Bob Stanley: soundtrack of my life

The Saint Etienne co-founder and music journalist on the eccentricity of the 80s, the liberating effect of sampling, and the untapped gold mine of pre-rock'n'roll crooners

Born in Horsham, Sussex in 1964, Bob Stanley worked as a quantity surveyor, record shop assistant and journalist before entering a Croydon studio with a childhood friend, Pete Wiggs, in the late 80s. After an aborted effort at an acid house track, they produced a cover of Neil Young's Only Love Can Break Your Heart, "four samples and a piano line", with vocals by Moira Lambert. Stanley and Wiggs released the track under the name Saint Etienne, borrowed from the French football club, and it was a hit. After using several vocalists on their debut album, 1991's Foxbase Alpha, they added Sarah Cracknell to their ranks, going on to produce seven more LPs, the most recent being 2012's Words and Music by Saint Etienne. Stanley, who continued his journalistic career while in the band, has just published Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop.


FBI, the Shadows (1961)

The first record player I ever had was a wind-up gramophone, a hand-me-down I was given by my parents. And they gave me their scratchy singles from when they were teenagers. One of them was FBI by the Shadows, an instrumental track. I would have been about five or six at the time and I loved instrumentals. I used to like listening to the incidental music that was on TV when the test card was on. FBI was formative for me. When you're a kid, you hear a noise, a complete sound. And in a way that's never really gone away. I became a big fan of film soundtracks, John Barry's especially. A love of instrumentals filtered through [into my later life].


Until I Believe in My Soul, Dexys Midnight Runners (1981)

I was lucky to be a 15-, 16-year-old in the early 80s. There were a lot of people, post-punk, who were really going out on a limb. Eccentric characters, very individual, people like Adam Ant, Nick Heyward and Kevin Rowland. I remember doing homework in my bedroom, listening to Richard Skinner's show on Radio 1. Dexys did a live session in 1981 and I recorded if off the radio on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. One of the songs was Until I Believe in My Soul, which absolutely blew me away. It was the most intense record I'd ever heard. It didn't come out for years: they rerecorded it for Too-Rye-Ay in 1982 but it sounded different; I was disappointed. I kept this memory of hearing the live version on radio for 15 years, until they released it on CD [on The Projected Passion Revue in 2007].

Dexys were fascinating. Instead of doing interviews they put adverts in the press – essays, manifestos, "this is what we believe". That was formative for me, having a group you could believe in that much. Later [in St Etienne], we purposely never signed to a major label because we always wanted to be in control of our artwork, and to choose the singles. Dexys were the influence for that.


Al-Naafiysh, Hashim (1983)

Around 83 or 84 I was working in a record shop. An Our Price in Epsom. The charts in the UK were getting quite stodgy and dull. Phil Collins was the biggest pop star in the country. It wasn't a great time for pop. When electronic music came along in the early 80s it sounded brand new – the sound of the future. This song by Hashim was the standout song for me. Entirely electronic, very atmospheric, with hard, crisp beats; it didn't sound like anything I'd heard before. Hashim [real name Jerry Calliste Jr] was just a kid, a teenager in New York, but what he created was very exciting.


This Charming Man, the Smiths (1983)

I was 18 or 19 when this came out. I'd just finished my A-levels and was working as a quantity surveyor in Beckenham. It was really dull. One day the boss asked me to wash his car, and I thought, that's it, I'm gonna go and work in a record shop. This Smiths record was an escape for me. I must've played it 20 times when I first bought it. I even had a quiff at the time. A short-lived quiff.


Everybody in the Place, the Prodigy (1991)

When I was working in Our Price I couldn't play an instrument, but then records started being made that made me think I could do something myself. Samplers were invented. I was visiting a friend in Wallingford in Oxfordshire. A sleepy, country town. I went to a record shop and bought Everybody in the Place. This typifies the sort of music that was being made in Britain in the late 80s and early 90s. Very DIY, using samples. It encouraged me and Pete – Pete Wiggs, who I'd known since we were kids – to go into a small studio in Croydon with a pile of records and do something ourselves. We'd already tried to make an acid house record and it sounded terrible; now we did Only Love Can Break Your Heart. That threw us in at the deep end.


My Love Is Your Love (Forever), the Isley Brothers (1966)

When I met my wife, my ex-wife, I was DJing in Liverpool. I played this Motown record by the Isley Brothers and she danced to it. She was the only person dancing. I started talking to her afterwards and that's how we met. That's a special song for me; we're still close, still good friends.


Council Houses by Denim (1996)
We were making records during the Britpop era, living in London, going to clubs, seeing these people in pubs… But it was strange, we never really felt like we were part of it. Some groups we did feel a kinship with. Pulp were one. Another was Denim, who never had any hits, but made a couple of albums. The song Council Houses, from their second album, was amazing. It mentions [Bauhaus founder] Walter Gropius in the lyrics. Incredible! That someone had the confidence to write a song about modern architecture with a really catchy chorus. Council Houses was witty and smart and it made me think we could do more with our lyrics. Like Jarvis Cocker, Lawrence [Hayward, Denim frontman] was a great lyricist, and he inspired us to try a bit harder. The title track from our 2002 album, Finisterre, was definitely influenced by Lawrence's writing.


The Finger of Suspicion, Dickie Valentine (1954)

I've just published a book [Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop] that I'd just started writing when I met my girlfriend, Tessa. The chapter was about pre-rock'n'roll music. I was listening to a lot of that at the time. Dickie Valentine was a British crooner – this song is very sweet, sentimental. Tessa and I whistle it around the house. I didn't know a lot about pre-rock'n'roll stuff before writing the book. But I realised while I was listening to it that a lot of it I recognised – from being really small and being at my grandparents', and they'd have Guy Mitchell and Frankie Laine on Radio 2. The music's double-edged for me now: it's childhood comfort music, and it's new and exciting, because early 50s music is really undocumented. They were million-sellers and No 1s – and nobody references them now. I find that interesting. I love digging into obscurity.

Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop by Bob Stanley is published by Faber (£20)

This article was edited on 30 September 2013 to correct the spelling of two names


Interview by Tom Lamont

The GuardianTramp

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