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Globe of Frogs: Stuck on Bastille Day

serge5.jpgbb.jpgFor the past 231 years or so, a favorite American pastime has been to pretend to hate the French, while secretly admiring French cuisine, art, architecture, philosophy, and yes, even its music. And the French have helped us become ourselves. It took French intervention to secure victory in the American Revolution, French theorist Alexis de Tocqueville to comprehend American culture, and French real estate in the Louisiana Purchase to give our country decent places to get barbecue. Years later, it took Brigitte Bardot to make us appreciate the Harley-Davidson motorcycle as an object of unbridled lust (sorry, Steppenwolf).

Recognizing that the original Bastille Day was literally a riot, we at Stuck Between Stations are coming out of the closet as Francophiles. To many Americans, “French music” has a limited reach, consisting of Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier, Johnny Halladay, and the anonymous Eurodisco that plays in the background at the Gap. A smattering of words from “Lady Marmalade,” “Games Without Frontiers” or “Psycho Killer” might also come to mind. I asked our regular contributors to put together playlists of music sung in French or recorded by artists based in France.

Four playlists appear below. Mine riffs off the global reach of French-speaking musical traditions, taking flight with a mix that moves from Paris to Algiers and Dakar, and then across the pond to Lousiana and Quebec. Malcolm Humes starts with France Gall’s most scandalous teen-pop anthem (a far weirder variation on the “I Want Candy” theme) before settling into a list that is heavy on adventurous prog and moody experimentalism. Christian Crumlish’s list celebrates the French role in Anglo-American music, and vice versa. Scot Hacker conjures an alternately loopy and romantic concoction that includes both jam and fromage.

There’s nowhere better to start than with Serge Gainsbourg, the genius, provocateur and pipe-smoking lothario who, according to Richard Gehr, still lived with his parents until he was 40. Gainsbourg’s “Couleur Café” is the obvious choice, because nothing says “liberty, equality and fraternity” to me quite like this video, which features an exotic dancer cavorting around the room and pouring Serge what has to be the single sexiest cup of java in music or film history. With all respect to the great Bob Dylan, next to “Couleur Café,” his “One More Cup of Coffee” sounds like something brewed at the AM/PM minimart.

Playlist One: Frenching the Globe

by Roger Moore

• Carte de Sejour, “Douce France”

With an ear for good melody, a taste for loud guitar, and roots in rock, rai and punk, Algerian-born, Paris-based Rachid Taha was—and is—ideally poised to provide a musical antidote to the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment in modern France. His first well-known band, Carte de Sejour, named after the French term for a residence permit, held a cult following through much of the Eighties, but the band struck its biggest nerve with this irreverent and poignant cover of the Charles Trenet chanson classic “Douce France.” I think of this as the postpunk French counterpart to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” By claiming the song for those in the underground and on the fringes of French society, Taha made his point that they had as much right to share in “sweet France” as their whiter, wealthier countrymen.

• Rachid Taha, “Rock el Casbah”

taha.jpgLegend has it that at a 1981 Clash show in Paris, a very young Rachid Taha handed Joe Strummer a tape of Carte de Sejour’s early work. We’ll never know whether its fusion of punk and rai directly influenced the Clash anthem that followed. But Taha’s most recent guitar-heavy albums, Made in Medina and Tekitoi (on which this cover appears) put most “alternative” rock bands to shame. He’s as as qualified as anybody to try a Clash cover, and the addition of snappy doumbek-rhythms really adds something to the song. This one is especially welcome, given the longstanding misappropriation of Casbah as a jingoistic wartime anthem; for reasons that would make Joe Strummer roll over, it was a favorite of U.S. army bombers during the early 1990s Gulf War, and made National Review’s list of the top 50 “conservative” rock songs (I guess William F. Buckley never listened to the Clash’s “Washington Bullets”). In the accompanying version, the Clash’s Mick Jones joined Taha onstage.

• Francoise Hardy, “Les Garçons”

Francoise Hardy was the least flashy, and probably the classiest, of all the ye-ye girls to emerge in sixties France. This version of “Les Garçons” is still funny today, and it even rocks.

• Mano Negra, “Mala Vida”

Years before pint-sized prodigy Manu Chao became an international superstar, his eclectic, punkish band of outcasts, Mano Negra, ruled the alternative scene in France. They stretched the limits of what it meant to be a “French” band, recording songs in four different languages and a dizzying array of styles. As with the similarly eclectic and intense Mexico City combo Café Tacuba, some of Mano Negra’s songs sometimes bordered on being excessively gimmicky. But their real gems, including “Mala Vida” from the Patchanka album, sound just as ferocious and intense years later.

• MC Solaar, “Qui sème le vent récolte le tempo”

Senegalese-born French rapper MC Solaar is the king of suave, and in France and parts of Africa, he’s built a reputation for ambitious, tongue-twisting wordplay. This song is the title track of his impressive early-nineties debut. Solaar makes me think of renegade French figure skater Surya Bonaly, since he’s capable of performing the aural equivalent of illegal backflips in Olympic-level competition.

