Those Frenchies, eh? When they’re not surrendering to invading forces and eating cheese, they’re sitting in cafes on the left bank of the Seine mumbling about existential torment. And when they’re not doing those things, they’re waggling their frilly knickered bottoms about here and there or being all cultured about the highbrow arts whilst sticking their gallicy, garlicky fingers down ladies’ private regions and being dismissive of other, less namby-pamby places such as, well, everywhere else. Except Belgium. Possibly.
Those Frenchies, eh? You can’t help but love ’em, can you?
Even though my formal introduction to France and those loveable Frenchies consisted of rubbish French lessons in junior school with Mrs Williamson, which I wasn’t enamoured with in the slightest, I retained a curiosity about their culture due to their regular depiction on the television of the 1970s and 80s which my secondary school French teacher, Mr Reeves failed to remove entirely even though I was incapable of paying attention to anything he said in his French lessons as he had a plastic arm and wore translucent shirts, through which I spent five years attempting to work out how it was attached to his body.
My informal introduction to France came via a Blue Peter Special Assignment. Blue Peter was, and may still be, a studio based children’s magazine programme with the occasional filmed segment of John Noakes going canoeing or climbing up towers without safety harnesses with Fred Dibnah, that was on two or three times a week. In the summer holidays children’s television programming changed from term times which meant that Blue Peter wasn’t on in its normal teatime slot but at some point earlier in the day, they’d have Blue Peter Special Assignments, which consisted of the entire programme being filmed somewhere else. One of which had Valerie Singleton visiting Paris*.
I only remember one thing about it and that was Valerie Singleton** sitting outside a cafe in Paris, singing Chanson D’Amour. I didn’t – and don’t really – speak French, so most of it was gibberish to me, but the “rat-a-tat-a-tat” bits stuck with me through the years for, as usual, no good reason. I never considered Valerie Singleton especially sexy and, presumably that’s why Leslie Judd was brought in a bit later. For the dads to ogle, you know.
In the 1970s, which ended when I was eight, sex was something particularly associated with France and credit for that should go to Serge Gainsbourg and the girls that he recorded with, especially Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin. The ultimate French sex record was Je T’Aime (Moi Non Plus)*** which was banned from the radio but which appeared to soundtrack foreign sexy women on television programmes. Well, the bits that didn’t feature the heavy breathing and grunting at any rate.
As being sexy was something that was associated with French culture, other, less sexy and non-French, cultures adopted it periodically. Lady Marmalade‘s chorus of “Voulez vous couchez avec moi, ce soir” might have been cultural appropriation before we had a phrase for it – and I can’t be doing with it in general, to be honest – but it knew what it was doing.
Later, in 1988, Joe Le Taxi, sung by the actually French Vanessa Paradis, was a big hit in Britain and Vanessa Paradis was sexy, even though she was dressed in an oversized sweatshirt and exhibited all the rhythmic prowess of a legless frog in a Parisian kitchen bin.
Prior to Joe Le Taxi, I was under the impression that all French music was played on accordions by men in hooped shirts, wearing berets and moustaches with onions hanging around their necks on string. I probably got that idea from watching ‘Allo, ‘Allo, which was mainly reminiscent of Are You Being Served, probably because it was written by the same people. It was a bawdy farce, the bawdiness deriving primarily from French waitresses and their regularly exposed frilly knickers.
By the time of Joe Le Taxi, I was beginning to flesh out – slightly – my recurring ‘Happy Place’ fantasy of being a penniless existential writer who lived in a garret next door to the Moulin Rouge with a sexily unhinged and politically motivated French girl.
By that time, my musical awakening was out of bed, having finally realised that the concept of buying records was open to everybody and that the point wasn’t necessarily to buy whatever it was that you thought would be number one next week, with The Smiths, Echo & The Bunnymen and The Housemartins rousing me from my slumber. As a lot of the modern indie music I was listening to was influenced by the music of the sixties, I first got into mainstream sixties records and bands and then started digging deeper into the psychedelic and garage bands of the era, mainly British and American, through compilations that I found in Golden Oldie records and Norman’s Place. However, those compilations weren’t just restricted to Britain and America because there were also unpopular and badly recorded psychedelic records made all over the world, especially mainland Europe that were lovingly compiled on series like Pebbles (The Continent Strikes Back) which introduced me to great freakbeat singles like Russian Spy & I by The Hunters (from the Netherlands). And, of course, French psychedelia which, unlike most other countries’ efforts in that field, was largely sung in French.
This series of posts are (mainly) about my favourite French psychedelic records of the 1960s.
- La Drogue – Messieurs Richard De Bordeaux & Daniel Beretta**** (1968).
In 1968, in England, the concept of writing and singing a pop song about drugs was one which could get artists into trouble. Even loose insinuations about them were leapt upon by the BBC and bans were handed out regularly. Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds was banned because the initials (sort of) were LSD. John Lennon always denied it, even though it obviously is about that, whether or not his son Julian one day brought home a drawing of his friend Lucy, in the sky with diamonds one day in 1966. Even Puff The Magic Dragon by Peter, Paul & Mary was banned for being (allegedly) a parable about smoking marijuana. It probably should have been banned, but on the grounds that it’s a fucking upsetting record about a nice dragon getting abandoned by a flightily oblivious and self-centred young boy called Jackie Paper. How I hate that bastard. Dave and I used to listen to it in the dark in my room at Desmond Avenue, along with Bright Eyes in some sort of ill-considered mental exercise programme.
La Drogue (Drug) was supposed to be part of the soundtrack to a French film (Le Temps Fou) that never came out, so far as I can gather. I don’t know if it was banned in France but I like to think that it wasn’t. I also don’t know if it was banned in Britain but again, if obversely, I like to think it was.
