Something To Believe
I can still vividly recall when I first heard of St Etienne. It was late 1989 and I was in a Highbury pub with my friend Daniel. I'd just asked him what our mutual friend Harvey Williams was up to and been informed that he was working on a 'dance' cover version of Neil Young's 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart' with Bob Stanley, writer of Caff fanzine and Melody Maker scribe. Dan said that Bob's group was going to be called St Etienne. I think I groaned and said it sounded dreadful. Neil Young, dance records. Music journalists and groups named after soccer teams: Not something, at that time, to make my heart race.
How wrong I was.
'Only Love Can Break Your Heart' ended up being one of the finest singles of 1990, which was some going at a time when great singles seemed to be ten a penny. It captured the euphoria as 'dance' music exploded into the territories, shockwaves emanating out from what had been the London epicentre of Acid House in clubs like Shoom a year or so earlier. It seemed like these shockwaves were touching everywhere and everyone.
There was a great record store at this time in Ayr, whose name I can no longer recall. The guy who ran it had been in the group Blam Blam YC and used to disappear off to Edinburgh when he was 15 to see Fire Engines play. I think his name was Euan. Euan used to play 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart' in his record store all the time, and that's where I heard it first. He also spun it in the club night he ran down in some god-forsaken new bar in town, where it always got a fantastic reception. These were strange times of weekend rushes to Manchester for nights at the Hacienda, and it seemed as though the world, or the youth of the UK at the very least was on a crazy wave of optimism, surfing into some kind of brighter tomorrow, never coming down from the high. Later, in our own 'Subculture' and 'Fifth Dimension' clubs hidden away in the depths of Troon we would play St Etienne singles alongside the Sabres of Paradise and cuts from Nuggets and Bam Caruso compilations of old psych-rock/pop, although no-one but us and our handful of friends were aware of it, which is as it should be.
The Stone Roses said at the time that it didn't matter who you were or where you were from, all that counted was where you were at. Bob Stanley and his St Etienne posse knew this better than most. Bob of course was the one calling The Stone Roses the greatest debut album ever in Melody Maker and he wasn't far off the money on that one, just as he was on the ball when he called the Hellfire Sermons 'Freakstorm' the finest debut single since 'The Sun Shines Here' in the pages of the same rag.
At the time of 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart' no-one really knew where St Etienne were from. All we really knew was that this was a fantastic Pop single that seemed to wink knowingly in its natural grasp of Pop history and the contemporary, and that was what counted. Later of course the pieces of the puzzle fell into place with specifics of London scenes and sixties and seventies iconography, but in 1990 that was all in the future.
The second St Etienne single was also a cover version, although maybe fewer people recognised it as such, the Field Mice and Snowball not being as ubiquitous as Neil Young and After The Gold Rush after all. The original Field Mice version of 'Kiss And Make Up' was the classy opener to their 1989 10" debut album (was it an album? A mini-album? Who cares... it was delicious) and the St Etienne version was just as tasty, especially on the 'Midsummer Madness' mix, which started with a squeal that was just like the start of Shop Assistants 'I don't wanna be friends with you'. Not that many people still listened to the Shop Assistants in 1990, but whatever. 'Kiss and Fucked Up' it said on the run off groove, and that was a fair enough description.
Of course Bob Stanley had other connections with the Field Mice, releasing a limited edition 7" by the band as the first of his Caff label oddities. Caff became, for a while, the limited edition label of choice for the indie connosieur, and most of the releases will still fetch fairly silly amounts of money. Especially the one by the Manic Street Preachers, a band that first came to London courtesy of Kevin Pearce and his Esurient Night of Action shows playing with the likes of The Claim and the Hellfire Sermons, the ties between Stanley, Pearce and Heavenly records boss Jeff Barrett being well rooted of course in the capital's early and mid '80s independent scene. No surprise then that Pearce would crop up on a couple of occasions penning sleeve notes for St Etienne albums. His wonderfully sharp and allusive words for their second album So Tough are a particular highlight and are surely reason enough to demand your investment.
