Mixtape Series 2016: Dans les années de plomb: French sounds in the 1970s, by Jonathyne Briggs

by Victor Szabo on April 1, 2016

Bataclan

Despite the failure of the student protests and worker strikes to create a political revolution in 1968, many young people in France still believed in the revolutionary potential and the coming change. Many musicians began the decade reflecting on the failures of the movement of May 1968 while others were trying to advocate for change in their music. Still others were interested in cultural change, creating new types of music within French pop music and embracing styles explored elsewhere. The collapse of the economic miracle in the early 1970s created many of the same problems in France—inflation, unemployment, racial strife, and dissatisfaction with government institutions—and led to new musical movements there—regional folk-rock, punk, disco, and electronic music—all offering a reaction to social and political climate in France.

  1. Leo Ferré (with Zoo) “Paris, je ne t’aime plus” from Anarchie amour [1970]: Ferré’s brooding rumination on the events of May comes from his collaboration with the progressive rock Zoo but echoes earlier his earlier musical style as he laments the changes to Paris wrought by the 1960s.
  2. Serge Gainsbourg “Cargo Culte” from Histoire de Melody Nelson [1971]: While Ferré was uncomfortable with all the changes to his beloved city, Gainsbourg instead writes about the possibilities of contact that all the transformations have provided. Here, “Cargo Culte” serves as the conclusion to Gainsbourg’s seminal album about the strange, sexual relationship between Gainsbourg and his young protagonist Melody as she flies away from him. Gainsbourg’s album reveals the powerful influence of progressive rock in France mixed here with eroticism and exoticism.
  3. Alan Stivell “Pop Plinn” from A l’Olympia [1971]: Stivell’s harp was a powerful symbol of the regionalist movement in 70s France but here it is Dan Ar Bras’ electric guitar work that makes this 1971 single a central part of Stivell’s performance at Olympia in that year. Stivell would continue to explore the combination of folk and rock throughout the 1970s but here is a distillation of that combination.
  4. Dashiell Hedayat “Fille d’ombre [excerpt]” from Obsolete [1971]: The progressive rock movement in France had its share of freaks but none more strange than the Gong collective, of which this album is a product. This short track from Obsolete has elements of musique concrète, psychedelia, and choral music illustrates the international influence on the French underground and its willingness to experiment.
  5. Ange “Ce gens là” from Le cimetière des arlequins [1973]: Ange’s take on Jacques Brel’s chanson standard shows how progressive rock attempted to bring politics and music together while still recognizing the musical traditions within France. Ange’s success, commercially and critically, suggested an acceptance of this combination.
  6. Gong “Oily Way” from Angel’s Egg [1972]: Another transmission from Planet Gong, this track from 1972 finds Gong leader Daevid Allen growing more comfortable in the French scene. Here he emphasizes the utopian possibilities of music to imagine new worlds in contrast to the failed efforts of students to change their society.
  7. Frenchies “Lola Cola” from Lola Cola [1974]: A sharp turn, a new aesthetic: playing glam rock in the style of the New York Dolls, the Frenchies have a different response to the frustrations of the 1970s. A short-lived, little-loved band, the Frenchies predict the coming wave of pub rock and punk rock while at the same time finding some fellow travelers in the world of retro rock that is gaining traction in France.
  8. Kalfon Rock Chaud “Camion” [1976]: Jean-Pierre Kalfon, an actor, released one of the early attempts at punk in France, on the influential Skydog Records. This recording hints at the energy to come from Paris, Rouen, and Lyon.
  9. Michel Polnareff “Lettre à France” [1977]: Polnareff, one of the biggest music stars in France in the late 1960s and early 1970s, had left France as a tax exile and relocated to the United States to record a series of soft-rock masterpieces. This single was one of his biggest, a ballad about the distance he experiences from his homeland and a reminder of the divide between the established music stars and the punks who were appearing in the streets of Paris.
  10. Marie et les garçons “Rebop” from Marie et les garçons [1977]: The influence of the Velvet Underground on the New York punk scene is evident in the recordings of Television, Mink deVille, and Richard Hell. However, the Velvets’ reach was felt in Lyon in the early recordings of Marie et les garçons, whose vampy and drone-y rave ups reflect the fascination with the Velvets’ urban blues.
  11. Jean Michel Jarre “Oxygène 4” from Oxygène [1977]: Undoubtedly, the biggest pop star of the 1970s in France was keyboardist Jarre, whose Oxygène album was an international smash and a cornerstone of the emerging subgenre of New Age. His melodic, synthetic odes contrast with the aggression of punk but call for an awareness of the environment.
  12. Asphalt Jungle “Planté comme un privé” [1978]: Led by journalist and cultural critic, Asphalt Jungle burned bright and quickly but asserted a citizenship for the French in the global punk community. The anger and hope of punk captured the attitudes of many young people as the economic crisis in France (and Europe in general) lingered on in 1978.
  13. Les Olivensteins “Je suis negative” [1978]: Another punk group, this time from Rouen, Les Olivensteins were more influential than successful but again showed how punk was embraced by French young people as response.
  14. Stinky Toys “Lonely Lovers” [1978]: The biggest names in French punk (for better or worse) were Stinky Toys, led by Jacno and Elli. Courted by Malcolm Maclaren, Stinky Toys could not quite find their own sounds and were dismissed (and are still) as merely facsimiles of British groups. Jacno and Elli would find greater success in the 1980s with a different style of music but here they create a balance between the profane and the beautiful.
  15. Richard Pinhas “Iceland” [1979]: Pinhas had been a critical part of the French underground in the 1970s through his own work with Heldon and his patronage of other French artists (most importantly Métal Urbain). While much of his work is more abrasive, here he prefigures the French cold wave but also reveals the technological weariness at the end of the decade through his drones and synth beats, the sounds of the lead years hardening into a frozen but beautiful futurist landscape as a resignation to the coming apocalypse.

Jonathyne Briggs is an Associate Professor of History at Indiana University Northwest.  He has published extensively on French popular music in the twentieth century in journals such as the Journal for the History of Sexuality, Modern and Contemporary France, and Volume: The French Journal of Popular Music; and is the author of Sounds French: Globalization, Cultural Communities and Pop Music, 1958-1980 (Oxford University Press, 2015), which examines the relationship between the globalization of popular music and the development of social communities in France between the 1960s and the 1980s. He is currently working on a history of the politics of the treatment of autism in France since the 1960s, tentatively titled Perpetual Children. ​

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