(The Diary of a Pop Defender)
Saint Etienne always existed just outside the edges of the Cinemascope. They encapsulated the fuzzy line that blurred the most alluring of fantasies into the best of realities. They came wrapped in a sense of assured quality forever to be described in awestruck superlatives. Ensconced in my bedroom post tea-time, homework-drudge I’d be transported to a world of glamour and fast-time excitement described by an evangelical Caitlin Moran, I’d feast on these words and try hard to imagine a band forged from such pop perfection. They conjured up images of a London I’d only seen in late night films or read in books, of clever factory girls with bouncy barnets , of suited and booted Jack the Lad types. They were a cheeky wink from Malcolm McDowell, a breathless sigh from a silken clad Julie Christie and yet I had only arrived at these images through reviews and descriptions. In my possession was just one song.
My friend from round the corner had taped me a copy of her Smash Hits ’92 album (that’s how we rolled in them days…)which contained not only the life altering Animal Nitrate by Suede but You’re in a Bad Way by Saint Etienne. By this stage I had almost warped said tape trying to isolate parts of its magic formula. The tight, slappy, Northern Soul back-beat, the woozy, Wurlitzer keyboard sound, the mention of Bruce Forsyth, the bloody steel drums(!) all topped off with lovely Sarah and her sympathetic vocals, there really was no escape. It was an all-guns blazing pop assault and I was just a helpless victim caught in its crossfire.
They were the soundtrack to my daydreams of being just the kind of scrappy, cat-eyed girl they described lost in the big city, they were a glittery doodle on my pencil case, a cut out and keep guide to a better life. They made TOTP a ritzier event and Smash Hits a tad hipper. They were cool without pretension. This egalitarian attitude went hand in hand with the music press at the time when the Melody Maker was chock full of sarky journalists that could rattle off Shangri -Las bsides and the names of dogs in Eastenders with equal élan.
Saint Etienne were like an amiable older sister and her cool pals escorting you safely through the history of music. A nod to Sadie Shaw here, a dash of techno there, some soul-style beats and away we go… Like the Smiths before them they opened up avenues of pop culture that had previously remained hidden to young eyes and ears. Saint Etienne gave me Serge & Jacques Dutronc, Billy Liar and Abigail’s Party, dubious 70s soundtracks but they also managed to slot in perfectly with acts as diverse as Pet Shop Boys, Stereolab and Kylie(celebrating her genius a looong time before the serious musos thought it safe) Hell, they even gave us the goofy pop rush of Seven Ways to Love.
They seemed as obsessed with music as we were; it was okay to be enthralled, to play one song on an unending loop, it was okay to want to dance, to twirl around in front of the bedroom mirror, great pop demanded such devotion. With their songs about cramped clubs, taxi trips home, dull, listless days of longing and scheming they were the perfect match for a girl on the cusp of teenage freedom and exciting adventures.
Album after album weaved through my formative years of disco lights, rainy days, love that made the heart beat faster and friends that spoke in laughter. They continued to dole out inspiring treats such as the fiery, flute-led stomper Hit the Breaks the blistering Action and their all encompassing tribute to everything-Etienne How We Used to Live an epic love letter to off-season seaside towns, the Wigan Casino and every emotional landmark in between, it is simply breathtaking.
Now, hurtling towards the end of my twenties they’ve returned with Words and Music By Saint Etienne whose single Tonight reminds us that although pop has transmogrified from our tape recording days of yore, it’s still worth getting dressed up for, it still has the ability to surprise, it can still transform your life. A pop mission statement that Saint Etienne have been living by for the past twenty years.