The Curmudgeon: French Rock 'n' Roll

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France has given the world some wonderful products: fine wines, strong cheeses, long novels, quirky movies, existential philosophy, Mardi Gras and great Afropop records. What they’ve never been able to master, however, is rock ’n’ roll.

And it’s not for a lack of trying. The Wikipedia page for “French Rock” lists 175 acts since the 1960s—few were listenable and none memorable. When Johnny Hallyday is your biggest rock star after half a century, it’s time to try your hand at something else. This history of consistent, abject failure has led to speculation that maybe the French language is to blame. Perhaps the elegant fluidity of its pronunciation makes it difficult to create a percussively persuasive rock ’n’ roll. (The country’s current biggest band, Phoenix, sing in English).

That theory was dashed by the 2011 release of En Francais, a thoroughly convincing album of classic rock tunes performed in French. Neil Young’s “Down by the River” became “Au Long de la Riviere”; Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” became “L’Homme en Fer”; Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” became “L’Argent (Ca que Je Veux),” and Big Star’s “In the Street” became “Le Bord du Chemin.” And they all worked.

Far from easing France’s embarrassment, this record only heightened it. For En Francais came not from Paris, Marseilles or anywhere in Europe but from a small outpost of Francophone musicians in North America—from the area around Lafayette, Louisiana. The four songs mentioned above were performed not by French musicians but by the Cajun bands Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys, Isle Derniere, Les Malfecteurs and Feufollet, respectively. If they can sing rock ’n’ roll convincingly in French, why can’t Parisians?

Today is Mardi Gras, and the state of Louisiana will be hosting two of the world’s greatest celebrations of Fat Tuesday, the last day of self-indulgence before Catholicism’s season of penance, Lent. The best known one is in New Orleans, but the lesser known one in Cajun country is just as mind-boggling.

Every little town in South Louisiana will be holding its own Mardi Gras celebration, and most of them will have temporary stages on the main street where Cajun and zydeco bands will be sawing on fiddles, squeezing accordions, pounding on drums, riffing on electric guitars, and singing in French. When Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys play in downtown Eunice this afternoon, for example, they will rock.

Why can they do it and the French can’t? Because they instinctively understand blues and hillbilly music, the two building blocks of rock ’n’ roll, in a way the French never could. For some reason, the British, Irish, South Africans, Jamaicans and even Australians have all learned that lesson, but the French never have. And the Cajuns have proven that you can’t blame it on the language.

The En Francais album was organized by the Lost Bayou Ramblers, one of the best of the new wave of young Cajun bands. The Ramblers, who reworked the Who’s “Ma Génération” and Joan Jett’s “Moi, J’aime Rock’n’Roll” for the record, have been at the forefront of pushing Cajun music towards rock ’n’ roll. Like most of their peers in bands such as Feufollet, the Red Stick Ramblers, the Pine Leaf Boys, the Revelers and Bijou Creole, they were as influenced by punk-rock as by Cajun growing up.

The Lost Bayou Ramblers’ latest album, Mammoth Waltz, goes further than ever in that direction. The band’s co-leaders, the Michot Brothers—accordionist Andre and lead singer/fiddler Louis—are still playing traditional Cajun instruments and still singing in French. The songs themselves are either traditional Cajun tunes or new originals in the same style. But the arrangements throw all the rules out the window. The tempos are fast and hard, the attack loose and reckless. The drums and guitars stir up noise like a drunken garage-rock band, and the loud thump is bolstered by programming credited to producer Korey Richey and drummer Paul Etheredge.

The result is the feeling of a band riding the thin edge separating control from chaos as it comes barreling down the railroad track with unstoppable momentum. The best track is “Carolina Blues,” an accordion-fueled two step that stomps like Godzilla wearing a beret as he squashes one sidewalk café after another down the Champs-Élysées in Paris. The album features guest appearances by Dr. John, actress Scarlett Johansson and the Violet Femmes’ Gordon Gano (who is collaborating with the Lost Bayou Ramblers on their next album), but the band is as exciting live as it is in the studio.

Another guest on Mammoth Waltz is Matthew Doucet, who adds second fiddle to two tracks. He’s the son of Michael Doucet, the leader/singer/fiddler of BeauSoleil, an older Cajun band that also knows how to rock. The title of the group’s new album, From Bamako to Carenco, hints at the reason why. By connecting Mali’s capital to a Lafayette suburb, BeauSoleil acknowledges that West Africa has influenced every kind of American music—from rock ’n’ roll, country and jazz to Cajun and zydeco—and thus connects them one to the other.

This recording touches on nearly every corner of that diaspora. A band of instrumental virtuosos, BeauSoleil is able to tackle two jazz compositions: “Bessie’s Blues” by saxophonist John Coltrane and “Bamako” by trombonist (and past BeauSoleil collaborator) Roswell Rudd. The 1930s hillbilly song, “I Had But Fifty Cents,” recently recorded by Ricky Skaggs, is retrofitted with French lyrics and David Doucet’s Hawaiian ukulele to become “Chanson de Cinquante Sous.” There are traditional South Louisiana tunes from Canray Fontenot and Dennis McGee and an old number from French Haiti.

All of which sets the stage for the grand synthesis that is rock ’n’ roll. Michael Doucet’s “Carenco” opens with Mitch Reed’s electric bass and evolves into a Neil Young-ish Americana story-song. James Brown’s “I’ll Go Crazy” gets French lyrics and funky solos on acoustic guitar, fiddle and accordion. “You Got To Move,” originally recorded by bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell and made famous by the Rolling Stones, gets a funereal stomp from drummer Tommy Alesi and a bellowing lead vocal (en Anglais) backed by hollering gospel singers.

Another recent album that rocks out in French is The Revelers’ self-titled debut. The quintet features five-sixths of the current Red Stick Ramblers, a longstanding Louisiana band that mixes swing with Cajun—all except fiddler/singer Linzay Young. This offshoot combo appeared on the 2011 season finale of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and has been featured on the third season of David Simon’s Treme as fiddler Lucia Micarelli’s backing band.

The quintet’s own album, The Revelers, signals its intentions by reviving three swamp-pop classics: Tommy McLain’s “Jukebox Songs,” Jewel & the Rubies’ “Kidnapper” and McLain’s “I’m Glad for Your Sake (But I’m Sorry for Mine).” The swamp-pop genre is best defined as Cajuns doing Fats Domino songs, and the Revelers capture both halves of that equation perfectly. More impressively, they’ve written eight brand-new swamp-pop songs that boast the same syncopated beat and ear-candy hooks as their models. More impressively still, half of those new songs are sung in French, something the original swamp-pop movement rarely did.

A song like Blake Miller’s “J’Avais l’Habitude” is so punchy and catchy that it proves conclusively how well rock ’n’ roll can work in the French language. Roll over, Beethoven, and tell Francois Hollande the news.