Friday 27 April 2012

Songs that saved my life part 10: Saint Etienne-Teenage Winter

I have a secret. Sometimes, when I’m walking home from work listening to music on my headphones, I fantasise that I’m in the band, singing or playing the songs. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, the fantasy almost always involves impressing someone. It's a childish thing to do, and I’m sure even an amateur shrink would have a field day with that information. I like to think its something everyone does or has done and kept it as a little secret, like pulling faces at themselves in the mirror or enjoying the smell of a pets paw. I’m not even sure how the fantasise work to be honest. Sometimes i'm the singer (if he isn’t too flash. I'm far more likely to dream myself as the singer out of Ballboy than Mick Jagger), if the riff is wonderful I can picture myself as lead guitarist. Sometimes I’m perfectly happy to dream about plugging away at the bass. Odd.

The best songs, I think, are those where the song is such a whole, such an experience, that it’s impossible to pick apart the individual links of the music and must be taken as one exquisite chunk. The Beach Boys are masters at this, but to me case in point is the song Teenage Winter by Saint Etienne.

After two decades making pop music, Saint Etienne are a band who should, by now, be heralded as a national treasure. Their posters should blue-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, the excel 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 Electra lane/ 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, but are to busy watching football on a pub big screen or listening to Oasis to say. More pity them.


'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 it’s 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 I’ve got you'll forget about her/and find it easy to live without her' Spring

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

'Just dial my number/I’ve got some plans for you/you’re in a bad way and I can see you through. You’re in a bad way/everyday seems just the same. Just dial my number/or call my name' you’re 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, there’s that N-word again...


On the surface, it’s 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 still drinking Kia-Ora and wearing 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 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 passé 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 eluded 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 won’t 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, vinegar 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. Don’t it always go, that you don’t know what you've got 'til it’s gone?

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