The French Connection: The Origins of the '60s French Beat Scene
(reedited and corrected from a May 2002 article in "the Lance Monthly on the net") by Astro le Mocker
Parody and satire are vital elements in the creation of French rock ever since Boris Vian said the only way to adapt it in the French culture is to treat it as a joke, doing it the comic way. In my opinion, this highly intellectual affirmation has plagued French rock ever since!
The first French rock'n'roll record was made in 1956 by a bunch of jazzmen : An EP by Henry Cording (... En "Recording", get it?) and his Original Rock and Roll Boys; a great parody, it was done by jazz creole singer Henri Salvador (who co-founded the Bossa Nova sound in the late fifties...) with songs like "Rock'n'Roll Mops" and "Rock Hoquet", they were arranged by the famous French jazzman and soundtrack composer Michel Legrand. It's only natural 'cause R'n'R was for a long time considered a Jazz hybrid in that music circle before French teens were even aware of it, and it was played in cellar clubs around Paris and in the chic holiday resorts by jazz orchestras as a new dance craze alongside the Cha-Cha-Cha or the Mambo. That EP concept was created by Boris Vian, a famous Jazz-Hot trumpeter himself and the Cult existentialist writer-friend of philospher and movement leader Jean Paul Sartre. The existentialists, by the way, were the original inspiration behind the Beatnik movement.
Since then, the French rockers were always handicapped by the pseudo intellectual dictat here that forced them to treat it with irony and sing deliberate campy lyrics, as opposed to beltin' out straight-forward Rock'n'roll. Because of the French street "chansons'" tradition of always putting more emphasis on texts rather than on the music itself (meaning it has to be intelligent and "thinked upon") this custom has prevented music in general from coming straight from the heart as an impulse. This is directly opposed to what R'n'R is all about in the first place! We all know that R'n'R is more of a mixture of energy and feeling . . . a kind of brut expression of the heart, right?!
Actually, the first genuine, French rock record was released in 1958: "D'où viens-tu Billie Boy?" a 45 sung by one, Claude Piron, then covered by Richard Anthony and especially by Danyel Gérard, the first potential rocker before he was drafted into the army. By the time he was released from the Service, the dreadful Johnny Halliday had taken his place as the French king of Rock (king of French Rednecks is more like it! ) sometime at the tail end of '59 and launched the "rock-twist" movement of bands, the local equivalent of the skiffle craze in Britain six years prior, before fronting the "YéYé" phenomenon in France (YéYé is the French contraction of the word "Yeah!"). When French teenagers began listening to American rock records, "Yeah!" is probably the only word they could identify with besides "Baby." (The language they sing while imitating the American dialect is called "Yaourt (Yoghurt!)" here). Anyway, Johnny Halliday is/was a strange mix of James Dean and Elvis' aping. He is the first teen idol in France (... looked a lot like Eddie Cochran, actually! ) who turned out to be the French equivalent to Tom Jones in the end, with his powerful voice and better looks. Unfortunately, most of Halliday's songs were French adaptations of American and British hits with no originality and, in my opinion, he's an embarrassment to every true French rock fan.
When it comes to real rock'n'roll, in the Garage-rock and " Freak-Beat" sense, the first real contender was Ronnie Bird [his picture, in negative, adorns the top cover of the CD comp. of French Beat: "Rock En France - 1965/67" edited by LCD (#26-2), which is the label of Jacques Leblanc, chief staff writer for the French retro music magazine, "Juke Box"]. Ronnie Bird covered the Stones, Turtles, Them and British Beat songs in the general, he made his start around '63/'64. The first to separate himself from the YéYé mainstream patronned by the French government, he championed the real ostracized rockers (or "mockers") British style, in a TV interview. Long Live Patron Saint Ronnie!
(Ronnie was actually very fluent in English too; view a rare TV appearance for his last sixties single : "Sad Soul" here... http://www.ina.fr/art-et-culture/musique/video/I05349185/ronnie-bird-sad-soul.fr.html)
Then came Antoine, the French Donovan backed by his Problèmes which started out as real garage-band inspired by British R'n'R in 1965, releasing two "garage" classic EPs before joining Antoine as a beat parody for a national yearly tour in 1966. Together, they released a good beat-protest LP with a few true 60's punk classics. Later on the Problèmes turned completely satirical as Les Charlots, a forerunner to the Rutles with their comic 1967 French cover of "Hey Joe" as "Hey Max!" and onwards into the early seventies as a total parody group in several campy films.
