tremble clef

Monday, April 10, 2006

Saint Etienne, "Burnt Out Car (Original Version)" (2006)

I've walked around for years declaring that "Burnt Out Car" is one of my favorite Saint Etienne songs, if not my absolute favorite; given how special the group is in my heart, that's saying something. And yet I only realized over the weekend that maybe I never fully misunderstood the song.

As many followers of the group know, the song first appeared in 1996: first as a fanclub-only promo single, then on the remix collection Casino Classics, and a year later on the Japan-only compilation Continental. In an amusing (but not isolated) quirk, the "first" and "original" version that most of us heard was already a remix (and denoted as such), since the version on all of these formats was the "Balearico mix." Balearico was, of course, Brain Higgins and Matt Gray, who would later go on to become part of the pop-producing collective known as Xenomania. But now, ten years later, the original version of "Burnt Out Car" is finally seeing the light of day, on the fanclub-only anthology Nice Price! (probably still order-able from, so I'm sure I don't know what you're waiting for).

I can't say I prefer the original, but it's definitely a revelation. The Balearico mix was a perfect slice of Europop: bouncy beat; a gurgling bass; a couple of keyboard riffs, including one that is almost the real chorus, that are insistent without being annoying. The original, in contrast, is slower, and backed mostly by a solemn and initially minimal synth wash, and a thudding and almost dissonant beat that picks up only in the chorus. And above it all, Sarah's voice seems somewhat disembodied, like she is singing from another room.

Or beyond the grave. Listening to this new (or old) arrangement, I heard a few lines from the lyric, which I've always loved, in a totally new way: "A change of hair color/Clairol baby blonde/I'm not quite used to it/It never takes too long/No make-up, no earrings/Nothing to identify me." I've always thought that this was a breezy verse; in the remix, Sarah sounds like she's running away somewhere, and shedding her identity -- dyeing her hair, removing all accessories -- to make the process easier. But now, with the ghostlier arrangement, I wonder if the narrator of the song is actually dead.

It would make a certain amount of sense. The title of the song, after all, is "Burnt Out Car," which I'd never pondered fully before. What gets pulled out of such vehicles are bodies -- one of which, in this case may be unidentifiable. Some of the other parts of the lyric begin to look different in this light: "The papers/ the photos/Things were found in the fire," for one, now seems much creepier. This reading would also fit with the band's themes from the era. Speaking to Record Collector, Bob and Pete agreed that Tiger Bay, their 1994 album, was obsessed with death, mostly because it was meant as "folk meets techno," which "needs a bit of death." (We might add that the b-sides from this period, logically enough, were as well: "Hate Your Drug.") Although "Burnt Out Car" appeared two years after Tiger Bay, it may have been recorded in the same period; regardless, it possibly continues the band's morbid interest. "Burnt Out Car," I now think, is the band's "Leader Of The Pack," or at least part 2 of "Like A Motorway," perhaps the same story retold from a dead lover's perspective.

That it took me ten years to alight on this possibility might make me a bad, inattentive fan. And yet, I now listen to the Balearico mix again, and it sounds every bit as breezy and carefree as I remember it being. Even the new light shed has somehow not taken away from one way of experiencing "Burnt Out Car." It's not surprising. Two sides -- one dark, one light -- of the same coin. Both versions, ultimately, speak of a desire for escape, for a new Clairol baby blonde start. In the remix, that new start is escapist, almost utopian; in the original, the escape may be death itself.


  • Grand write-up. I too had thought of the Balearico mix as part of a happy song. The narrator in the second verse is dressing to go out to a club or something (perhaps wearing a one-piece Lycra outfit -- it was the mid-'90s, after all); the first verse narrates her parents' disapproval at returning in mid-morning or something.

