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Sunday, 31 August 2008

Written in granite: Extra! Extra!

Every now and again I find myself getting rather bored with rock and pop music, the stuff we get in this country (by which I mean England and more broadly speaking the UK). The first time this happened was probably around 1985, the early eighties had been such a thrilling period with music exploding off in all kinds of directions but by the middle of the decade it was becoming extremely dull. Everyone had decided to sign up for what Simple Minds presciently or unwittingly called the "New Gold Dream" (they probably did get the dates about right, come to think of it). At first this was really exciting, our independent heroes going full pelt for gold and having hit records! Appearing on Top Of The Pops! Signing to major labels and taking them on at their own game! Journalism written entirely with exclamation marks! It all seemed so possible and like such a good idea at the time. But my the middle of the decade everything was sounding the same, there was that huge Linn snare sample and that DX7 ("one of the first ever keyboards!" Chesney Hawkes, overlooking the harpsichord, piano, organ, etc. and their various ancestors over several hundred years) on everything. Then when a reaction did come along for the first time I felt as though it wasn't really taking things further forward but simply going backwards. Suddenly every band you heard seemed to sound like a cross between the Buzzcocks, the Byrds and the Velvet Underground and have floppy fringes and anoraks. So although I did still buy new records, and there were occasional exceptions, I began to look elsewhere for music to excite me. I was already fairly familiar with a lot of French music, I'd discovered Brel whilst still at school (and then Scott Walker which is another story), then I met a French girl and she expanded my francophone horizons considerably. I fell in love with Barbara, I heard other wonderful records such as Claude Nougaro's Une petite fille, then there was the actor Serge Reggiani's first album which we'll cover in a future piece... Indeed, this gives us an idea of how different things are in France. In the English-speaking musical world actors who decide to sing are generally frowned upon. And there is generally good reason for this. Much the same goes for singers who decide to demonstrate their thespian abilities. There are exceptions, of course, but they prove the rule. However in France the rule does not apply. Actors have been known to make good records, and actresses even more so (although in most cases these involve Serge Gainsbourg) and occasionally the move is made the other way, Brel appeared in a number of films, as did Gainsbourg (who was also at one point the highest-paid director of commercials for French TV, I believe). In France the setting of poems to music is commonplace, indeed the line between poetry and lyrics is nowhere near as clearly defined as it is in English. Although there's of plenty French bubblegum (the sixties variant being often known as "yé-yé" which pretty much sums it up and is at least honest), they also have the chanson tradition which is taken very seriously indeed – and rightly so. Gainsbourg's complete lyrics are published in the same collections as editions of Baudelaire and Rimbaud. Obviously they aren't poetry, they are lyrics, designed to be sung. As I may perhaps have mentioned before, the best definition of the difference between lyrics and poetry that I've heard was given by Leonard Cohen in an interview with Mark Lawson on BBC Radio 4's Front Row arts magazine programme, in which Mr Cohen said that a lyric had to "find its way more quickly from heart to heart". I can't think of a great album in English which takes its lyrics from poems... I can think of a number in other languages. In Spanish Joan Manuel Serrat has done at least a couple that I know of, most notably Antonio Machado, in France Jean Ferrat has recorded so many songs with lyrics based on poems by Louis Aragon that there are 2 or 3 compilations just of the Aragon songs. Then there are multiple settings of pieces by Jacques Prévert, the best-known being Les Feuilles Mortes, although the poem didn't really make it intact through the translation into English as Autumn Leaves. Then there's plenty of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Villon... It does tend to be the so-called poètes maudits (accursed poets, though it amounts to a lot more than that) who attract musicians in search of a lyrical idea.

