Saint Etienne: The Complete Guide

Plus exclusive photos from a new book on the band…

To mark the release of a new book looking back at the career of the chameleonic British pop act, Clash here looks back at the first 20-something years of Saint Etienne.  

The band has worked with First Third Books to create a rich photographic monograph of over 150 images, complete with annotation from the trio of Sarah Cracknell, Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs. Lawrence, of Felt and Go-Kart Mozart, pens a foreword, while intimate conversations with band members reveal their own personal history.

The book is published on June 3rd, and more information on this limited-run treat for any Saint Etienne fan can be found here. The first 300 copies come with different lining, signed by the three band members, and include a 7” featuring previously unreleased material. Nice.

Clash has a selection of shots from the book, which you can view in our gallery above. Or, scroll down to read our guide to this most charming of English groups.

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Saint Etienne are almost 25 years old. Crikey. The national treasures have been about for a quarter of a century now. In all honesty, there should be street parties to commemorate this auspicious jubilee, but for the time being, let's have a rifle through their albums and reflect on their marvelousness…

‘Foxbase Alpha’ (1991)

Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley’s debut was serving notice of a bright pop wonderland. ‘Foxbase Alpha’ is a calling card of samples and cultural references made on equipment less technological than a modern-day mobile phone. Ideas reigned with a giddiness of styles, reflecting their wide-eyed wonder of being let loose in a recording studio. Too pop for the ravers, and too odd for the poppers, this was full of joyous chart-bothering signatures such as ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ and ‘Nothing Can Stop Us’ (video below), as well as the sunny delights of ‘Spring’ and wonky vignettes such as ‘Wilson’.

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‘So Tough’ (1993)

Released around the same time as British bands were getting their acts together and the behemoth that was Britpop was yet to coalesce, ‘So Tough’ is more an extension of ‘Foxbase Alpha’. The level of songwriting ensures that ‘You’re In A Bad Way’ (video below), ‘Avenue’ and ‘Hobart Paving’ would soon become standards. Still with in-jokes and references (‘Memo To Pricey’, ‘Mario's Café’) and samples linking each track, and with Sarah Cracknell now fully on board, the Etienne were becoming an actual band.

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‘Tiger Bay’ (1994)

Bob Stanley put it best when he described ‘Tiger Bay’ as “an album of modern folk songs done in 20th century styles like techno and dub” – something best showcased on ‘Like A Motorway’ (video below), which melded ‘Silver Dagger’ to a Kraftwerkian pulse, and moments such as ‘Western Wind’. The samples are ditched in favour of a full, proper set of songs. The band have admitted that the album could’ve had a couple more ‘obvious’ tunes on it, and are also no longer keen on the eye-wateringly rum album cover.

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‘Good Humor’ (1998)

Keen to distance themselves away from the flagwaving Englishness and increasingly tawdry excesses of Britpop, the trio decamped to Sweden under the instruction of producer Tore Johansson, who guided them down a more acoustic direction, augmented with horns and a full band. It may not have made as much of an impression on the charts as the previous work, but delivered some gems in ‘Sylvie’, ‘The Bad Photographer’ (video below) and ‘Lose That Girl’.

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‘Sound Of Water’ (2000)

A more linear and leaner sound, and back to a more electronic direction, this fifth album was described as their ‘trip-hop and ambient statement’. (However, one wonders how much of that was serious. Especially as the band had claimed ‘How We Used To Live’ was their ‘Paranoid Android’.) Less instant than previous stuff, yet since hugely influential, it does however place Saint Etienne as their own thing, no longer lazily lumped in with anyone else. 

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‘Finisterre’ (2002)

Half soundtrack to their own film of the same name, ‘Finisterre’ is almost full circle back to ‘Foxbase Alpha’, albeit this time, it was of a London tinted with more experience. With spoken-word interludes by narrator Michael Jayston – “The perverse possibilities of the Barbican” - it soundtracked a fast-disappearing capital. There’s a feeling that tracks like ‘Shower Scene’ (video below) could've been enormous if doofed up, but the songs themselves stand out as ever.

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‘Tales From Turnpike House’ (2005)

Musically more of a return to ‘Good Humor’, ‘Tales… is almost a concept album about an imagined Turnpike House, although drawn more from the band’s memories of the likes of Croydon and Ponders End rather than the EC1 colossus. It sees the trio team up with hit machine Xenomania on a couple of numbers, including ‘Lightning Strikes Twice’ (below), and even ’70s dreamboat David Essex turns up on ‘Relocate’. Initially the album came with a bonus disc of songs for kids called ‘Up The Wooden Hills’, which is a far more appealing affair than the usual rubbish peddled to tots.

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‘Words And Music By Saint Etienne’ (2012)

Named by Lawrence, ‘Words And Music…’ was a proper back, Back, BACK! moment for the trio, after having gone through the archives and deluxing up their earlier albums. With references to ‘Peter Gabriel from Genesis’ and Smash Hits on the gorgeous ‘Over The Border’, it’s an album in love with pop and reflecting on how important it remains (as first loves never ever die) on ‘Heading For The Fair’, ‘Record Doctor’, ‘I’ve Got Your Music’ and tribute to number one single-chronicling website, ‘Popular’. Even the excitement of going to a pop concert on ‘Tonight’ (video below) makes you wish it was always as giddy an experience.

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Hear also…

Being the band they are, in love with the magic of music, records and pop history, there’s a fair few extra bits in Saint Etienne’s catalogue that command attention. Amongst these: their first singles collection, ‘Too Young To Die’ (1995, up there with ‘Best Of Blondie’ and ‘Abba Gold’ for solid amazingness), which was followed by ‘Smash The System’ (2001) and ‘London Conversations’ (2009).

‘Continental’ (1997, then 2009) was a Japanese import collecting together things like their cover of Gary Numan’s ‘Stormtrooper In Drag’. ‘Casino Classics’ (1996) features remixes done by some of the greatest names of the era, including Chemical Brothers, Underworld, Andrew Weatherall and Aphex Twin, which still stands up today nearly 20 years on. ‘Foxbase Beta’ (2009) sees Richard X remix the band’s entire debut album, and Christmas album ‘A Glimpse Of Stocking’ (2010) is one of the few festive releases that can qualify as an actual seasonal classic.

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Words: Ian Wade
Check individual photos in the gallery for credits

Click here for more on Saint Etienne’s forthcoming book

Find Saint Etienne online here

Related: Bob Stanley reviews The Beach Boys’ ‘Made In California’

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