5. A Song that Reminds you of a Particular Place
‘Mario’s Cafe’ – St Etienne
It’s a song wholly unsuited to posterity. The tinny psst-psst of the drum machine, the synthesised strings, the wash of reverb that brings the song to a close – it all adds up to a sound that can be carbon-dated to the early 90s. But Mario’s Cafe is entirely comfortable with its own ephemerality – that’s really the point. All of its references, from the gang of friends sharing breakfast – Barry, Lucy, Dilworth, Jackie – to the celebrities they’re discussing – P. M. Dawn’s Prince Be, the KLF, Chris Eubank back when he was a boxer rather than a professional eccentric – are uncompromisingly specific.
But where in-jokes are essentially about exclusion, this song isn’t. That first line – ‘Button up your sheepskin Caraway’ – is important: a direct address to us, it’s our invitation in. When the bridge comes, describing the mood at breakfast – ‘Everyone’s dreaming of all they’ve got to live for’ – it’s infectiously positive, inclusive, taking me back to that period of collective possibility in my own life, when my own gang of friends were finishing university, starting bands, making plans together, in pubs and greasy spoons like this.
Or perhaps that’s not quite it. I don’t mean greasy spoons like this. I mean Mario’s Cafe itself. If I’m honest, the chief reason this song has meant so much to me and my friends is a tribal sense of being on the inside – not the song’s inner circle, but north Londoners, Camdenites, who can, and do, still meet at Mario’s. I’m sitting there now, writing this. It’s a regular pilgrimage, always on a Tuesday morning, 10am.
Then, a couple of years ago, disaster struck. Bob Stanley told the local paper that Mario’s wasn’t actually where the band used to meet. That was the Moonlight Cafe up the road – but ‘Moonlight Cafe’ sounded too much like a Chris De Burgh song, so they took the title from Mario’s instead. For all its apparent authenticity, its stubborn insistence on specific detail, the song is really about a different cafe! But it doesn’t matter. We don’t really come because of the song any more, but for our own shared history here. And the poached eggs.
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