[Our love is Heavenly]
I remember hearing stories from my Devon friends back in the mid '80s about a mythic record store in Plymouth called 'Meat Whiplash'. It sounded like the greatest record store ever, and being named after a Fire Engines song, how could it not be? The store of course was run by Jeff Barrett, and it was thanks to Barrett that the early Creation bands like the Jasmine Minks and the Jesus and Mary Chain played places as far flung as Plymouth and Penzance, Penzance also being the home town of one Harvey Williams, who of course later played on St Etienne records (he's the bassist on those first two singles, and played guitar on the Foxbase Alpha outtake 'Parliament Hill') and had a single on Caff on which he produced a strange cover of OMD's 'Genetic Engineering' and an absolute gem of a version of the Bee Gee's 'Kilburn Towers'. As the aforementioned Mr Pearce might say: it all fits.
After 'Meat Whiplash' closed, Barrett took up employment with Creation records for a time that's fairly well documented in the hefty My Magpie Eyes tome. Sadly the book punctuates the interesting parts of this Creation period with interminably dull stretches about the Weather Prophets, but that's another story. When Barrett finally left the Creation fold, he started his own label: Heavenly.
The early Heavenly releases were terrific. Apart from St Etienne there were the Rockingbirds, who emerged from the aforementioned Weather Prophets (and earlier The Loft) as harbingers of strange urban Country Rock, as though Gram Parsons had grown up in Ladbroke Grove. Their first single was an absolute joy, particularly the early version of their ode to Jonathan Richman, 'Jonathan, Jonathan' that cropped up on the flipside. There was Espiritu, who made records filled with Brazilian flavour, leading us on a samba-line through West London. There was a nascent Manic Street Preachers, with a couple of singles in 'Motown Junk' and 'You Love Us' which were all obvious bluster and tearing at the barriers of Rock. 'You Love Us' came in a gorgeous sleeve designed by Paul Cannell, and incidentally, wasn't it Heavenly who later put on an exhibition of Cannell's paintings, collages and record sleeves? And wasn't it Heavenly who published Kevin Pearce's influential Something Beginning With 'O' book? It's those kinds of details that set great labels apart.
Finally of course there was Flowered Up, who I remember hating at the time as second rate London pretenders to the throne of the Happy Mondays. Of course I was wrong, although it took their rendition of Right Said Fred's 'Don't Talk Just Kiss' on the Heavenly Aids benefit single to change my mind. Then there was the one sided 12" single that was the monumental 'Weekender'. 'Weekender' literally wore its heart on its sleeve (the picture on the back is of a hotel room wrecked by the Sex Pistols) and rightly became mythic, along with its wonderful attendant film. Almost as good, but seldom heard, was the 'Better Life' 7" that appeared in one of the generic Heavenly cardboard sleeves that featured the weird bird logo and the Beach Boys derived slogan 'add some music to your day'.
I seem to remember that Whiteout were slated to be on Heavenly, but that might be my mind playing tricks on me and tied to the fact that I had a tape with some wonderful Whiteout demos on one side, and Espiritu on the other. And maybe also tied in with the fact that Whiteout's debut single was released by Bob Stanley's Angel Town label. At least I was told it was his label; apologies if that's all wrong. Whiteout too were one of the bands down to join St Etienne on their sadly aborted 'Try Another Flavor' summer 1991 mini-festival, alongside perennial Esurient faves The Claim and dodgy newcomers Ocean Colour Scene.
[Nothing Can Stop Us]
So 1991 didn't bring us the anticipated festival, but it did bring us St Etienne's debut album. Foxbase Alpha really set the context for St Etienne. It was all immeasurably cool with cover photos by the ubiquitous Joe Dilworth who himself was honoured by the band with the album closer 'Dilworth's Theme': the front sleeve had a hipster girl holding a placard with the record's title painted on (later appropriated by Dickon Edwards of Orlando/Fosca infamy, for his 'Stud Base Alpha' fanzine) whilst the back showed Bob Stanley, Pete Wiggs and Sarah Cracknell against some shocking pinkpurple rhododendrons in a shot that looked like it was a bleached out discovery from an old '70s family photo album.
