A brief summary of French rock music

by Piero Scaruffi
excerpted from The History of Rock Music

TM, ®, Copyright © 2002 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.


TM, ®, Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

During the first decades of the 20th century, Paris was the cultural capital of Europe. Impressionist painters, decadent poets, populist novelists, pioneering filmmakers and folk singers created a colorful milieu that came to be identified with the eccentric side of the "Belle Epoque", the so called "Boheme", centered around the district of Montmartre. Their favorite entertainment was much freer than what the prevailing moral dogmas prescribed. The performers of the "cafe-concert" began to sing both satirical and socially-aware tales, while the "cabarets" indulged in crazy dances and outrageous ballets. Entertainment became both a celebration of individual pleasure and a meditation on collective misery. la canzone satirica, che acquistera` via via toni ora grotteschi ora ironici. The tone of popular music turned grotesque, tragic and colloquial, frequently enhanced by "maudit" overtones. Its content shifted towards populist themes, so that popular music became a chronicle of real life. Musicians were also influenced by poets and playwrights, a factor which accounts for the continuous increase in intellectual depth of their songs. Furthermore, popular music came to coexist with avantgarde artists and subversive comedians. Politics, art and entertainment cross-fertilized each other in the cabarets of Paris.

Aristide Bruant, the hero of the "Chat Noir" (which opened in 1881), was the first "auteur" of popular music, followed by Maurice Chevalier and Josephine Baker in the new century.

At the end of World War II, a new spirit revitalized the tradition of the "chansonniers", and new musical ingredients (particularly from the USA) fostered greater complexity and variety. Those were the years of existentialism, and the chansonniers of Paris reflected that zeitgeist. They focused on the working class and the misfits, and they shunned the conformist bourgeoisie: Georges Brassens, whose anarchic epos permeates albums such as Chante Les Chansons Poetiques (1953), Le Parapluie (1954) and Les Trompettes De La Renommee (1962); Jacques Brel, whose melancholy romanticism overflows from Quand On N'a Que L'Amour (1957) and Ne Me Quitte Pas (1959); Leo Ferre`, a militant chansonnier influenced by the surrealists (Paris Canaille, 1954; L'Amour, 1956) who struck a philosophical balance between the poet and the politician on Ferre' 64 (1964); the elegant tenderness of Charles Aznavour (Chahnour Varenagh Aznaourian) and Gilbert Becaud (Et Maintenant, 1962).

The epoch was perhaps best defined by the melodramatic romanticism of Edith Piaf (Edith Gassion). She was the quintessential singer of lost love, but frequently set it against a decadent backdrop of of sex, death and drugs: Michel Emer's L'Accordeoniste (1940) her own La Vie en Rose (1947), Marguerite Monnot's Les Trois Cloches (1946) and Milord (1959), Gilbert Becaud's Je T'Ai Dans la Peau (1952) Norbert Glanzberg's Mon Manege a Moi (1958), Charles Domont's Non Je Ne Regrette Rien (1960).

In the 1950s she had to compete with the morbid eroticism of Juliette Greco, whose early hits were written by famous poets and set to music by Jozsef Kosma: Raymond Queneau's Si Tu T'Imagines (1949), Julef Laforgue's L'Eternel Feminine (1951), Jacques Prevert's Je Suis Comme Je Suis (1951) and Les Feuilles Mortes (1951).

A few rockers (Johnny Hallyday) and several "ye'ye" girls (Sylvie Vartan of Comme un Garcon, 1968; Jean Renard's Irresistiblement, 1969), the equivalent of the American "teen idols" and "girl groups", changed the scene. Among the latter was Francoise Hardy, the first ye-ye girl to write her own songs, the natural link between the chansonniers and folk-rock. The dreamy, languid, melancholy, angelic, elegant and seductive style of melodic gems such as Touts Les Garcons Et Les Filles (1962) was thoroughly new. It embodied the hopes and the angst of her generation.

Serge Gainsbourg (Lucien Ginzburg) destabilized the ye-ye scene with his sensual and "confidential" songs: Le Poinconneur des Lilas (1959), Couleur Cafe (1964), Comment Te Dire Adieu (1968), Soixante Neuf Annee Erotique (1969), Je T'Aime Moi Non Plus (1969). The peak of his lascivious art was perhaps Histoire de Melody Nelson (1971), a seven-song suite that chronicles a pervert's escapade with a nymphet.

