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Saturday, 10 May 2008

Written in granite: Black crow

If you ask most Anglophones to name a Francophone artist working in the genre nebulously known as "chanson" ("song" – although artists notoriously loathe being pigeonholed surely that's so vague as to be near meaningless?) then... well, if you say "chanson" to MOST Anglophones they will probably just say "bless you" and offer you a hankie. So let's narrow it down to Anglophones of a certain kind, with a taste for some of our own more literary songwriters, they'll almost certainly start with Jacques Brel, then Serge Gainsbourg although they probably only know Je t'aime... moi non plus and maybe Bonnie And Clyde because someone sampled it once. Then they'll probably grind to a halt or try Sacha Distel just in case it turns out he was a genius (actually it's Charles Aznavour who's the genius, it's rare for us to get a Frenchman right but by the law of averages it had to happen sometime and it did with Distel). If they're really up on things or familiar with Jake Thackray they might have heard of Georges Brassens. Then of course there's Françoise Hardy, but although she's certainly a chanteuse, her thing wasn't really chanson, at least not the stuff for which she's best known; that's more a rather wondrously melancholic Gallic take on pop music. Hardly anyone on this side of the language divide has heard of Léo Ferré (an anarchist with angelic vibrato who appeared with his pet chimp and then when the latter sadly died, produced what I have no hesitation in declaring the most beautiful, heartbreakingly moving elegy to a dead primate ever written, Pepée. It appeared on an album featuring calls to the barricades, meditations on stardom and the Moody Blues. More about him (and the chimp) at a later date, perhaps. I could go on, suffice it to say that those first four Scott Walker albums didn't appear out of a vacuum.

Probe away for as long as you like but I don't think the name of Barbara will come up. I don't know a huge amount about the woman herself other than that she was both a genius and sui generis. The nearest thing to her I can think of is Kate Bush, except that while the Wuthering One is a genius sitting aloft of her own genre, she's far from alone in it. I've often wondered whether Ms Bush is aware of Barbara's work, I'd like to think she is.

Barbara was certainly a striking-looking lady. She was very tall and, like Masha in The Seagull,
she always dressed in black, although unlike Chekhov's character not because she was in mourning for her life, I don't think. She looks like a slightly scary black bird and that's appropriate because perhaps her best-known song and the one that fired my imagination is called L'Aigle Noir (The Black Eagle) – although I think she looks more corvine than aquiline, which is why I've pinched the title from Joni Mitchell, another genius who she resembles only in being so impossibly unique that nobody has ever successfully managed to copy her. Above all Barbara had true class, in every way.

Follow this YouTube link if you'd like to hear the song. There are other clips up there with better visuals but that one features the original recording of the song, which is what you must hear. It opens with a little piano figure which develops into a beautifully, deceptively simple chord sequence which is developed throughout the composition, changing key in one-tone steps each verse, giving a feeling that it's heading ever-upwards (which it is). Then you hear The Voice, that imperious, bewitching, petrifying Voice: un beau jour, une nuit... près d'un lac, je m'étais endormie... Quand soudain, semblant crever le ciel, et surgissant de nulle part, surgit un aigle noir... And then... And then in come the drums and if you're anything like me the first time you hear it you fall off your chair in hysterics. The record was released in 1970 so chances are they'd just taken delivery of France's first phaser effects unit and the engineer hadn't had chance to read the manual when in walks Barbara and says "what does that box do?" "Oh, it's the latest thing from America, it's called a phaser and... er... you put it on the drums!" So that's what they do and it sounds absolutely mad. But bear with it, you will eventually grow to love this along with all the record's other idiosyncrasies (and there are plenty of them). After a few verses and upward key changes more a guitar and bass have joined the phased drums... Then suddenly it all drops out leaving the piano playing fast arpeggios switched from a major into a minor key and, best of all, with a choir behind her and it's one of the best choirs I've ever heard on a record. It sounds to me like half a dozen probably slightly drunk people in a reverb chamber pretending to be a choir, and it's fantastic. The drums kick back in and speed up, it starts to get a little bonkers and then it all pulls out again, leaving just Barbara and the piano. Then gradually everything returns, the moment when the choir comes back always sends shivers up and down my spine. But there's one final moment of utter madness, as it builds toward the end the drummer... well, it sounds as though he falls off his stool halfway through a bar and accidentally hits a crash cymbal on the way, it leaps out at you and... he does it again, it's one of the most insane and fantastic bits of drumming every committed to tape. It's unlike anything else in Barbara's canon but then it's just unlike anything else, really. It's an extraordinary song but performed in a way that lifts it into the category of the utterly unique.

Most of Barbara's work is just her and her piano, sometimes with a sparse backing, perhaps a double bass, sometimes strings, occasionally percussion, but this is a rare occasion when she's backed by a band, of sorts. She has many other fantastic songs; my own personal favourites include the devastating Nantes, the story of how she arrives just minutes after her father's death, I believe the story is essentially true... But you've got Wikipedia if you want to read how allegedly her father had abused her when she was ten years old so I shan't expand on that, the song is a thing of incredibly fragile grace. I'm very fond of the whole of the Aigle Noir album and also the next one, La Fleur D'Amour... her final, self-titled album is also pretty extraordinary... Well, to be honest, she's one of those artists whose sound is so unique that it doesn't really need to change very much, at the end of the day that voice and that piano style... that's the sound, there'd be little point sticking a beatbox under it...

I'm talking primarily about what we might call her second career, as a singer-songwriter, from the early sixties through until her death in the late nineties. Before that she made her name as an interpreter of the songs of Brel, Brassens and other French and European writers. She made an album in German but had little truck with English. I believe Marc Almond (one of the few Anglophone artists with an understanding of the European "song" culture) did a version of Amours incestueuses, although I must admit I've not heard it.

A couple of years ago I picked up the boxed set of her complete Philips recordings, starting with Barbara chante Barbara, her first album of her own songs which she made when she signed to the label. I had a number of the albums on vinyl but for several weeks I just wallowed. Barbara was in a class of her own. I wonder if she ever regretted that phaser on the drums? I do hope not because, once you've got over the initial hysteria at how insane it is, you come to adore it, you wouldn't want it any other way.




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