The Independent review
4 stars out of 5
Saint Etienne, Barbican, London
By Nick Hasted
Published: 31 October 2005
On an Indian summer's evening in London, one of the capital's
most loved bands give us something special. Saint Etienne helped
set the template for Britpop in the early Nineties, reintroducing
the colloquial culture of cafés and cups of tea to the
charts, invoking an affectionate greasy-spoon bohemia. Their
landmark 1991 debut Foxbase Alpha married dance music to wistful
pop, though their magpie attitude since, absorbing everything
from Brian Wilson to electronica, has gradually eroded their
This is an ambitious evening. First they perform their soundtrack
to a new, Barbican-commissioned film, as it screens, then they
play their new concept album about a London tower block, Tales
from Turnpike House. It shows that Saint Etienne are still a
force to be reckoned with.
The film, What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day?, is the group's
second collaboration with the director Paul Kelly, after the
London elegy Finisterre. Concentrating on the Lea Valley, the
east-London ghostland of derelict industrial estates that once
dealt in plastic, petrol and printing, through which a teenage
paperboy dreamily wanders, Mervyn Day? is potently evocative.
Like an Iain Sinclair book, we see ugly, ordinary London through
Kelly's eyes, until its strange beauty begins to surface.
It is set on 7 July, the day after the Olympic announcement
that will mean development erasing this zone. Radio-news fragments
about the London bombings serve as an evil counterpoint. To
this visual hymn to the dream-London of their songs, Saint Etienne
add melancholy flutes, guitar pulses and choral harmonies. It's
a triumphant cross-media performance. At its finish, the band
are cheered as if they've played their greatest hits. The piece's
impact is proven at the interval bar, where everyone talks urgently
about their own slice of London. A primal sense of place has
The singer, Sarah Cracknell, takes centre-stage next. Girlishly
glamorous in a spangly top, she's a gawky dancer and a breezy
singer, embodying the band's amateur enthusiasm. The musical
masterminds Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs stay modestly behind
her on keyboards. Long past the success and fame which briefly
brushed them, they look like loyal old friends now, in it for
the long haul.
The audience, too, approaching middle age and standing up to
dance in scattered knots, have lived with the band since they
were young, deepening the affection that hangs in the air tonight.
The Turnpike House song "Teenage Winter", a ballad
about ennui and frozen hopes, seems to speak to them directly.
"Side Streets", by contrast, reminds us all of careless
youthful pleasures, and the dangers that can haunt them in a
city. "Got cash in my pocket to last the weekend,"
Cracknell sighs, over a hazy beat. "Got features I don't
mind, and would quite like keeping..."
The beautiful "Milk Bottle Symphony", describing the
murmur of music as a tower block's various inhabitants start
their day, then gives romance to every sort of life, dead-end
or not. It's strange to think that the music press used to attack
Saint Etienne for their supposed irony, when they offer a song
that is so intensely moving. The Arabic-tinged glitter-disco
of "Lightning Strikes Twice", and the liquid synths
and Led-Zep bass of "Last Orders for Gary Stead",
continue a career of genre-fusing.
The new single, "A Good Thing", then returns the band
lyrically to those mornings in the greasy spoon. The encore,
when they briefly dip into their past, adds a finishing touch.
On "Nothing Can Stop Us", the single that announced
them in 1991, Sarah Cracknell seems a star again, soulfully
singing this post-rave empowerment anthem straight to our hearts.
Like the band, it has deepened with age.
In February ’06, Saint Etienne will embark on a nationwide
US Tour—a rare treat for US fans! Cities confirmed include
New York, Boston, Washington DC, Chicago, Miami, Seattle, San
Francisco and Los Angeles. Details TBD.