October 11 — “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” as covered by Saint Etienne

Saint Etienne (in 1991)

If you only listen to one song tonight, make it the cover of Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Hear”, as done by Saint Etienne. Neil Young’s original version of the song appeared on his 1970 album After The Gold Rush. This version appeared on the Saint Etienne debut record Foxbase Alpha in 1991.

Saint Etienne is an “indie dance” band from London. They took their name from a French soccer team Saint Étienne. Not the town of the same name, but the soccer team. They dropped the acute accent from the E and pronounce it as if it was English. Since 1991, they’ve released eight studio albums including a new one this year. Today’s song comes from their first album. In fact, it was released as a single before the album came out. Actually, it was because of today’s song that they had a record contract in the first place. It’s the only Saint Etienne song on which anyone other than Sarah Cracknell sings. The liner notes say one thing and the wikipedia page says another, and I’m sticking with what the liner notes say. When the band was formed by Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley founded the band in 1990, their idea was to have a constantly changing lead vocalist. They brought in Moira Lambert for this song. After that, they brought in Sarah Cracknell, who they liked so much that they’ve kept her around for 21 years.

I’m not gonna lie. I’ve been a fan of this song for at least 19 years, and I never bothered to notice that Saint Etienne didn’t write it. I’ve never been a big Neil Young fan, so I never recognized the song as a cover until today.

I’ve been meaning to post about Saint Etienne anyway, and chances are that I was going to write about something from the considerably less dance-y 1998 album Good Humor, or its bonus disc Fairfax High. I was crazily into those records for many years and found a lot of mix tape fodder there. However, I had an email exchange with a friend today who referenced the “This is Radio Etienne” track that precedes this song on the album. So it’s been in my head all day long. I won’t often offer up a fully electronic song as the song of the day, so enjoy (or endure) it.

Here it is:
“Only Love Can Break Your Heart” as covered by Saint Etienne

Obviously, even if you’ve never heard the Neil Young original, it should go without saying that there are a ton of differences between his version and this cover. His isn’t even remotely danceable. Well, not in the way that everyone would be high on ecstasy, all tatted up, waving a glow stick and wearing an Alice in Wonderland costume at 4:35 in the morning. No. The Neil Young version is in 3/4 time, so if you wanted to dance to it, you were doing a waltz. But chances are, nobody did. There are differences apart from that which I’m not sophisticated enough to discern. I’m told that Neil Young’s song is mostly major chord, while this cover is mostly minor chord. That’s the stuff that I can’t pick out. Allegedly, the change from major to minor chords was to make it more melancholic, but I actually think the original is much bluer than this. The 4/4 time and the thumping bass in the Saint Etienne version sort of detract from the sadness of it. Call me nuts.

Saint Etienne (in 2012)

I’ve listened to the Neil Young version a bunch of times today just as a reference, and it occurs to me that I do know the original. Just not all that well. And it never clicked when I heard the Saint Etienne cover for the first time. Or the second time. Or the two hundred and seventh time.

Foxbase Alpha was given the “luxe and redux” reissue treatment a few years ago, and you can get that 2-disc set here. I don’t have that, so I can’t tell you whether it’s worth it. There’s also what might be a single disc remaster (with a 2012 release date) here.

About dlee

North Carolina born and bred. I'm a restaurant guy who spends free time listening to music, watching hockey and playing Scrabble. I have a bachelor's degree in political science and I will most likely never put it to use. View all posts by dlee

3 responses to “October 11 — “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” as covered by Saint Etienne

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