Inside, a great picture of Mickey Dolenz from an old Monkees album graced one side of the liner, whilst on the flip there was an ace rogues gallery of hipsters, looking like an Acid tinged Warhol. All present and correct were the likes of the two other main Monkees of interest (only Davey Jones was passed over), Ray Davies, Francoise Hardy, Audrey Hepburn, Billy Fury, Sandra Dee, Dirk Bogarde, Marianne Faithfull, Arthur Lee and Pier Angeli. Also present of course were Brian and Dennis Wilson; the Beach Boys being one of Bob Stanley's great obsessions over the years with his various writings on the ins and outs of the California soft-pop scene for the likes of Mojo magazine being particularly influential on me at least.
The back sleeve featured an extract from Norman Collins' London Belongs To Me (whose title was also borrowed for one of the tracks on the album) and further sleeve notes were by Jon Savage. Both tied the band resolutely to notions of a swinging London of a past, present and future.
The record itself was the best of early '90s magic, melding a seamless blend of soft-pop sensibility and arch indiepop knowingness with the best of the dancefloor beats and a certain dub inflection. It was like sci-fi pop from a time when believing in a bright future still seemed possible, and the album title's nod and wink to the Space 1999 series was surely no accident. And really, St Etienne, like Cath Carroll and her contemporaneous England Made Me, captured the essence of a multi-cultural England (or more specifically for the Etienne crew, London) with a deftness of touch that was as breathtaking as it was apparently effortless.
Of course others were doing similar things at the same time. Manchester's World Of Twist were another band down to join St Etienne for the 'Try Another Flavor' event and the two bands were often tied together in the media. World Of Twist too made some terrific singles, notably in the ace 'Sons Of The Stage', and their Quality Street album was really a marvellous partner to Foxbase Alpha. Intastella too made some fine Martin Moscrop (A Certain Ratio) produced singles at the time, and of course boasted links with the by then defunct Laugh, a band who were surely precursors to the whole 'indie/dance' crossover. And what about Denim? Bob Stanley had given Felt their last Melody Maker interview on the eve of the release of their tenth album and demise, and was clearly in on the whole Denim scene from the start. Denim demos were already circulating early in the '90s and sounded fantastic, very much in the vein of what St Etienne and others in what World Of Twist would call 'The Scene' were up to. Tragically though by the time the Back In Denim album finally saw the light of day in 1992 it seemed as though Lawrence had already missed the boat, as fashions moved on. But wasn't Siobhan Brookes the face and voice at that debut Denim live set back in 1990 or '91? And didn't she later crop up as part of St Etienne's touring band? I had that Melody Maker photo of Siobhan fronting Denim pinned to my wall for years afterwards, next to the great Denim logo fashioned after the old Bell records symbol.
Lawrence too cropped up enigmatically as Supermarket whose eponymous 12" single was released in '92 on Icerink; another Bob Stanley label. Icerink's first release, incidentally, was by Golden, who indulged Stanley's love of girl groups with the dreamy Stanley/Wiggs composition 'Anglo American'. The sleeve notes suggested that 'Golden celebrates with' among others, Abba, Public Enemy, The Chantels, Pet Shop Boys, Madonna, the KLF and World of Twist. Also in the list were PM Dawn and 'all that glitters'. It was more evidence of Stanley wearing his influences and loves on his sleeves, marking up connections for others to follow. And with the mention of PM Dawn, let's not forget that this was a time gloriously infected by the fallout from De La Soul's 'Daisy Age' hip hop laid down with '89s 3 Feet High and Rising. It was also a time of Italo House Piano tracks, but that's another story too.
St Etienne's third single came from Foxbase Alpha and there are those who say they never bettered it. 'Nothing Can Stop Us' was the first St Etienne single to feature Sarah Cracknell on vocals and it was as perfect a Pop single as you could imagine, full of hooks that stayed in your head forever and an overall feel that was pure abandon. My abiding memory of this song is of carrying it back on the train from Bath, where I'd just seen the Manic Street Preachers play, to Scotland; slapping it on the record deck at a friend's 21st birthday party, extolling everyone to listen to this record that was sheer pop perfection. I don't know that anyone agreed, but I did play it over and over all night for anyone who was interested as I quickly got more and more drunk, watching my life seem to go up in smoke.