But, the first genuine French rock star is Jacques Dutronc with his hard punk guitar riffin' and heavily satiric lyrics written by writer-reporter, Jacques Lanzmann; a true stroke of genius this pair was, defining the French beat genre: hard fuzz guitar accompanying killer intelligent novelty lyrics, satirizing the ways and habits of modern society. This combination has never been topped since! Dutronc was an obscure session guitarist who first started as lead guitar briefly in a rock-twist band called "El Toro & les Cyclones!" His trio of first LPs are musts in any collection, including a few more singles and EPs up to 1970!
There were other genuine pop singers not in the YeYe vein like Erick St. Laurent, who made a cool cover of "Friday on my mind," and Noël Deschamps (in the soul R&B style not unlike the more famous Nino Ferrer), an exceptional organ player with his numerous novelty singles dipped into Southern Soul.
Still, there were authentic beat groups in the French suburbs in the wake of the Stones and the Beatles. For me, the best and foremost, on a world class par with other freakbeats such as the Motions (Holland), Los Salvajes (Spain), the Carnabeats (Japan), the Shakers (Uruguay), Twilights (Austria), Standells (U.S.), Blue Birds (Greece)... are Les Boots (not to be confused with German Boots)! They started out as a folk-rock band called Les Trèfles who put out a competent EP with only originals (a real threat in France!). Later, the band released two classic EPs as Les Boots, mixin' punk, R&B anthems ("Laissez Briller le Soleil," and "Twen") with folk-rock ballads ("Vingt ans," and "Demain") and one psychedelic ("Ali Baba" ) again, all originals! They finished their short career by backing pop singer Gilbert Safrani on a final EP with a French cover of the Kinks' "Dedicated Follower of Fashion" and at least one French 60's punk killer, "Les Gens s' en Vont Dans le Ciel." A fifth EP was recorded but never released including a beautiful French cover of "Strawberry Fields Forever." You can hear all this including unreleased songs in the excellent CD put out by "Juke Box" magazine, "Les Boots - Tout va Bien" on LCD #18-2 which is a must if you want to discover what French beat is all about and if you like 60's music as a whole!
Les Boots were right in the middle of the Paris swingin' scene of the mid-sixties led by the French "Minets" who hung around the drugstore Publicis on top of the Champs Elysées ("minets" are the French equivalent to British mods except they were from upper middle class backgrounds as opposed to the working class in Britain). These dandies from the rich suburbs dressed themselves in Renoma and Cacharel Pop' Op' clothes, had their hair cut like British pop stars and danced at the Bus Palladium, Chez Castel or La Locomotive (Paris club equivalents to the Scotch St. James, the Cromwellian or Tiles in London! ) from dark 'til dawn. A film on the very subject, "La Bande du Drugstore" was released in French cinemas with a musical score including "Light Bulb Blues" by cult US garage-band the Shadows of Knight! (unbelievable for the current French mainstream!) . . . and they hated "YéYés!" Starting underground around '64, several news flashes reported them on film as a new youth phenomenon in '66 (roughly the same pattern as for mods by a couple years without the riots).
Of course there were numerous others, like Les Lionceaux who were the first to sport long hair and play British Beat, covering the Kinks ("Le Jour et la Nuit (All Day and All of the Night)") and Martha and the Vandellas ("Mon Obsession (Nowhere To Run)"). And Les Gypsys who had a single out on Relax (the same Dutch label that put out the mighty "Outsiders") with two originals in the Sorrows vein of r'n'beat of which "Prolétaire" is truly an anthem for all the long haired French social outcasts we now call 60's punks. The wicked picture sleeve of their 45 can be seen as the cover of "Juke Box" mag' s CD, "Génération Perdue" (an extended version of the first French garage-beat compilation issued on vinyl 19 years ago, now with four unreleased track covers by Les Gypsys). All these CDs can easily be ordered on their site: http://www.jukeboxmag.com
(Serge Doudou, guitar player for Les Gypsys, still occasionally gives private guitar lessons...) And others still, like The Somethings who were French Pretty Things with even one Viv Stanshall look-a-like and had one single/EP with one total beat punk killer, "Le Monde Infernal", which gave name to one of the better 60's transworld punk comp's : "Infernal World" ("Le Monde Infernal" in English!). Le Bain Didonc, who started out as French beat parody, Les Pitles (phonetically les Beatles... dig?), also released an EP with one absolute, world class freak-beat killer, "4 Cheveux Dans le Vent" on vol. 4 of the "Diggin' for gold" comp. series (incidentally, the lyrics to this song are total camp parody that pursue the French tradition; when you don't understand them, it's a total killer song but, nevertheless in reality a joke!).
