Tuesday, 22 January 2013

LaRM day 170 (France Gall)

And so we come to the greatest pop singer of all time (although I'm referring here to only five years of her lengthy career). OF ALL TIME. It's the immortal and untouchable France Gall.  Being untouchable is, I suppose, an ironic comment in light of the fact that, unbeknowst to her, one of her biggest hits was about fellatio.  And so we return, as all roads seem to, to Serge Gainsbourg, who wrote a handful of songs for Gall, including the aformentioned 'Les Sucettes'.  There's some amazing footage of Gall and Gainsbourg discussing 'Les Sucettes'.  The 18 year old Gall is asked what she thinks the song is about and replies that it's clearly about a girl who enjoys lollipops.  Her face when Gainsbourg enlightens her is a picture of mortification and Gall notoriously barracked herself in her flat for some weeks afterwards.  In many ways it's a real shame either that Gall didn't know what was going on or that it happened at all because the 'Les Sucettes' affair was the end of the songwriting partnership between the pair, which had by that time produced some of the finest pop music ever comitted to vinyl.  The debut album, named Les Sucettes also after the success of the single, and released in 1965, is a superb demonstration of the art of throwaway pop, containing twelve of the purest examples of the form.  Gall's high, uncertain, girlish voice is the perfect vehicle for this stuff and absolutely makes it come alive.  It's also all unmistakeably French, with a dedication to an uneasy balance between the childish and the mature (at the risk of soundy a bit creepy, the cultural as well as musical precedents for rubbish like Joe le Taxi are all in Gall's work, if you follow my meaning) and Gall's personality is demonstrative of that uncomfortable imperative, which works so perfectly for pop music.  The songs on Les Sucettes are all fairly straightforward pop with no unnecessary frills, no experimentalism, no messing about.  We have pop-ballads ('Il Neige', the yearning 'Bonsoir John-John'), thudding dansefloor pop ('Tu n'as pas le Droit') silly, childish singalongs ('Oh! Quelle Famille', 'J'ai Retrouve Mon Chien') and more controlled contemporary pop (the brilliant and jazzy 'L'Echo', the superbly structured 'La Rose des Vents', 'Quand on est Ensemble').  It's all absolute gold, with not a wasted note, not a wasted moment, and it's an object lesson in why the French were the true masters of this stuff in the 1960's.

The hyper-pop side of Gall was played up on 1966's Baby Pop LP (as expressive an album title as you can get I guess).  It's super-jaunty, lively, bop-about stuff, but with a distinctly nasty undercurrent running through it (courtesy of Gainsbourg's typically vicious approach to songwriting - most of the songs on Baby Pop were recorded at the same time as those on Les Sucettes) subtly railing against French sentimentality, American imperialism and all kinds of other stuff which apparently Gall didn't understand at all.  It's easy to just enjoy the pop though, and it really is pop to the max on Baby Pop.  'L'Amerique' is a fantastically daft yahoo of a song, the title track is a pounding slab of aggro-pop and almost certainly the finest song of Gall's career, the pristinely melodic organ swirl of 'Cet Air La', is on the album, making it worth the price of admission alone.  There are moments of respite from the pop onslaught, the gently insistent 'C'est Pas Facile d'etre une Fille' and the shuffling ramble of 'On se Ressemble Toi et Moi' for instance, but for the most part this is blisteringly propulsive pop music of the absolutely highest order.

In 1967 Gall stepped boldly into the psychedelic era by making the 1968 album.  As freak-out albums go it's pretty straight, but as pop records go it's a bold attempt at being "out there" with some groovy ragga rhythms ('Avant la Bagarre'), a woozy sitar weird-out ('Chanson Indienne') and an album sleeve to absolutely die for.  It's got a couple of dud tunes on it ('Chanson Pour Que Tu M'aimes un Peu' is a bit of a bore), but when it's good, my word it's good.  In some ways the best pop songs on 1968 are the best pop songs she ever made.  Opener 'Toi Que Je Veux' is a charming bit of fluttering balladry, Gainsbourg's only reclaimed song on the album, 'Nefertiti', is a priceless exercise in Asiatic poor taste made glorious by Gall's brilliantly cheerful interpretation, and album closer 'Made in France' is a barnstorming bit of culturally aggressive super-pop. It's a fantastic (in all senses) album and although it really marked the end of Gall's most glorious period, it really is a remarkably fine piece of Gallic pop-art.

