It is now fifty years since the events of May 1968 in Paris had a ripple effect across the globe and this extremely well researched and thought out compilation deserves a good deal of credit for even attempting to explore the impact that the widespread demonstrations had upon French music.Trying to group together the different strands of the French music scene, mainstream and underground, is no easy task, and if St. Etienne duo Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs fall marginally short in just a few areas, that has no bearing on the project as a whole which is a most praiseworthy one. First of all, who were the key singer-songwriters to emerge in the aftermath of 1968? This compilation rightly focuses attention on Michel Polnareff who has sometimes been likened to a French equivalent of David Bowie. While Polnareff is very much his own man, there is some merit to that parallel in that Polnareff did pay a lot of attention to his visual image, borrowed from external musical influences, and repeatedly changed his musical outlook, yet still retained his own distinctive voice. In ‘Le bal des Laze’, we have a fine example of Michel Polnareff at his creative zenith, and at some stage there surely needs to be a condensed anthology of his work aimed squarely at a non-French audience. William Sheller, on the other hand, has an anglophone speaking family background and used that to good effect for honing his own songwriting skills in French. He has a long-standing audience in France among the literary cognoscenti and, ‘Leslie Simone’, from 1969 is an excellent illustration and he continued to pursue his own path. However, where this compilation missed an opportunity was in not including two of the key folk and protest singers in Maxime Le Forestier and Renaud. The former was inspired by the folk-rock tradition that sprung up in the United States and went over to soak up these influences. He returned in 1973 with a new brand of acoustic folk and a major critical and commercial success in, ‘San Francisco’. That would have been an ideal song to showcase here. In the case of Renaud, the elasticity of his language and sincerity of his lyrics would have made him an ideal candidate and his avowedly working class northern French roots make him anything but bourgeois. Another artistic figure, who has made a career out of combining theatre influences in his music, is Jacques Higelin and he is probably also deserving of a place here. That said, full marks to Stanley and Wiggs for unearthing a marvellous singer-songwriter early in his career, who has gone on to incorporate world roots influences in his music. That singer is Bernard Lavilliers and his spoken monologue approach on ‘Les Aventures Extraordinaires d’un Billet Banque’ (The extraordinary adventures of a bank note) is a wonderful inclusion, and hints at the Gainsbourg talk over, though if anyone had an enduring influence on Laviliers, it is surely Léo Ferré. Indeed, Ferré, with his strong political and unorthodox convictions, would have made another fine contributor here, and to be fair, his name is mentioned in the extensive sleeve notes.
Women singers came to the fore during the late 1960s and both Brigitte Fontaine and Françoise Hardy are key figures, the former in the underground scene, whereas Hardy made waves across the Channel and beyond. Fontaine is a marginal figure and for that reason alone, her post-yéyé plus strings, ‘Dommage que tu sois mort’, is deserving of a place. As for Hardy, she is heard here in a more unusual setting of Brazilian guitar accompaniment on, ‘Viens’, from 1971 and she is a fine example of the chanson tradition. The only pity is that Barbara was not included here. Some of her work from the early 1970s is truly outstanding and she would make a far better illustration than France Gall who publicly went on records to declare that she was happy things went things went back to normal after May ’68. Hardly an anti-establishment figure and a strange bedfellow with some of the other singers on board.
Actors and music are synonymous with one another in France and actress Jeanne Moreau possessed a wonderfully melodic voice, but from this compilation’s perspective, her stunning work dates from before the period in question and thus her exclusion is merited for that reason alone. Mireille Darc (more of a Joanna Lumley than Barbara Windsor equivalent), on the other hand, starred in Godard’s classic ‘Weekend’, a nouvelle vague film and here offers ‘Hélicoptère’, with the help of one Serge Gainsbourg. Needless to say, Gainsbourg could never be excluded from a 1960s/1970s French music overview and actress/singer Jane Birkin contributes the lovely ‘Encore Lui’ from a 1973 album that was written and arranged by Serge, and a lesser known number, ‘Evelyne’, is a film soundtrack that Gainsbourg penned among several (see the wonderful box set of his cinema work on Universal France). Arranger Jean-Claude Vannier is a firm favourite among those who like their film soundtracks on the psychedelic rock side and, ‘Les gardes volent au secours du roi (an alternative version)’ (The guards come rushing to help the king) is at once wonderfully eclectic and melodic piece of instrumental music.
If one song were to typify the era, although it was recorded just prior to 1968, then it would surely be, ‘Il est cinq heures. Paris s’éveille’ (It is five o’clock in the morning. Paris is waking up) by Jacques Dutronc. It is a pity that song is not included here (though again referred to in the sleeve notes) because it does define a whole generation and is worthy of inclusion on any anthology that purports to convey the very essence of May ’68. Instead, Dutronc has been showcased with, ‘Métaphore’, and his songs from this era are strongly recommended. Otherwise, an excellent compilation that opens up myriad new avenues for francophiles across the Channel. Outstanding graphical illustrations in the very best tradition of the ACE compilation series in general.