Cover Versions, Gone but not forgotten, Hard-to-find

Under The Covers With Sarah Cracknell

Cor! Eh? You beauty! (Nudge, Nudge). Knowotoimean? (Adopts Sid James cackly wheeze). I mean, ‘oo wouldn’t? Eh? Eh! Ow’s yer father? Eh? Eh? She’d get it! And no mistake! Let’s slip into sumfink more comfortable, shall we?

Yeah, let’s slip into something more comfortable. Like the honeyed tones of La Cracknell and her backing band of boffins and beard strokers tackling some of the finest moments in thinking man’s pop. With mixed results. Saint Etienne annoy me. Not in the way that wasps annoy me. Or paper rustlers in the cinema. Or blue-blooded ‘n bigoted Rangers fans. Or those paranoid green-tinted Cel’ic supporters and their uncouth manager after a decision goes against them. But Saint Etienne get my goat. I can’t put my finger on it or tell you exactly why. There’s no one reason. I’ve got tons of their stuff, vinyl and CD, bought in faithful chronological order as and when released, up to a point around How We Used To Live. I’ve always liked their way with a sixties-inspired piece of London pop and the sly wink of an eye towards the reference points therein. They’re a true ‘record collection’ band, that’s for sure, but with that comes a feeling that they’re just a wee bit too hip for their own good, just a shade too arch for those in the know and slightly smug in the knowledge that no-one is quite like them. Suffering from something of an identity crisis, they’re too ‘indie’ for pop when they themselves’d probably consider themselves too pop even for pop.

That said, they probably wet their collective knickers when asked to produce a version of Kylie covered Nothing Can Stop Us with a coolness that even Sarah would find difficult to cultivate. This was Kylie BH (Before Hot Pants), the Kylie of mid 90s hell, when only Nicky Wire and ironic students paid her any attention. And here she was, covering obscure, non-charting singles built around old Dusty Springfield samples. Of course. Great version, Kylie! Really!

Saint Etienne’s best known cover is surely Only Love Can Break Your Heart, a pre-Cracknell track where they dismantled whiny old Neil Young’s campfire strumalong of angst and re-tooled it as a Soul II Soul-styled shuffler for the dancefloor. But you knew that already. Dig deeper into the Saint Etienne ouvre and you’ll find all manner of cover versions. Available on the rare-as-can-be fanclub-only Boxette, you’ll find their version of David Bowie‘s Absolute Beginners. I saw them do this live, at the Mayfair in Glasgow, with a pre-fame Pulp supporting. I’ll need to dig out the ticket some time, as the band’s name is written as St Etiene, with one ‘n’. Anyway, their version was rubbish that night (no Bowie aping bap-bap-ba-ooos, surely the best bit?) and the studio version, despite the inclusion of the aforementioned bap-bap-ba-ooos, remains kinda rubbish to this day. Some shouty sampled bit or other by the boys whilst Sarah sounds like a Dalek on downers. Not their finest moment. Maybe they should’ve tackled The Jam track of the same name instead.

On the Deluxe Edition of So Tough, you’ll find them having a go at Teenage Fanclub‘s Everything Flows. A staple of TFC’s live set since their first gig, Fannies fans froth at the mouth for its meandering Neil Youngesque solos and melancholic ruminations on life. Saint Etienne, surely having a laugh at our expense, render it practically unlistenable. Now, some folks say that the best cover versions are when the band takes the song and makes it their own (see, for example, Only Love Can Break Your Heart), but when the heart and soul of the track (in this case the insistent, wailing guitars) are replaced by synth washes and a politely skittering drum machine so bland a yoga teacher would have trouble chilling out to them, well, you can imagine….

Going some way to redeem themselves, this year found Saint Etienne taking a shot at the holiest of holies, The Beach BoysWouldn’t It Be Nice. It‘s not bad – starting acapella before morphing into a soft focus mush of warm harmonies, ticking clocks and half-speed backing tapes, keen scholars of Wilson pop will easily spot the odd nod to the Smile-ear Barnyard amongst the mix. See – they’re too fucking smart for their own good, that Saint Etienne.

I love ’em really. Wrinkles ‘n all…

Hard-to-find, Sampled

Get Filthy with Sarah Cracknell

Wouldn’t you love to? The ironic thing is, the track in question doesn’t even feature Sarah Cracknell on vocals, but it is one of the best Saint Etienne tracks you’re ever likely to hear. This is not a media hype

‘Filthy’ began life in 1991 on the b-side of ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ and features the enigmatic (and 15 year old) Q-Tee on vocals. It’s dubby and spacey. There’s a bit of wah-wah which may well have been sampled from an obscure 70s soul record, a looped drum break that could’ve come from the same record, a cracking (sampled? probably) bassline that’s been looped to infinity and even a glockenspiel solo at one point. I used to get quite annoyed that my copy on 12″ sounded like someone was frying bacon on top of it. Years later I got ‘Filthy’ on CD and I realised the vinyl crackles and pops had been added for effect. Actually, maybe they haven’t. They might be crackles from the original vinyl that had been sampled when jigsawing the track together. I hadn’t thought of that until now! 

Q-Tee

On top of the fantastic music and the snaps! crackles! and pops! you get Q-Tee’s vocals. Starting out like a sexy version of PIL’s ‘Public Image’, “Hello? Hello? Hahahaha!”, they are husky, half-rapped, half-spoken and half-sung (can you have 3 halves?) and they make the track what it is –  a b-side that should’ve been an a-side. I think Saint Etienne themselves recognised Q-Tee’s contribution to the track, because they got her back to rap on ‘Calico‘, when they recorded the ‘So Tough’ LP. They also appear to have realised how good a track ‘Filthy ‘was, because it’s been available in at least 2 other versions since 1991.

In 1995, Saint Etienne teamed up with French chanteuse Etienne Daho, to form St Etienne Daho. They released a 5 track ep, half in French, half in English. (Halves again!) On it you’ll find a re-working of ‘He’s On The Phone’ called ‘Accident (Week-End à Rome)’ that’s pretty good, but the ep is worth getting just for the track ‘Jungle Pulse, which is ‘Filthy‘ sung in French. Etienne Daho sounds like MC Solaar rapping on the top. Sarah adds a whispered French thingy in the background and the whole track rolls along nicely. C’est magnifique.

In February this year, Saint Etienne released ‘Boxette‘, which compiles all their hard-to-get and highly collecatble fan club only ep’s and albums. A collector’s wet dream, it has all the Saint Etienne you’ll ever need spread over 4 CDs. It was only available through their fan club and sold for £25. It now goes for around £100 on eBay, so start saving or look below…..The first disc is brilliant. There’s not one bit of filler on it. ‘Filthy‘ makes an appearance, this time under the guise of ‘Studio Kinda Filthy’.  A bit less dubby but a bit more echoey and a whole lot more spy film, it’s equally worth having. Extra points too for the old-school sampled BBC announcer at the start.  

Do di do di do, do, di, do di do, do di do di do di do di, do di do di do!

Elsewhere on ‘Boxette‘ you’ll find their version of David Bowie’s ‘Absolute Beginners’ (Not very good to be honest. Neither was it when I saw them play it live in 1991). Anyway. I don’t normally post whole albums of stuff that are available and/or new, but as ‘Boxette‘ was limited to 3000 copies and has long since sold out and been deleted, in these credit crunch times save your eBay pennies and click on these links:

CD1               CD2               CDs 3 & 4

Poke about and you’ll find all the artwork you need and you can fashion your own Blue Peter-style Saint EtienneBoxette‘ box set. I did and it looks great!