The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


A Thumbs-Up To The People We Liked: How We Used Saint Etienne To Live
The Quietus , December 17th, 2022 09:42

In an exclusive extract from his new book How We Used Saint Etienne To Live, Ramzy Alwakeel looks back to the early tape experiments behind So Tough and Foxbase Alpha

Saint Etienne have been making and faking history in their own way for more than thirty years.

And if we want to tell the story properly, to understand how they first tangled memory up with Memorex then began to unravel it, then (just this once) we need to go back to the start.

That’s because the ideologies that shaped their first two albums – Foxbase Alpha in 1991 and So Tough in 1993 – could be said to have left their mark on everything that followed.

It could even, perhaps, be said that everything that followed was a memory of these original exercises in memory. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

My mum didn’t buy records very often when I was little, presumably because she was busy.

For some reason, though, I’ve never forgotten the ritual that accompanied them: she would record each LP onto tape straight off the bat, right the way through, generally as soon as we got home from the shops, without even a dry run to check for defects, which I suppose meant my mum and the C90 got the same first pass at the music, their memories as blank as each other.

Probably she just wanted to make a clean copy of the album before the grubby, curious fingers of a three-year-old could examine the playing surface.

But perhaps the reels captured some ghost in the machine, too, a memory of what the music sounded like before it became familiar.

At roughly the same time as all this, Bob Stanley is doing something similar with a cassette machine on the other side of the Channel.

It’s a Saturday evening in 1990 or 1991, and Bob’s tuned the radio to a long-wave sports station, where – he hopes – veteran football reporter Jacques Vendroux is about to say the name of the French Ligue 1 team AS Saint-Étienne.

Since Saint Etienne is also the name of his band, Bob reckons it would be funny to put a recording of this moment at the beginning of their debut album.

But each time he presses the “record” button, he knows only that this might be the take that becomes an indie classic. Equally, he knows it might just be one of Vendroux’s tangents, a segment that he’ll be winding back and taping over in a couple of minutes with a sigh. Every recording he makes is a record of his own not knowing.

Suppose this is the one. Right now, Vendroux knows even less than Bob. He is unaware that the next forty-three seconds of his broadcast will be the only ever totally live performance of ‘This Is Radio Etienne’, the track that will land more or less unedited at the start of Foxbase Alpha. Imagine the pressure. Every pause, every intonation, echoing through dance music history at 1.875 inches per second.

Fortunately, Vendroux hasn’t been briefed. He believes the words coming out of his mouth are his own, little realising he is someone else’s soloist, an honorary Saint for one night only. Forty-three seconds of fame. When Vendroux finally says “Saint-Étienne” with the tape rolling, it is the punch- line to a phonographic joke he doesn’t know he is telling, in a language Bob will never get round to translating. ‘This Is Radio Etienne’ is a machine with its own ghost, a memorial to not knowing – a record of two men who are respectively unsure and unaware that they are making a record. Is it obvious? Perhaps every new Saint Etienne fan gets one shot at hearing it like this before the waveform collapses, before the script and the timing become familiar and the track for them too becomes a memory instead of a discovery.

Collaging past and present

Three-quarters of a minute isn’t much in the grand scheme of things but, when you’re listening to a low-quality recording of a sports commentary in French, the seconds do mount up.

The Saints would rarely leave the tape running for so long. While making those first two albums they showed a clear preference for much smaller fragments of audio, s(p)licing up other people’s work like questions in a general knowledge round: a few seconds of this, a few seconds of that, a bassline, a quote from a film, a handful of notes from a soul singer.

Considering the legal hysteria and extortionate price tags attached to sampling in the early Nineties, this was a bold strategy – especially given that Saint Etienne didn’t actually clear all the material they used on original pressings of Foxbase Alpha. They were the KLF’s better-looking younger siblings, and they knew it.

Rock music history tends to pinpoint the origin of sampling in the 1940s, in the emergence of musique concrète and its use of “found sounds”. But I would suggest going further back, to the peripatetic folk music collectors of the early twentieth century who travelled the country and the world trying to “capture” the traditional songs of different cultures using emergent recording technologies or the best they could approximate through notation – because, if they weren’t actually mixing these songs and sounds together, then they were nonetheless beginning the industrial process of placing music from one context into another that was ill-equipped to understand it.

Sure enough, raids on the work of Black and indigenous performers would prove a goldmine for white DJs and record execs in the 90s, a racialised extension of those projects from decades earlier. But hip-hop artists like De La Soul, Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys had been doing it in reverse, sampling existing hits and, in the case of the KLF, literally setting fire to money.