    But I'm now convinced that the narrator has killed her lover. The full lyrics run as follows:

    A simple good morning or hello would have done
    The silence, 10am, not my idea of fun
    The papers, the photos, things were found in the fire

    Something that you said
    The look upon your face
    Something in the way you hold me
    I know what they say
    I know what this means
    I know that you never told me

    A change of hair colour, Clairol baby-blond
    I'm not quite used to it, it never takes too long
    No mkaeup, no earrings, nothing to identify me

    The somberness (sombriety?) of the original arrangement makes me think that the first verse narrates the sad relationship that she's in. She knows that the lover is having an affair (the "I know"s of the chorus), perhaps having hired a private detective to find out things. She then rigs lover's car to explode, after putting papers and photos from detective in it, and changes her identity. It's *muhhh*-duh, Brittle.

    Or maybe not. Analyzing Saint Etienne lyrics is worse than getting a handle on _Finnegan's Wake_.

    By Anonymous esque, at 9:26 PM  

  • ...I never fully misunderstood the song. ?.

    Have you listened to the rest of the tracks on Nice Price? Any highlights?

    By Blogger daavid, at 4:52 AM  

  • My angle on the song is that Saint Etienne, like Suede (though more successfully) are exploring aspects of urban landscape and architecture with a J.G. Ballardesque sensibility. The burnt out car, the motorway, the tower block, underground tube stations, etc.; all form a surrealist network of points which the characters pass through (think Pulp's track 'Mile End' on the soundtrack for Trainspotting with its whiz line "someone sets a car afire" as a description of living at the last station on an unwanted line). Even before tube bombings, the burnt out shells of abandoned cars reminded you of the violence in the background of every young couples kisses.

    By Blogger harvey molloy, at 9:27 AM  

  • I had always thought this song was about the narrator realizing the lover is cheating on her. I had also thought the song has a slightly sinister-sounding edge to the music, but until now I'd never considered it as having more violent undertones.

    Instead, I'd read the whole thing a little more metaphorically -- that the Burnt Out Car represents their relationship -- it's burned itself out, just the shell is left. The papers and photos are the detrius of the relationship -- the reminders of times or ties formed together, now tossed out.

    By Anonymous aurora floyd, at 10:23 AM  

  • Ooh, viewpoints!

    Picturing esque muttering, all gumshoe-like, "It's muuhh-duh!" makes me think of film treatments of "BOC." I think in the remixed version, Sarah would be all Emma Peel-ie: sassy, with a cute bobcut, and tossing aside her lover like last night's trash without a second thought. She would, indeed, wear Lyrca, although in less of a tragic 90s way, more of a sexy catwoman suit way. The original version is more like film noir, in which poor Sarah ends up, like most femme fatales, in dire straits.

    In the original, her getaway car would be a Mini Cooper, while the original version features a beat up old Dodge, or something. Yeah, I do think the "BOC" is certainly metaphorical of the relationship going wrong, although I had originally thought of it more as referring to tires, and never really realized that it's about infidelity.

    Which is why, daavid, I'm totally leaving in the "full misunderstood" typo. Because it's clear that I'm still not fully clear on What It All Means (and maybe can never be, given how elliptical, as esque notes, St Et lyrics tend to be, showing us only every other frame of the film. I would love to ask them about it someday, though).

    Harvey, you should watch the DVD of Finisterre, which I think you'll enjoy and see as support, quite rightly, for your reading.

    By Blogger Brittle, at 5:23 PM  

  • I should also have mentioned that, in the sleeve notes, Bob and Pete say that "BOC" was originally written for the XFiles (!). I never know whether to take them seriously in such notes, but it does further contextualize the "spookiness."

    And daavid, I could write an entry about each Nice Price track. My faves change by the minute, and even when the versions on this CD aren't as good as the ones we know (the demos, obviously), they're still revealing. Right now I'm completely being reduced to puddles by the versions of "Hobart Paving" and "Madeleine" (which Sarah sings in a higher register than I've ever heard, and it's GREAT). And the single mix of "Former Lover" is fascinating, mostly because it's clear that the band eventually reused the backing track for "Lonesome."

    By Blogger Brittle, at 10:51 PM  

  • The original version is phenomenal! I'll never know for sure, but somehow I feel I'd be dissapointed with the mix had I heard it afer the original. But now I love them both.

    By Blogger daavid, at 6:57 AM  

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