Influenced: The Auteurs, Black Box Recorder, Dubstar, The Cardigans, Elastica, Garbage, Moby, The Avalanches, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Goldfrapp, Ladytron, Annie, The Go! Team, Warm Digits, Air France
Influenced by: Burt Bacharach, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Kinks, Love, David Bowie, Cabaret Voltaire, The Fall, New Order, The Human League, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, Pet Shop Boys, The Smiths, Stereolab, Everything But The Girl
Amid the many upheavals that the British music scene experienced in the early ‘90s, Saint Etienne effected one of its quieter revolutions, but ultimately one of its most profound and long-lasting – namely, making the genre of ‘indie dance’ both critically credible and commercially viable.
Particularly throughout their golden age of classic singles and ground-breaking albums in the 1990s, producers Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs revived the sounds of swinging, Sixties London and infused them with the contemporary dance productions that the capital was producing post-acid house. Their productions encompassed everything from house and techno to hip-hop breakbeats and disco, then intricately layered with light melodies, catchy hooks, smart lyrics, and topped off with Sarah Cracknell’s breathy voice.
In addition, Saint Etienne brought back the concept of the three-minute, stand-alone single as pop’s Holy Grail, the most effective medium for artists to communicate to their public. This was quite an archaic concept, with the rise of the rock LP post-Sgt. Pepper’s nearly a quarter of a century before gradually causing pop singles to be viewed as disposable, as cultural landfill. By 1990, singles were largely released in order to plug their parent albums, not regarded as things to be consumed in and of themselves. But many of Saint Etienne’s finest moments came in the form of singles – some taken from their studio albums, but many released as stand-alones.
Both of these aspects made Saint Etienne one of Britpop’s prime movers, well before the term ever got coined. Many Britpop bands like Suede, Denim, The Auteurs, Pulp and Blur, while obviously not getting on board with their dance inclinations, did share the trio’s aesthetic of embracing Sixties sounds and updating them for the post-modern Nineties.
As with most bands formed by former pop music journalists, Saint Etienne was a highly conceptual entity. Fans of girl-group pop, soul records and indie labels such as Postcard and Factory growing up, Bob Stanley had worked for the NME and Melody Maker reviewing records and gigs, and came up with the idea for the band with childhood friend and co-songwriter Pete Wiggs while running the short-lived fanzine ‘CAFF’ in the late ‘80s, emboldened and abetted by the DIY approach that the rave and acid house scenes had engendered. In this context, forming their own band seems like it was only a matter of time.
Named after the French football club, and borrowing their green-and-white colour scheme for most of their visual aesthetics, their fantasy group would make ‘record collection’ pop cool again, a kaleidoscope of influences from soul to dub, from house to indie-pop, cocktail jazz and reggae. It wasn’t as simple as indie meets dance – for Stanley and Wiggs, everything should meet everything. Pop bricolage was nothing new, but it was the freewheeling, anything-goes nature of their approach, and the obvious love that they had for those samples and influences, that made Saint Etienne so endearing. Even as they sang about London life, about side streets and greasy spoons, they looked to the continent for inspiration, for an internationalist conception of nationality and Britishness, and it was intoxicatingly glamorous.
That slightly dog-eared ‘scrapbook’ structure ensured that their shared enthusiasm for music radiates from every single second of the group’s early material. It exudes the joy of discovery and introducing new sounds to its listeners, rather than the smug complacency of merely knowing it has good taste. Furthermore, Saint Etienne’s music, much more than just being rhythms to move your body to, an awful lot of their music seems to hold some deeper emotional resonance – it essays the first rushes of love, be that with the object of your affections or simply with your new favourite album or film, or even just the feeling of the changing of the seasons or being in a certain time and place. They know the truth about great pop music: that it has almost as much to do with geography, architecture and surroundings as the notes themselves. Perhaps it’s for this reason that the group have such an unusually devoted fanbase – or maybe that’s also down to labyrinthine collection of singles, EPs, compilations and rare fanclub-only releases that they’ve issued on the side, on top of their studio LPs.
Quickly signing with new indie label Heavenly on the strength of just one demo tape, Stanley and Wiggs went through a number of singers at first – their breakthrough single, a cover of Neil Young’s ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’, was sung by Moira Lambert, and its follow-up ‘Kiss And Make Up’, a Field Mice cover, with vocals from Donna Savage. They soon dropped their original idea of having a rotating lead vocalist and eventually found their perfect creative foil in Sarah Cracknell.
Although she was undeniably a photogenic, girl-next-door presence that helped Saint Etienne maximise their potential audience, Cracknell was much more than just window-dressing for the boys. She shared their musical loves, but also possessed an art-house sensibility and sensual delivery that acted as a multiplying factor for the group’s vision. She made sense as a classic pop chanteuse, who could have performed at any point in pop history, and this reinforced the more explicitly timeless aspects of Saint Etienne’s music, lacing it with her cooing and sighing vocals. Furthermore, it was Cracknell’s presence that first gave the band their sense of thematic consistency and musical identity as they began to record original music, preventing their 1991 debut album Foxbase Alpha from feeling just like a collection of Wiggs’ and Stanley’s experiments, and it was a record that served as a brilliant mission statement.
Saint Etienne never really hit the commercial heights they deserved – their highest-charting single, ‘7 Ways To Love’, was actually recorded under the moniker of Cola Boy instead, and their biggest hit credited as Saint Etienne was as a featured artist on Paul Van Dyk’s moody trance hit ‘Tell Me Why’ in late 2000. But, they have steadily built up one of the most respected and beloved bodies of work in recent memory.
Indeed, that body of work is still alive and breathing, with the release of the group’s ninth studio album Home Counties in the summer of 2017.
We’ve compiled the briefest of highlights playlists spanning that nearly three-decade career, but it’s most definitely worth exploring each individual album and the self-contained universe that Saint Etienne so meticulously build each time around. Scroll below and to the next page for a blow-by-blow account of Saint Etienne’s studio albums!
Tags: Bob Stanley, Ed Biggs, Finisterre, Foxbase Alpha, Good Humor, Home Counties, Introduction, London Belongs To Me, Pete Wiggs, playlist, Saint Etienne, Sarah Cracknell, So Tough, Sound Of Water, Tales From Turnpike House, Tiger Bay, Words And Music By Saint Etienne
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