Martin Gray casts a retrospective look at the era-defining debut album from Croydon’s finest eclectic pop alchemists.
Good grief, is it thirty years already that Foxbase Alpha, the astonishing debut long player from Saint Etienne, made its first appearance onto the world? Evidently so, it seems. Not long after having charmed us already with a trio of perfectly-crafted pop-dance nuggets, two of which were inspired cover versions, and a third which sounded for all the world like a swinging ’60s golden moment (which it effectively was anyway, of which more later) re-strung and re-shaped as a soundtrack for the new carefree E-fuelled optimism that the early 1990s club scene instigated.
The origins of what was to eventually become Saint Etienne were conceived in the late 1980s by two childhood friends Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs who first met at primary school-age, and both developed and cemented their enduring friendship through an obsessive passion for music, books, TV and film, football (hence the name of the band they settled on) and all kinds of esoteria. Both were self-confessed nerds at consuming and collecting the various ephemera that these provided, and it was inevitable that at some stage this passion would branch out into actually making their own music.
This duly came, albeit initially via very rough home recordings using nothing more sophisticated than a couple of tape recorders and a lot of hit-and-miss experimentation. Such wanton disregard for the traditional approach to making music by forming a band with a few other kids and rehearsing at their parents’ garages or whatever (neither confessed to having much interest in being musicians when they started Saint Etienne) was ultimately what became their maverick stock-in-trade once inspiration began to truly take hold and, together with a whole raft of available material found through their record collections, the concept of Saint Etienne slowly but surely started to coalesce.
Acid House and its seismic impact on club culture
By 1988 – 1989 (the so-called Second Summer of Love), everybody and their dog was dropping E’s and streaming as one to the empty airfields where huge open air all-night ‘secret’ raves were taking place. It was a truly exciting time to be young – and not so young – as there was a palpable sense of optimism at the imminent passing of the decadent and materialistic 1980s which in turn ushered in a new found optimism for the new decade to come. And in many ways it felt like that, with the first signs of the death throes of Thatcherism happening. The much reviled Prime Minister stepped down in 1990 after the Poll Tax Riots – a mass national revolt of defiance partly instigated by the same clubbing community that acid house raves galvanised into action to resist and challenge authority – effectively brought her tenure to an end.
Bob and Pete were excited by the way in which dance music and club culture could be used as a means of sticking two fingers up to the establishment. And indeed they found great company in plenty of kindred spirits across the various scenes who felt more or less the same way. Both were already journalists writing reviews for the weekly music papers – Bob in particular was a notable name appearing in the Melody Maker (and later NME), but even so, they wanted to have a crack at the pop lark themselves, inspired by so many others before them.
Saint Etienne is born
Thus Saint Etienne was finally conceived in 1990, the name taken from the French football team, just because, in Bob’s words, they liked the sound of it, nothing more, nothing less. They made their mark quickly with an audacious and magnificently inspired dub-meets-Balearic debut single, a cover of Neil Young’s plaintive 1970 acoustic ballad Only Love Can Break Your Heart, recorded in just hours for the princely sum of a few hundred quid.
The song was an otherworldly delight: a tripped out, hazy, lazy shuffle with some gorgeous filmic atmospherics and a spaghetti western, tumbleweed aura conjured up by the heavily-reverbed production. An eerily distressed honky-tonk piano playing out the catchy motif along with a cavernous dub bass underpinned everything, whilst on top of this floated an almost spectral vocal from guest singer Moira Lambert. It was almost as if King Tubby had hitched a ride on a train bound for Brixton and Clerkenwell rather than his native Jamaica.
A second cover version followed a few months later – this time a faithful rendition of a dance track Let’s Kiss And Make Up by indie pop legends The Field Mice, which further boosted the profiles of both bands (Saint Etienne shared personnel and producer/engineer: Harvey Williams and Ian Catt respectively). A different female singer fronted this song: Donna Savage from venerable Australian indie popsters Dead Famous People.
Sarah Cracknell enters the fray.
After two different singers, the band were divided as to whether or not they would pursue their original intention of having *just* guest vocalists on all future tracks, as they regarded with great admiration the likes of many other acts who featured guests, such as Massive Attack to cite but one example.
