“When I was ten, I wanted to explore the world.”
Pop begins here.
In a bedroom in the North, the South, the East or the West, softly-lit thanks to the scarf thrown across the lamp – just like Bolan’s, or Bowie’s, or Agnetha’s, or Kylie’s. It comes through headphones black and bulky, or small and cushioned. Down the canal to the drum, the hammer, anvil and stirrup. To the brain, to the blood, to the bones, to the heart.
“I used Top Of The Pops as my world atlas.”
And then we go somewhere wonderful.
Saint Etienne have been away. They left their friends in Turnpike House, pulled the door, turned the lock. That was 2005, a lifetime ago. The morning sun took them in different directions. Across London to the South Bank and the Festival Hall, where they spent a year around its long, lovely corridors as artists-in-residence. Then they made This Is Tomorrow, their tribute to the venue’s half-century. Sarah lent her honeyed vocals to DJ Mark Brown and scored a Top 20 hit with The Journey Continues; Pete hid in his Sussex studio complex turning out glorious remixes; Bob wrote a book that told the story of pop from the beginning.
They also made silver slivers of music together: Method Of Modern Love, Foxbase Beta, Christmas records for their fan club, and revisited and remastered their back catalogue – from Foxbase Alpha to Finisterre. These re-issues were a timely reminder of how much Saint Etienne meant to us, because it was hard to recall a time before we knew Nothing Can Stop Us or Only Love Can Break Your Heart, or Avenue, or He’s On The Phone, or Sarah Cracknell’s smile: “London’s musical laureates” they were now called, “perhaps the only band to capture the teeming variety of the capital.” Pitchfork described the sound of 1991 debut Foxbase Alpha as “an imaginary year-round summer.” The Guardian brought up their “consistently wonderful songwriting.” Eight albums, sixteen Top 40 hits, almost as many Top Of The Pops appearances. Someone mentioned “national treasures”
It has been 21 years.
“Over the border, I’m growing older, heaven only knows what’s on its way.”
Words and Music by Saint Etienne takes us through a life in pop music. It is about energy, rhythm, electricity, sound. How it feels when a chord takes you to another planet. How a lyric can change the course of your life. How a set of notes can catapult you back to a time and a place, to a sensation, deep, alive and true. And how that felt when it first arrived – a shock at first, jolting everything. Then like a balm, light and colour, your best friend, your whole world.
“It would be there for me. It would be there, for me.
And when I was married, and when I had kids, would Marc Bolan still be so important?”
These new songs remind us – demand of us – that this feeling can still be.
In 2011, Saint Etienne went into the studio. They spent three months playing and recording with people they had worked with over the years: long-time collaborator Ian Catt, KLF & Sugababes producer (and one time Rubette) Nick Coler, Girls Aloud lynchpin Tim Powell, and their newest firm friend and partner in crime, Richard X. They took the spirits of high disco, metallic house, Brill Building pop. They took the preset rhythm, the sampler, the fireside warmth of a string quartet, the strange and important sound of the synthesiser. They took song titles that said much about pop things they have loved: Popular, Answer Song, I Threw It All Away. They jumped, faster than before, into that racing green MG, put their foot on the accelerator, and took to the streets.
“Ghosts of an ancient song seem to hide in many places,
Bringing back so many faces.
And I know that it’s been too long,
but the spirit’s in the air.
It’s like the tunes are everywhere…I want to go.
I can’t escape, I’m sure you know.”
So here we are in mock-Tudor houses having our first kisses. Here we are coming home, seeing the alluring lights of the fair. Here we are in the club, waiting for the last song. Here are the years moving forward, people we have lusted after, loved and lost, so many reminders of mortality in the drumbeats, the guitar strings, the backing vocals. There is sadness here too, but pop music is about that as well. It is about desire and despair, life and death, about every emotion. It is about everything.
Saint Etienne are back this year to remind us about what matters. That the magic of the charts, of Top Of The Pops, was – and still is – about reality, as well as fantasy. That pop can take everyday lives and make each moment sing. And that it is there for older people, younger people, all people, wherever their bedroom, their music, and their memories may be. Any time, anywhere, and for anyone.
Most of all, Words and Music… tells us this: that pop never ends.