Primrose Hill, Staten Island
Chalk Farm, Massif Central, Gospel Oak, Sao Paolo
Boston Manor, Costa Rica, Arnos Grove
San Clemente, Tufnell Park, Gracetown, York Way

Videoton, Clerkenwell, Portobello, Maida Vale
Old Ford, Valencia, Kennington, Galveston
Holland Park, Studamer, Dollis Hill, Fougeres
London Fields, Bratislava, Haggerston

Lavinia, Canonbury, Alice Springs
Tooting Graveney, Baffin Island
Pollard’s Hill, Winnepeg, Plumstead Common
Hyderabad, Silvertown, Buffalo

Halfway through ‘Girl VII’, the fifth track on Saint Etienne’s début Foxbase Alpha, a barrage of names spring forth over a militaristic drum beat. A mix of the nearby and the far flung, the passage offers an early window into their worldview where London’s enclaves offer something as exotic and exciting as more overtly glamorous global destinations. By the album’s penultimate track, ‘London Belongs To Me’ and its hazy, idealistic vision of the city (“Took a tube to Camden Town, walked down Parkway and settled down” it begins) their mission is complete. In the same way that classic love songs and albums use details and situations as framing devices for broader ruminations on personal relationships, so Foxbase Alpha does with place. At its core it’s about London, yes, but it’s also arguably a document of falling in love with your surroundings and the accompanying youthful exuberance.

The fact that that it contains such universal – timeless, even – central themes is emphasised by the manner in which it still manages to beguile and charm a quarter century after release. It’s a fact that’s surprising even to those who made it, with Bob Stanley exclaiming “obviously not!” when asked if he envisaged playing it twenty five years after release. We’re speaking in the aftermath of the band having put the album to bed once and for all via two suitably celebratory nights at Heaven, though the album’s final-ever play through in the UK, if not ever, would come – in a move that’s either an act of either brilliant contrarianism or is just downright bemusing depending on your point of view – at a weekend festival at Bognor Regis Butlins. “ We didn’t imagine playing it five years later” he continues “most bands have a lifespan of five years, like the David Bowie song. We thought that if we were lucky we’d get five years.”

“Most bands have a lifespan of five years, like the David Bowie song. We thought that if we were lucky we’d get five years.”

The band have been periodically dusting off their début for full album shows for several years now, an experience which Stanley candidly admits has been one he found “very emotional”. He adds “Playing an album in its entirety that’s so old means you get a lot of emotions that you can’t quite put your finger on, a lot of vague memories that come into your mind as you’re hearing it all the way through. It’s quite moving, but we’ve gotten fairly used to it now because we’ve done it about eight or nine times.”

For most artists, creating a body of work that resonates with people – and an early body of work that resonates twenty five years after release – is the stuff that dreams are made of and, reflecting on Foxbase Alpha and its final hurrahs, Stanley is no exception. “It’s nice to be able to look out and see all those people who would have bought the record when it came out,” he says “some of them had brought their kids, who didn’t look like they were there with a gun to their head, and it’s wonderful. It’s hard to think of something that’s more satisfying, and it’s hard to think of a situation where you can get such satisfaction for the work you’ve done.”

The record, and the project that would eventually gain a sense of permanence, Saint Etienne, was the by-product of two music-obsessive childhood friends from Croydon – Stanley, and Pete Wiggs (the booklet for the expanded CD version of Foxbase Alpha contains a fantastic photograph of the pair as toddlers). In the fallout of the 1980s, an era that Stanley has described as “like a fanzine world”, the pair noticed the winds were changing and in its place came a time where “anything goes if you can dance to it”. There was a musical landscape which had a “huge, obvious gap for people using samples and conventional English pop melodies”. With late 80s dance culture and the wilful experimentation of OMD’s Dazzle Ships as reference points, the pair soon struck in 1990’s early doors with an audacious cover of Neil Young’s ‘Only Love Will Break Your Heart’ which deftly transposes the original’s 3/4 timing into a theoretically implausible, club friendly 4/4 and created an immediate indie-dance hit. It would have been a chart hit too, were it not for the alleged oversight of the artwork having the barcode printed in pink, meaning it wouldn’t scan and thus register sales. The pair backed it up with a cover of period indie heroes’ The Field Mice’s ‘Let’s Kiss And Make Up’. Stanley, using his position as a music writer, shrewdly included them in a piece about up-and-coming bands, on the back of which Polydor offered them a deal (they’d eventually go with Heavenly). Things were on the move.