Rock music did not make any significant inroad until the 1970s. Psychedelia was hardly an issue in France, although Jean-Pierre Massiera's Les Maledictus Sound (1) released one of the most psychedelic albums ever, Les Maledictus Sound (1968). The other psychedelic classic produced in France wasAphrodite's Child (1)'s exoteric masterpiece 666 (1970).

French progressive-rock

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While the Anglosaxon world (and nearby Italy) was flooded with intellectual singer-songwriters, France, that had basically pioneered the concept with the chansonniers, was left behind. France saw the birth of the Celtic revival, the rediscovery and revitalization of the celtic tradition: Alan Stivell (2) started the commercial phenomenon with Renaissance De L'Harpe Celtique (1971) and Chemins De Terre/ From Celtic Roots (1973), and achieved his masterpiece with Tir Na Nog/ Symphonie Celtique (1980).

The 1970s were a completely different decade from the Sixties. Suddenly, France became one of the leading European nations for rock music.

Symphonic rock in the tradition of early King Crimson and Yes was well represented in France by Ange's Le Cimetiere des Arlequins (1973), Atoll's L'Araignee-Mal (1975), Pulsar's Halloween (1977), Shylock's Ile De Fievre (1978), Eskaton's Ardeur (1980). These, no matter how proficient, were actually among the least original of the French progressive bands. All in all, the humble On N'a Pas Fini D'avoir Tout Vu (1971) by Triode, the jazzy The World Of Genius Hans (1972) by Moving Gelatine Plates, and the erudite Traite De Mechanique Populaire (1979) by Hector Zazou's ZNR were more succesful.

Christian Vander's Magma (12) debuted their sci-fi concept on the ambitious and naive Magma (1970), borrowing ideas from free-jazz and Gong, and perfected it on their first masterpiece, Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh (1973), an eclectic and idiosyncratic rock opera that spans an amazing range of styles, from Verdi to Frank Zappa. Kohntarkosz (1974) was their most musical work, largely inspired by Mahavishnu Orchestra's jazz-rock; and Udu Wudu (1976) was a more electronic affair.

Red Noise penned Sarcelles-Locheres (1971), featuring the 19-minute instrumental suite Sarcelles C'est L'Avenir, a ludicrous combination of Fugs' dementia, Frank Zappa's satirical noise-pop and Soft Machine's jazz-rock.

Jean-Claude Vannier (1) the arranger of Serge Gainsbourg's Historie De Melody Nelson (1971), composed another concept album, the all-instrumental L'Enfant Assassin des Mouches (1972), that ran the gamut from collages of found sounds to demented symphonic rock, from exuberantly old-fashioned fairground music to orchestral easy-listening music.

Vangelis (3), the former Aphrodite's Child, pursued a career of stately, melodramatic (and increasingly electronic) instrumental suites, whose archetypes were L'Apocalypse Des Animaux (1973) and Heaven And Hell (1975). Specializing in orchestral apotheosis, Vangelis would be celebrated for his movie soundtracks. One of the pioneers and stars of new-age music, he would return to more ambitious pieces with Invisible Connections (1985) and The Mask (1985).

Daevid Allen's Gong migrated to France and fostered a school similar to Canterbury's in England. From the very beginning they had collaborated with French musicians, as Dashiell Hedayat's Obsolete Mantra (1971) proves.

Richard Pinhas' Heldon (4) practiced a rock'n'roll for guitar and synthesizer that had few or no antecedents. While still naive, Electronique Guerilla (1974) was their manifesto. It's Always Rock And Roll (1975), that contains Cocaine Blues, and Agneta Nilsson (1976), that contains Perspective, were their mature statements, cauldrons of hard-rock, free-jazz and sheer noise where Nice, King Crimson, Morton Subotnick, Silver Apples, Jimi Hendrix and Hawkwind shared the same orbit. The lengthy and sensational jams of their last albums, such as Interface (1978), Stand By (1979) and Bolero (1979), refined the concept to manic levels.

