Caught by the River

Paris in the Spring

Rob St. John | 9th June 2018

Rob St. John gets his ears around ‘Paris in the Spring’, the latest Ace Records compilation from Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs (out now).

On the front cover of this new compilation is a photograph of a smartly dressed man in a summer suit, seemingly suspended in mid air. Ahead of him, under a boulevard of city trees in spring blossom, a thick, amorphous smudge of bodies, shields and helmets barricade the road. Taken by photographer Georges Melet in Paris on 6th May, 1968, the image has a strange tension about it: is the man dancing toward, or recoiling from the crowd? Throwing something, or dodging a missile? It’s an image of dapper defiance that appears particularly charged, taken as thousands of students, teachers and workers took to the Paris streets to demand the liberation of their recently arrested peers following demonstrations and riots in the city. This was a period in which the possibilities of how life might be lived in France were briefly up for grabs, as both new and resurgent strains of radical politics, cultural theory and art bubbled to the surface of daily life.

The creative ripples and resonances of May ’68 have been well documented, particularly in the protest posters and photographs which mark the political, cultural and social upheaval of the period. As ever, pop music was not isolated from these currents. Now, fifty years on, Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs from Saint Etienne have compiled Paris in the Spring, a compilation of French music which emerged in and around the events of 1968. Like the sprung man on the cover, this is a collection caught between worlds, a cross-pollination of pop genre, technique and sound, all shot through with an ‘underlying mixture of optimism and darkness’, as Stanley and Wiggs put it.

Prior to 1968, French pop was largely dominated by yé-yé – that particularly Gallic inflection of mid-century beat music  (literally from the shout of yeah! yeah!) as refracted through the discothèque, teenage life, and Kodachrome colour – with stars including Johnny Hallyday and Sylvie Vartan. Stanley and Wiggs write that a sense of ‘seriousness and observation’ began to seep into French pop music around 1968, partly as a result of the prevailing national mood. The dour sounds and literary themes of chanson – think of Jacques Brel, Charles Aznavour and Léo Ferré, for example – which had previously been viewed (or perhaps better, heard) as something more serious and sacrosanct than yé-yé, were increasingly remade into something more experimental and accessible.

Often, this genre experimentation carried with it imported strains of Anglo-American jazz and psychedelic and progressive rock. For example, in 1970, Ferré released the double album Amour Anarchie, recorded with a rock group – Zoo – who provide an electrified backbeat bed for Ferré’s spoken-sung lyrics of anarchy and sexual liberation. A broader shift in the French music industry from the singles and EPs of yé-yé to LPs (and double LPs) gave new space for concept albums and song cycles such as Amour Anarchie to be pursued. French pop could be stretched out and expanded, in more ways than one. Finally, the unsettled national mood around 1968 made for more darkly accented French film and television productions, for which composers like Alain Goraguer and Jean-Claude Vannier increasingly experimented with marrying ragged fuzz guitar and clattering rhythms with melodic bursts of string section colour and shape.

The twenty-two tracks on Paris in the Spring (itself a double LP) were produced between 1968 and 1976, and are arranged by their sound (as a DJ might) rather than their chronology (as a historian might). This shuffled sonic genealogy that ripples around the events of May ’68 has many highlights. Actress Mireille Darc’s 1969 take on Serge Gainsbourg song ‘Hélicoptère’ perhaps comes the closest to evoking the expansiveness of French pop in the late 1960s, beginning with the metallic rattles of helicopter blades and the bobbing of organ stabs, then emerging into a rich, if uneasy, pop song, before descending back into the clattering murk. Nino Ferrer’s 1974 track ‘Looking for You’ is based around a woozy pastoral funk groove with twinned vocals, rich strings and organ, and panned stereo-field smears of passing vehicles – something both sweet and unsettling. Jean-Claude Vannier’s 1972 track ‘L’Enfant Assassin Des Mouches’ is irrepressible, moving through time signatures with abandon, leaving a trail of massed vocals, buzzsaw guitar and pinched strings, as if Atom Heart Mother had been made with a serious Gallic swagger. Stanley and Wiggs’ canny curation means that there’s no duff tracks across the whole compilation; instead, a common thread of creative possibility and expansiveness, even when freighted with an undertow of lyrical and sonic unease. There’s plenty to discover here – highly recommended.