Michel Polnareff ‘Pop Rock En Stock: l’intégrale… ou presque!’ 23 CD Box Set (Universal France) 5/5

One of the most talented of all French musicians and regarded by those in the know as having the same cult status that none other than David Bowie enjoyed in the UK (and not the only parallel between the two musicians), Michel Polnareff is a singularly creative and driven artist who has a panoramic vision of the world of music, and is not afraid to use external influences. They include those of the theatre and Polnareff possesses a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of the evolution of pop music, from its very beginnings which he weaves into his musical lexicon. Stylistically, he began in the psychedelic rock innovations of the late 1960s, then moved into melodic pop in the early 1970s cutting three classic and cult studio albums (recently re-issued on vinyl), sometimes with a classical feel in the use of piano and guitar. Subsequently, Michel Polnareff sought exile in California where he soaked up yet more influences from blues and gospel to early rock and roll, then branched into film soundtracks (already begun in France) which have both the sophistication of a jazz arranger, and the layered textures of a classical composer/conductor. Polnareff then flirted briefly with disco, penning a stunning instrumental (one of several instrumentals showcased on this collection), straddled the early to mid-1980s synth-influenced music with aplomb, before retreating to a brief period of retirement during part of the 1990s. He then made a big splash in French music circles, with his ‘ ZE return’ to the concert scene in 2007 that was much feted in France and did not disappoint.

Those 1960s sides are handily supplemented by a variety of EPs and 45s that were not necessarily on the original albums, but his artistic claim to fame began in earnest with the cult collectors item, ‘Polnareffs’, from 1971, the start of a quartet of live and studio albums beginning with the start of his surname. In the mid-late 1970s, Brazilian singer-songwriter, Gilberto Gil, recorded a trio of albums starting with, ‘Re’. By then, his trademark white sunglasses (part style icon, part necessity because of damage caused to his sensitive eyes) and curly white hair distinguished him from just about everyone else in French music. David Bowie would use a similar device, namely the persona of Ziggy Stardust, on a series of critically acclaimed albums. There is no evidence whatsoever that either singer was copying the other, but the comparison between their evolution and musical chameleon status is an interesting one and worthy of note.

The 1971 album, ‘Polnareffs’, contained some truly innovative music with quirky titles, such as, ‘Qui a tué grand maman’ (‘Who killed grandma?’), ‘Né dans un ice cream’ (‘Born in an ice cream’), ‘On ira tous au paradis’ (‘We will all go to heaven), plus catchy instrumental tracks (Polnaraff would invariably record instrumental versions of his 45s) of the calibre of, ‘Voyages’ and, ‘Mais encore’. This writer detects a strong Brazilian influence on a sublime track, ‘La mouche’ (‘The fly’), which has sparse brass accompaniment and could easily have been written and performed by either Jorge Ben, or Gilberto Gil at the time. In fact, the box set is crammed with small gems that are just waiting to be discovered across the Channel.

Michel Polnareff courted controversy during the Pompidou presidency by putting out a provocative concert poster that exposed his nude buttocks and that scandalised certain parts of the establishment of French society at the time, much in the way Serge Gainsbourg liked to provoke outrage with his lascivious, ‘Décadanse’, single from the same era. Needless to say, the aforementioned poster attracted maximum publicity and ensured full houses for his concerts. The androgynous look espoused by Polnareff led to accusations by some (which proved to be totally unfounded) that he was gay. Polnareff responded in typical fashion with a song, ‘Je suis un homère’. He followed this album up with an equally strong recording in, ‘Polnarévolution’ (1972), that has one of his most beautiful songs in, Le bal des Laze’, while. ‘Love me please love me’, was a clear illustration that Polnareff was listening intently to music from the English-speaking world. His mastery of early blues and jazz was demonstrated on, ‘Boogie woogie’, and in concert, Polnareff would regularly feature a reinterpretation of either an early rock and roll number, or a blues. A live album, ‘Polnarêves’, was just one of a series of live performances that resume his work from a given period, but always added something new into the mix. Completing the quartet of early 1970s albums is, ‘Polnarêve’ (1974 and distinguishable from its predecessor as the studio version minus the ‘s’ on the end of the title), which contained yet more instant classics in, ‘I love you because’, ‘La fille qui rêve de moi’, and, ‘L’homme qui pleuvait des larmes’ (‘The man who cried tears’). This album also contained one of his most beautiful ballads in the pared down acoustic, ‘Rosy’.

By the mid-1970s, Michel Polnareff was becoming disillusioned with life in France and this became a full-scale divorce from his native land over a tax dispute which later was proven to be another accusation without foundation. Was the French establishment at the time out to discredit and marginalised Polnareff, perhaps? The musician left to start a new life in California, adapting to a new musical environment with a classy film soundtrack, ‘Lipstick’, that just happened to coincide with the ascension of the disco phenomenon. While never an integral part of that, Polnareff nevertheless composed and recorded the memorable title track that hit big in the discothèques and, indeed, many American and British music fans of the period knew him primarily as a dance music composer. His disgust with officialdom in his native country was expressed with due passion in a single (1977), ‘Lettre à France’, that became a hit 45. Throughout the decade, Polnareff toured extensively and, fortunately some of these concerts were recorded for posterity. Of genuine historical interest are the two 1967 performances at the Olympia in Paris and the Palais de beaulieu in Lausanne, Switzerland. The singer would return frequently to his favoured Parisian abode of l’Olympia in 1972 (he filled the concert hall for just over a fortnight on consecutive nights), and an extremely rare concert in Tokyo was an illustration that Polnareff was intent on conquering new markets and not resting on his laurels with merely a francophone audience. Further live recordings, spanning two CDs from a 1975 Brussels performance and a live television studio performance from 1982 kept Polnareff’s name alive even when his albums might dry up. Of particular note is his excellent 1995 live concert at the Roxy in Los Angeles. This was the very same venue where rock and even jazz musicians (Donald Byrd in his jazz fusion prime) would seek to perform. It does not appear to be the case that Michel Polnareff performed live in the UK, though a tiny public lapped up those early 1970s albums and singles.

The box set is creatively designed like a rectangular hardback book, with CDs that pop out and a slick and slim booklet that offers an historical guide to his recordings. Plenty of colourful photographs of the artist, with inner notes on some of the key musicians that have accompanied him. Two small caveats that completists may have already spotted. His non-hit song, ‘Jojo’ is missing, due to a copyright issue, which is a pity since it merits inclusion. However, so much has been included in such a bumper festival of Polnareff’s music that is either impossible to find (live Japanese recordings), or else has been unissued, that one can hardly quibble with the quantity of music, and more importantly, it is the consistently high quality of that same music that showcases this immensely gifted musician who was equally adept on guitar, or piano. His ‘return’ to the concert scene in 2007 was much feted in France and did not disappoint. Polnareff’s continued ability to be a musical chameleon and constantly evolve while retaining his integrity, and still appealing to a large public is what makes him the great musician that he is. For those with an intermediate level knowledge of French, a Belgian television documentary that can be found on You Tube, is essential viewing and entitled, ‘Quand l’écran s’allume’.

Tim Stenhouse