Is house the soundtrack of the 90s? In Europe, it gave steam to comeback bands just as much as to the most memorable formations of the decade, while in France it paved the way for the global success of French Touch. “Real” house music emerges in early 80’s Chicago (where the Warehouse club, which allegedly gave its name to the genre, closes down in 1983). England’s acid house and Belgium’s new beat, its European offshoots, fed the cravings of tabloids in 1988 and 1989. The house music we’re interested in though, the type bound to soon overwhelm European charts, is already pretty far away from the afro-american music born in Chicago. So far away it inherited a new name: dance music. Just like it had been the case with disco a few years back, house and techno aren’t exactly in the good books - acid house and new beat even less so. And it’s precisely the genre’s mainstream iteration this compilation focuses on; the house en français, which strives to get on board the running train in 1990. The house which sports the all-over jean look, bandana, cap, chewing gum, peugeot 205 complete with snazzy beats on the radio. The big deal big fuss type, miles away from the original, underground house. It might not have been born in the nineties, but that’s clearly when house music became mainstream.
What underpins house music might even be what is to define the decade to come: jingles and pin’s, megaclubs and clips. That and the hits. Very soon house is everywhere: on the air of the big radio stations and on TV, creeping in as far as kids’ programs. The French may not even notice, but they’re all listening to it. Meanwhile, music producers smell the gravy and, willy-nilly with the earnest, enlightened amateurs, propose their very own club versions, cross breeding French variété and house. The result: a chart and club ready ersatz that is to quickly seduce young audiences. Hits, that’s what we want - or tubes for the French, like in House Tube, one of the landmarks of this compilation. The tracklist, like the soundtrack to a club night that never happened, fictitiously reconstructs the fleeting moment when house made its arrival in France, bridging the gap between variété and eurodance.
House music barges in like a UFO on European land. With the arrival of this repetitive, yet transgressive music, tabloids freak out, while widespread incomprehension over the genre inspires dubious misconceptions. The media are happy to suckle on the music’s popularity, though well hidden behind the veil of decorum: NRJ airs a remake of a famous new beat track, Rock To The Beat, in which, however, “ecstasy” is swapped for “fantasy”. Dechavanne, thoughtful as usual, calls fans junkies and nazis on his tv show, Ciel Mon Mardi - though the show’s theme song is nothing else than a house track. The footage became a classic, and the comments, sampled by producers, provided the vocals for a flagship new beat track (Dr. Smiley - L’Echo Dechavanne). The Dechavanne episode is representative of the general confusion surrounding this barbarian music; skepticism remained high, even (if not more so?) in the musical world. In fact, it’s the subject of the unequivocal House Tube:
“House tube, bouse tube ; on n’aime pas vraiment le house tube
House soupe, bouse soupe ; on n'aime pas vraiment le house soupe”
“House hits, house shit; we don’t really dig house hits
House soup, shit soup; we don’t really dig house soup”
The success of house music inspired many exasperated reactions, just like House Tube (the B-side of a deodorant ad’s theme). Laurent Castellvi, surprised that the joke-track he composed at the time still sparked interest, told us: “At the beginning of the nineties, house was all over the radio. It annoyed me a little that most tracks were based on the same two chords. House Tube is a joke, it’s me sitting at the piano playing two chords. And that’s what the lyrics say.”
On the other hand and following up with the next track, Fred de Fred was clearly in the know. The Frenchman had moved to the epicentre of the English commotion, Sheffield, a few years prior to the arrival of house. That’s where Warp (Autechre, Aphex Twin) originated - and at the time Warp still went by the name FON, Fred already hung around in their studios. Robert Gordon, Fred’s pal and co-founder of the label, signs the remix of one of his 1989 tracks, Sous Sous. In 1991, he composes a record of songs, and when it comes to pairing a suitable club remix single, Fred knows what’s up. Je T’Aime En Amour, sleek rock, mutates into a syncretism of french chanson and nearly rave breakbeat (here provided in its “2020” version). Fred de Fred is exemplary of the variété-club crossover driving this record; his career started within the collective ZNR, he crossed paths with the likes of Alain Bashung and then the Stone Roses, was close to Warp, and ended up signing a record on Barclay.
Electronic musicians are often referred to as “producers”. This emanates from the delimitation of roles in the making of recorded music, traditionally assigned as singer, songwriter and producer. The latter takes care of the recording per se; that is, he manages the project, rents the studio, hires the musicians (known as requins de studio - studio sharks - for accumulating studio sessions) and cashes in at the end. The artist in electronic music is the producer alone, who essentially combines all roles at once: totally autonomous in his home studio, he can do without musicians or singers. The moment we’re interested in is this transitory period in which the two types of producers coexist. On the one hand, the new producers, like Fred Rister with Everybody Dancing, who recorded in a shack on a 4-track recorder, according to the sound engineer. On the other, the revival of old brigade producers, always on the lookout for a hot deal. The producer behind Près De Toi is of the latter type - pursuing a long musical career though quick to forget Claire-An (and so did posterity).