Lyrically, if English psychedelia dealt in a form of nostalgic Edwardiana and Lewis Carroll influenced imagery with a preoccupation about drinking tea, the French equivalent was oddly – to me, at least – much less poetic and much more literal, at least to start with. La Drague begins with Richard and Daniel asking where their drugs are. “Where’re my drugs? Where’s my gear? Where’s my hashish? Where’s my opium?” They need it, you see, because their lives are collapsing around them. That’s the chorus, more or less. The verses make an effort to portray the psychedelic visions that Le Drague brings them but using quite banal metaphors (“I’m in a white bubble when I take you”, “I’m like a monkey in the trees.“) which imply that being off their collective tits is the normal state of affairs for young Richard and Daniel. The second verses suggest the opposite, probably (“When I take you, I’m a green submarine”, “When I take you, I phone you upside down“). If it’s psychedelic, it’s suggestive of not making too much sense, which isn’t a bad way to describe it*****.
Whilst it’s not an especially poetic paen to the psychedelic experience, there is a reference to Proserpina, a Roman Goddess whose story tends to be combined with Liber’s and Persephone’s, respectively, the Goddess of freedom and wine, and the daughter of Zeus and Demeter who was abducted by Hades. I suppose she’s being referred to here in her capacity as a deity of freedom, in terms of availability of the drugs that Richard and Daniel are moaning for throughout the record.
De Bordeaux and Beretta sing it wonderfully sleazily, even if they sound a bit like the sound effect on cartoons when plants wilt most of the way through it, which I assume is intentional, in order to represent the rising and falling of the drug experience.
As bluntly descriptive as most of the lyrics are, they’re not the reason it sounds psychedelic. It’s the singing and musical backing that does that.
The bass, as is often the case on French records of that era, is beautifully funky and joined by fatback drums and (probably) wah-wah guitar and hammond organ and swirling, perpetually climbing strings and, less cosmically, a trumpet that parps stridently and incongruously away towards the end of the chorus.
The best French records are characterised by outstandingly fruity bass guitar sounds. Serge Gainsbourg’s records of this era exemplify that. Perhaps oddly, Scott Walker’s Scott 4 features a bass guitar that is clearly indebted to the gallic bass sound of the mid-late sixties.
La Drogue is, like most of the records in this post, an outstanding hipster disco record. Which is to say, a record that goes down well with the beautiful people because it’s (relatively) obscure, funky as a mosquito’s tweeter and, perhaps most importantly for such occasions, French. It’s not all great in terms of being danceable, but the parts that are – the verses, mainly – don’t so much shout, as mutter alluring, “Psychedelic Sex“. In a French accent.
Valerie Singleton it ain’t, unsubstantiated lesbian playground rumours or otherwise.
*I tend to doubt my memory and, although it’s not perfect, it’s better than I give it credit for. For years, I was convinced I’d made up Marine Boy because nobody I spoke to had any memory of this cartoon serial starring a red wet suited Japanese boy whose pet dolphin got caught up in fishing nets every week. My memory of it was extremely strong though, in part because it was so upsetting. My later period of doubting its existence was pre-internet and, of course, it was a real thing.
Anyway, I doubted my memory of Valerie Singleton’s Blue Peter Special Assignment to Paris and looked it up to find that, again, it had happened but was shown in January 1973 which would have made me a little over one and a half years old. I might have quite a good memory, but I’m pretty sure I don’t remember being one and a half so I suppose I must’ve watched a repeat one summer holiday a few years later.
**Valerie Singleton was also the subject of a persistent playground rumour that consisted of her being embroiled in a scandalous lesbian love affair with 1970s singer Joan Armatrading that allegedly began following an interview she conducted with the Love & Affection Hitmaker in 1978. Valerie and Joan both vociferously denied the rumours with Valerie finally protesting slightly too much by claiming that she was, “…the opposite of a lesbian...” and that, “I tend to go for the pirate type.” which is a strange sort of statement to make considering that she simultaneously admitted – as evidence for her heterosexual preference – an affair with the least piratey man in the world, Blue Peter co-presenter Peter Purves. John Noakes, maybe. Peter Purves looked like working in double glazing might have been a bit too exciting for him, let alone pillaging the high seas whilst drinking rum and singing sea shanties.
***The playground rumour surrounding Je T’Aime... was that Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin had actually been doing it as they recorded the song because it was so sexy that Jane Birkin couldn’t possibly have faked her ecstatic moans. Oh, to be young and naive, eh? No, not really.
****Daniel Beretta was later to find ‘fame’ in the 1980s by being the man who provided the voice of Arnold Schwarzenegger in his films when they were dubbed into French.
*****My friend and former bandmate Moggy nearly joined me at my current school as a behavioural assistant a couple of years ago. He came for an interview, was offered the job verbally and resigned from his (then) present post before my school changed its collective mind and withdrew their offer before deciding to make it official, leading him to be in stuck for a while. I don’t know if the reason for their change of heart is related to what I’m about to tell you, but I suspect it is.
Towards the end of our band’s existence – which was drawn out and confusing, not least due to the temporary legal availability of magic mushrooms in England – Moggy was working as Teaching Assistant in the same school, although of a different name and under local authority control. He was a sporadic attendee of work, largely due to his enthusiastic embracing of a psychedelic lifestyle which, one day, resulted in him ringing in sick. He spoke to the receptionist – who works there to this day – and told her, “I won’t be coming in today because my hands are made out of string and a monkey’s nicked my legs.”
My suspicion is that this receptionist heard that Moggy was about to be employed by the new regime and that she told them that he was a psychedelic liability, which he probably was, even if he isn’t anymore. Well, not as much as he was at any rate.