Sarah Cracknell was previously in a short lived indie band Prime Time with guitarist Mick Bund, who also later played in Felt (sadly Mick passed in 2017), but she was asked by Bob and Pete to contribute vocals on Nothing Can Stop Us, the first self-penned composition to be released as Saint Etienne’s third single in 1991. It was at this point that their new partnership gelled when they realised that Sarah could sing more than just one track, and they duly recruited her to lend vocals to other tracks on what would become their first album. Thus started a friendship and close collaborative relationship which would last for the next thirty years, and endure to this day. The duo now became a trio. They were ostensibly The Champions – or Randall & Hopkirk/Hopkirk (Deceased) – of pop.
Foxbase Alpha reappraised
Released in mid October 1991, Foxbase Alpha was an audacious debut to say the least. It distils pretty much all of the sounds and influences that Bob and Pete loved over the decades, from their beginnings as infants and teenagers to the present day, with the club scene making such a giant impact on the musical landscape of the UK. Put simply, the 13 tracks serve as a musical travelogue of everything from public information films, to long lost but very much enduring memories of 1960’s Swinging London, Northern Soul, through selected reprisals of 1970s cultural ephemera (the artwork on the inner sleeve for example of ’60s and ’70s stars and sports personalities brings to mind the old schoolyard craze for Panini Stickers and Top Trumps), and then sleek modern dance/pop numbers, which then rub shoulders with dreamy semi-acoustic ballads and ambient/dub.
Eclectic is the word to describe Foxbase Alpha. And deliberately so. The abrupt shifts of style and tone from one track to the next, in some cases interspersed with dialogue, would be a Saint Etienne characteristic for much of the output for the next year or so (culminating in the equally diverse tour de force that was their second album So Tough, released in 1993, which took this approach and refined it further). Samples are taken from all manner of sources and weaved into the structures of – and around – the tracks, creating a kaleidoscopic journey into all weird and wonderful sonic territories.
The self-namechecking opener This Is Radio Etienne is a brief intro featuring a French Football radio broadcast lifted wholesale from an unknown, undated source, and this serves as a perfect prelude which pre-empts the first song proper – the aforementioned inspired cover of Only Love Can Break Your Heart. When placed in this context it really is stunning: without question one of the greatest – and indeed most uniquely original – cover versions I have heard.
Track three Wilson is another short instrumental diversion, this time featuring some sampled dialogue from an old 1971 decimal currency public information film but then juxtaposing it with sampled exclamations of ‘Come on auntie we’ll miss the bus!’ providing a complete non sequitur (another Saint Etienne trade mark which will be seen time and time again in many subsequent recordings) with which to baffle and amuse the listener. The title Wilson, incidentally, arises from the fact that the repeated sampled organ loop is lifted from a Wilson Picket cover of Hey Jude and not a reference to Brian Wilson (that would come later in their next two albums).
Sarah Cracknell makes her first appearance on the album on track four: Carnt Sleep, a dreamy somnambulant number replete with spidery rim-shots and a dub bassline topped with Sarah’s exquisite sighing vocals which perfectly suit the resigned and almost submissive mood of the track. It’s a beautiful moment of calm reflection which offers some space before the following track returns us to clubland with its big thumping house beats.
Girl VII could be Saint Etienne’s wry nod to Madonna’s Vogue, because it practically sounds like they had consciously cribbed from Ms Ciccone’s evergreen dance classic. Sarah coos her way through the verses in her now distinctive style, only to then come up with a refrain which has caused no end of amusing misinterpretation as to exactly what the words are that are being sung: Is it ‘Plays in her wigwam’? Is it ‘Helen’s had a breakdown’? No, it’s actually ‘Carrie’s got a boyfriend’. Lyrically, Girl VII is intriguing because the spoken bits name-check locations in London offset by random place names all over the world – which is where the nod to Vogue comes from : ‘Primrose Hill, Staten Island, Chalk Farm, Massif Central, Gospel Oak, Sao Paolo, Boston Manor, Costa Rica, Arnos Grove….’
