Saturday, June 11, 2011

80s French Pop Gems

Back to my recent obsession with the mid-80s! This time I want to talk about a mini-wave of French pop bands who had some minor yet excellent hits around 1985-86 then disappeared. Let's start with the bigger of the three, Taxi Girl, who actually had a very big hit in 1980 with "Cherchez le Garcon":

But this blog is about obscure stuff and we're supposed to be talking about the mid-80s today, so I want to point to the band's last single released in 1985, "Aussi belle qu'une balle", that didn't have the same success as "Cherchez le garcon" yet is just as great (and bonus point if you can name the actresses in the background photos) :

What happened to them? Daniel Darc (the singer) went solo and has become somewhat of a cult pop figure in France, and Mirwais (the guitarist and co-composer) went on to become Madonna's hot-shot producer!

Another great band was Gamine, who managed a couple of hit singles and released a couple of albums. Amateurs of French pop probably remember "Voila les anges" which could even be heard on dance floors at the time, but I want to single out "Le Voyage", which is truly a little pop marvel.

Doesn't this song make you want to fall in love with some unattainable woman?

Gamine was a champion of good pop taste, but the mistake they probably made was to sing their second album in English. By trying to go global they lost their local support and were soon forgotten.

Let's finish off with the more obscure of the three, a band called Pijon. I think this song deserved much more success (despite its video):

Jerome Pigeon, the singer, tried a solo career, but wasn't successful either...

Other French pop one-hit wonders of the mid-80s: Les Innocents, Les Ablettes, Les Calamites, Luna Parker, etc. Check them out! These bands may not have had much staying power, but they probably planted the seeds of bigger things to come: Noir Desir, Mano Negra, Negresses Vertes, all bands with a harder edge and who persisted to sing in French and still managed to have some success beyond French borders.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Vancouver Psychedelia!

(Editorial note: looks like we've more or less survived Blogger's Big Outage of 2011. I say more or less since the cool/lame/kitsch votes seem to have disappeared for the time being, or... or... maybe forever!)

In the late 60s, Vancouver's hippie scene was probably as buoyant as that of San Francisco. I can imagine that it attracted US kids who objected to the war in Vietnam. Also, the local winter weather was good and the weed potent... And, last but not least, the Afterthought on 4th Avenue hosted many great live acts such as Jefferson Airplane. Yet, I'd never heard of a corresponding local music scene. Of course it turns out that there was one, it's just that they never managed to have a commercial breakthrough like their Californian counterparts. So here's a few things I've managed to find.

I'll start with my favorite one. It's a song from a band called Mother Tucker (oh well). This song was included in a compilation that was made in 1970 in support of Cool-Aid House, which was some sort of hippie shelter in Kitsilano (these days some traces of counter-culture in that area can be found at the excellent Zulu Records). The original vinyl is extremely rare and could fetch you some decent amount of skunk. Luckily, it has been reissued by Regenerator Records, a cool bunch of music preservationists.

Another name from that scene is Seeds of Time. I don't know anything about them, but I just was lucky to find something on YouTube and I'm sharing... It's just cool that they performed on CBC at the time!

And here's another one for the road. Apparently this one was quite successful at the time, but to be quite honest I don't see why. However, the vintage photos of Vancouver in the 60s make the video well worth watching:

If you're curious about Vancouver's hippie scene, there's an entire book dedicated to it. If you like psychedelic concert posters like the one I included at the top of this post, pay a visit to BC artist Bob Masse's web site.

Vancouver's indie music scene has come a long way since. Black Mountain or New Pornographers (and offshoots thereof) ring a bell?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Degrees of Separation

So lately I've been reminiscing of the years 1985-86, trying to think of pop songs that I really liked back then and that still sound good to me now. It just seems to me that 1984 was a better year for pop. Anyway, one song that definitely makes the grade is Thought I'd Never See You Again by a British band called Working Week. It's just the perfect mix of wistful pop and jazz, with some wonderful female vocals:

It's actually quite interesting how many 80s pop bands used to include jazz influences in their music at the time. Remember Matt Bianco, Joe Jackson, Sade, Hong-Kong Syndikat? (Well, maybe you don't remember the latter, but then check them out, or maybe it's a topic for another blog post?) So after mentally sending a thousand thanks to YouTube (and whoever shared that song with the rest of us) for instantly playing that great yet relatively obscure song for me, I wanted to find out who Working Week were. According to their Wikipedia entry, they were formed by guitarist Simon Booth and saxophonist Larry Stabbins, with vocal contributions ranging from Julie Tippets (better known as 60s hippie Julie Driscoll) to good old Robert Wyatt and then up-and-coming singer Tracey Thorn (Everything But The Girl!). On the song above though, it is a certain Julie Roberts singing.

