Never heard of the radical underground music scene going on in Sixties France? Well that's probably because there wasn't much of one. If, as I keep suggesting, the music was tied with the social and political upheavals of the time, then France should have been a contender of Brandoesque proportions – it had more upheavals than any other developed nation. Yet, while these did tie in to artistic movements, such as New Wave cinema, music made for something of an exception to the rule. (Check out Italy from the same era and you might come away with a similar story.)
Opinion remains divided whether France produces popular music which simply doesn't export, or whether it simply doesn't bother with the stuff at all. But that matters little here, for both point us in the same direction.
On the other hand, of course, there never was a rule that wasn't made to break. So let's home in on a couple of notable exceptions...
Reader, please indluge a personal digression...
When you're young, you can be very sure of yourself. The two or three things you know line up neatly in your head, free of tangles. So, to my mid-teen mind, music was a pretty clear-cut affair. Hawkwind were quite clearly the highpoint of everything which had happened since the onset of recorded sound. Which left Gong (pictured up top) to pick up the silver. Simples.
Not that my schoolmates were always easy to convince of this, and sometimes pearls fell before swine. I remember showing the colourful, handwritten cover from 'Live Floating Anarchy' (below) to one of my few remaining associates. He stood looking at it in some bemusement, before finally handing it back. “Is it music?” he asked hesitantly, “or is it just messing about?” “I'm really not sure,” I beamed back. But he seemed unaware that this was actually an advantage.
Yet, while I love Hawkwind to this day, over time I lost a lot of interest in Gong. It was partly hearing the later albums (from 'Shamal'), after instigators Daveid Allen and Gilli Smyth had left, which were quite definitely music without the messing about. While the old Gong had been the soundtrack to patching your jeans, things had turned to swish Euro-prog. They even had... I can barely manage to type the words... proper covers. Ugh!
But somehow, like capillary action, such sheer competent awfulness seemed creep back into the earlier stuff. Concept album trilogies on the theme of hippies getting stoned? It stopped sounded appealing. With Hawkwind aiming squarely for the systematic derangement of the senses, Gong seemed by comparison mere blissed-out whimsey.
Yet, as this clip demonstrates so perfectly, sometimes they really could go off. It makes an advantage of the very thing that would later rip apart Gong, that the French never really took to being hippies. Allen and Smyth blow in among those neat beards and button-up shirts like foreign weeds. But here the two sides blend so perfectly and effortlessly it creates a whole new thing – for which I'm not sure we even have a name yet.
Their “just messing about” is grounded and given shape by the more skilful and disciplined playing of the musicians; while the free-form zaniness gives the players a focus and an edge which keeps them away from their more noodly tendencies. It's really not so far away from how the Magic Band worked with the Captain. Plus I also love the way the backdrop isn't some lava-lamp effect but Vertov-style silhouettes of the band setting up. C'est superbe!
These young people of today. With their I-pods, their apps and that Spotify business on their mobiles. Just try telling them this, and they won't believe you...
...but in my school library there were precisely two books on rock music. Given the absence of anything similar on the shelves at home, they represented the sum total of knowledge on the subject in my world. There was the one with words in it and the one with pictures in it. Ever the English whizz, I went for the one with words in, the 'NME Book of Rock'. Then, in what seemed the logical next move, I read it.
But of course the school library was expecting that book back. In fact, from previous experience they were likely to show a strange vociferousness on that sort of subject. And another of the many things lacking in my world was a photocopier. But, in an unusual modernist gesture, I had been permitted access to my Mum's manual typewriter. So if I came across an interesting-sounding entry, I'd preserve it for posterity by copying it out verbatim.
I kept the resultant sheets of A4 in a battered red binder. My typewriter permissions didn't extend as far as being allowed to change the ribbon, a piece of maintenance now some years overdue. But provided you squinted hard at the increasingly greying text from under bright light, you could make out most of the words. Well, most of most of them.
That red binder was like my lo-fi, Babbage engine version of Wikipedia. Only with less sound files and edit wars.
It was a bit like a hungry man copying out menus from restaurants he couldn't get to. Or afford to eat there even if he could. I dreamt... I dreamt of the day when I would track down the musical sources of those sacred entries. Those strange and enthralling names – Captain Beefheart, King Crimson, the Velvet Underground – so different to the day-world of school, where things had names like Dr. Neville, Mr. Murgatroyd and Further Maths. That voyage of discovery, it would be my mission, even if it took me a lifetime.
Which is pretty much the way it worked out.
Now one of the most enticing names contained in that red folder was Magma. They were French. Which was pretty strange to start off with. Music was English. Or American. Except for the Germans who liked heavy metal. But French?
For some reason the book didn't even mention what's normally considered Magma's killer app, singing in an imaginary language that supposedly came from another planet. But it did say this:
“Formed to perform enormous, megalomaniac oratorios concerning Earth's future... Magma fall by their humourless and irredeemably pretentious concept.”
Well, naturally I was desperate to hear more.
Which required some exertion of patience. In time I'd come to hear Captain Beefheart, I'd come to hear King Crimson, I'd come to hear the Velvet Underground - and yet Magma remained elusive. Of course I'd continue to hear their name, scattered like breadcrumbs along a young music aficionado's path. The people who liked the maddest stuff, who got interested in a band just at the point everybody else was giving up on them, they always seemed to rate them. John Lydon was rumoured a fan. There was a brief rush of excitement when they played London some years ago. But all the while without my ears ever striking pay-dirt.
Today of course the instant hit of the interweb means I can hear them any time I want, without having to get up out of this chair. And of course it's correspondingly harder to find that time. So I've pretty much just dabbled in the odd YouTube link.
Added to which, they're not particularly YouTubeable. Listening to Magma clearly isn't an instant hit. You're supposed to get into them the old way, the way I got into Captain Beefheart or Pere Ubu, slowly and piecemeal, gradual acclimatisation. It's like the way LPs had a natural pause between sides, where they'd wait for you to come and turn them over. While CDs just run.
Their videos can look like you'd stumbled across the rituals of some strange cult, with no clue what it all means to initiates. For which I suppose the word is “apt”. It's not like Frank Zappa in any particular, but it is like Frank Zappa in terms of breadth and scope. Dip into two bits of Zappa from two different eras and you'd have no idea how those dots joined up – it's like that. In terms of what they do, what sort of music they make, it seems bewildering. In, you know, a good way.
Their whole other-language schtick, however grandiosely absurd, is actually kind of fitting. Discovering a new band like thisis like hearing a strange new language. At first all you could hear was the sheer otherness of it. But after a while you could pick out phrases, and even start putting them together...
But one thing I have found and do enjoy is the way they'll blend rock and classical styles so unselfconsciously, unlike the self-important look-at-me ostentation that so beset their era. And the way they don't use classical elements for ornamentation, sporting string sections like bling, but instead take up the power and force of classical music. Their name, I would guess, was chosen to combine monumentality with fluidity. And just like the magma layer oozes on with no heed paid to time and tide, they remain active to this day!
If anyone reading this is an initiate, who can speak that other-world language and could suggest a good starting point for full-album immersion, I'd be grateful for any pointers. Which wouldn't necessarily have to come on typewritten sheets in battered red binders. Just preferably.
Coming soon! The Sixties underground in Luxembourg. (Only kidding…)