Aug 112023

One Great Cover looks at the greatest cover songs ever, and how they got to be that way.

Saint Etienne Only Love Can Break Your Heart

Prior to Saint Etienne, a bevy of notable names stepped up to cover Neil Young‘s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” with varying degrees of success. Elkie “Pearl’s a Singer” Brooks wrung out the simple—almost childlike—lyrics of the classic 1970 ballad on a moribund disco version of 1978. Stephen Stills rediscovered its 3/4 time and added a self-written verse on a schmaltzy non-hit version of 1984. Psychic TV made an agreeably acid-tinged waltz out of it (yes, one of those) in 1989.

However, it was the UK trio of Bob Stanley, Pete Wiggs, and Moira Lambert, going by the name of a French soccer team, who made the song the basis of a massively influential post-house sound in 1990. That’ll be the great cover you’re looking for. And that’ll be the great cover that launched Saint Etienne’s long and remarkable career in samples, beats, and basslines.

But just how an old folk-rock number by a nasal-voiced Canadian hippie made the journey to cutting-edge electronic pop in the days of UK rave is a question worth asking.

Some explanation lies in the fact that old friends Stanley and Wiggs (not a comedy duo) were inspired by late ’80s house music and hip-hop in the making of what was to be their first single, back when they were both aspiring music journalists. They wanted to join the party that DJs like Steve “Silk” Hurley extended out of the Chicago club scene; to use synthesizers, turntables, and twin cassette decks to mix diverse musical styles over propulsive basslines; to forge new electronic dance sounds out of retro grooves and old songs.

They sought to emulate S-Express, particularly, who combined Rose Royce’s disco-era “Is It Love You’re After” with a riot of samples (of Gil-Scott Heron, Yazoo, the Peech Boys, and the 1975 Stepford Wives movie) on UK chart-topper “Theme From S-Express.” They looked to De La Soul, too, who found success MCing over a Hall and Oates backing track on “Say No Go.” Plus Bomb the Bass, who followed up their era-defining samplefest, “Beat Dis,” with a housey cover of “I Say a Little Prayer,” featuring “Maureen” on vocals.

The duo were spurred to action, then, by an experimental DIY culture of DJs and MCs “building” records from cheap technology, often in home studios in a matter of just two or three days. But a further, crucial, guiding force was Soul II Soul, the London collective who pointed the way forward for UK dance in 1989 with their laid-back positivity, their knack for blending house with soul, funk, and jazz, and their shuffling rhythms which were significantly slower than the four-to-the-floor rhythms of 808 State, Frankie Knuckles, Technotronic, and Inner City. Their final single of the year, “Get a Life,” also had instructional value, care of guest singer Marcia Lewis and the MCing Jazzie B. “Elevate your mind.” “Free your soul.” “Implement your ideas.” “Be selective, be objective.”

Stanley and Wiggs took it all in, during what was clearly an incredibly progressive and inclusive (and edifying!) time for dance music, when seemingly any genre could be commandeered and any song exploited for its riches. In fact, it was in the immediate aftermath of Soul II Soul’s “Get a Life” that they united as Saint Etienne with producer Ian Catt to record “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” a process that can perhaps best be described in equation form:

2 hours in bedroom studio
a few hundred pounds
an acoustic song Neil Young wrote when he was 24
piano loops
club bassline
slow house rhythm
+ plaintive female vocal
1 great cover

The bedroom studio belonged to Catt and was located at his mother’s house in Pollards Hill in Southwest London. The Neil Young song was a sacred pillar of the 1970 After the Gold Rush album, supposedly written for Neil’s former bandmate Graham Nash when he split from Joni Mitchell. The guest singer was Moira Lambert, who Stanley and Wiggs brought in from shoegaze band Faith Over Reason, then working on a debut EP (this was a year before Sarah Cracknell became the band’s permanent vocalist).

Saint Etienne therefore exited the studio in January 1990 with an electronic track (two, in fact). It was as crudely made as any house cut, but it galvanized a promoter Stanley knew, Jeff Barrett, into establishing a new indie label to put it out on: Heavenly Records. The band clearly impressed Barrett with what was ostensibly a demo, yet a demo possessed of an off-kilter and otherworldly eminence that doesn’t come around too often. Perhaps this came from the way it seemed to start halfway through; the reverb-heavy piano sound and lazy rhythm that went beyond melancholy into faintly sinister; or the way Lambert sang those earnestly penned lyrics about losing love in a beautiful yet detached voice. Perhaps it was because tender lines like “I have a friend I’ve never seen / He hides his head inside a dream” were discordant with the synthesized chilliness of the music.

It was a new sound, in any case, and Saint Etienne initially released “Only Love” in May 1990, in time to help Primal Scream drive UK dance music forward on “Loaded,” with the aid of house DJ-producer Andy Weatherall. They fit it into the space vacated by Beats International, too, having just scored a UK #1 with “Dub Be Good To Me” by mixing the S.O.S. Band with a dub bassline from the Clash, some eerie Ennio Morricone touches, the cool delivery of Lindy Layton, and some dub beats again much slower than what went down before. But the London band made a fuller impact when they re-released the track in 1991, as a double A-side with the wonderful “Filthy.” They may have only taken it to #39 in the UK singles chart, but it was the perfect introduction to their sample-fueled dance masterpiece of a debut album, Foxbase Alpha.

Next thing Saint Etienne knew, the increasingly in-demand Weatherall remixed “Only Love” in dub style (as “A Mix in Two Halves”) on his way to producing Primal Scream’s seminal Screamadelica in 1991. “Cool and deadly,” it most certainly was! They also saw it later remixed by US garage production team Masters at Work in 2003, before having the honor of their cover being covered by English band I Blame Coco in 2011.

Not many bands, outside of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, get to see their cover covered, now do they?

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  2 Responses to “One Great Cover: Saint Etienne’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart””

Comments (2)
  1. Fabulous article!!

  2. Maybe we can get Neil to make a vid of him dancing to this.

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