Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Sleeve Notes To An Imaginary Album

Note: I wrote this some time ago, but forgot about it. It's a review of St. Etienne's screening of their film Finisterre at the Barbican back in 2004. Tacked on the end is a short interview with Bob Stanley from St. Etienne, who was a very nice man.

“Took a tube to Camden Town,
Walked down Parkway, and settled down
In the shade of a willow tree,
Summer hovering over me.”

St. Etienne, London Belongs To Me

Film 1:

A Tweed suited gentleman prods his walking stick into the crumbling plasterwork of a dilapidated old music hall. On closer inspection the gentleman turns out to be James Mason. He proceeds to wander around a drab and surprisingly distant late 1960's London, uncovering bits of soon to be lost Victoriana, decaying slums and shocking dietary habits; the flip-side to the Swinging ‘60’s of popular mythology.

Film 2:

A plummy voiced chap incongruously recounts the joys of all-night clubbing and the pleasures of finding obscure white labels in back street record shops. A series of disembodied voices talk over an image-track of poignantly framed London scenery. Over it all, floats the music of St. Etienne - 60's girl-group harmonies, 80's synths, 90's house, out-of-time folk.

These two films were recently shown together at the Barbican. The first - Geoffrey Fletcher’s The London Nobody Knows – depicted a disappearing1960’s London of slums and salvation army hostels and has itself, over the years, become a historical curiosity. The second - Finisterre - is a kind of extended album-long video by the pop band St. Etienne with directors Paul Kelly and Keiran Evans. If The London Nobody Knows is an archaeological fragment in itself, then Finisterre aims for a similar kind of archaeology of the present. It poignantly captures contemporary London Life as it is being lived, and is, like The London Nobody Knows, conscious of it’s desire to record things on the verge of obsolescence. A bit like a hip English Heritage. The Thameslink train, for instance, that crawls into a South London station at the beginning of the film and crawls out again at the end already seems an anachronism although I travelled on one only yesterday.

Finisterre’s journey - Victoria Station, Old Street, Primrose Hill, Soho - describes a day in the life. It shows London as a backdrop, constantly transformed and re-made by experience This, In a way, is what pop music does; celebrates escape from the ordinary and lends poignancy to the everyday. St. Etienne's music in particular can perhaps best be described as a mixture of the glamorous and the commonplace. Or, put another way, it moves between the generic and the intensely personal. Their songs take music that we have almost forgotten about – old bits of house music, English folk – and re-invest them with value. the lyrics also re-invent familiar places with intense personal narratives and invest ordinary areas with a kind of poignancy that Archway or Camden rarely attain.

Like the protagonists in the song London Belongs To Me finding something beautiful about an afternoon in Camden Town, this flitting between the apparent drabness of urban existence and its occasional epiphanies might have something to say about how we currently view urban space. It might also suggest ways we might conceive it counter to both the nihilistic doom-mongers and the sentimental piazza-lovers that dominate urban thinking today. Both lament a perceived loss of a sense of civic-ness and identity in the face of corporate, global space. Marc Auge's book Non-Place and Rem Koolhaas’s notion of ‘Junk-Space’ offer a similar analysis of our contemporary experiences as increasingly that of a homogenised flattened-out culture. This dystopian view might be usefully challenged though by pop music's belief that we continuously re-make the world around us. Although, it's true, our bodies can only inhabit one space at any time, our heads might be in any number of places. In this sense nowhere is really non-space because we inhabit a number of spaces simultaneously: social, cultural, economic, political. To put it another way, no space is inhabited neutrally and no space is the same for two people. It's different to be in DKNY rich than without money, to be in Trafalgar Square holding a banner or on an open-top bus. Equally, to be in love and on that bus is to be somewhere else again.

What both these films suggest is that urbanism is as much about how we look at it as it is about plans and strategic frameworks. Not only that but it is in how we 'read' the city and in the way that we identify with it, that we now regenerate whole areas. The transformation of London's East End is, for better or worse, more an act of will, a triumph of desire and demographics, than anything physical or the product of any strategic planning. In fact, not a whole lot has changed there, just the way we look at it.

In The London Nobody Knows, James Mason describes a London literally disappearing below new plans, suggesting that these lives might simply end, and be replaced by more perfect ones. The brave new tower blocks that spring up at the start of the film have been torn down, blown up, sold for a pound, bought again for a million, re-clad and listed by English Heritage since then. By re-investigating this ‘60's oddity - as out of its time as The Kink's Village Green Preservation Society – St. Etienne attempt to show that the city is both more resistant to change than we think but, also, always ready to be re-made by us everyday.

A conversation with Bob Stanley of St. Etienne.

When did you decide to make a film and why?

The idea came about mid-way into recording the album Finisterre. We’ve always been fascinated by London since moving here in the late ‘80’s. Making the film seemed like a logical extension of that.

In your film you cover similar places to the Geoffrey Fletcher one. Is your film a conscious mirroring of the earlier one?

No. It was an influence but we filmed the places that we know ourselves. We were interested though in the way Geoffrey Fletcher uncovers these weird forgotten bits of London. It’s almost as though he records them just because they’re disappearing, not because they’re even that important.

It’s unusual for pop music to celebrate old things isn’t it? It’s normally associated with being radical and rebellious. In rock mythology, caring about eccentric old tea rooms isn’t very cool.

We’ve never been interested in that classic rock lineage. I mean, even if Exile on Main Street was my favourite album I wouldn’t want to talk about it. What can you say that’s new about it?

Is it a conscious part of your music, this idea of recording or evoking places that aren’t that glamorous like Kentish Town or Archway?

Yeah, although growing up in Surrey, London place names were glamorous for me. I’ve always been fascinated by London. And architecture. I studied town planning but gave it up to be a rock journalist.

Good decision! You said you are fascinated by New Towns, which is the flip-side of rotten old London. Why is that?

It’s the idea of a blank canvas, the thought that you could create a perfect community. The job I wanted most when I was 8 was to be the person who thought of all the road names.

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