Les Cinq Gentlemen may be the best French club band from the Riviera with five great EPs and the ORIGINAL version of the folk-punk classic by the Sandals, "Tell us Dylan," in "Dis-nous Dylan" with which they had a minor success on French TV! And one must not bypass Les Goths, freak beat gods who put out two killer singles (with the deadly psychedelic feedbacking "Turn Over" on bootleg comp., "Perfumed garden"http://fuzzine.over-blog.com/article-rock-fran-ais-les-goths-entretien-avec-bruno-frascone-66846020.html) with picture sleeves and an unreleased psychedelic album which was rumored lost when the lead singer vanished in a mystic trip to India, but has just been released a few months ago by Shadocks Music as the LP : "Rêve de Silence" (http://www.green-brain-krautrock.de/LES-GOTHS-REVE-DE-SILENCE-LP-1968-Shadoks_10711.html) . Even one singer, Nicolas Nils, and his backing band, Les Murators, while releasing an EP covering two Seeds songs (!!! ) : "Il Faut Trimer Dur (Pushing too hard )" and "Il Faudra Compter avec Moi (Try to understand)", were incredibly aware for a French band but, bear in mind that the Seeds had actually three EPs out on the French label Vogue Loisirs.
Perhaps you should wait 'til I compile a special French beat LP on Misty Lane's "Basementsville" series for a global picture... ? (Ask: email@example.com). In the meantime, here's a French Beat top ten of killer tunes you should check out for starters in no specific order of greatness:
1) Boots - "Laisser Briller le Soleil" 2) Antoine et les Problèmes - "Dodécaphonie" 3) Les Cinq Gentlemen - "Si Tu Reviens Chez Moi" 4) Jacques Dutronc - "Le responsable" 5) Ronnie Bird - "S.O.S. Mesdemoiselles" 6) Les Bain Didonc - "4 Cheveux Dans le Vent" 7) Les Gypsys - "Prolétaire" 8) Les Somethings - "Le Monde Infernal" 9) Les Goths - "Turn Over" 10) Les Senders - "El Camel / Benjamin - un train" (TIE-IN)
Now it's time to introduce the foremost modern French 60's fanzine, "Juke Box." Interestingly, the mag started out covering genuine material and issuing bonus singles by the Standells or the Seeds, but finished giving equal parts to mainstream "Yeye" singers like Johnny Halliday and other horribly dated, twist-rock bands like Les Chaussettes Noires and even MOR singers like Dalida (Urgh!). It feels weird reading about a thoroughly interesting anecdotic story on the Pretty Things' lead singer, Phil May's hairy misadventure in a Paris café during the sixties, or the complete story of the U.S. "Hullabaloo" TV show, while embarrassingly bypassing the pages containing the analysis of Disco star, Cerrone's body of work. Or handling a cover sporting some other terrible square French PAP (muzak or ersatz Pop...) singer's mug, for example. Well, Johnny Halliday being sadly an institution deep in the heart of France, I guess they know where their money is! Still, this is very schizophrenic. Nevertheless, they put out cool looking CDs like the "Festival '67 - Live in Paris" featuring the historical live soundtrack of the first international Pop music fest' in Paris with the likes of the Troggs, Pretty Things, VIP's, DDDBM&T, Ronnie Bird, Jimmy Cliff (The Tomorrow played at the show too but, sadly their tape was lost!) and others like the "Nowhere Men" comp. series.
Another mag of note is "Le Club des Années 60" which is even more obscure on the group facts related within, while still retaining that "yeye/ twist" element. Sadly, I don't have their contact right now but I may get it and provide more information on here next time. http://club-annees-60.blogs.fr/
And lastly, I recommend the only true rock book written on the French scene (in this case, the local Alsace scene on the German/ Suisse border, even extending to beat bands across that neighboring border) tracking the R'n'R phenomenon from the primitive twist-rock days through British style beat, up to hippie acid daze: "Le Temps des Copains - Rock Twist Alsace Années 60" Ed. la Nuée Bleue 1996" with a free soundscape CD! An essential and fascinating read (If you can read French, that is! ) with lots of great pics if you are interested in such an exotic scene. (You can try Wolgang Völkel's mailing list to order a copy: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Well until next time, that's all for now, sixties freaks . . .