In the spring of 1990 Saint Etienne released their first single, an indie dance reworking of Neil Young’s ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’, sung by Moira Lambert. Neither of the two accompanying music videos feature Lambert. One introduces the band members, Sarah Cracknell, Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs, entering a French cinema with imaginary films playing out; the other is shot in north London, with the lads playing kickabout, wandering the streets and sitting round drinking tea. They both evoke a liberating yet bittersweet summer vibe, in a pre-smartphone era. 

That same ambience is recaptured in I’ve Been Trying to Tell You, the film that prolific British photographer and filmmaker Alasdair McLellan has created to accompany the band’s new album of the same name.

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McLellan, now in his forties, took up photography in his teenage years. He has a string of impressive exhibitions and books under his belt, and has strong ties to both the fashion and music worlds. Among many notable achievements, he’s photographed Xavier Dolan for Louis Vuitton, shot the cover photo for Adele’s album 25, filmed gorgeous music videos for The XX, and his portrait of grime pioneer Kano hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. 

He’s been a fan of Saint Etienne’s melancholic blending of club basslines and idiosyncratic sample-driven dance music since the beginning. The visual album could be described as an otherworldly melange of the band’s early music videos, albeit with super attractive models dressed in sharp threads or Adidas sportswear, riding scooters through the countryside or dancing in a field. It plays out as a nostalgic cinematic road trip across everyday British locations made magical. 

“When I first thought about making the film, I thought about when I first started listening to Saint Etienne, which was when they came out with their first single in 1990,” explains McLellan. “I was about 15 or 16 then, so I thought about what I was doing when I was that age. It wasn’t meant to be a 90s film, but I was interested in that age between 15 and 25 when everyone is saying to you, ‘This is the best time of your life!’ And you don’t believe them, and you think, ‘It can’t be!’ because you feel really awkward.”

Stanley and Wiggs grew up in the London suburbs and Cracknell on the fringes of Windsor. They recorded the album remotely over lockdown, between Hove, Oxford and Bradford, and it’s been described as “a concept album about optimism, nostalgia and the late 90s.” McLellan, who grew up in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, wasn’t aware of the original concept when he took on the project in January 2020.

“Bob never told me the concept of the album,” McLellan laughs. “He never told me it was from that late 90s period in time and it was meant to be more positive, with New Labour coming into power, and you felt like the government may actually care. I remember when the 80s turned into the 90s, and it felt a little bit freer. I can’t work it out if it was just because I was young at that time. Initially, when I listened to the first two songs on the album, my thoughts were that it was early 90s and it had a Balearic feel. We used to just dance around a mate’s car in a field near the village and do things like that in the early 90s.”

The album samples a mixture of 90s and 00s British R&B, pop and indie, including certified bangers such as Honeyz’ ‘Love of a Lifetime’, Samantha Mumba’s ‘Til the Night Becomes the Day’ and The Lightning Seeds’ ‘Joy’.

“Bob also never sent me the samples, so I never knew what I was listening to. The first track with the Honeyz sample has a harpsichord at the beginning, which was very late 90s. A lot of R&B from America would have this strange harpsichord on it, which I thought was interesting. At that time all the R&B artists were using that sound.

“I had a few conversations with Bob about what the film would be about. Saint Etienne are quintessentially British, and if I was doing a piece about Britain I was very aware that I wanted to go on a road trip. We also talked about the death of the high street. There’s some of that in the sixth song [‘I Remember It Well’], showing that all the shops are closed.”

Without the influence of the album’s concept, or even the sample listings, McLellan took some inspiration from his own life, marrying his memories of youth with the visual language of Saint Etienne’s music videos and Italian cinema, such as Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita (1960). There’s a little nod to the iconic fountain scene in the opening track ‘Music Again’, which was shot near Marble Arch.

I’ve Been Trying to Tell You (2021)
© Alasdair McLellan

The film, which began shooting in August 2020 and finished in May 2021, travels to numerous locations across the UK, including Avebury stone circle, Portmeirion, Southampton, Blackpool and Cauldron Falls in West Burton – which is near where McLellan grew up. “My favourite bit of the UK is the Yorkshire Dales. It’s wonderful and charming. We would go swimming in West Burton falls when we were on school trips at 13 or 14 years old,” McLellan recalls. 

The visual album makes the Blackpool illuminations sing as the ‘Penlop’ track plays out, renders the Southampton docks sexy, and even turns the A1 alluring, by promising surreal summer delights at the end of it. “I wanted to film those things that don’t really get attention or get talked about. Initially me and Bob talked about filming the services up the A1, but it seemed impossible to film there during the pandemic. The film goes up the A1 but not really, as you don’t take the A1 to get to Wales or to Southampton – where we shot the boys skimming stones with the power stations in the background. 

“I wanted to make sure everything looked beautiful, even if what we were filming wasn’t necessarily considered beautiful.”

The Films of Saint Etienne screen at BFI Southbank from 3 to 5 September, with selected titles, including I’ve Been Trying to Tell You, available on BFI Player.

Saint Etienne will release their new album I’ve Been Trying To Tell You on Heavenly Recordings, 10 September 2021. Pre-orders available.

The Saint Etienne UK tour kicks off 18 November.