Too indie to appeal to the dance crowd and too dance to appeal to the indie crowd? Some cynical music fans might have once held that view of Saint Etienne, whose intriguing but slightly fey name (taken from the French football team) hinted that they weren’t the group likely to be crowding the dance floor of the local rave or packing out the local Academy. What Saint Etienne actually were, at a time when a lot of us perhaps least expected it (in the grunge and dance focused music world of the early ’90s), was a genuinely wonderful pop group. By ‘pop’, I mean catchy, commercial and lightweight, but also ‘pop’ in the sense that Richard Hamilton probably meant, when he defined the art movement in the late ‘50s. They were in love with the mass culture, but were also able to sift for those nuggets of emotive gold that define all our lives; and it’s that attention to the milieu of everyday life and the emotion of nostalgia helped lift Saint Etienne into a different league. They loved what they did and still do, but they could also make us feel something.
Some of my most unlikely friends became Saint Etienne fans. My love of ‘60s pop made me instantly ‘get’ some of the Etienne’s influences, but that doesn’t instantly explain one friend, who had no love of that or the contemporary dance scene which also spawned the band. Saint Etienne had a way of appealing to different people for very different reasons. There was something about Saint Etienne that a lot of people found to their liking, no matter what their usual choice of listening.
Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs formed Saint Etienne in 1990, and originally they were going to have a new female vocalist for every new single. Someone pointed out that this might prove problematic if they ever took to the road, so they wisely enlisted Sarah Cracknell as the permanent vocalist (whose input was far more than just a pretty face). Her honeyed vocals became as much a hallmark of Saint Etienne’s music as the magpie like samples, nostalgic lyrics and house beats.
At the time of writing (2016) Saint Etienne have become a sophisticated, if somewhat predictable, purveyor of polished pop. They’re a ‘proper’ band now, with the core trio augmented to good effect in the live shows. Perhaps it would be true to say that they’ve now sacrificed any new innovation in favour of a steady refinement of their sound, but at the time of Foxbase Alpha they were a breath of fresh air into the stagnant room of the top 40 album chart. They would occasionally venture into more experimental territory, but it’s their Anglophile brand of cool which has often kept us older fans coming back. Listening to it now, Foxbase Alpha, their first album, isn’t exactly their most accomplished or polished. But therein lies its huge charm. Foxbase is undoubtedly a love letter to London, but not one that would be easy to visit, and believe me, I’ve spent 25 years trying. Like the fantasy London of The Avengers TV series, Saint Etienne’s London is a half recalled memory of retro styling and sunny days. They make me think of chaste kisses and yearning joy with just a touch of melancholy yearning; in Saint Etienne’s London,the fountains in Trafalgar are far bigger, the sky bluer, the sight and sounds sun drenched and vibrant and the myth of ‘60s swinging London is made real and improved.
Foxbase Alpha fuses early Trip-Hop, snatches of Northern Soul and broken up samples from films and old records, with the then current House music scene as an overall bonding agent. It’s a magpie like collection of shiny pop moments, but it doesn’t belt them out like some uncouth Kylie album, and in the jingly jangly guitars the band’s indie credentials are forever in evidence. More than anything, Foxbase always makes me feel quietly elated and heart tuggingly sad, often in the same song. “Spring” and “Nothing can stop us” must rank among some of the finest pop of the ‘90s, but I can bet you most people on the street have never heard them. Therein lies Etienne’s continued appeal: they remain a wonderful cult, and all the cooler because of their niche appeal. The band would have hits (over the decade, the sublime sounds of “Avenue”, “You’re in a bad way”, “Like a Motorway”, “Pale Movie”, “She’s on the phone” and “Sylvie” all charted). Tiger Bay could possibly be their finest album, in terms of commercial and critical appraisal, although both 2005’s Sounds from Turnpike House and 2012’s Words and music by Saint Etienne were fine later effort. But my heart will always be with Foxbase Alpha, which I first heard when I was really young and wanted the world to be as The Et painted it in their aural snap shots. Listening to it now, it reminds me to remain young, in the only place that really counts; in my head.
As Jon Savage said in the original liner notes, stay busy, out of phase, and in love.