The CLUAS Archive: 1998 - 2011

French Letter

10
Late at night, when you’re at home and it’s quiet and dark, try tuning your radio to medium wave and going up and down the stations. Radio always sounds magical and intimate late at night - and on the MW/AM band in the small hours you’ll find strange accents and foreign languages that conjure up faraway places and dreamy escapism.
 
Here in the south-west, where the FM band is sparsely populated compared to Dublin (although Spin South-West has some great shows), medium wave is especially rich and evocative. BBC World Service, Scandinavian music shows, Spanish talk-radio… and French stations too, of course. Only a week back in Kerry and missing Paris already?
 
Anyway, last night while surfing the megahertz we picked up France Bleu (an oldies station we never usually listen to) just as they were playing a classic French hit, ‘Marcia Baila’ by Les Rita Mitsouko. Sacre Bleu! Now we already know and love this song – it’s a daytime radio favourite – but last night, far from France, it sounded so fresh, so exotic, so… French!
 
Les Rita Mitsouko have an interesting story in their own right. A duo (and couple) comprising singer Catherine Ringer and instrumentalist Fred Chichin, they emerged in the mid-‘80s with an eclectic sound of dancefloor-pop mixed with punk attitude and various world music rhythms and styles. Visually they were colourful and eccentric, and Ringer’s voice was strong and soaring. As for their strange name, ‘Rita’ is a reference to Rita Hayworth and an allusion to her fiery character in South American-set noir classic ‘Gilda’; ‘mitsouko’ is Japanese for ‘mystery’ and was the name of a popular perfume in the early 1980s.
 
They soon became France’s biggest pop act and were popular across the continent – however, the London music weeklies would only mention them sneeringly while mocking the French scene (in this regard I remember seeing their name in the Melody Maker during Britpop).
 
However, apart from their music they will always be remembered in France for a notorious TV incident in the '80s. Ringer was a guest on a chat-show, and beside her on the couch was none other than Serge Gainsbourg. It was common knowledge that Ringer had appeared in porn movies as a young actress, and that night she was discussing the experience calmly and dispassionately. At that time, though, Gainsbourg seemed to be making a determined effort to be as boorish and unpleasant as possible in public, and in an unforgivable lack of gentlemanliness he began repeatedly calling Ringer a ‘pute!’ (‘whore!’).
 
To her eternal credit Ringer refused to be intimidated by France’s pop legend and she retorted by pointing out how far the scruffy, drunken and ungracious Gainsbourg had fallen from his late-‘60s-early-‘70s peak. Game, set and match to Ringer. The clip is still shown regularly on the best-clips-ever shows that seem to dominate primetime French television schedules.
 
Due to serious illness on the part of Chichin, Les Rita Mitsouko were inactive for most of a decade until they finally released an album called ‘Variety’ earlier this year. It’s a collection of MOR guitar-pop that would be impressive from any ordinary denim-over-denim dadrock group but is disappointing for an act with Les Ritas’ colourful and inventive back catalogue. It’s been a huge hit nonetheless and the pair are headlining festivals around France, including Rock En Seine in Paris at the end of August.
 
Their biggest hit and best-loved song will always be ‘Marcia Baila’, a wild and flamboyant Latino-disco-pop tribute to Ringer’s late dance teacher. If you’ve spent any time in France in the last two decades then you’ve surely overheard it in some café or bar. Kitsch but stylish, free-spirited but aloof, naff but cool – only French people could make music like this:
 


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10

With some of Dublin's live music venues closed for reconstruction, it seems that every tent, marquee and big top in Ireland will be mobilised into active rock n'roll duty. But what if it's a windy night and, just as Arcade Fire walk on stage, the tent blows away? Can you take that chance?

Well, in Paris there's a neat line in alternative venues: barges on the Seine. We went to one, the Alternat, for a punk night a while back. The boat was moored at Bercy, just upriver from the Gare de Lyon and Austerlitz, and the gig took place in the hold of the barge. It's a strange feeling to be a a concert and literally rock and roll with the music - looking left we could see out the portholes as police boats cruised up and down and their wash lapped against the hull.

The barges are extremely popular as nightspots. Perhaps the best known among Paris music fans is the Batofar (above) - a fire-engine-red former lightship which actually comes from Ireland. It was restored in the nineties and opened as a venue in 1999. Docked at Tolbiac (not far from the Alternat), it can hold 300 punters in its venue space and hosts French and international DJs and electronica acts.

