Ahighly conceptualized group established by two longtime friends, England’s Saint Etienne set out with the idea to blend the sounds of 1960s pop with modern-day, dance-club rhythms, although co-founder Bob Stanely at one time declared, “We’re a pop group. We’re not a dance group,” as quoted by Magnet magazine’s Fred Mills in 1998. Nevertheless, Saint Etienne, a trio that also included pal Pete Wiggs and vocalist Sarah Cracknell, helped establish a brand of music known as indie-dance as a viable genre within Great Britain. Creating music born out of an eclectic array of influences, including the songs of Glen Campbell, George McCrae, the Fall, and the Beach Boys, Saint Etienne perfected the art of combining pure pop with both alternative and avant-garde elements. A popular act and a major attraction in their homeland, Saint Etienne gradually continued to win over American fans throughout the 1990s. After nearly a decade recording together and performing throughout Europe, Saint Etienne initiated their first “proper,” tour of the United States in support of the 1998 album Good Humor.
The origins of Saint Etienne date back to the early 1980s with the childhood friendship of Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs, both natives of Croydon, Surrey, England. Early on, the two never planned on forming a band, preferring record collecting and fiddling with tape recorders to actually learning how to play instruments. Some of the pals’ favorite records included albums by the Fall and the Beach Boys, as well as 1970s soul and early-1980s electronic productions. However, it didn’t take long for Stanley and Wiggs, like their idols, to begin dreaming of their own pop songs, concert performances, and television appearances with their names prominently emblazoned on the bass drum. By the time they reached their teens, the boys began making party tapes together, often adding film dialog into their diverse mix of music, and also started contributing to fan magazines.
After high school, Stanley and Wiggs put their musical ambitions aside to enter the work force, though Stanley fulfilled to some extent his personal interests as a music journalist, writing for such publications as Britain’s music press weekly Melody Maker. Disillusioned by the state of pop records at the time, Stanley teamed up with Wiggs again in 1988 (some sources say 1989), hoping that the two could show the rest of the world how to improve upon the current output of popular music. Adopting the group’s name, Saint Etienne, from a French football team, Stanley and Wiggs intended to incorporate the uplifting feelings expressed in pop classics from the 1960s and 1970s into songs that sounded current.
Moving to the town of Camden, the duo resumed the pastime that had brought them together as children and
Members include Sarah Cracknell (born on April 12, 1967, in Chelmsford, Essex, England; former member of Love Cut dB and Prime Time; joined group in 1991), vocals; Bob Stanley (born on December 25, 1964, in Croydon, Surrey, England; former music journalist), keyboards, programming; Pete Wiggs (born May 15, 1966, in Croydon, Surrey, England), keyboards, programming.
Released debut hit single “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” 1990; released debut LP Fox Base Alpha, 1991; nominated for the U.K.’s inaugural Mercury Music Prize for Fox Base Alpha, 1992; released Tiger Bay, 1994; had first U.K. top ten hit with “He’s on the Phone,” 1995; signed with Sup Pop and released Good Humor, 1998; toured worldwide, including perfromances for the first time in the U.S., 1998-99.
Addresses: Record company —Sub Pop, 1932 1st. Ave., Ste. 1103, Seattle, WA, 98101, phone: (206) 441-8441, fax: (206) 441-8245, e-mail: [email protected], website: http:www.subpop.com. Websites —Saint Etienne: http://www.saint.etienne.net; Saint Etienne at Sub Pop Records: http://www.subpop.com/bands/stetienne.
started recording songs and sending out tapes. In early 1990, Saint Etienne signed a contract with a small label, Heavenly, and released their first single a few months later in the spring of that year. The song, an upbeat cover of Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break You Heart,” recorded with Faith Over Reason’s Moira Lambert on vocals, was an instant success; not only did it become a British dance floor anthem, but “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” also edged into the top 100 in the United States. In late-1990, the pair followed with another dance floor/underground hit single, “Kiss and Make Up,” a cover of a song by an indie-pop groupcalled the Field Mice. This time, St. Etienne enlisted Donna Savage of the New Zealand band Dead Famous People to take on vocal duties.
In need of a permanent female vocalist, Stanley and Wiggs expanded the lineup to include a glamorous blonde singer named Sarah Cracknell, a veteran member at the time of the dance group LoveCut dB, a former member of Prime Time, and “blessed with a set of pipes that would make Dusty Springfield’s mother blush,” asserted Mills. Cracknell, raised in Windsor, England, spent her early years at a convent school in Ascot and briefly attended stage school. “Rather than auditioning, which is a bit embarrassing for everybody,” Cracknell recalled of her joining Saint Etienne, “it was just, ‘Let’s go in and do “Nothing Can Stop Us,” and see how that works.’ I think we just got on so well and are sort of likeminded that they thought they might as well keep me.,” Soon thereafter, the group released the self-penned “Nothing Can Stop Us Now,” in 1991. The addition of Cracknell helped Saint Etienne develop a unique sound that was at once sweet and unsettling. While Cracknell joined as a full-time member, Saint Etienne would continue to bring in guest vocalists from time to time, including rap artist Q-Tee, Tim Burgess of the Charlatans, Stephen Duffy, Shara Nelson (a former member of Massive Attack), and French pop singer Etienne Daho.
In October of 1991, Saint Etienne released their debut album, Fox Base Alpha, which made the British charts and in 1992 earned the band a nomination for the United Kingdom’s inaugural Mercury Music Prize. With striking tracks such as the previously released singles “Nothing Can Stop Us,” and “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” as well as “London Belongs to Me” and “Like the Swallow,” the band’s debut won favorable press. “It’s worth remembering,” noted Rough Guide to Rock contributor Justin Lewis in an appraisal of the debut, “that Saint Etienne were trying to reinvent Britpop three years before most of their contemporaries—and with a great deal more imagination.”