Next up we're shifting chronology a bit by doing the compilation Poupee de Cire, Poupee de Son (2001) which covers Gall's career from 1963-1968 only.  Most of the songs on here that aren't on the three albums above are absolutely superb, especially the earliest stuff, most of which was Gainsbourg's work.  There's the Eurovision entry (the title song) which is a mind-blowing piece of pop music, the truly astonishing 'Laisser Tomber les Filles' and 'N'ecoute pas les Idoles', both of which show off Gainsbourg's gift for effortlessly combining pop musicality with aggressively snide lyrical themes.  There are some trying moments (the self-explanatory 'Jazz-a-Go-Go' and similar 'Pense a Moi' are a bit much and 'Dis a ton Capitaine' is a little annoying) but any failures are dramatically outweighed by brilliance.  The indescribably charming 'Christiansen' is just lovely, as is 'Ne dis pas aux Copains', and there's cherry pop in 'Polichinelle' and the children's tune 'Sacre Charlemagne'.  In truth even when the tunes aren't utterly brilliant, Gall's wonderfully artless delivery and wide-eyed personality always are.

One of the ultimate proofs of just how pristine this pop is, is the fact that of the 50 songs we've just worked through only one breaks the 3 minute mark.  Although she kept releasing singles throughout the 1970's, her career had foundered and label and management changes didn't help.  She didn't release any albums between 1967 and 1976 when she put out a weak self-titled album, followed the next year by the disastrous Dancing Disco LP.  In 1980 she had a sudden and unexpected rennaissance when she released the album Paris, France, which is the next one on our list.  It's unsurprisingly a very different kind of record to those she was releasing in the 60's.  This is smooth, adult-pop with fretless bass, heavy synths and a somewhat overwrought production.  The single 'Il Jouait du Piano Debout' (the 7" of which would have been next, but the B-side is also on the album so we'll skip it) was a smash hit in France and effectively allowed Gall to remain in the business to this day.  It's an inoffensive bit of jazzy sophisti-pop in a very 80's French style (ie, corny even by general 80's pop standards - what happened to French pop? It was the best in the world and became pretty much the worst by the late 70's) and there were worse records released pretty much everywhere that year, but you can't help but think back to the glory years.  Anyway, the album as a whole is an overblown affair with Gall's thin voice now simply thin rather than charming (mainly because she's actually trying to sing properly) and it's all fairly bland, with the occasional light spot ('Plus Haut' is quite nice, but it's helped by the fact that it comes after the abysmal 'Parler Parler').  It's not a disaster by any stretch and showed that Dancing Disco was an uncomfortable aberration, and bearing in mind Gall was no longer the teen-pop sensation it's not an inappropriate development, it just isn't a particularly good one.

It's more of the same for 1981's Tout Pour la Musique which continues this theme of the mature songwriting, and to be honest it's overall a better album with stronger songs ('Diego Libre dans sa Tete' is pretty decent) and the whole thing has a peculiar air of being a French straight version of early Kate Bush.  Gall's voice is tretched to its limited utmost and she trills and quivers in a peculiar but fairly interesting way and there are choppy workouts (closer 'Ceux Qui Aiment') but it's still all just too Europop to be taken really seriously.  It's a shame because you can hear some genuinely decent stuff in here but it's just presented as too corny a package to really be enjoyable. There is, unsurprisingly, some truly terrible stuff here too but taken in the context of its time and its history it could be much worse.

Worse is presented right now, with 1984's dismal Debranche.  The awful, desperate cover tells the story really.  This is glossy, shiny, cruddy Francopop at its most anodyne.  The synths are just terrible, the production has mullet-headed engineers all over it and the tunes aren't throwaway in a fun sense they just should have been thrown away.  Again though, there's some undeniable structure in some of this stuff and the odd fun key change makes a big difference.  But Gall's voice is so nondescript as to be scarcely noticeable and the whole exercise sounds like something that would have been rejected from the Who's That Girl soundtrack.

More of the same disappointing sludge composes most of 1987's Babacar, but at least this time around the cover doesn't look like a Club 18-30 promo poster.  There's nothing much to really say about Babacar that I haven't covered in the previous two albums, other than that it's a little bit worse again.

And so we leave France Gall with the dismal 1996 album, France, which is some new material and re-recordings of some songs from the grim second half of her career.  It's such a shame that we've had to devote as much time to the shoddy second half of her career as to the glorious, golden, glittering first half.  But there we are, that's the thing about being a survivor in the music world, it's rare indeed that you're ever going to be able to make decent records later in your career.  I'm not going to say much about the smooth soul grooves of France, except that you can hear so clearly what was intended and maybe, just maybe, there was a Sade album in here (although personally I would consider that little enough), but it's been so obscured by clumsy production and half-hearted performances that all we're left with is a flimsy bit of cod-soul, cheesy rare groove and pop music with two left feet.  To my mind though it really doesn't matter what France Gall did after 1968, nor what she may do in the future, all is both forgiven and forgiveable because of 5 years of the greatest chart pop ever produced.

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