French keyboardist Cyrille Verdeaux (2) assembled a few key members of Gong (Steve Hillage, Tim Blake, Didier Malherbe) to record the Clearlight Symphony (1975), released under the moniker Clearlight, a lush electronic and symphonic work. The fourth Clearlight album, Visions (1978), featured a small orchestra comprising rock, Indian and jazz musicians. This work displayed the influence of Eastern music that would become prominent on Verdeaux's solo releases, peaking with the seven-album Kundalini Opera of the 1980s.

Gilbert Artmann was an eccentric who started two projects: Lard Free (1973), a Heldon-like electronic-rock, and Urban Sax (1), a 27-saxophone horn section indulging in minimalist repetition that debuted with the shocking I (1978).

Thierry "Ilitch" Muller created albums of minimalist repetition for organ and treated guitar, such as the main track on Periodikmindtrouble (1978), and of electronic, electric and acoustic collages, plus noise and vocals, such as 10 Suicides (1980).

What Walter Carlos had done for electronic pop music, Jean-Michel Jarre (3) did for electronic dance music. Oxygene (1976) and Equinoxe (1978) merely overlapped and contrasted a catchy melody, a steady beat and a synthesizer, while the electronic poems of Le Chant Magnetique (1981) explored melodic electronica at a more abstract level. Live performance of his hits involved colossal multimedia shows that eventually became more relevant than his music.

Univers Zero (14), from Belgium, began in the wake of King Crimson and Frank Zappa with 1313 (1978), but Heresie (1979) veered towards gothic atmospheres and discordant, industrial textures. Focusing on orchestration and production rather than on melody and harmony, Ceux Du Dehors (1982) and Uzed (1984) arrived at a smooth, stately, stylish and occasionally titanic flow of ideas. Capable of quoting and mixing stereotypes from atonal music as well as jazz-rock, minimalism as well as Eastern music, classical fantasias as well as requiems, the multiple tours de force of Heatwave (1986) rank among prog-rock's greatest achievements. Cinematic and suspenseful, elegant and dramatic, Daniel Denis' compositions for strings, woodwinds and keyboards coined a new kind of chamber music and jazz fusion.

Art Zoyd (3) were even more classical. While they never completely disposed of their original influence (Magma's and Henry Cow's jazz-rock), their broad orchestral palette painted a luxuriant, symphonic sound performed with the austere posture of the classical avantgarde. Generations Sans Futur (1980), Symphonie Pour Le Jour Ou Bruleront Les Cites (1981), which transposed Stravinsky's style into rock music, and Phase IV (1982) displayed a remarkable "ear" for dense and dramatic textures, which would surface again on the soundtrack Metropolis (2002).

Belgium's Aksak Maboul (1) were perhaps the most eclectic followers of Henry Cow. A Dadaistic sense of humour made Un Peu De L'Amour Des Bandits (1980) a delightful jazz-rock spoof. Ferdinand Richard's Etron Fou Leloublan were similarly bless on their Les Poumons Gonfles (1982).

The semi-classical music of Geographies (1986) set ex-ZNR Hector Zazou (1) apart from everyone else.

Disciples of Art Zoyd and Univers Zero included Shub-Niggurath, even more experimental on Les Morts Vonte Vite (1986), and Present, formed by Univers Zero's keyboardist Roger Trigaux, with Triskaidekaphobie (1981).

The New Wave

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The French (and Belgian) new wave was a chaotic cauldron of styles, from Telephone's pub-rock to Bijou's punk-rock, from La Muerte's psychobilly, best displayed on Surrealist Mystery (1984), Les Thugs' punk-pop, from Lil Louis's instrumental dance-pop (French Kiss, 1989) to Telex's synth-pop, from Des Airs' avant-pop of Lunga Notte (1982) to Minimal Compact's One By One (1983) art-funk (originally from Israel) of Deadly Weapons (1984). French punk-rock boasted Oberkampf and especially Eric Debris' combo Metal Urbain, whose three Ultravox-style singles (boasting synthesizer and drum-machine) were immortalized on the posthumous Les Hommes Morts sont Dangereux (1980).

Demonic virtuoso Polish-born vocalist Mama Bea Tekielski delivered powerful rants that mixed pure sonic experiment and Patti Smith-style anger on LA Folle (1977).