Subsequently, Saint Etienne gained a strong following in England and throughout the rest of Europe. A cult following in the United States also discovered Saint Etienne. 1992 gave way to a series of singles, including “Join Our Club,” “People Get Real,” and “Avenue,” that further cemented the band’s popularity. In March of 1993, the trio released a second album for Heavenly in the United Kingdom entitled So Tough (Warner Brothers issued the record in the United States) that included the songs “Avenue,” “Mario’s Café,” and “Calico.,” That same year in November, the band returned with a collection of B-sides called You Need a Mess of Help to Stand Alone. Again, both efforts earned favorable reviews and maintained the group’s dedicated fanbase. Saint Etienne concluded the year with Xmas ’93, a holiday EP featuring the exuberant “I Was Born on Christmas Day” and a cover of Billy Fury’s “My Christmas Prayer.”
Another full-length album, Tiger Bay (released in the United States by Warner Brothers), appeared in February of 1994. Although largely overlooked by the American market, the release contained notable songs such as “Hug My Soul,” and “Former Lover.,” Taking a hiatus from writing and recording new songs, in 1995 Saint Etienne released a complete singles compilation entitled To Young to Die: The Singles that illustrated the group’s development in both style and content. The album also included a new song, “He’s on the Phone,” that finally gave the trio their first British top ten hit at the end of 1995. Casino Classics, a collection of Saint Etienne remixesby the Chemical Brothers, David Holmes, Andrew Weatherall, Underworld, and Aphex Twin, appeared in October of 1996.
In 1998, after signing with Sub Pop, an independent label based in Seattle, Washington, Saint Etienne arrived to rave reviews with a new full-length LP entitled Good Humor. With this effort, the group abandoned the use of sampling altogether; instead, Saint Etienne opted for session-musicianship and a clean, sleek sound. However, at the same time they managed to maintain their unmistakable pop sound—maturing without losing their sense of fun. Highlights from Good Humor included the disco-sounding “Sylvie,” the Burt Bacharach-styled “Bad Photographer,” and the Beach Boys-inspired “Mr. Donut.” A well-received EP, Places to Visit, followed in 1999.
After returning from their four-year absence, Saint Etienne toured worldwide in support of Good Humor. They had never played in the United States, except for a single music-industry performance in New York City that the band considered a disaster. “We were always keen [on touring in America], but nobody ever asked us.” Cracknell told Los Angeles Times writer Mark Boehm in June of 1999. Warner Brothers, the band’s United States label through the early, 1990s, “never seemed to think [touring] was a good idea,” and repeatedly declined to front the band the money needed to play in the United States, according to the singer. The major label believed that Saint Etienne, a pop and dance outfit rather than a grunge or new punk act, wouldn’t attract large enough audiences in American to make a tour worthwhile. Unlike Warner Brothers, Sub Pop felt differently and allowed the band to plan dates in several cities in the United States.
In addition to writing music and recording with Saint Etienne, Stanley, Wiggs, and Cracknell participated in other projects. Stanley and Wiggs became active producers, songwriters, and remixers for other artists as well. In 1989, Stanley founded Caff Records, a label that released singles for bands such as Pulp and the Manic Street Preachers. In 1991 (some sources say 1992), Wiggs teamed with Stanley to found the Ice Rink record label, home to Oval, Earl Brutus, Golden, and for a brief time Shampoo. Meanwhile, Cracknell guested on David Holmes’ 1995 album This Film’s Crap Let’s Slash the Seats, and in May of 1997 released a wellreviewed solo album entitled Lipside (issued on the Total label). A single from the LP, “Anymore,” reached number 39 in August of 1996 on the United Kingdom charts. Because of problems with Cracknell’s ailing record company, Lipside was not issued in the United States and Canada until February of 2000.
Foxbase Alpha, (U.K.) Heavenly, 1991; Warner Brothers, 1992.
So Tough, (U.K.) Heavenly, 1993; Warner Brothers, 1993.
You Need a Mess of Help to Stand Alone, (U.K.) Heavenly, 1993.
Xmas ’93, (EP), (U.K.) Heavenly, 1993.
Tiger Bay, (U.K.) Heavenly, 1994; Warner Brothers, 1994.
To Young to Die: The Singles, (U.K.) Heavenly, 1995.
Cassino Classics, (U.K.) Heavenly/Creation, 1996.
Good Humor, (U.K.) Heavenly, 1998; Sub Pop, 1998.
Places to Visit, (EP), Sub Pop, 1999.
MusicHound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1999.
Boston Globe, December 10, 1998.
Chicago Tribune, December 14, 1998.
Los Angeles Times, June 1, 1999; June 7, 1999.
Magnet, November/December 1998, pp. 57-59.
Melody Maker, May 11, 1991; April 25, 1992; May 1, 1993; September 5, 1993; October 23, 1993; November 27, 1993; December 11, 1993; December 24, 1994; October 28, 1995; November 11, 1995; November 15, 1997; August 21, 1999.
Rolling Stone, August 5, 1993.
Village Voice, August 3, 1999.
Washington Post, May 21, 1999.
“Saint Etienne,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 8, 2000).
Rolling Stone.com, http://www.rollingstone.tunes.com (March 8, 2000).
Saint Etienne, http://www.saint.etienne.net (March 8, 2000).
Saint Etienne at Sub Pop Records, http://www.subpop.com/bands/stetienne (March 8, 2000).
“Saint Etienne,” Rough Guide to Rock, http://www.roughguides.com/rock/entries/entries-s/SAINT_ETIENNE.html (March 8, 2000).
Sarah Cracknell info. page, http://www.members.tripod.com/~GlamourpussSpice/scadata.html (March 8, 2000).