Next up is probably the finest track on side one: Spring, which bases its backing track entirely on the divine 1960s (Northern) Soul classic The Time Is Right For Love by Bobby Reed. It does nothing so much as evoke perfectly that whole swinging ’60s feeling, right down to the vibraphone which opens the track. ‘Dry your eyes boy there’s no need to be sad’ sings Sarah on the opening line, and an entire generation of overgrown (middle-aged) teenagers – me included – weep as one. Just simply gorgeous, euphoric and swoonsome without compare.
She’s The One closes the first half with more sampled refrains (taken from I’m In A Different World by The Four Tops) before we hit the pause button and adjourn for a short break – courtesy of Richard Whiteley and Countdown – only for the second half to commence with more ’90s dance beats heralding the epic tripped out 7.5 minute instrumental odyssey into lysergic atmospherics Stoned To Say The Least.
This is promptly followed by THE hit single Nothing Can Stop Us, another sure fire exemplary pop moment that simply oozes pure 1960s nostalgic heaven, with Sarah in fine sultry form and the refrain cleverly sampling Dusty Springfield’s evergreen classic I Can’t Wait Until I See My Baby’s Face. Saint Etienne somehow manage to make this sort of thing sound so natural and effortless which is some achievement given their own – then – self-effacing confessions of being aimless amateurs trying to make the greatest pop record they can, despite their own inherent shortcomings as musicians.
A quick diversion with another experimental interlude, Etienne Gonna Die, which samples dialogue from the 1987 film House Of Games, before we return to blissed-out lovers pop territory with the sublime urban romance of London Belongs To Me, side two’s perfect companion piece to the first side’s Spring. Like the latter, this track utterly enraptures in its use of echo and reverb to evoke the most euphoric and ecstatic feelings of optimism and invincibility whilst in an almost dream like reverie: ‘Close my eyes/Breathe out slowly/Today the sunshine loves me only/To the sound of the World Of Twist/You leant over and gave me a kiss’. A beautiful sun-drenched vibe with flutes and harpsichords conjures up the perfect idyll of a blissful summer sojourn experienced through a soft-focus haze.
The album’s wayward, enchanting journey winds its way towards its conclusion with the penultimate track Like The Swallow which introduces itself in the first few minutes as a curious ethno-ambient – almost sub-tropical – moodpiece positively dripping with an aura of equal mystery and menace before faint beats are heard and the track eventually blossoms out into a richly lush and verdant passage filled with drones and backwards reverb effects; before everything winds down and exits the frame until all that is left is the sound of a lone – but hugely amplified – acoustic guitar picking out the notes to its fade. If Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells was reimagined as a post-rave chill-out dance track, it would probably sound something like this.
On then, finally, to Dilworth’s Theme, an elegiac piano lament which wraps up proceedings. More of a reprise than an actual track, it’s regrettably all too brief, suffice to point out that the titular subject is renowned music photographer, and drummer for Th’ Faith Healers and Stereolab, Joe Dilworth. Curiously, as if in full anticipation of the next chapter of Saint Etienne’s glorious musical odyssey, Dilworth is name-checked again in the opening track of their 1993 follow up So Tough, which provides a delightful sense of continuity and, if anything, shows how Bob and Pete’s vision for crafting these wonderful vignettes is based upon one which shows a meticulous and almost obsessive attention to conceptual detail.
Foxbase Alpha was only the first instalment of Saint Etienne’s enduring legacy of great albums. Bob Stanley strangely now looks back on the record with surprisingly less fondness than he did when it was released, saying that it doesn’t even figure in his top 6 of favourite SE albums as he found it too ‘uneven’ and ‘unfocussed’. Perhaps the shifting sands of time can have that sort of effect on one’s reassessment of their early work, who knows?
What is undoubted though is when this album was first unveiled, it marked a brave new dawn in how so many disparate influences from subcultures and genres past could be fused into one satisfying and truly spellbinding whole. It was in every way as influential and epochal a modern contemporary album released in that new decade as was Nirvana’s Nevermind, Primal Scream’s Screamadelica and the magnum ambient/dance opus that was The Orb’s Adventures From The Ultraworld. Truly conceived of – and perfectly encapsulating – its time, its appeal endures to this day.
In fact, it was still so relevant to some people that in 2009, noted remixer and producer Richard X re-configured the entire album in sequential order and released it officially as a new stand-alone album project for Saint Etienne under the revised title of Foxbase Beta.
All words by Martin Gray