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French Class

Michael Collins looks back Bertrand Burgalat’s career as the architect for the modern French pop sound

Artillery Row

Michel Houellebecq brought me to Bertrand Burgalat. The enfant terrible of French literature, who’s been described as a racist, a pornographer, a misogynist, an Islamophobe – his novel Submission envisages a Muslim government ruling France by Islamic law in 2022 – is also a chanteur let’s not forget. The lyrics for his album  Présence Humaine (2000) are culled from his poetry, and rendered in that half-speaking, half-singing style that’s at its best in the French language and – ideally Parisian – accent, of which Serge Gainsbourg was the master.

It’s been suggested that Burgalat is the French Phil Spector

Beyond the guitars and the guttural Gallic monotone of the title track, what lingered were motifs reminiscent of theme tunes in TV detective series from the 1960s or breezy art house films. This is the work of the composer and producer Bertrand Burgalat; he has numerous French film soundtracks to his credit, alongside collaborations with Nick Cave, Pulp and the writer Jonathan Coe. Not only is he himself a recording artiste, as they were once called, but according to the British author “a very brilliant one”.  He’s right.  One critic described his early works as “ear candy created with so much care that it starts to resemble high art.” There are the solo albums with Burgalat’s signature sound and Gainsbourg-style singing that settles for a croon rather than a growl. He’s grown more assured about his vocals since Toutes Directions in 2012 – also released as an instrumental album with the extended title “J’aime Pas Sa Voix”. I don’t like his voice. 

It’s been suggested that Burgalat is the French Phil Spector. He’s credited as the inspiration –  maybe the architect – for the modern French pop sound forged from faux disco and electronica at the fag end of the 1990s, heralded by Daft Punk and Air. Burgalat played bass on ‘Sexy Boy’ and released his own sizzling take on it a decade later in 2007. Even though he himself had moved on to more eclectic influences as others replicated the “Burgalat-sound”, it provided a wide-ranging alternative to the blokey revivalism of Britpop. The French dented the music market in America and Britain for the first time since the halcyon days of the  yé-yé  movement of  the 1960s which, despite the catchy melodies, upbeat rhythms and beautiful girl singers – too many a Francois or France to mention – was a parody of the contemporary pop in those countries. Susan Sontag listed it in the camp canon in her famous essay; Jean- Luc Godard loathed it for leading French youth to choose Coca-Cola over Marxism. Even though his film Masculin Féminin (1966) featured Chantal Goya, the ultimate yé-yé girl.  “Teenagers prefer bubblegum to Marxism.” The pioneering French music critic and essayist  Yves Adrien wrote – Burgalat’s reputedly a fan – in 1973. “This is the strength of the teenager. The leftist adventure is not, in the musical/electric concept that concerns us, more important than the fashion of the twist or the platform boots.”

Born in Corsica and raised on classical music, Bertrand Burgalat discovered British pop music by way of “Telstar” playing at the local fairground. Later Pet Sounds, and much later Kraftwerk, would join Ravel and Poulenc as key influences. “I think influences always say more about the person who finds them than about the author,” he says. If Alain Delon is his favourite living Frenchman, David Bowie is his favourite dead Englishmen.  In 2017, he recorded the plaintive ambient piano track “Tombeau Pour David Bowie”.

The future-retro tag that Burgalat’s lumbered with does his output a disservice, particularly with the new album Rêve Capital.  As one with an untrained ear, and an infantile French learned at a school where English was barely the first language of the natives let alone anyone else, I can but let the lyrics and motivic arrangements wash over me. What do I hear? There are moments when the music conjures up the epic orchestrated British pop of the 1960s; the symphonic soul that was the sound of Philadelphia in the 1970s; “Four Seasons of Love” from a summer long gone. If Satie and Ravel are in there so is Sacha Distel. “L’Homme Idéal”, the superb first single from the album, could be the soundtrack to a summer that sees the world open for business again. Burgalat begins by informing us that it’s the season of lust. C’est l’été, saison des concupiscences. The staples of his sound punctuate the album: the sophisticated chord changes, billowing sounds and yé-yé-style backing vocals. “The more that time goes on, the more I try and be clear and sharper,” he has said. “I am using the same tools. What changes is the way that people perceive my music.” No doubt these compositions will find a way into film soundtracks and onto the catwalks during fashion week.

With this new album he has created something that is both irresistibly modern and unmistakably French

Just two years off sixty, Burgalat’s formal look has been described as that of the ideal son-in-law. He’s often photographed in suits; his large, smokey-tinted spectacles belong on the young Yves Saint Laurent or, since we’re talking the 1960s, to the ancient English among us – Harry Worth. When he says that we live in the past and yet are “unwilling to respect the past”, he addresses an issue that extends into the present beyond music and into the wider culture, history and politics. Particularly when it comes to a rising generation taking to the streets believing they have chosen Marxism over Coca-Cola, when they’ve simply transformed the former into the equivalent of the latter. During one interview Burgalat stated rather cryptically – Or has Google translate failed me again? – that we have no idea of creating new things at a time of changes. With this new album he has created something that is both irresistibly modern and unmistakably French. 

We are all the products of our environment,” he said way back, in response to the release of an earlier album, “so there is probably something very French in our music. I dislike folklore; I feel France is being destroyed by fake authenticity, hence I have always tried to avoid the French.” Traditionally, it’s not France but Paris that’s synonymous with such clichés. The Paris expected and found by the foreigner, as relayed in Malcolm McLaren’s predictable but brilliant musical homage to the city. 

Maybe the country needs those clichés as in recent years other themes have become shorthand for the French capital, and France itself: Charlie Hebdo…The Bataclan…Samuel Paty. Hemingway once wrote: Paris was never to be the same again, although it was always Paris and you changed as it changed’. In the wake of such tragic events the late Karl Lagerfeld said that Paris has to make an effort to become Paris again. It is; it will. In the meantime, this summer, there’s Rêve Capital.

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