Another much-loved floating venue is the Cabaret Pirate (left), known to all Parisians by its former name of La Guinguette Pirate. As the name suggests, it looks like a pirate ship - and just like the Batofar it regularly hosts top DJs and dance acts. However, the old Guingette's most popular shows were always its dance nights - salsa, zouk, reggae and so forth. The new venue's programme seems to feature less world sounds, which is a shame - discos and electro nights in Paris can be intimidatingly hip and cool, whereas dance nights are licence to dance and flirt shamelessly (so we're told).

In Dublin there's a distinctive red barge moored near Patrick Kavanagh's statue on the Grand Canal - it serves as a French restaurant. There was also U2's video for 'Gloria', where the superstars-to-be played on the deck of a canal barge. Perhaps some old boat can be spruced up, moored at the Docklands and used as a small venue? It would surely be a lot less leakier than a tent in a park in October.


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09

French music fans talk about ‘la pop anglaise’, by which they mean the classic English indie sound of melodic Beatlesy songs. Amazingly, some French people of our acquaintance use this as a pejorative term for what they see as the frivolous frothiness of the pop we know and love – for example: “Peter Bjorn and John? Oui, pas mal… mais ce n’est que la pop anglaise!” But then, for a lot of the French rock/pop audience a song’s melody is much less important than its words. Some Irish singer-songers would approve, we feel.

 

Just our type: RhesusRhesus are a three-piece from Grenoble in the east of France, and they make music which is pop anglaise all the way down to its English lyrics. In 2004, on the back of their early EPs, French music weekly Les Inrockuptibles named them as winners of their annual CQFD (Ceux Qu’il Faut Decouvrir, or Those You Must Discover) prize for most promising new act. They made good on this expectation with their 2005 debut ‘Sad Disco’, a fine collection of melodic indie-pop.

 

Their second album, ‘The Fortune Teller Said’, will be released on September 24 in France (no news of any UK or Ireland release or concerts), and the first single taken from it is called ‘Hey Darling’. It’s not up to the high standard of the songs from the first album, so there’s a serious risk of second-album syndrome here. Having said that, it’s still miles more enjoyable than current French indie heroes Kaolin and Mick Est Tout Seul (the latter being the solo project of the singer from a band called Mickey 3D), neither of which are our thing.

 

God save Rhesus and their pop anglaise, and let's hope that second album is a cracker. Check out their website and MySpace page for more info and tracks. In the meantime, here’s ‘Hey Darling’:


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06

'Rock n'Roll 39-59' is a fascinating exhibition at the Fondation Cartier in Paris. The show traces the roots of rock n'roll and presents this new music as a revolutionary moment in modern culture. Best of all, it brings to life a sound and attitude long taken for granted by today's music fans.

For sure, the exhibition is laden with 1950s memorabilia - guitars owned by the stars, vintage Wurlitzers, even a 1953 Cadillac that symbolises the postwar consumerist explosion which gave '50s teenagers the loose change to spend on records.

But it's much more than an exercise in 'Happy Days' nostalgia. Listening posts and displays trace the heritage of rock n'roll. Blues, gospel, jazz and country are presented in family trees and interactive maps where you can listen to the music of a certain city or region. Acts as diverse as Rosetta Tharpe, Bob Wills and Duke Ellington are given their dues for influencing (in their own ways) the new sounds to come. And there are hidden treasures to discover: obscure or forgotten acts like Wanda Jackson and Professor Longhair who deserve to be listened to again.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is a 50-minute documentary on the early days of rock n'roll as we know it. For the honour of 'first rock n'roll record' the film suggests Fats Domino's 1949 song 'The Fat Man', with 1954's 'Rock Around The Clock' (sounding amazingly fresh) by Pennsylvania country-rocker Bill Haley and his Comets as being the genre's first commercially-successful single.

But the first cut of rock n'roll modern-style was 'That's All Right' by "a nineteen year old truck driver" who would change the world. Given our knowledge of the Fat Las Vegas caricature he would become, it's both poignant and thrilling to see Elvis Presley as young, fresh and energetic - the definition of rock n'roll. Everything after him feels like an imitation.

The documentary shows how the record companies mass-market this new sound by (take note, Coldplay and Snow Patrol fans) extracting the sex and danger - sterilised crooners like Pat Boone and Paul Anka loosen their ties and sell homogenised rock n'roll-lite to a middle America still unwilling to buy records by black artists. And the film ends bleakly with the two events that mark the end of true rock n'roll - Elvis entering the army in 1958 (thus conforming to The Man) and the 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper.

All visitors to the show receive a free four-track CD featuring four defining tracks from 1956, rock n'roll's greatest year - Elvis singing 'Hound Dog', Chuck Berry performing 'Roll Over Beethoven', Little Richard's 'Good Golly Miss Molly' and Carl Perkins version of his own 'Blue Suede Shoes'. These songs are part of rock's subconsciousness and listening to them today you're struck by their continuing vitality and promise of excitement. You know these songs - but have you ever listened to them? Bringing this fantastic music back to indie-kids like me is a measure of the exhibition's success.