Switzerland's Yello pursued a lighter version of Kraftwerk's sci-fi cabaret on Solid Pleasure (1980) and then focused on parodies of disco-music.

Despite the flood of recordings, French progressive-rock was mostly derivative of the masters of the 1970s. Representative albums of the new generation were the three classics of 1981, which is Terpandre's Terpandre (1981), Dun's Eros (1981) and Emeraude's Geoffroy (1981), plus, later into the decade, Minimum Vital's Les saisons Marines (1987), Tiemko's Espace Fini (1989), and Halloween's Laz (1990).

The avantgarde was more interesting. Benjamin Lew (1) composed the elegant ambient symphonies, an art that peaked with Le Parfum Du Raki (1993).

The minimalist dogma was bent to more pragmatic (melodic) needs by Belgian composer Wim Mertens (1), whose Close Cover (1983), Whisper Me (1985), Lir (1985) and Educes Me (1986) attempted to reinvent chamber music and lieder.

Industrial and noise music were also booming. Philippe Fichot's Die Form (1) developed a unique form of experimental noise with Die Puppe (1982), a concept album about death and eros. Art Et Technique's Climax (1981) was one of the most extreme albums of the era.

Belgium coined one of the most successful currents of industrial dance, "electronic body music", a by-product of latter-period Cabaret Voltaire, influenced by disco-music and science-fiction. Geography (1982), by Front 242 (1), was the milestone recording. Then came Klinik (and their offshoot Dive), Neon Judgement, Vomito Negro, etc. Commercially speaking, this industrial school was even more influential than the British school. Belgium was also at the forefront of house music, with Technotronics' Pump Up The Jam (1989), the brainchild of American-born producer Jo Bogaert.

A seminal achievement of the latter part of the decade was the merger of industrial music with hard-rock and heavy metal, pioneered in Switzerland by the Young Gods (1), whose L'Eau Rouge (1989) made music by sampling heavy-metal guitars and symphonic sounds. In France, Treponem Pal used real guitars. In Canada, Numb performed brutal surgery on techno beats.

The various experiments of the new wave led to a generation of bands that fused French pop music and American music: Les Rita Mitsouko's The No Comprendo (1986), Noir Desir's Ou veux-tu Qu'Je Regarde (1987), Mano Negra's Patchanka (1988).

Among songwriters, the most bizarre was Laurent Pernice, who crafted the ethic/industrial collage Releases Details (1988), whereas Louis Philippe's sophisticated Ivory Tower (1989) harked back to the age of easy-listening music.

The 1990s

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At the end of the 1980s, Belgium's Raksha Mancham had begun with The Dance Of The Judgment Of The Dead (1987) an exploration of the cultures (and politics) of the Far East that eventually led to their magnum opus Phydair (1992). The Gypsy Kings invented a Mediterranean version of world-music with Allegria (1990). More adventurous folk and world-music could be found on Mlah (1990), by the French acoustic mini-orchestra Les Negresses Vertes and The Rhythm Of The Ritual (1994), by Belgium's Hybryds. The grotesque steel band Les Tambours Du Bronx were the European Crash Worship, as documented on Monostress 225L (1992). Mano Negra's frontman Manu Chao perfected French world-music and found a broader audience with Clandestino (1998).

During the grunge era, FFF coined an original funk-metal style with Blast Culture (1991), that mixed Jimi Hendrix, Funkadelic and Living Color.

Philippe Katerine's lo-fi pop, first presented on L'Education Anglais (1994), was one of the few innovations coming from the school of "chansonniers" before Olivier "Red" Lambin's Felk (2000), for atonal guitar, bluesy vocals and disjointed electronica. Tunisian-born chanteuse Samia Farah concocted exotic trip-hop on Samia Farah (1999).

On the other hand, the French post-rock scene was vibrant.

The slow, thick and majestic compositions of Ulan Bator (2), a French ensemble led by guitarist Amaury Cambuzat, linked post-rock with French progressive-rock, especially on Vegetale (1997) and Ego Echo (2000).

Tone Rec (1) also harked back to French musique concrete of the 1950s. Digitized noise, hypnotic loops, raw statics, dub-like bass lines, and post-techno beats populated Pholcus (1998).

