Léo Ferré ‘Mai ’68’ 3CD (Barclay/Universal France) 5/5

Here is an artist who has previously been reviewed in these columns with a separate box set of his early career. For the uninitiated, Léo Ferré was a committed singer with strongly held views, but was also possessing deeply melodic singer-songwriter credentials, and with a strong nod towards French poets. Indeed, he has at least devoted three albums in the 1960’s to poets as diverse as Aragon, Baudelaire and Rimbaud, with Verlaine another key reference. However, this box set has been released to coincide with a commemoration of the events of May 1968, when a cross-section of the French population, from discontented workers, to students and film industry personnel (including both Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut) demonstrated throughout that month their opposition to everything from the form of government (regarded as repressive by those opposed to it) to the perceived consumerist society they were living in.

A trio of music aficionados, including Matthieu Ferré, son of Léo, music industry aficionados Xavier Perrot and Alain Raemackers, have together assembled this splendid box set that rightly places Ferré’s own work within the wider framework of popular discontent and not solely related to the events of 1968. The first two CDs focus more generally on Ferré’s work with socio-political themes, while the final CD is the jewel in the crown, a first ever release of a non-professional recording of a concert performance given by Léo Ferré, along with pianist Paul Castanier, on 10 May, 1968 at the Bobino theatre in Paris, in other words during the conflict itself. As such, it is a priceless historical document and that includes his own, ‘La révolution’. The sound quality, although not pristine, is perfectly acceptable, and that is beside the point here because it is the message contained within the songs that is all important. Stylistically, the concert was classic pared down Ferré, although two songs feature orchestral accompaniment, and elsewhere the accordionist Marcel Piazzola and his band lend a helping hand.

As far as the other two CD’s are concerned, they provide an overview of Ferré’s career, though are not a general ‘Best of’. For those in search of a beginner’s guide to the work of Ferré. Universal France issued a fine 3 CD set in the 1990’s (including the lyrical, ‘Jolie Môme’ and, ‘La langue française’, which is a gentle and humorous dig at the increasing usage of English in modern-day French expression – that being in the early 1960’s) which fits that bill to perfection. However, for general French history scholars, this new box set offers innumerable treasures, and the superb inner sleeve notes (only in French and requiring an intermediate level of understanding) explain individual songs in some detail. These range chronologically from 1948 through to 1972. Early in his career, Ferré espoused the cause of exiled Spanish Republicans, with, ‘Le flamenco de Paris’ (1948), and later derided General Franco, with, ‘Franco, la muerte’ (1964). That said, Ferré was philosophical enough to see the wider picture of a French society in transition as illustrated with, ‘La vie moderne’ (1958), which in some respects is a precursor to Jacques Tati’s film, ‘Playtime’ (1967). In fact, the lyrics within the song foresaw such classic lines as, ‘Miss Robot dances the polka’. Ferré’s own utopian vision is the subject of, ‘L’âge d’or’, but by 1961, he had had enough of politics in particular and there was a personal call to insurrection on, ‘Y’en a marre’ (‘Fed up’). What comes across in all these songs is the continuity of political commitment in the lyrics, and he joins the likes of Boris Vian who, in 1954, wrote and performed, ‘Le déserteur’, in the middle of war with Indochina. Of interest is the song, ‘Les anarchistes’ (1967), which Ferré wanted to place on an album of that same year, but was first aired at the Bobino concert.

The illustrative booklet contains a black and white photo of Léo Ferré and Paul Castanier on stage during the performance and the original flyer promoting the concert and looks the part in red and black like the outer box.

Tim Stenhouse