Regular readers of this site, and those who listen to my monthly Join The Future show on Noods Radio, will know that I’ve always been a little bit fascinated by French dance music.
Ever since I was a teenager, it has periodically soundtracked my life. Trawling back through my musical memories, it’s amazing how so many have some kind of connection to French dance music: hours spent in uni mates’ rooms listening to Homework by Daft Punk on repeat; a revelatory trip to the Opera House in Bournemouth in 1997 (ish) to hear Laurent Garnier play for the first time; snaffling a CD single of Stardust’s ‘Music Sounds Better With You’ from a French ‘hypermarche’ while on a family camping holiday; hoarding DJ Cam and Yellow Productions releases during my days as a downtempo DJ; meeting and interviewing Laurent Garnier in London for an IDJ magazine cover feature; booking Gilb’r (as Chateau Flight) to make his Bristol DJ debut); securing a rare interview with the hugely talented (and utterly lovely) I:Cube for Resident Advisor; devoting a two-hour Join The Future show to Versatile Records’ 25th birthday; having a life-changing ‘moment’ at eight in the morning while listening to Choice’s peerless ‘Acid Eiffel’… the list goes on.
Throughout that time, I had little idea of the history of dance music culture in France, or the movement that became known as ‘French Touch’. I knew bits and bobs about different players in the story – some very well known, others less so – and was well versed in the output of some significant labels (FNAC Dance Division, F Communications, Versatile and Yellow Productions), but not the connections (if any) between them and the roles they played. Of course, I’m of an age where I was able to buy celebrated releases when they first came out – Motorbass’s stunning Pansoul album, Air’s early material, Daft Punk’s raw and heavy formative singles, Garnier’s ‘Crispy Bacon’, the astonishingly good Boulevard series of EPs by Ludovic Navarre as St Germain – and I do distinctly remember the hype within the British dance music press about what was happening in Paris at the time. Even so, many questions remained unanswered.
I was naturally delighted, then, when my good friend – and PhD director of studies – Martin James told me that his 2003 book on the roots and birth of ‘French Touch’ (a phrase that he coined during his days as a music journalist working for the likes of Mixmag and Muzik) would be getting republished in lightly updated form. The book is now available again after being out of print for so long – I’d recommend grabbing one direct from the publishers, Velocity Press (and if you’ve not got a copy of Join The Future yet, feel free to add that to your order).
Having now finally read French Connections, I can safely say that it not only filled in some gaping holes in my knowledge, but also provided context and plenty of food for thought. The book is naturally a time capsule – it was first published nearly 20 years ago and in some ways is clouded by the closeness of the historical events being described – but Martin’s analysis of the main people, styles, scenes and sounds that defined French dance music in the latter half of the 20th century remains sharp and revealing.
The picture is in some ways quite complex, as France’s relationship with dance music, and the acid house/techno end of things in particular, has never been easy. Several interviewees point out that France’s music scene had traditionally been dominated by songs (chanson being the homegrown style of choice for a long period of time), meaning that largely instrumental dance music was for a long time not only unpopular, but largely misunderstood. The French being naturally resistant to celebrating success – particularly outside of their country – meant that many early pioneers of French electronic and dance music, such as disco heroes Patrick Juvet and Cerrone, and musique concrete explorer turned exotic pop king Pierre Henry, were never stars at home. Then when acid house and rave rolled around, for the most part the French public viewed it as “music for drug addicts”, a particularly vicious form of the anti-rave messaging that was once similarly popular in the UK. Generally, the French authorities agreed, and government crackdowns on the culture were even more severe than those seen in Britain post-Castlemorton.
In French Connections, Martin also flags up issues of class and race that I’d not previously given much though to (at least in terms of French dance music culture – when researching and writing about rave culture in Britain they’re rarely far from my mind), and reflects on the way certain ingredients/factors came together to create the media hype and narratives surrounding dance music en France during the ‘French Touch’ era. Suffice to say, he’s particularly strong on this, as narrative creation and the relationship between the media and popular music is one of his academic specialisms. It all adds up to a terrific book, all told, which does a great job in making sense of some very messy, overlapping histories while also bringing together disparate musical threads.
Last week, I spoke to Martin at length online about the book, his adventures as a music journalist chronicling French dance music (amongst other things) in the 1990s, and some of the key people and themes within French Connections. You can hear this conversation on the July edition (Season 2, Episode 7) of Join The Future on Noods Radio – accompanied, of course, by some killer French cuts from the last 50 years. The show is available to stream via the embedded audio player below, or on the Noods Radio website. You’ll find a track list below the player.
Motorbass – Flying Fingers
St Germain – Deep In It
Manu Le Malin – M18
Cerrone – Supernature (Instrumental)
Choice – Acid Eiffel
Daft Punk – Drive 1994 Unreleased
La Funk Mob – Ravers Suck Our Sound
Herbert – Non-Stop (Motorbass Remix)
Gilb’r & Bradock – Sphinx (Ultra Edit)
Etienne De Crecy – Le Patron Est Devenu Fou (featuring Minos)