Still according to the Wikipedia article, Booth and Stabbins were previously in a band called Weekend, which had apparently had great critical acclaim. Naturally, I had to check them out. Here is one of the many gems I found (listen to the very end: the initial gentle bossa nova breaks out into full blown samba):

"But... but...", the diligent and knowledgeable EasyTV viewer interjects, "the vocals sound familiar!" Right you are. It turns out the singer is Allison Statton, mostly known as a the voice of Young Marble Giants, whose minimalist and spooky sound combined with the plain female vocals was really fresh when it came out in the early 80s, and it hasn't aged one bit to this day. I used to use one of their songs as the intro to my little radio show back in the day. Here's a little sample, a song called N.I.T.A., from their Colossal Youth album:

After a couple of albums, Young Marble Giants split. So now we know where Statton ended up (she had further musical adventures, including a partnership in the late 80s with guitarist Ian Devine, in a band aptly named Devine & Statton). As for Stuart Moxham, he formed the Gist, whose song 'Love At First Sight' is better known as "Cafe de Flore" as adapted in French by Etienne Daho. But here's the original version (and the superior one, in my opinion):

So a quick lookup of band Working Week yielded all these other interesting names and bands. Who knew?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Obscure Spotlight: Bill Pritchard

I think from time to time I'll focus on an artist who just hasn't got the attention or success he or she deserves. Today we have the case of an 80s British songer-songwriter who was bigger in France than in England: Bill Pritchard. I'd say his influences include the Smiths and the Go-Betweens, i.e. the melodic romantic jangly kind of pop. He should probably thank Etienne Daho and Daniel Darc, French pop-stars with good taste who collaborated with him and promoted him in France. He often refers to his French affinities in his songs. I don't anything about him other than what his Wikipedia entry says, so I'll just leave you with these little gems:

The first one is Romance Sans Paroles, a song that Stephin Merritt probably has never heard but that he would approve of.

This one, Tommy and Co, was produced by Etienne Daho, and somehow I can almost hear his presence in the way Bill sings the "Tommy and co" line in the chorus.

In 1991 he released Jolie, an album produced by Ian Broudie (Big in Japan, Lightning Seeds). Again, the influence of the producer can clearly be heard:

And to finish, here's a more "experimental" one, more synthetic, from an obscure compilation entitled Future Tense. Haunting stuff.

Check out the YouTube comments if you can, you'll find that many remember him as their French high school teacher.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Space Oddities: Major Tom's Adventures

I suppose most EasyTV viewers know Major Tom, the character David Bowie invented for one of his first hit singles, Space Oddity. The song tells the story of poor Major Tom, lost in space after leaving his capsule. It was influenced by Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey", and the song title can therefore be viewed as a pun on the movie title. Well, one odd thing about this song is that there's two official videos circulating for that song. The reason being that the song was initially included in an early album that wasn't very successful. Then the song was re-recorded (and that's the version we know) and played during the moon landing on English TV. That's when the song took off, if you pardon the pun. Americans didn't care much for the song initially, but a re-release a few years later also eventually broke through there (tedious details of releases and re-releases courtesy of Wikipedia). Anyway, first we have the recording we all know:

But there is an earlier video, recorded when the song was initially released as part of a promotional film called Love You Till Tuesday. The song reflects Bowie's earlier sound and folk influences. The video is pretty funny, in my opinion:

Major Tom resurfaces in 1980, in Ashes to Ashes, Bowie's fantastic hit single off his Scary Monsters album. This is where Bowie admits that "Major Tom's a junkie", and that his take off, floating and loss in Space Oddity were all a metaphor for heroin consumption. The video made a big impression on me at the time:

And then, something peculiar happens. Major Tom ditches heroin for something more conducive to dancing. Peter Schilling (who is indeed related to Curt Schilling the baseball pitcher, by the way), releases a electro-pop song called "Major Tom", and he tells us Major Tom, contrary to popular belief, is alive and coming home! It's a miracle, but based on the video I wonder if he landed ok:

Major Tom's resurrection and his new taste for dancing were regrettable. Bowie recycled him one more time for "Hallo Spaceboy", from his 1995 Outside album, and Pet Shop Boys took care of the dance remix (Neil Tennant can be heard on the chorus).

Here's the official video of the remix, in case you care:

If you're really curious, here's the original version (i.e. non remix) from the album:

But I want to leave you on a good note, so here's a haunting take on Space Oddity by a kid's choir, as part of the Langley Schools Music Project, recorded in 1976 but mostly known due to its re-release in 2001.