It was in the latter tradition, whether through innocence or design, that Saint Etienne emerged, not so much collectors as vandals. They stole from the rich. They deterritorialised music and film by saving the wrong elements of it – never the hook or the chorus of a song but some odd piece of instrumental or half a line from a verse, fragments of dialogue that didn’t make sense on their own, blasts of sound distorted by low-quality kit and everything pasted into their albums like scrapbooks while other musicians put their plundered treasures behind glass. An educational record about decimal currency was chopped up so it sounded like someone’s aunt trying to sell drugs. Key scenes from Peeping Tom and Billy Liar were reduced to meaningless outbursts between tracks. It was like they were making ransom notes from whatever they had to hand.

Bob: The samples on So Tough started out being favourite lines of ours from films – mostly from films, bits of TV, a few interviews. They ended up being almost entirely British films and TV because American stuff was impossible to clear, even then. It was kind of the peak of paranoia about people sampling and getting away with stealing other people’s songs or work, when the fees that companies were charging were briefly astronomical.

It was really just cutting up and collaging our favourite work, and giving a thumbs-up on record to people that we liked – we were big Madness fans, and Soft Cell as well. And obviously British kitchen sink cinema too, so there are bits of Billy Liar, That’ll Be the Day, a film called Made that starred Roy Harper, and The Family from 1974, which was incredible, pretty bleak, the first reality TV show in Britain.

Pete: The way we approach most things stems from the way we used to do fanzines. We used to do silly collages for each other just to make each other laugh, and tape compilations and stick bits in between — we’d always do that. It’s probably just informed the way we work in general. We’d take comics and cut out bubbles from one comic and put it on another. The Radio Times – we’d do that cut-up sort of thing, change all the descriptions of programmes and things.

Apart from ‘This Is Radio Etienne’, which came straight off a live broadcast, most of what St Et used as building material in the early 90s was old. The TV shows were repeats, the films were black and white, and the singles were second-hand. But the effect wasn’t at all dated – the samples, though they were recognisably drawn from decades gone by, were cut up and strung together in a merciless way that invoked turntablism and tape edits (and, for that matter, daytime program- ming and FM radio) more than classic cinema or soul records.

The way Saint Etienne refract glimpses of the past through the lens of the present is kind of how it feels to be an adult remembering childhood. This isn’t a coincidence. Children are useful metaphors in the Saints’ story because childhood is when we believe most strongly in magic, and because children are modernists – they represent the existence of a future. (When Richard X and Saint Etienne remade Foxbase Alpha track ‘Like the Swallow’ in 2009, they got children to sing what had originally been Sarah’s vocal, which made it sound like the song had gone backwards and forwards in time at once.)

They blurred past and present in other ways, too. St Et’s breakthrough hit in 1990 was a cover of ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ by Neil Young, a waltz originally released when the Saints were children, its bones broken and reset into a shuffled 4/4 beat and given a piano house makeover so chic and aching you knew it must have cost virtually nothing to make. Saint Etienne love covering songs in new styles: they released three more as singles between 1990 and 1993, and their fanclub albums included charming if unusual takes on classics dating back to the 50s. But half the time their own songs had a quality that was older than the old stuff – you’d probably (wrongly) have guessed that ‘Spring’ and ‘Hobart Paving’ were covers, because it quickly turned out these self-professed amateurs were actually among Britain’s best songwriters.

To complete the effect they used their record sleeves as a sort of revisionist time travel, alienating and immortalising images originally created for entirely different uses – paintings, news photography, family snaps, library pictures. Inside the cover of Foxbase Alpha they reprinted more than two dozen photos of film and music stars from the 60s and 70s; they later put the album’s deluxe edition inside a giant Subbuteo figure painted with the 1970s AS Saint-Étienne strip. For So Tough, instead of putting a band photo on the front like a normal group might have done, the Saints decided on a 70s polaroid of Sarah at the age of six: an image shot by her father around the same time as the Beach Boys released the album So Tough was named after.

In short, the Saints’ first two albums are an overlay of every decade in the second half of the twentieth century, film and half-inch tape stuck together by the same idle hands that made those fanzines. Bricolage was their homage. To the Britpop bands on the rota for the NME cover around the same time, having an eye on the past meant actually trying to be the Beatles or the Kinks, but Saint Etienne – who loved the 60s and 70s as much as anyone – mostly came out sounding prodigiously and obnoxiously current.

Bob: It’s always annoyed me when people say we’re retro because I really don’t think we are. We’re always conscious of making something that sounds like it’s been made in the time it’s been made, because what else are you going to do?

Borrowing the best parts of the past but living in the moment and creating something new from them – that’s modernism. At least, that’s my definition of modernism.

How We Used Saint Etienne To Live by Ramzy Alwakeel is published by Repeater Books