A Singular History: Saint Etienne

by MV

On Monday PopJustice alerted me to the arrival of ‘the greatest greatest hits album of 2008.’

The best of in question is London Conversations, by the wonderful Saint Etienne. While it’s not the first attempt to collect the finest moments of these London lovelies on record, it is of course the most comprehensive.

It’s also new, which means it doesn’t neglect the more recent, often ignored, yet largely excellent, work by the band.

Anyway, Saint Etienne are a favourite band of mine, and one of many reference points by which I judge whether or not a pop single is any good.

If you click below, you will find videos and words relating to ten of the best Saint Etienne singles. In my humble opinion, of course. What do you reckon?

Nothing Can Stop Us (1991)
The band’s third single, though a certain type of purist might describe it as their first. Previous singles Only Love Can Break Your Heart and Kiss and Make Up, while great, featured guest vocalists. This one sees the wonderful Sarah Cracknell arriving in style, with vocals that alternate between breathy whispers and ethereal sighing, before hitting their stride in a straightforwardly pop chorus.

Though it failed to make the top 40, its potential was noticed by a certain diminuitive pop princess, who recorded a version, intended for single release, in 1993. The single never happened, but Kylie’s (slightly inferior, but interesting) version can be heard here. St Etienne’s original can be found on their sporadically brilliant debut, Foxbase Alpha.

You’re In a Bad Way (1993)
The breakthrough single from 1993’s sophomore effort So Tough. Following the relatively limp performance of the beautiful but less than immediate Avenue, an upbeat pop cut seemed like a good call. It paid dividends, with the Motown party vibe of You’re In a Bad Way giving the band a number 12, and their biggest hit (under their own name, at least…). It still stands up on a dancefloor some fifteen years later, I can confirm.

Hobart Paving/Who Do You Think You Are (1993)
Saint Etienne’s most beautiful moment is blessed with a bizarrely ugly title.* If you’ve never heard Hobart Paving, I strongly recommend that you click the link above. Just under five minutes of aching, heartbreaking perfection. The title’s incongruous, but, like the London-centric video here, perfectly captures the bands uniquely English ability to find pop beauty at the heart of the most mundane things…

Just to cap it off, it’s double-A’d with a cheery number called Who Do You Think You Are, with Sarah trading lead vocals with a girl called Debsey (formerly of Dolly Mixture. It is, of course, a cover.

(*Mind you, changing the title certainly didn’t make this cover any less painful…)

I Was Born on Christmas Day (1993)
I’m a sucker for a good Christmas record. This one’s probably in my top five, and while it’s never going to rival Fairytale of New York, it has a certain charm about it. For the second single in a row, Sarah’s sharing lead vocals, and this time manages to subdue some of the usual swagger and coax a rather sexy performance from the decidedly unsexy Tim Burgess. Originally released as ‘Xmas 93’. Nice.

Like a Motorway (1994)
The magnificent, Kraftwerk-inspired centrepiece of the equally great Tiger Bay album, it’s hard to find enough superlatives to describe this one. While the version above doesn’t quite match the Rick Smith production of the album version, it’s still a travesty that it failed to make the top 40, stalling at 47. Paul Morley has lots of mostly baffling, but occasionally perceptive, things to say about this track in this bizarre but wonderful beast of a book.

Hug My Soul (1994)
Hitting their purple period, singles-wise, at this point, Hug My Soul performed only slightly better than Like a Motorway in chart terms. Musically, it’s much less interesting than its immediate predecessor, but while that had a cool motorik beauty, this is a lovely warm sunny embrace of a song. It does what it says on the tin, basically. And in style.

He’s On the Phone (1995)

Probably Saint Etienne’s perfect pop peak. You’ve probably heard it, and if you haven’t, then click above, because you’ll be glad you did.

The song has a complicated history. Like a couple of Saint Etienne’s biggest singles, it’s basically a cover, albeit a drastically transformed one. Here’s the starting point: Weekend à Rome by French singer-songwriter Etienne Daho. The year: 1984.

Ten years later, the two Etiennes collaborated on an EP called Resurrection, and the lead track was a familiar-sounding ditty called ‘Accident.’ Then producer Motiv8 gave it a makeover, and it became He’s On The Phone. Phew. Anyway, it’s their biggest hit (number 11), and it’s great, but you knew that.

Sylvie (1996)
Their last real decent-sized pop hit, and also the point at which I started to get interested in the band (leave me alone, I’m youngish…) In some ways it’s a watered-down facsimile of their earlier hits, but like the titular heroine, it’s not without its charms. The production, handled in Sweden by Tore Johannson, (who’d previously turned the Cardigans into chart stars with a slick, radio-friendly style) helped it along to number 12 in the charts, but in retrospect, probably dates it just a little. Available on Good Humour.

How We Used To Live (2000)
While Cracknell was certainly still up to fronting a chart-friendly pop record, by the turn of the decade Saint Etienne were exploring slightly more subdued, electronic territory, with the Sound of Water album. Fittingly, the CD single of this 9-minute epic was chart-ineligible, and it scraped the top 200 on 12″ sales. While it might stretch the patience of some, it’s a sort of dreamy masterpiece in my book. For those who can’t be bothered to wait, it kicks in around 03:45.

Action (2002)
While they’d (undeservedly but understandably) fallen from the mainstream by this point, ‘Action’, from the underrated Finisterre album, sees the band back on belting form. The soft intro gives way to an unusually urgent, punchy chorus that matches anything in their discography.

A Good Thing (2005)
While it may be a controversial opinion, I think that Tales From Turnpike House is Saint Etienne’s best album. A claustrophobic concept album based around a suburban London tower block, it showcases the full range of the band’s talents, honed over the past 15 years. It’s also far from parochial, as the inclusion of this glittery Xenomania-produced track in Pedro Almodovar’s Volver proved.

10 tracks (and a few bonus tracks) there then, and I could easily pick 10 more in an instant. Saint Etienne’s next release is a Xenomania-refit of ‘lost’ 1996 single ‘Burnt Out Car’, which I imagine will go down well round these parts.

The band play the Queen Elizabeth Hall on September 14th as part of the Forever Heavenly weekend. All tickets are, sadly, sold out.

London Conversations is out in September. Buy it!