Jacques Dutronc: 500 Billion Little Martians Can’t Be Wrong
I only remembered it was Bastille Day an hour before it was over this Tuesday, but I knew just what I wanted to hear. Jacques Dutronc is a revered figure in his country’s rock history that remains a total obscurity to many stateside. That’s a shame, because if there’s one person who can demonstrate that “French rock” isn’t an oxymoron, it’s Jacques Dutronc. Dutronc’s music calls to mind the scene in the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night in which a reporter asked Ringo Starr if he was a mod or a rocker, and he responded, “I’m a mocker.”
Jacques Dutronc made being a mocker into an art form. The dapper Dutronc drew energy from sixties-era youth rebellion at the same time he skewered its narcissistic excesses in songs like the brilliant breakthrough single “Et Moi, Et Moi, Et Moi,” said to be an answer song to the Franco-Dylanisms of Antoine’s “Les Élucubrations d’Antoine.” Set to an insanely catchy thumping backbeat, Dutronc rattles off increasingly surreal population statistics (700 million Chinese, 50 million imperfect people, 500 billion little martians), while always placing himself in the forefront (“et moi”).
Whether he’s tackling prickly everyday problems (“Les Cactus”), flipping the bird to hypocritical swingers (the bachelor sendup “Les Playboys”), or lampooning armchair hippies (the sitar-tinged “Hippie Hippie Hourrah”), Dutronc is also smart enough to capture what’s compelling and cool about his subjects. As with his closest British counterpart, the Kinks’ Ray Davies, Dutronc’s ironic swagger would have fallen flat if his music weren’t equally forceful, and diverse enough to capture an occasional tender subject, like his affection for Paris in the morning (“Il est cinq heures, Paris s’eveille”). Too suave to really play garage rock, he still understood enough about its simple power to deliver on songs like “La fille du père Noël,” a Gallic spin on Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man” that can hold its own with the Yardbirds’ cover of the Diddley ditty.
Two other central figures in Jacques Dutronc’s world deserve special mention. First, Dutronc’s longtime muse, collaborator, and wife of almost three decades is Francoise Hardy, the classiest and arguably the most talented of the French ye-ye pop singers (their son is the jazz guitarist Thomas Dutronc). Still gorgeous well into her sixties, Hardy became an accomplished singer-songwriter who has remained open-minded enough to collaborate with everyone from Blur and Air to Iggy Pop.
Second, most of the credit for Jacques Dutronc’s droll commentary is owed to his songwriting partner Jacques Lanzmann, a twentieth-century Renaissance man whose odd career found him, at various times, as a welder, truck driver, copper miner, painter, founder of a men’s magazine, travel show host, and author of 40 novels. Lanzmann, whose brother Claude directed the Holocaust epic Shoah, also escaped a Nazi death squad as a teenager, reputedly because he was determined “not to die a virgin.” Now that’s French resistance!
Jacques Dutronc, ““Et Moi, Et Moi, Et Moi”
Jacques Dutronc, “Les Cactus”
Jacques Dutronc, “La Fille Du Père Noël”