Myth making has always been part of songs about places, particularly about America. For both British and American artists, America was often a place to fantasise about, infinitely more exciting than England. The British singer. Ian Hunter,for example, in Mott the Hoople and beyond, wrote a whole series of songs that reflected a fascination with the country through lyrics that mythologized the place, from Memphis to Central Park. More recently, Pete Doherty has done the same for England, with his lyrical themes round Albion.
London, too, has had its share of myths and the construction of an alternative reality. Over the past 20 years, the group St Etienne have referenced more London names in their songs than most artists, though like many chroniclers they are not natives of the place they describe so well, coming to the capital from Surrey and Windsor. There are several pieces by them that could have been included in a column on songs and places - Mario’s Cafe, their early nineties tribute to a cafe in Kentish Town, frequented by students from North London Poly; almost any track from the Tales from Turnpike House album, about life in and around a block of flats in Islington; Madeleine, which makes even the Holloway Road sound a dreamy, sun-lit place to walk down. And that is quite an achievement.
London Belongs to Me, off their 1991 album Foxbase Alpha, is perhaps not one of their finest songs but it epitomises the St Etienne view on London. An ethereal Sarah Cracknell drifts like a summer breeze over a musical wash of electric piano chords, simulated bells, the sound of heat and crickets. It is a timeless sound, the only thing tying it down being the line ‘To the sound of the World of Twist, You leant over and gave me a kiss’, (the World of Twist were a short-lived Manchester group of the early nineties).
The title has perhaps a double meaning. It is taken from a 1945 novel by Norman Collins,( later made into a film starring Richard Attenborough and Alistair Sims) about a group of tenants in Kennington in the run-up to WW2 and is a kind of love letter to London and the variety of characters in it. However, it also suggests that people endlessly create their own London -and no more so than St Etienne. The London of their songs is in a kind of parallel universe. Superficially everything seems the same but look a little closer and there are subtle differences. The reference points that everyone knows are there: Kentish Town, Camden Town, Parkway, Leicester Square .However, you move through a London that is sunnier, more cultural, sophisticated, more European, a cool and easy-going metropolis that is very definitely London but has echoes of Paris and Rome. There is a vibrant cafe culture, where chic girls drink coffee in bohemian caffs and young lovers stroll in the sun as though in the Parc des Buttes Chaumont rather than Regents Park. It is a seamless synergy of the modern and the past, especially sixties pop culture.
Yet the reference points of this are far from the Britpop and ‘Cool Britannia’ of the mid and later nineties, with the Union Jack motifs, the rush to lay claim to be the new Beatles/Kinks/Small Faces and the New Labour pastiches of Swinging London and ‘I’m Backing Britain’ of the Wilson government of the sixties. The St Etienne London here is that of Blow-Up and The Knack, of Georgina Jones of the Adam Adamant series. When, at the end of the film Billy Liar, Julie Christie sets off on the train to London, leaving Tom Courtney (Billy Liar) on the platform, this is the kind of London she would have arrived at.
The overall sound of St Etienne is always more than the sum of the parts. It has sometimes been likened to the music of a hair shampoo advert, of an open-top sports car driving past a corn field. That is true-it is supposed to. However, look below the superficiality and there is usually a crafted pop song with a layer of interpretation. Take the song Side Streets, from Tales from Turnpike House.
The lyrics of ‘no-go zone’ and ‘features I quite like and don’t mind keeping’ and the accompanying video showing Pete Wiggs striding purposefully through a landscape of tower blocks, graffiti, underpasses, pit-bull terriers, muggers, hoodies and possible rapists say one thing. The music, with its gentle bossa-nova rhythms and Sarah Cracknell’s soothing voice, says another. It is about reclaiming the streets, creating the world that could be.
It is relaxing visiting the London of St Etienne: there is a pastoral feel to the urban landscape, If you can’t find any rose-tinted glasses, put on some headphones and ‘just close your eyes and breathe out slowly, tonight the world loves you only'.
Link to song
Link to song