' by Neil Young and turn it into a debut single that sounds like Sandy Shaw in a cool Balearic cafe.

But Saint Etienne are that kind of band. Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs (two Modish Felt fans from Croydon) soon worked out that (like their heroes, Joe Meek and Martin Hannett) not rehearsing guitar chords in bedrooms for months on end didn't mean you couldn't make inspiring, unique pop records. Using synths, drum machines and female vocalists (Moira Lambart on 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart' and Donna Savage on second single 'Kiss and Make Up') Saint Etienne used songs of hope, dreams and melancholy to humanise the coldness of the electronic backing music. Not that the music is all electro bleeps and loops. Indeed, the pastoral elegance of most of Tiger Bay is more Pentangle than Pete Tong.

It wasn't until lead singer Sarah Cracknell (Emma Peel crossed with one of the girls from Man About the House) was enlisted for third single 'Nothing Can Stop Us' that the band clicked into place. Though presented as a feather-boa swishing dolly bird, Cracknell is no mug. Both a chanteuse and a pop head that could fit into the world of vinyl addicts Stanley and Wiggs, she is also a songwriter in her on right. The classy, sashaying dancer 'Hug my Soul' is from the pen of Cracknell and her input to the band over the years should not be underestimated.

The joy of Saint Etienne is that by having a fun, intelligent, articulate female with more pop knowledge than most her fan base as the face of the group, they excell in making being a beta boy who believes in the notion of art and the expressive power of music as an acceptable, almost cool, thing to be.

Songs like Soft Like Me ("I'll teach him to be expressive not aggressive/soft around the edges/just like me"), Finisterre (I believe that music in the long run can straighten out most things/there are too many bands that act lame/sound tame/i believe in Electralane/ look beyond Big Brother and gossip culture/so bored of stupidity/the myth of common sense. I believe in Donovan over Dylan/love over cynicism") articulate what a lot of males are thinking. The band, like their songs, are feminist and politely anti-macho.

'Falling in love with a band' is a phrase that is thrown around far too liberally. We buy the records, the t-shirts, the books. We go to gigs to view our quarry and show our support and love. They understand us and we like to think they appreciate us. But surely this is a one way street?

As with The Smiths, the beauty of Saint Etienne (or at least in their early work) is their ability to make the listener think the music is talking directly to them-sat alone listening to their crackling records in their bedroom. And its easy to see how falling for such a band, whose discs you can turn over and play again and again, could be more desirable than the real world. Imagine being lonely, misunderstood and loveless. Out of the speakers comes a voice with its arms warmly outstretched, inviting you siren like into her songs, into her world:-

'With the love ive got you'll forget about her/and find it easy to live without her'


'I'll be there/to run into your arms' Hug my Soul

'Just dial my number/ive got some plans for you/youre in a bad way and I can see you through. Youre in a bad way/everyday seems just the same. Just dial my number/or call my name'

Youre in a Bad Way

The reason Saint Etienne attract such a die-hardy, loyal fan base is they offer a whole new world, a whole new identity to adopt and explore. A world of feather boa wearing pop stars offering sympathy, a world of cool kitsch over kitchen sinks and a wistful, fun nostalgia. Ah, theres that N-word again...

On the surface, its easy to see how the band could be seen as aching for a bygone age where people stayed in to watch Top of the Pops and Radio One was worth listening to. a world of Kia-Ora and tank tops. Its in their sleeve art of 70's iconory, its in their lyrics ("Squeezy bottle under Pepsi signs" Mario's Cafe), its in their references (the Glitter Band, The Monkees, Man About the House).

But their iconory works on an almost wonky level. If you take, say, the line "Eubank wins the fight/and did you see the KLF last night?" from the song Marios Cafe, its much more affecting, personal and day dreamy than mentioning Mike Tyson and the Utah Saints. The imagery seems almost keenly nostalgic and daffy, but a slight scratch of the surface reveals real depth.

Saint Etienne are pop fans. You can tell by their records. Each album is a little package, not something just to play, but to actually own and love. From their sleeve notes (penned from the likes of Douglas Coupland, Simon Reynolds, Jon Savage and Mark Perry) to their sleeve artwork (the photography of Martin Parr and Leonard Freed) to their videos (directed by Hiro Nakano, Bjorn Lindgren and Paul Kelly to name just a few), the attention to detail and aesthetic pleasure is astonishing.

Everything is done with a great deal of love and care, a rare commodity indeed in the music business.

My argument is that Saint Etienne are not harking back to a bygone age, rather trying to hold up little pieces of England before they are gone forever. Soon enough, going to a record shop and buying a 7" single will be a laughably passe thing to do, let alone by a record with enough sleeve notes to last the bus ride home.

Thanks to an era where downloading a song is easier to make a phone call, the thrill of flicking through the racks and holding a record sleeve to your chest as you wait to pay will soon be gone forever. And how long will it be before we miss and long for those days of yore? This is something that has not alluded music journalist extraordinaire and pop historian Bob Stanley.

The most disturbing thing in the feature length film Finisterre, a cinematic love letter to London that accompanies the LP of the same name, is that a large quantity of the buildings lovingly filmed are now gone forever. Starbucks and Costa are making sure that soon you wont be able to buy a cup of tea in a little cafe anymore.

A herein is the lesson.

When we live in a world where you have to charge a book with a battery, when we long for a world of dusty little records shops with knowledgeable staff and the comforting scent of racks and racks of cheap vinyl; when we miss self run cafes with squeezy bottles, hand typed menu's, the familiar green LV of the luncheon voucher sign, the old lady behind the counter in a pinny, the smell of grease and linoleum flooring, its us to blame. We are the ones who let these institutions, these little beacons that we have grown up with disappear forever. All for an Itunes download and a 99p latte. We should be ashamed. Dont it always go, that you dont know what you've got 'til its gone?

This is a theme in the most affecting Saint Etienne song, Teenage Winter. A dreamy lament that goes from the sad (the rise of Ebay and the fall of charity shops, the replacement of jukeboxes with idiot bar staff blasting out Red Hot Chilli Peppers) to the bitter (bakeries turning into tanning salons, football pitches being ripped for executive housing) to the absolutely heartbreaking ("Mums outside Sainsburys/tears in their eyes/they know they'll never by a Gibbs record again. Their old 45's gathering dust/next to the birthday cards they couldn't face throwing away").

People like Pete, Bob and Sarah (and me) are not sat at home watching UK Gold and TOTP2 all day. We, like you, want the best new music, the best new literature, the best new cinema. We also want to preserve that which we have grown up with and has place in our hearts. Join our club, we're going to try.


  1. This is beautiful, Shaun.

    I think I've got something in my eye...

  2. Been reading this all evening, Shaun. Just... oh!