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.

Contributor

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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