Anyway, another favourite to whom I was introduced by the young French person mentioned above was Léo Ferré. She played me an album called L'été '68 which blew me away. I'd never heard anything like this. In 35 minutes it tackles poverty (Madame la misère), the star system and celebrity (L'idole), anarchism (Les anarchistes), the 1968 Paris riots (the title track) and, er, the death of the author's beloved pet chimpanzee who frequently appeared on stage with him and who is favourably compared to Gainsbourg in terms of both personal appearance and habits. Then it also features C'est extra, which is one of the best-known songs in France and which knocked me into a cocked hat the first time I heard it. Unlike much of Léo's other work, especially later on, it's incredibly simple from a musical point of view, just a single chord sequence which runs through the whole thing. The lyric alludes to the Moody Blues' Nights In White Satin which had been a hit a year or two earlier and basically captures a moment in time. The instrumentation is acoustic guitar propelling the thing along with drums and bass in a very sixties cool jazz style, and then a wonderful organ part scattering runs and frills (what a friend of mine very accurately calls "curlicues") all over the verses. Then there's a string section and the third verse has one of the most perfect pieces of string arrangement I've ever heard, as the violins go on an upward run weaving around the vocal and then kind of shoot off at the top of it, a bit like a firework. But most of all there is that vocal, one of the finest ever committed to tape. Léo did have a fabulous voice and he knew how to use it. He builds throughout the song and then the bit at the end where he takes the chorus of "c'est extra" (it's fantastic) and pushes up and up and over, well, it still sends shivers up and down my spine to this day. It's a great piece of pop music except that it sounds so much older than 1968 in some ways and yet in others it's timeless. The rest of the album is pretty fantastic too, with Pepée (yes, that's the one about the chimp) being another obvious highlight, a thing of extraordinary beauty in every respect. By the late 1960s Ferré had been recording for a long time, he was in his late fifties and his music had already developed through a whole series of styles, his early stuff draws on the French music hall tradition and he also recorded a number of albums drawing on poems by the likes of Baudelaire, Aragon, etc., but by the sixties he was putting a lot of politics into his work (see above), and was becoming more ambitious. But he was never afraid to write a love song either, although always in his own inimitable style, in fact one of my favourite albums of his is Avec Le Temps, which I think came out in around 1972. The title track, which closes the LP, is one of the most beautiful songs ever written, based around a figure so sequentially logical and obvious that, when you sit down at a piano and work it out you start to wonder whether perhaps Chesney might've been right because surely, had keyboard instruments really been around for several hundred years, somebody would've come up with this before? It is gorgeous. Mind you, it's a bit trickier to play on the guitar as I discovered when I did an arrangement of it which I used to perform live in the late eighties, with my own translation of the lyric. People always used to ask what on earth that song was...

The following year he released the first album moving in a still-more ambitious direction, Il n'y a plus rien. I suppose you might call this chanson progressive except that Léo wasn't simply paying lip service to classical influences, he really knew what he was doing. Side one of the original LP starts with a Préface, a spoken-word piece in which he sets out his store, "nowadays people will only touch words with gloves on..." Then that segues seamlessly into Ne chantez pas la mort (don't sing about death) in which he tackles the greatest of all taboos ("don't sing about death, it's a morbid subject" shows he had a sense of humour, "it's a taboo subject for accursed poets" – all of which sounds a lot better in French than in English, of course), based on another of his wonderful piano triad figures, with a truly gorgeous orchestral arrangement, lasting seven and a half minutes... Then that gives way to Night and day, which is most emphatically not the Cole Porter song. Indeed it continues in the same vein as Ne chantez... and with more memorable lines such as "Il paraît que la Vérité est aux toilettes et qu'elle n'a pas tiré la chasse... La Vérité, c'est dégueulasse"
("it seems that the Truth is in the toilets and hasn't pulled the chain... The Truth is disgusting" – that one really does sound much better in French), then side one comes to a phenomenal climax with Richard, sitting in a bar, contemplating the world and one last drink. Every now and again Léo breaks off from his gloomy ruminations to ask his companion "Eh, Richard, ça va?" building to a wonderful finale as Léo shouts "Eh! Monsieur Richard! Le dernier! Pour la route!" (Hey, Mr Richard! One last drink! For the road!") Side two opened with another gorgeously arranged piece called L'oppression (I'll leave you to guess what that one's about) and then, this being 1973, the remainder of the side is taken up with the 16-minute title track which is effectively a fairly nihilistic (the title means "there's nothing left", which is about as nihilistic as you can get, I'd say) poem delivered over a piece of contemporary classical music.

Now I think about it, I remember that in the late 1980s, Channel 4 here in the UK showed a French TV series directed by Jean-Luc Godard and called something like Le Tour de France de deux enfants and it featured a section set to the music of Richard, I remember loving it, although I was already familiar with the song. I don't remain much else about the series but that sequence did stick in my mind. Léo himself died at the age of 76 in 1993.

I had – hopefully still have in my vinyl collection – one of Ferré's later albums, by which point he was working almost entirely outside the structure of the song and essentially making modern classical music adorned by that gorgeously quavering tenor of his. It was called L'imaginaire and I remember there was one song (or piece) on it that I loved, called Les ascenseurs camarades. He stuck to his guns, did Léo and I admire him enormously for that. Plus he pulled off one of the great tricks, mixing the sweetness of his voice and the lush orchestral arrangements he used to go for with the tartness, or even the downright power of his views, whether upon the tenets of anarchism as the ideal philosophy upon which the organisation of human society might best be founded, empathy for the dispossessed or cross-species friendship between man and other simians. Certainly I can put my hand on my heart and say that, if I am ever asked – as I feel sure I one day shall be – what my favourite song about a chimpanzee is I shall reply instantly "Pepée by Léo Ferré". And likewise, if required to name my favourite song mentioning the Moody Blues I shall plump for C'est extra. I just love the ambition of records like that, or Barbara's L'aigle noir, that is the kind of thing to which the Granite Shore aspires.

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