North London Food & Culture

Review: Saint Etienne, Heaven

The cult north London 90s band marked the 25th anniversary of debut album Foxbase Alpha with a run of sold-out gigs

St Etienne back in around 1990. Photo: St Etienne
St Etienne in around 1990. Photo: St Etienne

If you were a suburban teenager in the early 90s, at some point you would have stumbled across a band that was synonymous with the kind of ennui that seemed to cling to London’s outer regions. There was nothing ‘artisan’ about the suburbs then, trust me.

Like many other Zone 4 dreamers, I first encountered Saint Etienne – a trio comprised of Bob Stanley, Pete Wiggs and vocalist Sarah Cracknell – as a 15 year old. Instantly I fell in musical love: catchy tunes  (and unshakeable sense of cool) aside, the mysterious north London locations in the lyrics – Parkway! Archway! Tufnell Park! – had me hooked. I was soon skiving off school to get their records signed at HMV on Oxford Street, or sneaking out to late club gigs when I should have been tucked up in bed.

After a string of cult singles – the most famous being their classic cover of Neil Young’s Only Love Can Break Your Heart – the debut album, Foxbase Alpha, was released in September 1991.

And it’s this that the band played in its entirety over two sell-out gigs at Heaven this week. Why? To celebrate the long-player’s (really quite shocking) 25th anniversary.


St Etienne in more recent times. Photo: PR
St Etienne in more recent times. Photo: PR

What was most striking about walking into Heaven – the gay venue itself dripping with a slew of memories for Londoners of a certain age – was how frenzied the crowd was. No genteel bunch of fortysomethings (and beyond) was this: eager fans roosted in their dozens around a stall piled high with original memorabilia (Foxbase Alpha t-shirts! Babygros! Signed vinyl!); and the queue for the bar was a slow-moving five-people deep.

Being a nostalgia-fest, the vibe was, of course, incredibly good-humoured, with longterm couples snogging or cosying up as they awaited the main act. And the energy before the band came on stage was electric, massaged by an astute DJ (after impressive  support act Stealing Sheep) who aired some fine early 90s crowd-pleasers, from Bizarre Inc to Pet Shop Boys.

At Heaven. Photo: Hale O’Jones
A nostalgia-fest, for sure. Photo: Hale O’Jones

And, as the band took their positions to the strain of sample-driven opener This Is Radio Etienne, big hit Only Love Can Break Your Heart then exploded into the room. You could feel the emotion.

The rest of the album slipped by to the expected backdrop of brilliantly curated (and juxtaposed) footage, from black and white newsreel to surreal movies like The Wicker Man. I’d forgotten the strength of the album’s lesser-known tracks, too: Carnt Sleep, She’s The One and Like A Swallow, gently bolstered technically for the 21st century, sounded more muscular than ever; and Cracknell’s little-girl vocal was stronger, and more confident, than I remembered as a teenager. She even threw the odd shape, too.

The biggest whoops from the crowd? Why, Nothing Can Stop Us, of course, with its insanely addictive 60s-infused melodies and joyous lyrics, which – like all the best Saint Etienne songs – manages to balance sad with life-affirming.

Heaven. Photo: Hale O’Jones
Not a dry eye in the house: Sarah Cracknell and the boys at Heaven. Photo: Hale O’Jones

I imagined there’d be no encore – it was a celebration of one album, after all – but if anything, this was when the packed room really came alive, belting out the lyrics to all the best known hits: Who Do You Think You Are, the buoyant Join Our Club, an ecstatic You’re In A Bad Way (their biggest chart hit of that era) and the early nineties acid jazz of Filthy, featuring charismatic rapper Q-Tee. Credit should also be given to longtime backing singer Debsey Wykes, whose vocals and sly moves genuinely added to the mix.

As the show came to an end, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house for their 1993 masterpiece about unhappiness, Hobart Paving, which includes the haunting line: ‘rain falls like Elvis’ tears’.

An upbeat Kiss and Make Up – the early cover of indie band The Field Mice – rounded things off on a celebratory note, a track Cracknell explained they’d rarely played live.

As the lights came on, and we all realised we weren’t 16 anymore, comforting arms were flung round the shoulders of companions as we drifted out towards the Embankment, a nip in the air on a bright autumn night.

Want to find out more? Read Bob Stanley’s piece he wrote for us on the band’s 1993 track Mario’s Cafe here.

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