Happy 25th Anniversary to Saint Etienne’s Foxbase Alpha, originally released in September 1991.
When most people recall British music in the waning years of the 20th century, they immediately conjure visions and sounds of the ephemeral Britpop and post-Britpop movements, fueled in large part by bands such as Oasis, Blur, Pulp, Suede, The Verve, Radiohead, Stereophonics, and Travis.
However, while these acts and many of their lesser-known counterparts of the era collectively produced a stellar, albeit somewhat homogenous recorded repertoire, the true halcyon days of contemporary British music preceded Britpop’s arrival by a few years. Indeed, as the ‘80s transitioned into the ‘90s, it was an incredible time to be a UK music fan. Synthpop vets like Depeche Mode, New Order, and The Cure were still going strong, as were indie pop stalwarts such as Everything But the Girl, The La’s, and The Sundays. The Madchester scene was enlivened by outfits like the Happy Mondays, The Charlatans, and The Stone Roses, while Cocteau Twins, Lush, My Bloody Valentine, Ride and Slowdive were among the most prominent purveyors of the so-called dream-pop slash shoegazing sound. Meanwhile, British soul and acid jazz were bolstered by a crop of magnetic talents including Brand New Heavies, Incognito, Omar, and Soul II Soul.
In parallel to—and arguably even more thrilling than—the emergence of these subgenres was the ascendance of progressive British dance/electronic music and the accompanying evolution of UK rave culture. Spanning the various styles of acid house to breakbeat to drum and bass to techno to trance and beyond, acts including 808 State, The KLF, LFO, Massive Attack, Paul Oakenfold, The Orb, Orbital, Primal Scream, and Danny Rampling defined the vibrant, indulgent club scene and elevated it from the margins of the underground to more mainstream acceptance, for better or for worse.
Formed in London in 1990 by fellow music aficionados and journalists Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs, Saint Etienne was one of the period’s most intriguing acts, if not one of the era’s most unlikely success stories. Neither Stanley nor Wiggs was a musician by trade, but they founded the group based on their mutual affection for pop music in its various forms and an open minded acceptance of sonic experimentation. “I never thought I’d be in a band,” Stanley recently confided to RTÉ, Ireland’s National Public Radio. “I wasn’t a musician and it was technology that made it all possible because we were all big pop fans and we had fairly large record collections and when sampling came along it was a gift.”
Beginning with their debut LP Foxbase Alpha, a seminal recording of the era released in September 1991, Saint Etienne convincingly blurred the lines between pop, indie and dance music, straddling the lines between retro and contemporary inspirations, all of which made for a kaleidoscopic, endlessly addictive sound. And ultimately, while their initial foray is stylish and catchy as all hell, it’s music of sophistication and substance to boot.
Foxbase Alpha—and the rest of Saint Etienne’s dynamic and varied discography, for that matter—is evocative of time, for sure, but also emblematic of place. Namely, London. Indeed, the group’s insatiable affection for their native city permeates their music and cross-media endeavors, most recently manifested on the silver screen via their multiple collaborations with filmmaker Paul Kelly: Finisterre (2002), What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day? (2005), This Is Tomorrow (2007), and How We Used to Live (2014). All must-watch material for anyone who has ever been seduced by the seemingly infinite charms of the UK capital. London is, in essence, the fourth member and guiding spirit of the band. And to reference one of Foxbase Alpha’s many standout songs, London most certainly belongs to them.
Though Stanley and Wiggs are the sonic masterminds behind Saint Etienne, both gentlemen have always been content to defer the lion’s share of the immediate spotlight to the more visible third member of the trio, the heavenly-voiced singer-songwriter Sarah Cracknell. While Cracknell has been the group’s lead vocalist for as long as most can remember, ‘twas not always the case.
