68:58 min • Heavenly • February 16th, 2009
“Cor blimey this Oasis tune’s fackin’ good…Got any nose-up?…You ate all the pies you did…Get the fackin’ beers in and… WOULD YOU LOOK AT THE TITS ON THAT!!!”
Britpop, eh? But it really wasn’t meant to end up like that. Honest. When the first clutch of new London-based bands emerged in the early ‘90s they shared a pop-culturally savvy, independently leaning, romantic sensibility that was a million miles away from the guitar-wielding, coked-up beer monster ignoramuses who followed in their wake. Suede, Elastica, Pulp, The Auteurs, Denim, Earl Brutus – all fantastic and, sadly, all long gone. Nevertheless, for a brief flash between 1991 and 1994 they helped liberate London’s alternative scene from the shackles of tepid house, morbid grunge, reheated baggy and zzz shoegazing. Sharp, smart and arty, the first wave of what became known as Britpop was so exciting it motivated a young entrepreneur called Simon Hobart to open a zeitgeisty indie gay club in north London. The reverberations of Popstarz and the scene that spawned it can still be felt throughout the capital’s nightlife today.
Back then, at the start, you used to hear Saint Etienne an awful lot at Popstarz. Those huge beefy drums at the beginning of ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’, the tinkling piano riff that ushers in ‘He’s On The Phone’, the ecstatic whoosh of ‘Who Do You Think You Are’- all were guaranteed to cause a mass stampede of bleached crops and Adidas Shell Toes towards the dancefloor. And if you believe (as I most fervently do) that it’s a very good thing the club still packs ‘em in today – can you imagine London without it? – it’s equally satisfying to note that that unlike almost all of their peers Saint Etienne remain a going concern.
It comes as no surprise at all that this third and apparently ‘definitive’ Best Of is titled London Conversations. A reverential nod towards an album by folk legend John Martyn (who died in January 2009, long after this collection went into production) it’s also a characteristically smart summation of the songs within. Just as it’s impossible to disentangle the crash and crunch of early Tamla Motown from the city of Detroit or Kraftwerk’s cool soundscapes from post-war Germany, Saint Etienne and London have always been inextricably bound. Among the band’s many creative achievements to date are a self-made film charting a relentless twenty-four hours in the smoke (‘Finisterre’), a musical score accompanying a documentary history of the South Bank’s Royal Festival Hall (‘This Is Tomorrow’), and an ambitious pop concept album revolving around the residents of a block of flats in Highgate (‘Tales From Turnpike House’).
If all that art and culture sounds a little heavy, well, the actual music couldn’t be any more different. While the term ‘perfect pop’ gets bandied around a little too often these days it really does apply here. See, what you get with ‘London Conversations’ are 35 of the most peerless pop moments from the last two decades. Effortlessly straddling the genres of girl-singer indie, loved-up dance, experimental electronica and ‘60s beat groups, Disc 1 covers off chronologically all the hits and should-have-been-hits. Naturally, those early Popstarz bangers are present and correct alongside the brooding, dark throb of ‘Like A Motorway’, the gossamer-light London ballad ‘Hobart Paving’ and the heart-tugging mini-soap opera ‘Sylvie’. What’s astonishing hearing them one after the other is the sheer consistency on offer, begging the question: have this band ever released a bad single? No less compelling or consistent, Disc 2 scoops up an embarrassment of exotica including lesser known singles and significant album tracks. Oh, and ‘I Was Born On Christmas Day’ – easily the best seasonal song of all time not sung by The Waitresses.
Cheers, then, to Sarah, Pete and Bob and cheers, too, to two decades of sublime and soulful London pop. They always did it their way. The good news is that London Conversations marks the start of a comprehensive reissue programme of the entire Ets’ catalogue, a project which will see all of the band’s albums reissued in deluxe packages with bonus rarities and key remixes. Hopefully it will also prompt a long-overdue reappraisal of one of our too often overlooked musical treasures. I could honestly bang on all day about how important and underrated Saint Etienne are, but in the meantime I’ll leave you with a quote from Disc 2’s affecting tear-jerker ‘Teenage Winter’. We can only stop and wonder why the Great British Public opted, and continues to opt, for rubbish like Oasis over stuff like this:
Mums with pushchairs outside Sainsbury’s, tears in their eyes
They’ll never buy a Gibb Brothers record again
Their old 45s gathering dust
The birthday cards they couldn’t face throwing away
Teenage winter coming down