You might recall that a few weeks ago I was re-running an old radio feature, the Artist of the Week, when as part of my radio show Music for the Masses, I would give a bit of history on an act. Let’s pick that up again with Saint Etienne. As always, apologies for any inaccuracies or omissions.
Saint Etienne are a group with a very unusual background. Before I mention anything else, I should perhaps make it clear: yes, they are named after the French football team, which probably makes them unique in one sense. However, their almost unrivalled technique of moulding modern beats to sixties melodies and beautiful songs makes them completely with parallel.
In the early 1990s, as acid house was in its wane, childhood friends Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs worked with a number of guest vocalists on several tracks which scraped the lower reaches of the charts. The best known of these is their cover of Neil Young‘s Only Love Can Break Your Heart, which just broke into the Top 40 in 1991. For the first album Foxbase Alpha, they tracked down a more permanent vocalist, who still remains with them to this day, Sarah Cracknell.
With their first two albums, they scored further minor hits and started to make a name for themselves, but they did not manage to break the top end of the UK charts until 1993’s sublime collaboration with The Charlatans‘ Tim Burgess I Was Born on Christmas Day. The subsequent third album Tiger Bay reached the Top 10 and yielded several substantial hits, including Pale Movie and Like a Motorway.
They followed this in 1995 with a compilation of the singles so far, which was heralded by their biggest single to date, the Motiv8-produced He’s on the Phone, before taking three years to rethink their strategy.
Unfortunately recent albums have failed to give them the success they no doubt deserve. 1998’s Good Humor brought us the fantastic singles Sylvie and The Bad Photographer; 2000’s Sound of Water barely broke the Top 40; and their most recent album Finisterre, released nearly two years ago, failed to make any substantial impact despite being one of their best albums to date.
However, that does not mark the end for Saint Etienne. They are currently in the studio polishing off their seventh full-length album, due for release early next year [in fact Tales from Turnpike House was released in summer 2005, roughly eighteen months after this was written], and just last week released another retrospective compilation for the American market, which included a couple of new tracks as well.
Astoundingly, they have now released nearly 200 tracks, hardly any of which will fail to grasp the listener with their strong imagery and beautiful songwriting.