Big thanks to The Straight Dope for some valuable information.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Madchester Obscurities

The Manchester scene in the late 80s and early 90s created perhaps the only kind of music that really makes me want to dance. Fuelled by acid and ecstasy, the blend of new beats with 60s influences and psychedelic guitar effects was just irresistible. Now I'm pretty sure most EasyTV viewers are familiar with names like Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets and Charlatans, so today we're going to take a look at some more minor bands who had some accordingly minor hits.

Intastella was an oddity of Madchester in that it had a female lead singer (I can only think of Saint Etienne as the other prominent example). It didn't hurt that the singer was quite attractive, and so maybe Intastella should have had bigger success than what they had. Truth be told though, I just don't think they had a good enough line-up of songs, and there just were too many better bands around at that time. Nevertheless, let's have a peek at one of their better singles, which I think is still pretty groovy:

Maybe the song that typified best the Madchester sound and spirit was this hit by Northside. If you don't dance to this, you must be dead:

It's songs like the above that made everyone wish they could "take a trip" to the Hacienda club and be part of the craziness of the nascent rave culture. Living outside of England, it was difficult to find similar scenes or at least hear the hits on the radio, as consolidation and extreme commercialization were taking care of the nice diversity of musical offerings that could once be enjoyed through "free" FM radio in the early to mid-80s.

Luckily we now have the internet and we can retroactively and nostalgically discover songs such as this one by World of Twist:

The guy sings very much like Bobby Gillespie from Primal Scream, I wonder who copied who?

I have made myself a nice little compilation of hit singles from that era, and we should one day throw a party somewhere and dance to this stuff. Who's in?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Antonioni Rocks!

First post of 2011! Let's start with a bang, with one of my favorite film directors of all time, and his dealings with pop music. Michelangelo Antonioni's introspective, often quiet, sometimes impenetrable movies have moved me, challenged me, annoyed me. In 1996, Antonioni decides to finally get out of Italy to make his next movie, and goes to England to capture the spirit of the 60's. Blow Up became a cult movie for everyone nostalgic of that era. He had managed to capture the insouciance, the aesthetics, and the collective aspirations of the youth, which Antonioni likens to a hallucination, a mirage. But a mirage can be real if everyone can see it, and reality is worthless if no one perceives it... A great example of the theme is the scene during the Yarbirds concert:

Public, private and intrinsic value: a lesson in economy and game theory by the Maestro!

After the critical success of Blow Up, Antonioni gets more ambitious, obtains a big budget for a movie to be shot in the US. Again, his goal is to capture the ideals of the youth, this time in America, with their illusions and delusions. Of course he goes way over budget, and his perfectionism annoys the hell out of the producers, the actors and everyone else involved. In particular, he made Jerry Garcia play the theme to the Love Scene tens of times, while giving him very vague indications and reasons why he wasn't quite happy. I don't know if he was finally satisfied with the result or just took pity on Garcia, but the result plays an integral part in the most moving love scene in cinema history, if you ask me (ignore the initial dubbed dialogue, and forgive me that it's cut a bit too short at the end, but that's all I could find) :

(Daria Halprin, who I believe only ever made this one movie, just makes me melt)

There's another great scene in Zabriskie Point with music by Pink Floyd, but it would give away too much of the movie, and I just want you to go rent it now.

I think the excerpt above convinced you that Antonioni would have made a great music video director, and, well, it's not common knowledge that he indeed made one in the 80's! It's a song by Italian pop star Gianna Nannini, which, even though it has dated a bit, still packs an emotional punch in my opinion. Gianna is very cute with that boyish 80's look, the beret and the suspenders, and there's something in the lyrics that makes you want to sing the song out loud (borrowed from David Saul Rosenfeld's fantastic online book on l'Eclisse):

Questo amore è una camera a gas (This love is a gas chamber)
è un palazzo che brucia in città (it’s a building that is burning in the city)
Questo amore è una lama sottile (This love is a thin razor blade)
è una scena al rallentatore (it’s a scene in slow motion)
Questo amore è una (This love is a)
bomba all’hotel (bomb in a hotel)
Questo amore è una (This love is a)
finta sul ring (fake move in the boxing ring)
è una fiamma (it’s a flame that)
che esplode nel cielo (explodes in the sky)

And here's the song:

It may look like any other video from that era, but Antonioni said that, unlike other videos of the time, he used his patented long shots, and that's because he wanted the video to tell a little story. Don't you dare vote "kitsch"! ;)