• Serge Gainsbourg, “Aux Armes et cetera”

serge101.jpgCredit Serge Gainsbourg with never doing things halfway. One of the strangest phases in his very strange career came with his surprisingly productive late seventies flirtation with reggae, which had him traveling to Jamaica and playing with Sly and Robbie and the I-Threes. The highlight of this period is a controversial reggae version of “La Marseillaise,” which has him sounding more like late-model Leonard Cohen than late-model Marley. The accompanying picture gives you an idea of what some of Gainsbourg’s conservative countrymen thought about the cover. When French veterans of the Algerian war protested the song, Gainsbourg had the nerve to buy the original manuscript of “La Marseillaise” and make the case that his version was more faithful to the original lyrics.

• Franco and Rochereau, “Omona Wapi”

omona-wapi.jpg“Soukous” comes from the French word secouer, meaning “to shake,” and it is one of the richest, most joyous forms of French-African pop. When the legendary rhythm master and guitar legend Franco teamed with crooner Rochereau (also known as Tabu Ley) for the mid-eighties classic Omona Wapi, Robert Christgau noted that it was like having James Brown and Frank Sinatra together on the same recording. Purists sometimes point out that Franco’s seminal guitar work with OK Jazz was more ambitious, and that Rochereau’s singing is even better elsewhere, but I find it really hard to argue with these results.

• Clifton Chenier, “Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler”

In my blues-heavy teenage years growing up in Chicago, the first French-language album I remember loving was Opelousas, Lousiana zydeco legend Clifton Chenier’s Frenchin’ the Boogie, featuring covers of classic blues tracks. As the title says, let the good times roll.

• Malajube, “Pate Filo”

Francophone Quebec band Malajube stans out from the rest of Montreal’s crowded alt-rock field, in part because they aren’t aiming for the epic big-band sound you’d associate with Arcade Fire, or the density you’d associate with Wolf Parade. Instead, they deliver melodic, moody rock infused with interesting barbs and twists.

Playlist Two: Lollipops and Lava

By Malcolm Humes

• France Gall, “Les Sucettes”

Serge Gainsbourg penned this controversial early hit for teenager France Gall. The absurdist video for the song features lollipops and large phallic-shapped lollipop dancers. She gets credited with being part of the “sexual revolution” there, but there’s a disturbing exploitive feel to the early stuff.

• Heldon – ‘Heldon II: Allez Teia – In the wake of King Fripp”

Heldon is my favorite French band, with philosophy professor/guitarist Richard Pinhas initially cloning a bit of Robert Fripp’s guitar tone and some Fripp/Eno influences but running with it to create a unique blend of mellotrons, moogs and guitar in music that waffles from early ambient to proto industrial, with a few more nods to King Crimson along the way. Heldon took their name a from a controversial novel by Norman Spinrad that was a fictional bad sci-fi novel, The Iron Dream, pretending to written by a teenaged Adolph Hitler that channelled his enjgery into sci-fi instead of politics.

As the title suggests, this song is a nod to Fripp and Eno, but for my money a bit lusher. In contrast to the gentle nature of the music here, the cover art from his album features a violent street scene from the Paris riots, which makes it an appropriate lead for any playlist about French Revolutions.

• Magma, “Soliel D’Ork”

This Magma track is from the album Udu Wudu. Magma was often defined by its bassist and this album finds a transition from Bernard Paganotti on bass to Jannick Top. This lp features both, and “”Soleil D’Ork” (Ork’s Sun) shows that Jannick Top is capable of picking up where Paganotti left off. Magma is known for its creation of its own language and mythology, and a fusion from the Coltrane-influenced drummer’s vision that founded a style of music known as Zeuhl. The Japanese band Ruins was heavily influenced by them and many offshoots are now described as Zeuhl. To me, a heavy, somewhat overdriven bass is a signature of the sound, along with operatic chanting and dark landscapes. Magma, which often had a somber theatrical tone, had its definitive era in the 1970s, as depicted below.

• Weidorje, “S/T – Elohims Voyage”

Paganotti contributed one track to the above Magma album on his way out the door, “Weidorje.” This was also the title of a side project with one lp -Weidorje — which apparently is some epic about aliens, and means “Celestial Wheel”. Joining Paganotti are Heldon’s Patrick Gauthier on keyboards and Magma’s Klaus Blasquiz on vocal in what is a slightly more accessible band than Magma for the uninitiated. I’ve seen Weidorje described as a bass epic and that’s a fair description. Back when Bill Laswell’s Material was still “the Zu Band” Laswell would slip into riffing on this in concert circa 1979, around the time the Weidorje LP was released.

