So Tough – Saint Etienne
This Years Model – Elvis Costello
I was going to make a big list but I got a bit jaded with the idea of being the font of all knowledge on this. Uncertainty took over about how objective it could really be because I crave objectivity. Anyway I’ll just do it one at a time in no particular order.
This here is So Tough by Saint Etienne which came out in 1993. I like going on about this one because its not mentioned very much and not in anything like the splendid glowing terms I, David see it in. Rare for moi, I got this pretty much when it came out. From what I’d heard by them already, retrodelic, a bit Ibiza, a bit baggy, very DIY dancey I thought it was right up my street.
1993 was a bit of a political awakening for me. I had been doing a years work experience, Job Training Programme it was called at the time in a couple of libraries which was the first thing approaching a job I ever had apart from some voluntary work at Belfast Community Radio a station that eventually morphed into Belfast Classic FM ( I have digressed to to a few years earlier, 1990) That was fascinating but at the same time awful as I was surrounded by people who seemed to be actively trying to get somewhere in radio land. Maybe I was giving off some terribly awkward vibes but nobody bothered talking to me and left me to man the competition phones for this really terrible DJ Laurence John, though weirdly I loved him. Maybe I was just partisan for my DJ master. And it was exciting to see the wonderful Andy White come in one day who in my mind anyway was Belfast’s foremost pop star of the day. He did this show in the evenings where he played whatever he liked. One memorable moment for me was when he played the full Gonna be a Beautiful Night off Prince’s Sign Of the Times album. In my fantasies I had dreamed of being on the radio in some sort of Andy White posse but no, no. Problem was I was too nervous to talk to anyone let alone Andy and there never was a next time though no doubt that would have been the same. That was about 1990 I think.
That was a digression. Sorry. I will continue with my “political awakening”. For some reason working for the first time (in the library 1993) had made me all angry and passionate about things as it hadn’t been plain sailing as work never has been for me. This was mixed with a profound pleasure when I left at being released from the shackles of bondage. I was in a fantastically good mood but one of a kind I had never experienced before. Then I read Englands Dreaming, the seminal work on the history of punk. It blew my mind. By about September I think, I had joined the Socialist Workers Party which I suppose marked the end of my “innovative,” phase.
I’d always been interested in politics. My dad was a very intelligent man though I find it hard to remember much of what he said and difficult to to know where is sharp analytical view of the world came from. He was very opinionated. All I can say is that the way he thought was an inspiration to me and I’m sure to everyone who knew him. He passed on before he could be appalled by my increasingly leftwards direction.
Because I absolutely hate to alienate people and my mind is definitely more fragile than average active politics is a terrible thing for me to be into. For a start I have to support violence, well officially even though I don’t. There are different levels of this within revolutionary socialist groups. Basically we support self defence but there also tends to be an admiration for people who attack the police or destroy lethal technology etc. So already you can see I might be in too deep here already. I went through a dumb phase where I was quite excited by revolutionary violence but it was more like the movie If I suppose. Spectacular bombings used to appeal to me but only on an aesthetic level. I once thought that shooting Mickey Mouse would an ambiguous thing to do you know an actual person in a costume in Disneyland because it was so bizarre and unexpected. Unfortunately I was forgetting that I could never do that myself. Whenever I was in any dangerous politically active situation I would always hold back which I felt terribly guilty about. Now I feel lucky that I’m like this. Thankfully, apart from voicing sympathy for some violent action I never encouraged anybody to undertake it or undertake it myself. And I also feel that socialism has to be pacifist and revolutionary at the same time. Let it succeed or fail on that basis.
Before I became a Trot reading Englands Dreaming got me into this sort of violent aesthetic which as an aesthetic was very mentally even physically cathartic. It tied in with that Huggy Bear aesthetic (I refer to the riot grrl band) which came out around this time which was sort of as violent as you could be without actual violence ie it was still just music and I loved their little writings. Reading about punk and digging Huggy Bear made me realise that you can be intellectually violent and if you want just as repellent as actual terrorism without actually compromising yourself by hurting people. But i’m basically an angry but very optimistic hippie so I get pretty assailed by a lot of music which has the sad outweighing the happy eg Odessa by the Bee Gees which to me is as unlistenable as some people might find Metal Machine Music. So Odessa would be a bit like the way I cant listen to Neil Young or Bright Eyes or PJ Harvey or practically any of the hot albums of the last 20 years. I just don’t get sad music though I like wistful things like TS Eliot’s greatest hits. Because I love the Bee Gees based on their lovely hits i’m mentioning Odessa because I’m sure it must be a future classic after the critical elite get over themselves which they do usually about 20 years too late. Alternatively the rousing stuff is just overrated as I understand it better and it would be closer to my bag eg Stone Roses Oasis Blur Suede.
In 1993 I enjoyed Huggy Bear’s slamming of what was to become Britpop on their little manifesto inside their joint album with Bikini Kill. Their subsequent eclipse for whatever reason could be seen as the end of a last attempt to link music and political change in the savage modernist tradition which summons those primitive desires that Freud and Jung were revealing in the early 20th Century and pop and rock actually played out, but seemingly to have completely petered out by the 1990’s.
Part of the reason I joined the SWP (Ireland) was a social thing but I was now dealing with the orthodoxy of political action and I jumped in and for several years I was very committed to their style of politics.
It only takes a little doubt for a creative person not to take action especially when that action is, don’t laugh, world changing in aspiration, something which is attempting to challenge the status quo (well, its a hobby). Because the action needs to be more perfect than average cooking up something perfect on your own with no likeminded individuals is very difficult and filled with frustration and anguish at the wish to avoid which builds up in your brain and body. Hesitation leads to the time burying these schemes and projects in the past. Unlike people who publish that book or get that album out there.
so tough. er… The group that made first album Foxbase Alpha and breakthrough single Only Love Can Break Your Heart had matured into something which could only begin to begin. Their identity had formed into something you kind of wanted and needed like Holden Caulfield’s hunting hat.
Although Saint Etienne would make other brilliant albums in subsequent years they would never repeat the sonic methods of So Tough which was a pity. I think the reason must have been the increasing risk of using samples from here there and everywhere and the risks of being litigated. Sampling at this time was a creative utilisation of digital freedom that had started with hip hop dj’s looping records which began to be heard on records in the mid 80’s. Like the youtube and downloading revolution of the last decade or so people began to accept these magpie techniques in music as the norm. What we didn’t realise that the law would eventually catch up with the samplers and what had looked like the next stage of popular music would eventually be killed off after everyone had assumed that the music had escaped. This death never made the news really because it was gradual as the performers censored their own techniques.
This album must be the first to explore sampling in terms of a journey through personal and cultural history and it’s never been repeated in such a fully conceptually realised way as this. The sounds here are not just evocative of the past. They are the past and the past is a blissful balm. Reminiscent of the comforts offered by Sergeant Pepper though this comfort is different, weirdly sample tinny and grunged up. The music itself traverses a thin line of sweetness and melody through vast and mysterious caverns of memory sound stuff which is a bit like an alternative to My Bloody Valentine’s methods of around the same era. Perhaps its like a pop Loveless.