Saint Etienne: London's musical laureates

From council estates to mansions, Saint Etienne are perhaps the only band to capture the teeming variety of the capital

The last few years have produced a clutch of brilliant London records, from Lily Allen's carefree skips and the Bug's apocalyptic beats, to Burial's underground explorations. But they are wards of a greater sonic metropolis, along with Waterloo Sunset, Up the Junction, Inner City Life and many others. There is one band, however, that offers a fuller representation of aural London – Saint Etienne.

With a series of albums reissued last week, it's the perfect time to look at the London topography and anthropology explored by this band. They don't just focus on, say, the pampered insouciance of Camden, or the grimy railway arches of London Bridge; their vision of the city takes in school-run mums, paranoid Rastas, pissed-up lads and Sloaney schoolgirls. Jangling 60s guitars sit next to electro, art-pop and fuggy dub, often in the space of one album.

I was told recently that affluent Londoners have a north-by-northwest arc: they begin in Hoxton, move to Stoke Newington for their late twenties and early thirties, then Tufnell Park for when the kids start school, before finally ending up in bucolic Hampstead. Saint Etienne have their own arc of London life across their albums: bushy-tailed and central on Foxbase Alpha, troubled and in zone 2 on So Tough, escaping via Tiger Bay to the sophisticated American tourism of Good Humor and Sound of Water, before returning to hug the capital in Finisterre, then moving to the suburbs for Tales from Turnpike House.

With Finisterre, they collaborated with Paul Kelly and Kieran Evans on a 60-minute film of the same name; a collage of quotes, album tracks and London imagery (available with the album reissue). It's actually rather slight, a handsome and defanged affair that could have been commissioned by Boris Johnson, perhaps suggesting their increasing comfort.

However, it's another collage, So Tough, which is for me their masterpiece and ultimate London statement. Having lived in the capital for just two years, I find London a troubled, frantic place, full of desperate people from every background. But its glutted exhaustion yields hard-won rewards, and So Tough charts this struggle. The whole thing is stitched together with bursts of musical flotsam, and quotes from Peeping Tom and Billy Liar ("A man could lose himself in London!"). Has any other band distilled a whole city like that, from the estate to the mansion, across morning, noon and night?

Saint Etienne's albums Finisterre and Tiger Bay are available now.


Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
New music: Beat Connection – Think/Feel (Saint Etienne remix)

The laid-back grooves of the Seattle foursome's original are given a makeover by indie-pop royalty

Michael Cragg

19, Dec, 2012 @9:36 AM

Article image
Saint Etienne: Words and Music By Saint Etienne – review

Alexis Petridis: Is pop music something you grow up and grow out of? No way, say Saint Etienne – time just adds to its power

Alexis Petridis

10, May, 2012 @2:29 PM

Saint Etienne – review
Cracknell, Stanley and Wiggs rustled up some Christmas magic despite a melancholic chill in the air, writes Caroline Sullivan

Caroline Sullivan

19, Dec, 2010 @10:30 PM

Article image
Saint Etienne to soundtrack children's TV series
Indie veterans provide theme song and score for cartoon described as 'Teletubbies meets Spirited Away'

Sean Michaels

17, Aug, 2010 @11:09 AM

Article image
Saint Etienne: why London's still calling

With their eighth album about to be released, Saint Etienne take Michael Hann on a guided tour of London, the city that has coloured so much of their work

Michael Hann

05, May, 2012 @11:05 PM

Saint Etienne, ICA, London

ICA, London

Alexis Petridis

17, Aug, 2002 @3:10 PM

Saint Etienne, Palladium, London

Palladium, London

Dorian Lynskey

16, Dec, 2003 @2:45 AM

Pop: Saint Etienne, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
It no longer matters how Saint Etienne have survived; it's just nice that they have, says Maddy Costa

Maddy Costa

15, Sep, 2008 @11:01 PM

Article image
Saint Etienne to release first new album in seven years
Indie veterans' new LP addresses the 'problem of landfill pop'

Sean Michaels

25, Jan, 2012 @12:45 PM

Article image
Saint Etienne: Home Counties review – finding Arcadia in the Brexit heartlands

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

01, Jun, 2017 @9:15 PM