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Téléphone: Anna

Téléphone's album cover

C’est trop


In 1977, the Paris Métro was ahead of many subway organizations in the world. They charged serious money for a photoshoot on their system. A guerrilla session was therefore the way to go, and the laughter and craziness on the sleeve weren’t completely posed. The doors only open and close for so long, and the photographer has to be set up and waiting on the platform when the train arrives carrying the group by a prearranged door. In the background you see Louis trying to explain to the commuters just what the hell is going on.

Someone coined the expression ‘pop will eat itself’. Punk did, and has become just another genre. Play fast, turn up the distortion and off you go. Adoption of an attitude became a style in itself, and a bad attitude something nice to wear on a Saturday night, attractive to a particular crowd but without the fresh challenge and confrontation of the first time around. The spirit of Nirvana and Pearl Jam’s grunge had more in common with punk than most self-styled heirs of the Sex Pistols and the New York Dolls. A punk style does not guarantee spirit. The ‘spirit of rock ‘n’ roll’ is probably more universal and inclusive, but those words have also become a clunky cliché.

The Rolling Stones were proto-punks. The bad boys played what they loved and developed their own musical skills in order to do so. Annoying your parents then was much easier than it is now, since Britain at least was in the grip of the ‘generation gap’, pointing the way to the full-scale defection from polite society of ‘the younger generation’ in the mid sixties.

One major characteristic of the British punks in the mid-seventies is that they were often barely competent on whatever instrument they had picked up. The message was central, the whole point was to confront the complacency and condescension of the dominant class of ‘musicians’, those who were seen to be creating an increasingly vacuous music with their technical chops. The British punks decided they wanted to say something, and then picked up an instrument and got going.

The aggressive amateurism of the British meant that they were often surprised by the competence of punk peers from elsewhere. The brief presence of the New York Dolls in England had inspired many of the early movers, and the arrival in London to stay of Johnny Thunders’ Heartbreakers (led by the Dolls’ guitarist) was exciting but confusing. These people were technically very proficient.

The summer of punk, 1976, ran its outrageous course, and the punk wave spread across Europe. Not just punk technique but, more importantly, punk attitude. There were ways to be found of doing things outside the norm. The dogma of style which had often infected the British (‘that sounds a bit heavy metal’ was a dreadful put-down for a punk band) didn’t afflict the less self-conscious abroad. The Parisian band Téléphone were punks in attitude, but drew musically from the Stones, and they could play very well. Pathé-Marconi, the French branch of EMI Records, signed them. Having delivered the live Roxy Club album to the charts for EMI in London, I was considered one of the new punk cultural agents, although I was yet to lose hair half-way down my back (to a severe trim by Graham Lewis of Wire). I was asked to produce Téléphone. But I was busy with Wire’s first album, Pink Flag.

Although confusingly well played, Téléphone’s demo had an electric quality reminiscent of the early Rolling Stones. Where English-speaking bands might have sounded purely imitative in Stones blues territory, Téléphone’s translation of attitude and style into French had produced a very fresh message. Instead of copying in English, they had commandeered and then transformed a blues-derived style and made it their own. Having suggested a couple of other people who might do the job, I was persuaded that visiting them in Paris for a couple of days would be a good idea. There are worse weekends in life. At least the plane flight gave me quiet time to write out the flute parts for Wire’s Strange, such was the pressure I was under .

After meeting them, there was no hesitation in working with them. They lived the fresh enthusiasm of the tape, eschewing the regular way of doing things even to preferring the antique Paris studios of Pathé-Marconi. English punk attitude would have hesitated at the Abbey Road pedestrian crossing and its smell of the Establishment, but this group recognized the organic, airy, traditionally raucous rock+roll sound in the old studio which contrasted with the dead dullness of the newer design of studio aimed at minimizing one instrument’s leakage into another’s microphone. But I needed my London team, and proposed Eden studios in West London as a lively alternative. Reasonably successful, that studio had an ex-BBC aura to its acoustics, having resisted the fashionable dead air. Its star was rising as more acts discovered its combination of contemporary equipment and lively acoustics, and as a result it was becoming a noted studio for punk and new wave recording.

Téléphone’s guitars were more old-time rock+roll than punk, two antique Gibson SGs with a classic sound which blended Jean-Louis Aubert and Louis Bertignac together like two brothers. The music veered between the punk dislocation of Hygiaphone (‘speak into the hygiaphone’, the actual French word for the bank teller contraption) and the unselfconscious love song which was the first single, Anna. Anna might be in 7/4 time, but you just tap your foot and don’t notice anything fancy or preciously cultured.

So much of record production is concerned with building up large arrangements to heighten the music’s impact without sacrificing the sense of spontaneity (which would be a heinous crime). Most satisfying music often sounds as if it was thought up just before, although we know it wasn’t. The vocals at the end of Anna were a carefully scripted set, with perhaps nine voices going together. A careful road map and much counting meant we could have a big sound and a casual, spontaneous feel.

The translation of the genre into French meant that songs whose ideas might have been ground into the dust of the English-speaking blues world had a new, different context. New surroundings change meanings and give ideas new vigor. Sur La Route (literally, On The Road, but with a punning twist) could have sounded limp in English, but has a different life of its own in French even with a stylistic blues pastiche at the end which might have been delivered by Canned Heat (they of On The Road Again, a navel-gazing hit in the late sixties). Jean-Louis gets away fully with Téléphomme, a rock ballad with lyrics including ‘je suis tout seul chez moi/je t’appelle mais tu ne réponds pas’ (I’m all alone at home/I call you but you don’t answer). Different things work in different languages. In the Anglophone rock+roll tradition, such lyrics could be toe-curlingly banal, but in a new environment with a passionate delivery they work dramatically.

One of the biggest concerns of the group was whether to sing in English or French. The record company, hoping that the group would break out from the Francophone market into the bigger Anglo, had been asking for English. My immediate comment was that their music meant more and was more distinctive in French, the stylistic appropriations having transmuted it into something totally different thanks to linguistic and cultural changes. Their first album is all in French. I wasn’t asked to produce the next, with its several English songs, so it continues very satisfying that this album has a disproportionate presence on the various greatest hits compilations.

All the songs had been thoroughly played in on the road before we met, and very little needed doing structurally or dynamically. They were able to pull off an ambitious five-minute number without the augmentation so often necessary to keep a long track alive. Flipper presents us with life as a pinball game – ‘on te donne trois bals’ (‘you’re given three balls’ in life – the New York Dolls might have been expected to catch this one first). The dynamics of the whole track are augmented with some guitar tracking, but most of the effectiveness came from the two guitarists’ fingers.

The sessions were exciting, although not necessary providing great anecdotes. The energy and accuracy nailed the tracks very quickly. The group continued to live life fully and cheerfully, epitomized at a post-mixing dinner where Louis very slowly and gracefully fell off his chair.

The end of mixing was not the end of the tension of delivering the album. Before the album was started, a large free concert had been scheduled and set up in Paris. This was a novel idea in 1977 France. Since I hadn’t been able to start immediately, the end of mixing was very close to the release date set to coincide with the concert. The pressing plant was able to turn the LP around in just one week, a blink compared with normal manufacturing schedules. We finished mixing at Advision Studios, then I went with the group to Abbey Road Studios to cut two sets of production masters with Chris Blair, after which I drove us on through the rainy night to Heathrow Airport with 20 minutes to spare for Air France. The license plate of my EMI company car was ULC862R, and several people pointed out its connection with stress and the stomach.

The concert was packed and the album quickly went gold. That’s how we expect things to turn out in the movies.

On te donne trois bals
It’s more fun to compete

– MT February 2001

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