The exhibition continues until 28 October: if you're in Paris you must visit it. Mona Lisa can wait - after all, she belongs to Nat King Cole and the crooners.

Are your old people out of the room? Good. Here's the corrupting influence of Elvis Presley, singing 'That's All Right' - gyrations included. Is this the greatest rock star ever or WHAT?:


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04

The annual Festival Interceltique takes place this weekend in Lorient, on the west coast of Brittany. Celtic acts from around the world will perform at the event, now in its 37th edition. This year the theme is Scotland, so there's a Highland flavour to the 2007 festival.

The Irish contingent at this year's festival includes Sharon Shannon, The Dubliners (or what's left of them), Donegal fiddle-player Theresa Kavanagh, folk group Coscan, a punk-folk outfit called the Mahones (hmm, wonder which two bands inspired that name?), The Colman Irish Dancers and the New Ross Pipe Band. There will no doubt be plenty of tributes to the mighty Tommy Makem, who passed away earlier this week.

We did a double-take, however, when we thought we saw a certain Californian funk-rock band on the bill - but in fact it was just the Red Hot Chili Pipers, a gang of Glaswegian pipers who are sure to win Best Band Name if there's such a prize.

The biggest genuine star name of the whole festival, though, is Sinead O'Connor, who has just released her trad and reggae influenced album 'Theology', her first collection of new material  since 2002's 'Sean-Nos Nua'.

Your blogger has a soft spot for Sinead ever since hearing her sing 'Peggy Gordon' a capella at a small fundraising concert in Dalkey a few years ago. It was a mindblowing experience - she has a voice made for traditional Irish ballads.

Here's the great lady singing a live trad-rasta version of  'Óró, sé do bheatha 'bhaile': 


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02

Bullet the blue sky: U2 at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, 2000, by Anton CorbijnYour blogger is back in Eire for a few weeks to recover from a hard year of working, marathon running and swanning around Paris.  We flew into Dublin this morning, and the city looks well - the Famine seems to have cleared up, and we didn't see any Black and Tans on the streets. Next stop the Kingdom - but the French-connected pop reports will continue.

Flying out of Charles de Gaulle Airport (or Roissy, as every French person still calls it) this morning reminded us that U2 shot the video for 'Beautiful Day' there in 2000. This was in more innocent pre-9/11 times, of course. Were the video to be filmed there today (based on our experiences this morning) it would feature Bono in a long queue for passport checks and Adam getting a good hard frisking (although perhaps that latter video already exists in someone's private collection).

Anyway, here's U2 acting the eejit in CDG. And keep an eye out for your blogger around Ireland over the next three weeks!


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31

The name of Pugwash, the Dublin power-pop heroes led by Thomas Walsh, is causing some intrigue here in Paris.

Pugwash's Thomas Walsh, international man of mysteryA recent edition of French cultural mag Les Inrockuptibles reported on Neil Hannon's current movements - the Divine Comedy man being one of the musical heroes of the Parisian bobos. Anyway, the magazine reports that Hannon is currently working on an album by "his obscure compatriots Pugwash".

The piece continues: "But that's not all: Pugwash has, and it's perhaps even more amazing, also succeeded in securing the services of XTC's Andy Partridge, who co-wrote two tracks on the album, entitled '11 Modern Antiquities' and to appear later in the year. Andy Partridge and Neil Hannon on the same record: the dream of every normally-constituted pop lover" (translation mine). 

To pass the time while waiting for this mysterious new album, you can test your French by reading the original article. Otherwise, you can listen to some classic tracks on Pugwash's MySpace page. And if that's not enough, here's 'It's Nice To Be Nice':


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27

Paris offers the tourist everything - except the sea. In this regard, Paris always loses out to Ballybunion and Bray. However, every summer the city hall tries to remedy this - et voila! The beach comes to Paris!

'Paris Plages' (now in its fifth year) is a temporary beach on the right bank of the Seine, starting below the Louvre and running upriver past Chatelet and Notre Dame as far as the Gare de Lyon. From mid-July to September a riverside road, the Voie Georges Pompidou, is closed to traffic (as it is every Sunday, to facilitate walkers and rollerbladers). Tons of sand are dumped on it, and the improvised beach is then garnished with palm trees, sun loungers and so forth. This being France, there's also pétanque, or bowling.

The beaches are enormously popular and always packed - despite the obvious drawbacks. For one thing, there is a busy road up above at street level, so there's no escape from noise and pollution. Also, there's no privacy - tourists take photos of sunbathers from above on the street and from the decks of the bateaux-mouches (river cruises). Still, some people may like having that paparazzi feeling.