• Philippe Besombes, “Libra – Hache 06”

This soundtrack to a film about a crashed US satellite disturbing a hippie haven seems like a good segue from an album about a UFO.

• Carpe Diem, “En Regardant Passer Le Temps – Voyage du non-retoir”

carpe-diem.jpgSticking with the space theme, the cover art for this one has what appears to be an Escher-influenced space colony and the music heads off into a more symphonic journey with lush keyboards.

• Ose, “Adonia – Approche Sur A”

This song is another alien-inspired epic, with Herve Picart on keyboards, synthesizer, bass and guitar, backed by Richard Pinhas on guitar and synthesizers and Francois Auger on drums, from Heldon. This one finds us floating on the ripples of Moog sequences.

• Additional resources

Gnosis is one of the best review sites for prog and arty/experimental/jazzy rock. The rating system is fairly complicated, but if a number of reviewers there rate something fairly high, it’s probably worth hearing, and usually one can find a reasonably good description of the band there. The Gibraltar Encyclopedia of Progressive Rock,several years old and sometime updated, resembles Wikipeda. It’s less review-oriented and more prone to short overviews.

Playlist Three: Around and Back

By Christian Crumlish

• Serge Gainsbourg, “Ballade de Melody Nelson”

This song is real parallel-universe subculture stuff, both
symphonic and psychedelic, if you can imagine that.

• Jonathan Richman, “Theme from Moulin Rouge”

This song from Modern Lovers ’88, which is scat-hummed rather than played, evokes everything i love about musicality without regard to technique.

• Plastic Bertrand, “Ca Plane Pour Moi”

See Scot Hacker’s essay on the Belgian/ French pop-punk singer and scrabble champion for a discussion of this song’s significance.

• Beatles “All You Need is Love”

I love the way it begins with the Marseillaise, and not “Michelle, ma belle.”

• Chaba Fadela and Cheb Sahraoui, “N’Sel Fik”

Classic rai from two of the great rai rebels.

Playlist Four: Wet Cheese

by Scot Hacker

Gong-You Flying teapots, wet cheese, pothead pixies, Zero the Hero, and Martian yoni — what else could you possibly crave on the French 4th? (and no, “freedom fries” is not an allowable answer). Gong, currently in their 39th year of constant reincarnation, aren’t entirely French, but have had more than enough French members to qualify. This is the band for Francophiles who like their drugs organic, their music rubbery, their cartoons absurd, and their hallucinations neon green. Zappa may have coined the term conceptual continuity, but Gong have riffed for practically four decades on themes of space travel, cosmic consciousness, intergalactic yoga, and the wings of your eyes. When not drawing galactic comics on the walls of your mind, Gong is also an amazing jam band. This Bastille Day, I turned up the dial on one of my favorite Gong tracks: “Master Builder,” from “You.”

Listen to “Master Builder”

In a completely different musical universe, I’ll cool my heels to the effortlessly romantic strains of French-American singer Madeleine Peyroux – her track “J’ai Deux Amours” puts a glide in my stride and sends tingles down my spine.

Les Chauds Lapins, it goes without saying, are still in heavy rotation at our house. Plastic Bertrand, not so much (besides, he’s Belgian, not French). But Les Chauds Lapins would be absent half their repertoire without the father of classic French romance music, the great Charles Trenet.

To re-ground myself in the point of Bastille day, I turn to the Brits. Stereolab’s French Disko nails it:

Though this world’s essentially an absurd place to be living in
It doesn’t call for total withdrawal

I’ve been told it’s a fact of life
Men have to kill one another
Well I say there are still things worth fighting for
La Resistance!

Though this world’s essentially an absurd place to be living in
It doesn’t call for (bubble withdrawal)

It said human existence is pointless
As acts of rebellious solidarity
Can bring sense in this world

La Resistance!

Parlez-vous humma humma?

From → Cut-Out Bin

  1. In a recent TV documentary on Jarvis Cocker (former Pulp frontman) he mentioned that when he moved to Paris (about 5 years ago) he was a big Gainsbourg fan, and he expected to unearth lots of similar weird and wonderful music, but (and I apologise for not remembering exactly how he phrased this) he found to his disappointment that France is actually something of a musical desert.

    But, yeah, plenty of French and Francophile stuff in my collection. A few highlights: TTT‘s “Teste Ta Comprehension”, Bow Wow Wow‘s “Sexy Eiffel Towers”, Blur‘s “French Song”, and pretty much anything by the amazing Francophile J-Pop electronica band Plus Tech Squeeze Box.

    And if you’re the tiniest bit into Serge Gainsbourg, you absolutely must check out Sheffield-based but genuinely French duo The Lovers – Gainsbourg for the 21st century: sexy, funny, catchy, and featuring some hilarious lyrics from the aforementioned Jarvis (check out La Degustation!)

  2. Permettez-moi de comprendre cela, je tiens à vous remercier. Je vais toujours revenir ici

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