As you’ll know if you’ve read my book about early nineties indie music Higher Than The Sun, I’ve been a fan of the band Saint Etienne since their very first single in 1990, when I was still in school and indeed still young enough for some dull grebo blokes in leather jackets and makeshift white rasta dreads to snigger at me at the counter in my local independent record shop for buying a ‘dance record’ and get away with little more than a frown from me in return. Well, that was me told. I bow to their superior taste and I hope they still like Teenage Turtles by Back To The Planet.
With Saint Etienne, however, their own music is really only half the story. Renowned pop historians with a particular talent for highlighting long-forgotten sounds, bands and even genres that have been left out of the conventional ‘history of pop’ narrative, they are frequently in demand as DJs, writers, compilation compilers and organisers of offbeat film screenings (at one of which I was lucky enough to work with them, but that’s another story). The exposure that they have given to the almost ten years’ worth of pop music before The Beatles supposedly ‘started’ ‘everything’ have been particularly important and enjoyable; as a keen student of both that lost world of primitive pop music and the equally lost world of how Christmas was celebrated before the mass media shifted everything around, I was understandably looking forward to Saint Etienne Presents Songs For A London Winter rather a lot. Even so, I hadn’t anticipated just how fascinating and evocative it would prove to be; a frosty black and white fairy light-lit glimpse of a time when exhortations to get in the Christmas Spirit were polite invitations rather than relentless orders, and Christmas really was ‘a time for the family’ as everything closed at five o’clock and there was hardly anything on the television. If you even had one. If you listened to it on your MP3 player while walking around a shopping street trying to ignore the Starbucks cups and robotic holographic Christmas Trees then you could almost have been doing a spot of last-minute Christmas shopping in the days of Patricia Driscoll, Professor Quatermass and the Strand Cigarettes Man. Except that they didn’t have MP3 players then and you’d have had to make do with a brass band playing Parade Of The Wooden Soldiers. But hey, Tony Blackburn is still playing sixties records on modern equipment on Radio 2 every Saturday so who needs logic?
If you haven’t been following the ‘Saint Etienne Presents…’ series of compilations, then you really have been missing out on something special. Put together by Bob, Pete and Sarah from their massive collective collection of forgotten popular beat waxings, with assistance from their longtime associate and genre-inventing crate-digger extraordinaire Martin Green, each one aims to evoke a specific time and place, from Central Park to a Lyons Corner House, using nothing but the sort of little-remembered pop discs you might have expected to hear in the designated venue. What’s more, they’re mostly drawn from pop’s formative years, pulling in hits that have been hiding in plain sight since the late fifties and waving a jazzy two fingers at the tedious insistence by the mainstream rock press that everything started with Love Me Do.
This time, they’ve turned their attention to Christmas, which will hardly surprise anyone familiar with Saint Etienne’s back catalogue; after all, they’ve released a Christmas EP every year since 1993 (kicking off, of course, with the splendid I Was Born On Christmas Day), and even released a full album of Christmas Songs. But being Saint Etienne, and indeed being their ‘Presents…’ series, this isn’t just any old ‘Christmas’. It’s Christmas in London in the long-lost days of black and white TV, when festive shop window displays were a dazzling new thing, home entertainment barely existed, and people were as likely to pile into the local carol service as they were the office party. This of course involves rifling through the surprisingly large volume of Yuletide-themed chart contenders in the days before we came to associate the Festive season even with Glam Rock Santa-hattage and Phil Spector emulation, let alone X Factor winners and, erm, Rage Against The Machine. So there’s some familiar names, some not so familiar names, and some rescued from well-worn nigh-on-sixty-year-old discs in the absence of master tapes, which occasionally makes listening on headphones a bit haphazard but let’s face it, who cares when this stuff actually is on CD, in many cases for the first time ever?
Songs For A London Winter, it turns out, are a mixture of rinky-dink singalongs, politely furious instrumentals, skiffled-up carolling, cheapo cash-in supermarket own brand covers, and the odd bit of Cleo Laine and Johnny Dankworth thrown in for good measure. Johnny Keating turns in a ramble through We Three Kings in the style of his more familiar Z Cars theme, John Barry rattles through a Shadows-aping rewrite of When The Saints Go Marching In that bizarrely threatens to turn into incidental music from Mr. Benn at one point, and brother-and-sister singing child sensations Elaine and Derek – ‘Derek’ of course growing up to become Charlie in Casualty – try their hardest not to sound like they’re trying to sound like Anthony Newley while listing the sights and sounds of advent. Meanwhile, Zack Laurence, who would go on to become both Mr Bloe (as in Groovin’ With) and the theme composer for Treasure Hunt and Interceptor, engages in a bit of piano tinkling in honour of the humble snowman. There’s even what sounds like it could be an early electronic instrument on the aptly-titled Sounds Like Winter by Dusty Springfield’s backing band The Echoes.
Where the the real surprises lie, though, are with the songs and artists that you sort of half-knew at the back of your mind. Even aside from Billy Fury’s original of My Christmas Prayer, as later of course covered by Saint Etienne, you’ll find The Beverley Sisters getting a touch funky on Little Donkey, and Ted Heath doing quite nicely on Swinging Shepherd Blues, even if his definition of ‘Swinging’ might pose some problems under laboratory conditions, while the piano-rattling of Russ Conway – so often the target of ‘naff’ jokes, sometimes even in person, in latterday comedy shows – turns out to be very pleasantly produced and arranged, Lionel Bart being Lionel Bart – oh what a surprise, he’s asking for a ‘kiss’ – is never not welcome, and Adam Faith’s Lonely Pup (In A Christmas Shop) isn’t quite as annoying as you’d assumed it was on the very fringes of your consciousness. Alma Cogan can still keep that laugh-in-her-voice to herself, mind.
This is more than just a look at a prehistoric age of pop music, though – it’s literally a glimpse of a lost world. This is the sound of the sort of Christmas you see in ancient Pathe News films, where massive crowds turned up to watch trees being unveiled on the high street, where queues for department store Santas snaked around the block and the youngsters only left with a cheap plastic doll where the hair came off when you washed it, and indeed where The Beatles put together their very first Christmas Fan Club records, and, believe it or not, even appeared in panto. See, it didn’t quite all change with Love Me Do.
You can get Saint Etienne Presents Songs For A London Winter from Amazon here.
You can find an expanded version of this review, with more on Saint Etienne’s Christmas Singles and additional speculation on early electronic instruments, in Can’t Help Thinking About Christmas, a collection of some of my Festive-themed pieces. Can’t Help Thinking About Christmas is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
Black And White Christmas is my own playlist of obscure sixties Christmas pop discs with sleevenotes; you can hear it here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.