“We didn’t really know what was going to happen,” reflects Stanley on those early steps “when we recorded ‘Only Love Will Break Your Heart’, we didn’t know if it was going to come out. We thought it was good enough for someone to release it but we didn’t know that was going to happen. For our second single we used a different singer and we planned on using a different singer on each record, which was very much in vogue at the time.” But amid all the attention that the group was getting at the time, what was the catalyst for deciding the right time to make an album? According to Stanley, it came out of a position of practically more than anything, “it’s the same for most bands who make a single that does quite well who get told by the label that they need to go off and make an album. At that point our first two singles were cover versions and neither me or Pete had written a song in our lives so it was a case of having to go into the studio and make some songs. That was our job, and there are certainly worse jobs to have to go and do. That was it, as simple as that. Jeff Barratt at Heavenly saying ‘we need an album, head off and go make one now.”

saint-etienne-joe-dilworth-04

The band will be the first to concede that the making of the album involved a large amount of figuring things out on the hoof, with even vocalist Sarah Cracknell’s eventual full-time recruitment being a happy accident and unexpected move away from their planned revolving cast of vocalists. We recorded so much stuff around that time that I think it got to the point that we all thought we could probably sequence it and it would sound like an album” says Stanley “the expanded version that’s coming out has an extra disc that’s almost as much material again as the actual album – it could maybe have been a double album if we’d been a bit bolder! With every album we’ve done since we’ve gone in to record an album, but with Foxbase it was about recording as much stuff as possible and seeing what worked and what didn’t. It was an experiment or a project, really.”

“I don’t think we had any real idea beforehand of how we wanted it to sound” he continues “We took all the things that we loved in pop music – be it psychedelia, funky drum breaks, girl group harmonies – and tried to put it all into that record, because you don’t know if you’re going to have a chance to make another album, to an extent. But back in 1991 you had bands like Carter USM and The Senseless Things, these grubby pub guitar bands, and they were something that we definitely didn’t want to be. On the flipside, over the horizon, there was something that we did want to be, but we didn’t know how to get there. For us, the way to get there was to make music that had some of our favourite ingredients.”

Much of the commentary surrounding the album has centred around its use of samples and dance leanings, but at its heart lies a pure pop sensibility, seen on the likes of ‘Spring’ and ‘Nothing Can Stop Us’ and also in the personnel of Field Mice producer Ian Catt and Sarah Records hired gun (and maestro of bedsit pop under his Another Sunny Day moniker) Harvey Williams. “We wanted to have at least some songs on it that had traditional verse/chorus structures. Me and Pete were both big fans of the Brill Building way of writing,” explains Stanley “that idea of getting in the best producers and the best musicians and getting in an arranger – and we did that with the people we knew or had contact with. So we had Harvey playing bass on ‘Only Love Will break Your Heart’, who I’d known for years back when we were penpals, bizarrely, and massive Beach Boys fans. So we wanted to make records in a classic…I don’t want to say hit factory style, because we didn’t know if we were going to have any hits, but by using the best people around that we knew, to try and make something that sounded the best it possibly could, on very limited means. I think the whole album cost £4,000 to make. It was really cheap.” For reference, in the sleevenotes for the expanded version of 1993 follow-up So Tough manager Martin Kelly claims that “the album cost £16,000 to record, which is nothing. The samples [which liberally peppered the album] cost £30,000.” (The band, unsurprisingly would cease using samples on future albums.)

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