[12 September 2007]
The early years of rock and roll saw a great number of mutated offspring rise to popularity in local markets across the globe. The burgeoning international culture meant that the American sound of Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry spread like wildfire from country to country, but every country assimilated these influences differently. In France, one of the first home-grown reactions to rock & roll was yé-yé. Primarily built around girl singers and a psuedo-Motown sound, it was energetic and slightly naive in conception. No less an authority than Susan Sontag cited the genre for its resolutely camp nature. In her 1964 essay “Notes On ‘Camp’”, she states, “[in] the last two years, popular music (post rock-‘n’-roll, what the French call yé yé) has been annexed [by camp].”
Sontag was writing in 1964, right before the British Invasion came along and the Beatles almost single-handedly reinvigorated rock and roll. It’s hard to imagine now, but rock and roll had seemed almost spent by the early ‘60s, with Elvis having fallen into the twin traps of the United States Army and Hollywood, and the majority of pop groups falling backwards into harmless fluff. It didn’t help that the burgeoning folk movement presented itself as the smart and serious-minded alternative to the mindless dross (Pat Boone, the Beach Boys pre-Pet Sounds) that dominated the airwaves. Rock and roll was only saved from a decline into camp by the timely intervention of a number of talented musicians who saw fit to expand both the emotional and technical palette of the music past the limited world of pop, reabsorbing the gravitas of blues and the ambition of folk.
But France was never quite so concerned with “authenticity” as their English-speaking counterparts would become. Yé-yé was a uniquely French phenomenon because it never seemed to want to be anything other than what it was. It wasn’t a chrysalis or a transition or a reactionary move, it was simply disposable pop music aimed at a youthful audience. The best artifact of yé-yé culture for modern sensibilities is probably Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin, Féminin, featuring real-life yé-yé girl Chantal Goya in the lead role. It’s a revealing film in terms of the cultural disconnect that existed then and now between the French and America. Totally missing is the underlying passion and earnest enthusiasm that defined American rock and roll, replaced by a studied insouciance that actively defies the tension at the heart of American (and British) pop culture. This is the definition of “camp”, and it goes a long way towards explaining why France has always had an easier time embracing camp than America. It’s hardwired into their understanding of the clear-cut delineation between high and low culture, a delineation that hasn’t really existed in America in any meaningful way for many years.
Paris—Berlin is not an album that could have been produced by Americans. There’s not a hint of irony or winking distance to be found anywhere. Françoise Cactus and Brezel Göring are the married heart of Stereo Total, and they seem perfectly sincere in their desire to make retro rock and roll without an ounce of artifice or disingenuousness. Right from the start it’s hard to avoid the album’s playful spirit—“Miss Rebellion Des Hormones” kicks off matters with a fairly blatant reiteration of rock and roll’s basic appeal: rebellious hormones and the kids who have no desire to suppress their desires. They’ve even included a Serge Gainsbourg song (“Relax Baby Be Cool”), just in case you missed the point.
The most interesting thing to me about Paris—Berlin is how strictly they stick to a very minimal musical vocabulary. Whereas past albums have seen a variety of different approaches, including dance and more modern pop, this one subtracts almost every contemporary influence to create something that could easily have been released in 1964, right down to the littlest production tics. (Cactus’ vocals are placed way to the fore of the mix, with the instruments coming out of the rear of the track.) “Plus Minus Null”, “Relax Baby Be Cool”—more strident examples of convincing retro-stylings you are not likely to find. There are only a few hints throughout the album that this was recorded any more recently than 40 years ago: a deep bass drum on “Baby Revolution”, a disco backbeat on “Mehr Licht”. But for the most part, you feel as if you could be walking onto a street scene straight out of some forgotten New Wave landmark. (That’s French New Wave, sonny.)
If the album wears out it’s welcome, it’s not through any lack of enthusiasm. I was never much of a yé-yé fan, truth be told. The precision with which Stereo Total have managed to replicate this particular moment in history is nothing short of amazing, but in resurrecting the charm of an early era they have also fallen prey to the same faults: it may be fun once in a while, but it’s not something an adult can listen to for too long without getting a toothache.