Saint Etienne – Tales From Turnpike House

It may just be me, but I seem to hear Saint Etienne everywhere. I’m talking about shadows and suggestions, echoes and intimations. But then the real thing comes along, and Saint Etienne have shimmied and sidestepped expectation, and things have moved on again.

It’s been said before, but when they come to write the dissertations, and all the deconstructions and doctorates are done and dusted, I hope the point is not lost. For how Saint Etienne subtly smashed the system was by mastering the art of being all things to all people. Rather handy, it’s been, as their name grants an entrée to any strata of society.

Like, when colleagues corner you and ask the dreaded question: “So what music DO you like?” the words Saint Etienne are a godsend. Everyone seems to know or have a soft spot for the Etienne. So when eyebrows were raised at arms aloft, shirt off antics, it was okay to say: “Oh, I’ve been at it since K-Klass learnt to spell. You should come up and see my Saint Etienne 12s sometime.” If you then blew it by saying you swore by an old Network techno compilation with John McCready sleevenotes mentioning Life’s Tell Me, then that’s fine as the most snobbish electronica anorak approved of your Saint Etienne vs Aphex Twin Who Do You Think You Are 12.

And if the headz behind the record shop counter in the discreetly logoed limited edition t-shirts looked down their noses at the Etienne vamping it up on the Radio One roadshow, they would drool into their goatees at the funky 45s Bob and Pete played down the Social. Then when the coffee bar philosophers gathered to put down the party people, it was good to state that present company excepted no one now could do more with a feather boa than Sarah. So the debate would continue about whether she was thee role model for the emerging Fabians jet set, flitting between Prada and Primark, the Third Way and Home And Away. And when the light was only provided by a scented candle and the talk turned to books, we would declare for Douglas Coupland and never resist mentioning his sleevenotes for the gorgeous Good Humor set and then speculate on what his favourite song was. Pale Movie was always nominated, and it would then be suggested the title comes from Brautigan, and naturally the line “rain falls like Elvis’ tears” is pure Brautigan.
And when homely souls said the Etienne were quintessentially English, it was easy to agree and say not even The Clash dropped as many London references. And one day someone would light out for the territory and trace the routes (roots!) of their lovers rock (though strangely not the Purley and Shirley of the south west). Then when the rootless internationalists claimed the Etienne as their own, it was only right to second this, pointing to Italian house piano magic and Fench disko bleeps and beats, Swedish flair and German adventuresomeness. And, yes, the mythical America of sitting around a Palm Springs pool swapping stories of dead pop stars and fallen footballers, with the Aphex Twin’s ambient works playing and the sun rising.
Whoops! I couldn’t resist inventing a Saint Etienne moment there. For really, home alone, that has been the power of their pop. They could be whatever you wanted them to be, and take you wherever you wanted to go. That’s not as easy as some would have you think, and that’s called magic.

But any Saint Etienne moment we dare to invent would have to be a special one to compete with the group’s own excursion into the world of moving pictures. The pop world is littered with the debris of ill considered forays into film making, but anyone that’s seen their Finisterre will know that Saint Etienne put together a piece of pop art that goes a long way towards capturing something special about London. Someone said to me recently that Saint Etienne were odd ones to be eulogising about the Capital as they’re native souls, but it takes one to know one.

So it’s appropriate that the latest twist and turn in their tale finds them creating a London pop opera – a day in the life, and all life in a day of Turnpike House. It mixes lovingly observed detail with some of their most gorgeous melodies yet. It’s said that the best writers are the ones that can add local colour to their tales, key cultural references woven in among winning words, but that would mean nothing if the tales weren’t worth telling. Saint Etienne are suddenly saying a lot about the state we’re in, the way only lovers can speak the truth, and they’re saying it with a lyrical beauty Lionel Bart would be unable to better. And yet they can still be distracted by those mirrored disco balls, and fall foul of fooling around on the dance floor like they’re at someone’s wedding and so it goes round again—like only a Saint Etienne record can…