New beat’s heritage isn’t negligible : its pioneers fashioned the “new generation” producer formula, a one-man-band in his machine-filled home studio. They’re also the first to churn out major hits, hitting the floor of a few Belgian clubs and eventually making it to the European top 50. What seems like mad creative abundance (hundreds of tracks between 1987 and 1989) is in fact the work of a handful of Belgian producers, barely ten, hidden behind multiple aliases. Among them, Marc Neuttiens, Jack Mauer and Fabian Van Messen, who often work as a trio and produce some of the genre’s most iconic tracks. In the midst of which On Se Calme, produced under the name Bassline Boys, sampling none other than Christophe Dechavanne. It’s no coincidence then that Anne Zamberlan should knock on their door within mind the idea of an antidrug track. She wants to make noise, they know how to make a hit. And the track has it all: proto-acid gimmicks, big beat, house piano, verses rapped with a hip-house flow… It might have been great, but even a Virgin Megastore ad she appeared in two years later got her more success.
À la folie, je danse
This tale is also the one of the pioneers who brought house music to France, first on the radio, well before rave parties or Laurent Garnier’s nights in Paris. As soon as the early eighties, Robert Levy Provençal plays the edits of the young Dimitri from Paris on the airwaves of Radio 7. At the time they’re unusual: like one would use samples in hip hop, Dimitri loops soul, funk and disco tracks, creating extended mixes. He breaks down tracks, reducing them to a gimmick or a bass line, thus creating easy-to-mix tools for DJs and bringing them closer to the sounds of house and techno music. He soon becomes resident DJ on NRJ and hosts the popular show Hot Mix. Like his colleague RLP, Dimitri proposes a trailblazing selection, blending together French news and the odd new sound from the States. At the turn of the nineties, when europop wants in at the club, only these influencers master the dance side of things. There’s RLP, Bibi Fricotin, Dom T… And Dimitri, who becomes the assigned variété remixer, adapting dozens of songs that were never meant to make it into a club. The general tendency however is less to official remixes than to bootlegs: a “pirate”, unauthorised and often private remix - just like Jacques Dutronc’s Opium, stretched out into a nearly 7-minute-long mix.
The nineties also set the stage for the first TV stars, the ones who become famous without anyone really knowing why. Take, say, Jordy, four years old. The kid, in his diapers, sings along a New York style, house piano production and somehow makes it to the top 50’s number 1. For years, Jordy plays out the role of the child star and demonstrates that dance music is a perfectly profitable affair: it fuels the radios turned juggernauts, and lands on TV, seeping through music programs… In 1989, Vincent Lagaf (a famous french TV host) dives in with Bo Le Lavabo. The pitch is simple: the TV host adapts a track well known overseas, Lil Louis’ French Kiss (without any direct reference), simply adding lyrics taken from a sketch. He’s rather clear on his intentions (“Well, that’s just how you make it to the top 50”) and has no mercy for a musical genre he clearly understands nothing about (“See? Easy.”).
Single night stars
The club is a democratic place where anyone can be a star for a night (a nineties remix of Andy Warhol’s famous saying, meaning to imply: never has fame been so near, yet so far). The ghost of stardom haunts all of these forgotten tracks… This is particularly true in the case of Techno 90, Fred Rister’s first band. The DJ hailing from Northern France takes part in the short-lived though seminal Maxximum radio and mixes everywhere on both sides of the Belgian border, quickly becoming a local celebrity. At the turn of the century, he starts collaborating with David Guetta - another DJ, slightly better known than Rister and a rising star of the Parisian club scene. Together they eventually co-sign a few global hits: Love Is Gone, When Love Takes Over, I Gotta Feeling.
This tale is the story of French variété’s unforeseen encounter with the avant-garde, of DJs who rose to the status of pop stars and others who descended deep into the rave party scene. It’s all of these oddities our compilation seeks to recount, like a wacky TV show featuring anonymous stars, forgotten ghosts of a decade bygone (Jacques Dutronc, Jean-Francois Maurice) or yet to come (David Guetta), inspired though unlucky blokes plus a girl band. And somewhere in the shambles, the tracklist of our compilation, the B-side of dance music’s official story - what could have been France’s alternative hit machine.