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Apr 00

PROPER LONDON: Saint Etienne – “Foxbase Alpha”

FT//3 comments • 3,119 views

April 2000, Piccadilly

The sun comes out over London and the Summer starts: everywhere you look you see people in love, snogging on the tubes and holding hands on the escalators so you can’t get past them. Baggy shorts and halter tops all over the place, kids sitting together on Eros and choking on the traffic fumes, everybody walking slowly, tourist couples clogging doorways. You need a lover yourself to cope with it all: if they’re not there or not anywhere, then you need a walkman. You could play gloomy music all day again, I suppose, but the weather isn’t going to change on your say-so. It’s nearly May and the city’s coming to life: time to dust off those Saint Etienne albums.

May 1999, Highgate

Saint Etienne aren’t all about London – some of their stuff is downright rural – and they’re not really even about London as it is. They’ve always had intensely Europhile tendencies (from the name on) and Foxbase Alpha sounds like a band trying to reimagine the city as a dreamy Anglo-continental metropolis, where doe-eyed boys in indie shirts meet chic girls to drink high-class coffee in low-class caffs, and where a street in Archway or Dollis Hill could be in New York or Rome, except better, because London just is. Right at the heart of Foxbase you get “Girl VII”, their gorgeous pro-style, pro-London, pro-pop manifesto, where they mix up a bunch of London placenames with a bunch of exotic holiday destinations over frothy Eurobeats and guess what, it’s all the same thing. London’s fantastic if you’d just open up your eyes and enjoy it.

April 1993, Tottenham Court Road

But then I don’t know what to think about London sometimes. Coming as a visitor, the city was always a treat, but I only ever went to the big shops on Regent Street and Tottenham Court Road, places which now seem overcrowded, unfriendly and crass. The big difference between visiting London and living it I think is bus travel. Before you start taking the bus, visiting the city is like beaming down to some Star Trek landscape: you arrive at a big station, then you’re whisked by tube to somewhere else, and then to somewhere else again, and none of those somewheres ever really add up in any physical sense. But once you live in London you end up using the roads a lot more, and the city starts becoming less of a tourist concept and more just a place.

November 1996, Wood Green

That’s also when you start to notice how horrible the centre of London is, and when you start to enjoy the bits where people actually live, out in Zones 2 and 3. London is a vast city – it feels much bigger than any other European city I’ve been to (Paris comes close, but it still feels somehow practical to walk around in Paris) and that’s why it’s so difficult to get a fix on the ‘identity’ of London, even after living or working in it for five years. Beefeaters and Horse Guards don’t even register, obviously, but nor in truth do street markets or living-room-style bars or the big Edwardian boulevards: everything feels like a bit of a different jigsaw puzzle. I only really feel like a ‘Londoner’ when I’m out of it – or when I’m experiencing the city through someone else’s filter.

July 1999, Green Park

Saint Etienne’s filter is more stylish than most, which earned them a lot of criticism at the time: here was a band in the process of imagining a London you could live, love and play in, instead of reflecting the decaying violent reality of the harsh urban etcetera. So of course they got accused of being elitist – a charge mostly and absurdly based on the obscuro 70s iconography scattered over Foxbase‘s sleeve. In fact “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”, their perfect debut single, captured a mood of open-armed anti-elitism: of course you had to understand to be a part of it, but once you’d made that choice you were welcome. They may have sung “Join Our Club”, but they never once gave an impression that they’d turn anyone away at the door.

August 1997, Notting Hill Gate

“Only Love…” was part and peak of a blissful trend: the dance scene starting to turn its dilated eyes on the rock past, re-inventing tracks by Bacharach or the Velvet Underground or Neil Young, scraping the myth-crusted surface in order to let the joy out. The song was one of Young’s mimsiest: Saint Et bumped it up with dub techniques and let the melody ride on a strolling house piano line and a choppy breakbeat, and the gap between irresistible confidence of that rhythm and Moria Lambert’s sleepily wandering vocal is what makes the song a classic. It’s subtle, too: for most of last decade, if you were in a band and wanted to remind your listeners that Britain was a bustling multicultural island, you would just end up getting a toaster in to do the middle-eight. Or latterly you might put a few trip-hop rhythms under an album track or two – and maybe call them ‘riddims’ in the presskit just so nobody missed the point. Saint Etienne’s genre-fusions are so complete you don’t even think they’re fusions at all: you just hear pop music, and love it.

July 1995, Streatham Hill

Foxbase Alpha isn’t nearly as good pop as Saint Etienne’s next two albums (let alone their best-of, Too Young To Die), but it’s surely the most purposeful and unique thing they ever did, an anticipation and redemption of a decade dominated by record-collection music and cool kids quoting film dialogue. There’s a dark irony in the fact that the ‘Cool Britannia’ we all got so sick of was built on a retro-glazed version of the sixties’ swinging London, when only a couple of years earlier Saint Etienne had helped build a London that actually felt cool and easygoing – and better yet one you could live in without feeling like you were selling out to the past. Of course the London of Foxbase Alpha is slippery and diffuse and maybe you couldn’t fit it on a T-Shirt, but that’s only because London extends a little bit further than Carnaby bloody Street and Soho.

April 2000, Southgate

It’s Sunday morning in North London and it’s raining: “Like The Swallow”, a sinister smeared folksong strung over juddering railway beats, catches the mood as well as anything could. London’s not all parks, walks and falling in love, some people say it’s an unfriendly city. Well, people won’t come up to you and hug you and they won’t tell you what your day should be like, but it’s where the films and the people and the pubs are, it’s cynical and tolerant and self-confident, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Comments

  1. 1
    Silenos on 19 Jun 2009 #

    Good piece here, and so very true of glorious Saint Et. Makes you want to quote some Betjeman – street bathed in winter sunset pink, air redolent of kitchen sink… the dying embers of the day over Chelsea, crimson load on load… etc – and pick up the old Larkin copy yet again from the shelf. Nice.

  2. 2
    Mark G on 21 Jul 2013 #

    I got the nice “Foxbase Beta” about a month ago, and although I’ve had the cd for some time, I got the LP in Oxfam last week and played it loudly this lovely hottest summer Sunday.

    Is the new one better? I can’t decide, can you?

  3. 3
    Mark G on 3 Jan 2014 #

    No I can’t, mark g. Nope.

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