Christmas Time In London Town

Saint Etienne Presents Songs For A London Winter (Croydon Municipal, 2014).

As regular followers of my work might just have possibly potentially noticed , I have been a fan of the band Saint Etienne ever since their very first single Only Love Can Break Your Heart was released in 1990. At that point I was still at 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 somehow get away with little more than a snarly look 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.

Needless to say, I still like Saint Etienne. A lot. Their debut album Foxbase Alpha and its thrilling mining of the forgotten corners of pop history to create something new and exciting and thoroughly and utterly modern had a profound effect on the way that I thought about popular culture – so much so, in fact, that I ended up writing a book about it which you can find out more about here – but that spark of invention and indeed reinvention has stayed consistent throughout through their career. Inevitably this means that a lot of their music is bound up in memories and feelings – whether it’s first seeing the Only Love Can Break Your Heart video after a friend taped it on a stray showing on defunct satellite service BSB, that amazing joint show with Pulp at the exact moment that Select magazine were trying to come up with a name to reflect this sudden renaissance in music that was both pop and a little bit ‘Brit’, the anniversary performance of the entire Tiger Bay album in an arts centre with the audience literally standing around the band – although let’s be honest, nobody was actually just standing – or introducing some episodes of Bod with the band at the Queen Elizabeth Hall; now that’s a long story – but there is more to it than nostalgia and memory. Their music is always looking forwards at the same time as looking back.

This is also true of the Saint Etienne Presents… compilation series. Highlighting long-forgotten sounds, bands and even genres that have been left out of the conventional ‘history of pop’ narrative, they have give much-needed exposure to the almost ten years’ worth of pop music before The Beatles supposedly ‘started’ ‘everything’. Saint Etienne Presents Songs For A London Winter in particular is a fascinating and evocative 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 listen 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 be 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. Incidentally, you can find an extended version of this review with more thoughts on those long-lost days of paper chains and prehistoric pop in Can’t Help Thinking About Christmas, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

If you haven’t been following the ‘Saint Etienne Presents…’ series of compilations, then you really have been missing out. 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 compilation 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.

On Saint Etienne Presents Songs For A London Winter, they have turned their attention to Christmas, which will hardly surprise anyone familiar with their back catalogue, given that since 1993’s fantastic I Was Born On Christmas Day they have released a Christmas Single every year and even a full album of Christmas Songs. Being Saint Etienne, and indeed being the ‘Presents…’ series, this isn’t just any old ‘Christmas’. It’s Christmas in London in the long-lost days of black and white television, when festive shop window displays were a dazzling new concept, home entertainment barely existed and the Christmas Specials of Saturday Night At The London Palladium and Hancock’s Half Hour were on when television or in fact more likely radio told you they were, and people were as likely to pile into the local carol service as they were the office party. This involves a journey back through the surprisingly large volume of festively themed chart contenders in the days before Slade and Wizzard came to dominate the yuletide airwaves, let alone X Factor winners and, erm, Rage Against The Machine. There are some familiar names, some not so familiar names, and some rescued from well-worn nigh-on-sixty-year-old discs in the absence of any easily available or even extant master tapes, the overwhelming majority appearing on digital media for the first time ever.

Christmas At Home With Nina And Frederik (Columbia, 1960).

The Songs For A London Winter are a mixture of rinky-dink singalongs, politely furious instrumentals, skiffled-up carolling, cheapo cash-in supermarket own brand covers and some suitably frosty turns from Cleo Laine and Johnny Dankworth. Johnny Keating leads his band on a ramble through We Three Kings in the style of his more familiar Z Cars theme, John Barry hammers into a Shadows-aping rewrite of When The Saints Go Marching In, and brother-and-sister singing child sensations Elaine and Derek – ‘Derek’ going on to become Charlie Fairhead in Casualty – try their hardest not to sound like they’re trying to sound like Anthony Newley while detailing the sights and sounds of Advent, while Zack Laurence, who would go on compose the theme music 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, although it’s probably just a piano that’s been at the sherry.

The real surprises, though, are the songs and artists that are sort of at the back-of-the-mind half-familiar-ish. Even aside from Billy Fury’s original version of My Christmas Prayer – later of course covered by Saint Etienne – you’ll find The Beverley Sisters veering politely towards the funky end of the scale on Little Donkey and Ted Heath bandleading up a storm 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 from later alleged comedians, sometimes even in person – turns out to be enjoyably 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 half-recollected it was on the very fringes of your consciousness. Alma Cogan can still keep that laugh-in-her-voice to herself, though.

Saint Etienne Presents Songs For A London Winter is more than just a look at a prehistoric age of pop music – it’s literally a glimpse of a lost world. This is the sound of the sort of Christmas that you see in ancient Pathe News reports, where massive crowds turned up to watch trees being unveiled on the high street, queues for department store Santas snaked around the block even though the youngsters only left with a cheap plastic doll where the hair came off when you washed it, and 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.

Sheet Music for Snow Coach by Russ Conway (1959).

Buy A Book!

You can find an expanded version of this review 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. You can also read more about the making of Saint Etienne’s debut album Foxbase Alpha in my book Higher Than The Sun, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

Alternately, if you’re just feeling generous, you can buy me a coffee here. They didn’t do Black Forest Gateau lattes in those days, though.

Further Reading

Black And White Christmas is a feature with an accompanying playlist looking at some of my own favourite little-heart sixties Christmas pop discs; you can find it here. There’s more about Cleo Laine and Johnny Dankworth’s less seasonal offerings in Diggin’ The Dankworths here.

Further Listening

You can listen to me talking to Paul Abbot about another festive sixties pop oddity, I’m Gonna Spend My Christmas With A Dalek by The Go-Go’s, on (Music For) The Head Ballet here.

© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.