Later, I recall an afternoon's shopping trip to Ayr with Clare to pick up the Dean Thatcher remix of the flipside 'Speedwell' from Euan's record store, only to find he'd no more copies left. Later that night I gave Clare a pick-a-back ride up St Meddan's street and watched Bruce Lee movies until the early hours.
The singles that came out immediately post Foxbase Alpha were equally sublime, and lifted my spirits at a time when that was sorely needed. 'Join Our Club' was magnificent, all house beats and 'ba-ba-ba's' and with the good sense to include the key words 'do you believe in magic?'. This being a key phrase in Pop, it naturally belied their love of the Lovin' Spoonful and that was just another plus point in their favour. There was also a sitar solo courtesy of Martin Kelly, who had played in East Village. Brother Paul, also ex-East Village, contributed 'jet engine'. Flipside 'People Get Real' was equally divine with that great start sample of 'get on the floor and look real sexy' and Sarah's breathy vocal extolling us all to do as the title suggested.
Follow up 'Avenue' was even more breathtaking, like Strawberry Switchblade dropped into the post-Acid haze. 'Avenue' was a glorious reel around the fountain, staring at the sky and weaving daisy chains to adorn the necks of loves hidden by the mists of time. 'Paper' meanwhile was just as beautiful, not least for ex-Felt guitarists Maurice Deebank's contribution, and the wonderfully knowing lyric of 'only love can mend a broken heart'. Magical.
After that though I kind of lost touch with St Etienne and Heavenly records. I don't know why, although the early '90s were really a strange time for me when I pretty much lost direction of all kind. You could blame the English education system if you want. It's probably as good a place to start as any. I do remember picking up the 1992 So Tough album, with those aforementioned Kevin Pearce sleevenotes, but I think it was a year or two after the fact. I also recall picking up the East Village Drop Out album that Heavenly finally released in 1993, complete with that Juergen Teller cover photo that also graced a Katherine Hamnett fashion advert at the time. Sleeve notes, incidentally, were by none other than Bob Stanley. The album of course was wonderful, and listened to now it's a million light years ahead of the likes of Starsailor or Coldplay, groups who went on to make a mint out of the kind of minor chord sensitivity that East Village always did so much better than anyone.
I recall also writing to Heavenly and blagging a bunch of stuff for a record sleeve design project I was starting in school. I wrote to many labels, but only Heavenly and the then just resurrected Postcard were helpful, which says a lot. Heavenly sent some enormous posters for some St Etienne singles, including one with a tiger which was hugely popular amongst the kids, of course. Well, the girls at least. Was that for 'Pale Movie' or 'Hug My Soul'? Or neither? I don't remember. Another poster was for 'Like a Motorway', a single that also found its way into that bundle of goodies. When I listened to that single, it was a revelation. It remains one of my favourite singles by St Etienne or anyone. Melancholic, ice-cool and melodramatic, it's like the Shangri-Las meets Kraftwerk. No kidding.
'Like A Motorway' appeared on the third St Etienne album Tiger Bay but despite this I never picked the album up. 'Pale Movie' and 'Hug My Soul' were also on there, which suggests it must have been pretty fine, but I really couldn't tell you. Maybe I ought to try and track a copy down.