Originally, Stanley and Wiggs envisioned Saint Etienne as a platform designed for multiple vocalists, a la London dance circuit compatriots Soul II Soul and Bristol sound system stalwarts Massive Attack. On Foxbase Alpha, three different vocalists can be heard: Moira Lambert (formerly of the London-based group Faith Over Reason), Donna Savage (of Auckland-based band Dead Famous People), and Cracknell. While the latter is the most prominent of the three across the entirety of the album and deservedly earned the permanent gig as a result, the three-headed voice heard on Foxbase Alpha certainly makes for an intriguing listen. Particularly so when coupled with its mellifluous, multi-textured mélange of house, disco, dub, folk, and pop influenced flourishes, which Stanley describes as “a scrapbook” and “stylistically all over the place.” Instead of a messy hodgepodge of incongruous elements, however, Foxbase Alpha is a gorgeous, gratifying pastiche of symbiotic sounds and expertly incorporated samples.
Attempting to cover Neil Young is considered an outright act of hubris in many circles. But Saint Etienne’s stirring, Lambert-fronted debut single and album opener “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” which was recorded in all of two hours’ time, manages to stay faithful to the original’s melancholy weight while transforming Young’s minimalist composition into a fresh and thrilling dancefloor-friendly affair. Propelled by multi-layered dub basslines, house rhythms, piano loops, and pounding drum breaks, the group’s interpolation sounds little like Young’s 1970 single, save for the equally plaintive power of Lambert’s ruminations. While the album version stuns, the various remixes orchestrated by the likes of Andrew Weatherall and Masters at Work are worth seeking out as well.
Not included on the 13-track UK and European pressings of Foxbase Alpha but subsequently added to the 15-track US companion release that arrived a few months later, the midtempo “Kiss and Make Up” is the album’s other cover, indebted to the obscure British indie band The Field Mice. Originally released in the UK as a standalone single featuring Savage’s vocals, the piano-driven house number was re-recorded with Cracknell for the US release.
Fueled by a sample of Dusty Springfield’s 1967 track “I Can’t Wait Until I See My Baby’s Face,” the buoyant throwback soul of third single “Nothing Can Stop Us” is an indisputable highlight, though plenty of other standouts abound. Atop a rolling groove bolstered by Cracknell’s emotive admissions, “Spring” is an endearing ballad framed from the perspective of a friend expressing her support and love for a heartbroken man. With lines such as “I've been watching all your love affairs / Three years now, don't you think I care / How many times have you looked into my eyes / Don't you realise we're two of a kind,” the song evokes and encourages a romantic rebirth of sorts with the coming of the new season. The dense dub basslines resurface on the yearning “Carnt Sleep,” a subdued and relatable ode to infatuation-driven insomnia.
Elsewhere, memorable moments include the soaring house soundscape and hypnotic, repeated refrain of “Carrie’s got a boyfriend” on “Girl VII,” the lush and dreamlike “People Get Real” (the second of the two US-only bonus tracks), and the propulsive instrumental track “Stoned to Say the Least.” The kinetic “She’s the One” examines the deplorable jealousy of “the girl who thinks nothing of breaking up two people in love,” with sampled vocals from The Four Tops’ “In a Different World” (1968) and a nod to The Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me” (1963) and “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)” (1962). Finally, with lines like “Close our eyes, breathe out slowly / Today London loves us only,” the aforementioned, downtempo “London Belongs to Me” explores finding bliss in the city one calls home and doubles as the group’s first of many love letters addressed to their beloved London.
“[Foxbase Alpha] had that first album syndrome, which is a good thing in that it was a melting pot,” Cracknell has suggested. “We thought `my god! We’re making an album and we might not get to make another one ever!’ so we really went for it.” And their ambition and musical adventurism paid off, both in the short- and long-term. Foxbase Alpha was shortlisted for the first-ever Mercury Prize back in 1992, but ultimately conceded the honor to another masterpiece of the period, Primal Scream’s Screamadelica. No matter though, as in the years since, Saint Etienne has crafted seven wondrously nuanced studio albums and a slew of compilations and mixtape-like collections, not to mention Cracknell’s underrated solo recordings (most recently the sublime Red Kite).
As Foxbase Alpha first made abundantly clear twenty-five years ago, and as each of their subsequent recordings has reminded us time and time again, Saint Etienne are an indisputable class act and will forever remain an (inter)national treasure.