In Belgium, dEUS crafted the eclectic and baroque Worst Case Scenario (1994). Belgian trio Rawfrucht penned sub-jazz vignettes on Rawfrucht (1997) and the trancey Suite 2, off 2 (2000).

Philharmonie experimented with the unusual format of a guitar trio, particularly on Les Elephantes Carillonneurs (1993). The creative and unorthodox aesthetics of the Canterbury school was revived by Xaal, a French instrumental progressive trio whose most ambitious work was Second Ere (1995); while Volapuk (1) continued the neoclassical school of Art Zoyd and Univers Zero with albums such as Slang (1997). Progressive-rock staged a come-back at the turn of the century with Sotos' Platypus (2002).

Air (1), i.e. Nicolas Godin and Jean Benoit Dunckel, indulged in the retro' sound of vintage analog keyboards on Moon Safari (1998), a work marked by a zany campiness that exuded Pink Floyd's psychedelic majesty, jazz's subdued ambience, random quotations from the history of soul, funk and disco music, and more than a passing mention of Burt Bacharach's and Ennio Morricone's scores.

Trip-hop was represented by the subliminal jams of DJ Cam (French dj Cam Laurent Daumail).

At the turn of the millennium, France raised a new generation of songwriters, inspired by the post-rock styles of the late 1990s. Soundtrack composer Yann Tiersen coined a new kind of disjointed folk music with the surreal arrangements that envelop the shy tunes of Le Phare (1998).

Julien Locquet, better known as Dorine Muraille (1), sculpted the ambient melodies of Mani (2002).

Israeli-born singer-songwriter Keren Ann Zeidel fused folk, jazz and hip-hop on La Biographie de Luka Philipsen (2000); while Emilie Simon mixed pop, jazz and electronica on Emilie Simon (2003). Both toyed with futurism while maintaining a sensual elegance.

Dance-rock was represented by Daft Punk (1), whose Homework (1996) featured a retro fixation for Giorgio Moroder's disco-music, high-energy frenzy, and well-formed songwriting, and Rinocerose. Lust (1991), by the Lords Of Acid (1), offered wildly throbbing as well as openly erotic dance-music with female vocalist. Stored Images (1995) by Belgium's Suicide Commando (i.e., Johan Van Roy) continued the local school of electronic body music. Laurent Garnier, with Shot In The Dark (1995), was one of the most creative techno musicians of the era. Jacques Lu Cont's Les Rhythmes Digitales led France into the age of acid-house and electro with Liberation (1996).

The French-speaking countries had nurtured electronic music, and continued to boast independent gurus.

French combo Lightwave (20) was still composing electronic tonal poems in the spirit of the German "cosmic couriers" of the 1970s, but they added intrepid new ideas. Serge Leroy and Christoph Harbonnier harked back to Klaus Schulze's early works on Nachtmusik (1990), but enhanced that cliche' with techniques borrowed from classical avantgarde. Tycho Brahe (1993), that added Paul Haslinger (ex-Tangerine Dream) and violinist Jacques Deregnaucourt to the line-up, offered elegant, dramatic and highly-dynamic chamber electronic music of a kind that had never been heard before. Electronic music had matured into something both more conventional (like a traditional instrument) and more alien (like a supernatural harmony). Mundus Subterraneus (1995) reached new psychological depth, while furthering their soundpainting both at the microscopic and at the macroscopic levels. A spiderweb of metabolizing structures, an organic blend of timbres, drones and dissonances, it blurred the line between rationality and chaos, showing one as being the sense of the other. The spirit of Lightwave's music recalled the allegorical, encyclopedic minutiae of medieval treatises, an elaborate clockwork of impossible mirages and erudite quotations. Ultimately, it was a journey back to the roots of the human adventure.

In Belgium, Vidna Obmana (2), Dirk Serries' project, practiced electronic soundpainting on the ambient trilogy begun with Passage In Beauty (1991), but Echoing Delight (1993) shifted the emphasis towards spiritual and tribal evocations. This is the genre in which Serries gave his most original and poignant works, first Spiritual Bonding (1994), a collaboration with Steve Roach and Robert Rich, and then Crossing The Trail (1998).

France's Deep Forest (1) were successful on Deep Forest (1992) with a similar idea: an atmospheric potion of ethnic samples and dance beats.

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