Another problem is the strangeness of being on a beach but unable to swim in the nearest body of water - i.e. the Seine. Now the old river is no longer as polluted as it was centuries ago when it would actually go on fire. Your blogger lives down the river from Paris and there are anglers on our nearest bank. There was also a swimming race recently (similar to the Liffey Swim).

But despite former Paris mayor Jacques Chirac's 1987 pledge to make the Seine fit for swimming, it's still completely forbidden to swim in the central Paris stretch (there's the old joke that if you fell off a Paris bridge you'd be dead before you hit the water). The city fathers have therefore set up floating swimming pools on the river. We presume that surfing is not allowed either - sorry, Jules. However, Juliette Binoche is allowed to go waterski-ing. Who could refuse her?

'Paris Plages' really comes to life at night, when there are free events such as the 'Indétendances' series of concerts featuring new and established acts (including the fantastic psychedelic pop of Izabo, who we featured recently). One of the joys of summer in Paris is going down to the river at night and sharing wine with friends. So far the French summer has been a bit cool (still better that the Irish one, of course) but last weekend we went to the canal at La Villette, where there are also 'Paris Plages' activities. Life is good in Paris.

So that you can share some of the 'Paris Plages' vibes, here's Serge Gainsbourg singing 'Sea, Sex And Sun':


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26

1) The video for 'Double Je', the first single by Christophe Willem, winner of 'Nouvelle Star' (France's version of 'Pop Idol'), comes on television and I immediately zap elsewhere before hearing a second of it. After all, no talent show winner has ever made a decent record (Girls Aloud being the exception that proves the rule), and the video - singer sings his woes to a self-help group - looks about as funny as Monday morning. Zap!

2) A wonderful cut of stomping '80s disco-pop is playing on the radio of every shop and café I visit, but I keep missing the title. 'What', I ask myself, 'is that fantastic song? Who sings it? And how come I never see it on the telly?'

Naturally, the song in question is 'Double Je', the first single by Christophe Willem, winner of 'Nouvelle Star' (France's version of etc etc). So much for your eejity blogger's pop snobbery (just to be sure, we listened again to Rhianna's 'Umbrella' - still a boring song, as we've always thought. Get over it, English-speaking world!).

Tall, gangly and square-spectacled like Jarvis, Willem is nicknamed 'La Tortue' (the turtle) for his strange way of hunching up his shoulders when he sings, often while wearing a turtle-neck sweater (i.e. a polo-neck jumper). He's clearly a Michael Jackson fan, right down to the moves and the falsetto voice - and 'Double Je' is as good a pop single as those by Justin Timberlake, that other Jackson-influenced pop idol.

The video is still crap, though, so here's Christophe Willem singing 'Double Je' on a French TV show recently. Yes, that's his real voice:

 


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24

Lauren Guillery is from France - and don't forget it. You see, the Dublin-based singer is so fed up with people asking her where she's from that she's written a song about it. The title? 'Rude'. Hmmmm - personally (as an ex-pat too, here in Paris) it seems like a perfectly reasonable question.

In fairness to Lauren, though, if you've heard her being interviewed recently on Phantom's Access All Areas or Anna Livia's Indie Hour you'll have found that she's a lot friendlier that song's story suggests.

In any case, Irish music fans have taken a liking to Lauren and her band The Claws, who were recently voted (bizarrely) 'Best World Music Act' by viewers of Balcony TV - no doubt just pipping Panpipe Moods and the Mongolian throat-singer quartet.

Playing the sort of energetic indie rock that will always appeal to a wide audience, the three-piece band are currently looking for a fourth member. If you fancy the job, you can find out more by reading Lauren's no-nonsense Musicians Wanted ad on the CLUAS discussion board.

Lauren Guillery and the Claws will be at many of the fun-sized festivals that seem to be popping up all over cash-to-burn Ireland these days - Knockanstockan in Co. Wicklow on 28 July, Indie-pendence in Mitchelstown on 4 August and Eurocultured at Thomas Read's in Dublin on 18 August. Go on, check them out.

Over on her MySpace page you can also listen some tracks from Lauren's first EP 'Listen', as well as the aforementioned Phantom interview with Edel Coffey. Stick around here, though, and you can watch Lauren performing 'Rude' live on Balcony TV:


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Nuggets from our archive

2001 - Early career profile of Damien Rice, written by Sinead Ward. This insightful profile was written before Damien broke internationally with the release of his debut album 'O'. This profile continues to attract hundreds of visits every month, it being linked to from Damien Rice's Wikipedia page.