It’s a fair bet that, amongst the sort of listeners who tend to have favourite albums, many of their favourites will be albums that they stumbled across almost by accident. This was certainly the case for me with 1968 by France Gall, which I long ago stopped listing as a favourite due to the blank bordering on suspicious and hostile looks that it generally provoked, but which in truth I’ve hardly stopped listening to since I first stumbled across it, entirely by chance and longer ago than I care to reveal here.
France Gall, for the benefit of anyone who isn’t familiar with her work, was one of France’s biggest pop stars of the sixties; essentially a cross-channel equivalent to Sandie Shaw if we’re going to be simplistic about it. An early protege of Serge Gainsbourg, her earlier beat-flavoured output varied between simplistic straight-up bubblegum pop like Sacré Charlemagne (credited to ‘France Gall et Ses Petits Amis’, who appear to have been two terrifying wooden puppets) to more suggestive Mod-stompers such as Laisse Tomber Les Filles and the notorious Les Succettes, the story behind which we are best not going into here. To international audiences, however, she was – and indeed probably still is – best known for winning the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest with Poupée De Cire, Poupée De Son, a thundering and dramatic collaboration with Gainsbourg that postmodernistically lamented the existential loneliness of singers who only exist for listeners as a voice on vinyl.
Like everyone else in the mid-sixties, France eventually ‘went’ psychedelic, growing out her famous bob and investing in enough gaudily-hued military jackets to make that bloke in the top hat in that overused stock footage of ‘Swinging London’ seethe with envy. In common with her fellow Rainbow Chaser-chasing bandwagon jumpers who had sensed something in the air but neither knew nor cared what it actually was – and it’s worth noting here that many of her recordings around this time were made in London, with the same session musicians who would have been playing on just-about-far-out-enough-to-say-you’d-been excursions by the likes of Herman’s Hermits and Petula Clark – poor old France never got it quite right but her records were frankly all the better for it. To quote Rob Chapman in the sleevenotes to the inauthentic and proud compilation Paisley Pop, “what price authenticity in a world where everyone from Vince Hill to The Seekers to Des O’Connor embroidered their music with sitars and their album covers with dayglo?”. As you might have already worked out, this is where 1968, and its startling cover showing France peering distractedly through a cloud of dry ice and hallucinogenic lights in a top that would have had Polly and Dodo from Doctor Who coming to blows over who got to wear it, comes in. But how and where did it come in for me?
That story starts, as so many mundane yet brilliant ones do, with a compilation tape. Daniel Hunt, later to find fame as one quarter of Ladytron but even then a local celebrity amongst fellow musical archaeologists on account of his uncanny knack for finding ignored gems in unlikely places, had picked up a couple of promising-looking records for dirt cheap during a visit to France. Finding that the contents were every bit as good as the gaudy yet minimalist cover art had promised, he set about converting everyone he knew to the mysterious and exotic joys of Jacques Dutronc, Michel Polnareff and of course France Gall. Even to an already committed Francophile such as myself, who already had a fair few Francoise Hardy and Serge Gainsbourg albums and EPs and a worrying obsession for differing reasons with The Magic Roundabout and Brigitte Bardot, this was thrilling stuff in the pre-Internet age, and in fact I still have the tape that he did for me with France’s Teenie Weenie Boppie in crackling, hissy mono knocking about somewhere. At the height of the sadly short-lived Britpop/Loungecore/Exotica crossover, these tracks quickly became local cult favourites and found their way into many an aspiring DJ’s setlist, to the extent that they are probably the soundtrack to many of the best nights out had by anyone I knew around then. I did once pull simply on account of lip-synching the words to Poupée De Cire, Poupée De Son, if you wanted any shamelessly self-aggrandising evidence to back that up.
Getting hold of the actual original records wasn’t as easy as you might think in those days, which is why I was only too pleased when Teenie Weenie Boppie turned up on CD a short while later as part of the Karminsky Experience compilation Further In-Flight Entertainment, and more pleased still when I found it included on a full reissue of 1968 later that same year. Which admittedly I stumbled across whilst obsessively scouring the World Music section in HMV, but that made it all the more exciting really. It sounded somewhere between The Small Faces and incidental music from Barnaby and the lyrics – oh I did I mention speaking French? – were far more ‘out there’ than I had expected, taking in acid trips, mysticism, Cultural Imperialism and, erm, demanding to be ‘eaten’. Teenie Weenie Boppie, almost certainly the catchiest song ever written about drug-induced suicide, rubbed shoulders with the endearingly over-arranged Chanson Indienne, the jazzy Les Yeux Bleus on which she was backed by someone who clearly had no idea how to play the Hammond Organ but wasn’t about to let that stop him, and the slinkily sinister Nefertiti. Jabs at the arrogant, entitled English contrasted with breathy and breathless declarations that she was in love with some lucky young chap and he had no say in the matter.
As unlikely as it might appear to ‘outsiders’, 1968 was an album that resonated with me as immediately and completely as Are You Experienced?, starting a love affair that has lasted significantly longer than that with the person who was with me when I bought it. It also once caused another former short-lived significant other, on catching sight of the album alongside others by Sandy Denny and Nancy Sinatra, to ask disgustedly if I had any records that weren’t by blonde women and storm out of the room in a huff. It’s a good job I never played her AMMMusic 1966.
You can find much more on the mind-expanded corners of sixties pop music in my book The Camberwick Green Procrastination Society.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.