Thankfully I don't have to try and track down a copy of the I Love to Paint collection, as it was among the titles sent by the good people at Heavenly in that bumper package to help out my school. A fan club only release, and featuring sleeve photography by none other than Jarvis Cocker, I Love To Paint was a great CD to send an Art teacher. It had some great rare and unreleased St Etienne tracks, including the lovely aforementioned 'Parliament Hill' instrumental and 'Everything I Touch Turns To Gold' which they apparently demoed for supermodel Naomi Campbell. The sample preceding this track was a beauty from Roman Holiday, from when Audrey Hepburn gets her haircut. Every time I see the movie I want to hear St Etienne, and every time I hear St Etienne I want to see that movie, or any Hepburn movie, Audrey being of course as already noted one of the icons inhabiting Foxbase Alpha. Also on there was 'Fake 88' which also appeared on one of the Volume compilations which were all the rage for a while there in the '90s, and didn't the same people who did Volume also give us those terrific Trance Europe Express collections, where I first heard Air Liquide, amongst others? 'Fake 88' was at one point intended to be the finale to Foxbase Alpha, although it was dropped because, as these sleevenotes suggest, 'it turned into a show tune while our backs were turned'. It was really a hilarious dig at what Bob Stanley called 'the comic aspects of the '80s', a list song read by Stephen Duffy who no doubt delighted in referencing himself alongside things like ''Do the Hucklebuck' by Coast to Coast'. He also suggested that if you remembered the '80s you weren't there, which was funny, because I was and I kind of do, although sometimes I try hard not to. Denim of course then did what St Etienne had decided against, and closed the Back In Denim album with their own, altogether more spiteful diatribe against the decade 'I'm Against The Eighties' in which Lawrence proclaimed himself for Ravesignal III; just the kind of thing St Etienne could have said, and no doubt applauded. It was all death to rock'n'roll and long live the new Pop frontier.
[Something To Believe]
I'm afraid my knowledge of what St Etienne and Heavenly were up to gets all very vague after the mid '90s. St Etienne seemed to part company with Heavenly, and their Good Humour album of 1998 appeared on Creation, although the ties between the two labels were so close it probably didn't make a great deal of difference. I don't know if Alan McGee was still managing St Etienne at this point, but that might have had something to do with the move I didn't hear Good Humour, although I saw it in the stores at the time and passed it by on many occasions in favour of more esoteric material that got reviewed in The Wire. I'm fairly sure that was my loss.
It was the same with Heavenly; I didn't really know what they were up to, although I did get excited when I heard that the debut Beth Orton album was going to be called Tangential. Sadly the title ended up being changed before release but I bought Trailer Park anyway and enjoyed it well enough, although I wasn't convinced enough to bother following her future career.
I was fortunate enough, however, to come across one 'limited edition' 7" on Heavenly, by Famous Times, who were Alan Tyler and Sean Reed from the disbanded Rockingbirds. 'Something To Believe' was a real treat for anyone into great tunes with a country edge, although it's said that their second Heavenly single, 'The Blue Man' EP was even better. Sadly I can't confirm this, although if anyone wants to send me a copy so I can make the judgement myself, please feel free.
I did hear St Etienne's Sound of Water in 2000, but more by luck than judgement when a review copy turned up in my post office box. It arrived at just the right moment, when I was falling in love with the electro-pop of the likes of Baxendale and Stars, and reminded me that really St Etienne had done it all so well in the past, and were now gloriously ahead of the pack again with a beguiling maturity. I remember listening to 'Heart Failed In The Back of a Taxi' on my headphones as my train rolled through London towards Waterloo station one early summer afternoon and it sounding like the greatest thing on earth. It made me thankful that St Etienne were still out there, crafting terrific Pop records of great depth, breadth and insight.
And now, summer 2002, I feel the same way as I look forward to a new single 'Action' and album Finisterre. As I said to my wise and elegant 16 year old friend recently, looking forward to a new St Etienne record is like looking forward to the visit of a glamorous old friend you know will entertain you with wonderful stories over a cup of tea in the local caff. Initial hearings thanks to a magical summer compilation tape from Kevin suggest those tales are going to be some of their finest yet, particularly 'Soft Like Me' which features Wildflower on guest vocals, and recalls the likes of 'Filthy' and 'Calico' from the early '90s, both of which featured Q-Tee on vocal duties.
Heavenly too have made a return to my attention in recent months, notably via the Doves. I had always discounted the Doves in the past, but seeing and hearing 'Pounding' on TV this summer really made me change my mind, so I picked up The Last Broadcast, and in places it really is glorious; a big warm sound that harks back to the likes of the Crucial Three and is probably what groups like Starsailor wish they could approach.
It's easy to overlook your greatest assets in Pop, and we really ought to treasure the likes of Heavenly and St Etienne because, above all, they remind us of what Pop could, and should be. They instinctively understand its appeal and deliver the goods with style, integrity and just the right amount of glitter. It's clear that both Heavenly and St Etienne still believe in the magic of Pop. What about you?
© Alistair Fitchett 2002