Agony Shorthand

Tuesday, April 22, 2003
YOU TOO CAN LOVE LES FEMMES DE PARIS....As I've mentioned before, I've got a real affinity for overblown, loud, brassy, well-crafted 60s girl pop -- the kind with enormous hooks, screaming horns, and a saucy, coquettish playfulness that runs through your better US and UK girl groups & solo artists. But hands down, the queens of the 60s pop hop were the French -- specifically le femmes de Paris and the groovy-to-a-fault "ye ye girls". There is nothing quite like hearing LIZ BRADY's majestic and flat-out booming "Palladium" or CLAIRE DIXON's charm school central ball of fluff "On M'appelle Petit Bout De Chou" to wipe that smug I-only-listen-to-the-13th-Floor-Elevators pout off your beak. And while in the past few years there's been a slightly heightened awareness of these girls' existence, this stuff is still incredibly laborious to hunt down -- even the recent reissues. A tour of the web finds one very solid albeit un-updated site and a bunch of message board posts desperately pleading to all readers, "Please, where can I find this stuff?!??". I'm here to help, folks.

These "teenie-bopper doyennes of the Coca-Cola bubble-gum pop culture" were huge in their native France during the rough period spanning 1965-68, when rock and pop continued exploding into smithereens to satisfy the mainstream, the hippies, the drug underground, and of course the teenage kids. I am under no illusion that this music was made for anyone but pre- and pubescent French girls, which in no way negates the craft and genius of these songs' arrangers, nor the power and bite of the songs themselves. The 60s french girls were a roll call of lush first names: VIOLAINE, JOCELYNE, CLOTHILDE, COSETTE, ARIANE, etc. CHANTEL KELLY (who's an absolute dead ringer for Audrey Tatou's Amelie in other pictures and was likely quite a perv-magnet in her day) and the aforementioned Claire Dixon are among the less coquettishly-monikered ye ye girls who have some of the most stomping hits.

In the mid-90s the "ULTRA CHICKS" compilations started popping up in better North American record stores, and they continue to do so, with a 5th volume coming out in 2000 and a 6th appearing sometime last year. These are far and away the best starting points for this stuff, if you can even find them. I highly recommend Volumes #1-4, even the one called, um, "Baby Pop", and then the recent Volume #6, which continues the series' winning ways after a somewhat rotten Volume 5. Sprinkled in among these are a few non-French but still ripe international pop bombshells, from places with less mellifluous languages like Italy, Germany and Syria. I found the first 4 by e-mailing some record stores in Montreal until they surrendered the name of the guy who put them out (somewhere I'd read that he was a native). Damn if I didn't misplace that email address through. However, another fantastic series is called "SWINGING MADEMOISELLE", which overlaps a little with Ultra Chicks but might have the higher batting average song for song. These two LPs were put out by Sasha Monet records in France, and when I contacted the guy or gal that runs the label in search of the first volume, he/she told me it was sold out but that they'd gladly make me CD-Rs of both volumes, with a ton of extra tracks plopped on the end of each. I paid a pittance -- something like $12 US, which included shipping -- for both. Contact the label here and see if magic can strike twice.

There are a couple of lesser series out there as well -- "FEMMES DE PARIS" have beautiful digipack sleeves but rely way too much on covers of British and American hits en Francais to be of much listening pleasure -- unless EILEEN trying to out-Nancy NANCY SINATRA on "Ces Bottes Sout Faites Pour Marcher" sounds like a good time. Likewise, "SIXTIES GIRLS" have some terrific sleeves, and up the ante by including entire 4-song EPs, but then you get the crap songs as well. Better to sit back and let the programming wizards of "Ultra Chicks" and "Swinging Mademoiselle" take the reigns for you. Hopefully should you decide to dip a toe in this stuff you do so with an appreciation not so much of the KITSCH involved (lame) but of the song craft itself. I'd rank the best of this stuff up against any American 1965-68 summer AM radio hit you care to mention.