Graded on a Curve:
Marie et les Garçons,
1977-1979

There are plenty of good reasons to hate the French. Their food is catastrophically overpriced, they have an army whose only tactical maneuver is charging backwards and–get this–speak a language you actually have to study if you want to understand a word they’re saying. And don’t even get me started on their punk rock.

You don’t have to be a truffle pig to sniff out a lousy French punk rock band, but a few are quite good. One of the best is Marie et les Garçons, which was formed in 1975 by five graduates of the Lycée Saint-Exupéry in Lyon. In 1978 Marie et les Garçons came to the notice of John Cale, who offered to produce the band and ultimately played on their single “Attitudes” / “Re-Bop.”which Cale released on his Spy label. They would soon find themselves opening for the likes of X-Ray Spex, Patti Smith, and the Talking Heads.

Marie et les Garçons’ sound is best captured on 1977/1979, a 23-song compilation of studio and live recordings and a couple of remixes and demos. It takes some getting used to, listening to punk rock sung in the language of Marcel Proust and Arthur Rimbaud, but Marie et les Garçons makes up for it with good songs and the wiry guitar sound of Erik Fitoussi and Christian Faye. And Patrick Vidal sings with conviction, or as much conviction as the member of a race of people raised on bon-bons and confit can muster. And to their credit Marie et les Garçons keep things at a brisk pace; you won’t catch these guys moping around like Charles Baudelaire.

Marie et les Garçons wears it Anglophilic influences on the sleeve of its Breton shirt–you get the Talking Heads (“Decisions ou parti pris” and “P4 N°1″); Wire (“Attitudes”); and Television (“Rien à dire,” and “Mardi soir”). Listeners will also want to check out Marie et les Garçons’ cover of Television’s “Little Johnny Jewel” on 1977/1979’s companion comp, 1976-1977.

Most of the songs on 1977-1979 make the LP worth owning. “A bout de souffle” kicks along at triple speed and boasts what my be the best feedback ever to squeal its way out of Europe, and “Mardi Soir” is a rave up with real crunch. But the best of the bunch are the live recordings from 1977. These include the astoundingly good “Groom 6” with its frenzied guitars, the Velvet Underground influenced “Encore l’amour,” and the chug-a-lugging 9-plus-minute “ Garçons.” And while “Conversations” consists of a simple repetitive riff, it’s worth listening to for its cowbell alone.

The LP has its drawbacks. Cool as it is, I could do without the five, count ‘em five, versions of the perfect pâté de foie gras party closer “Re bop,” which I recommend to any up and coming band looking for an esoteric cover to add to their repertoire. Then there are the rinky-dink cliche rockers “Tokyo pekin” and “La petite, which are recommended only to fans of Rush’s “Tai Shan.”

But the piece de merde is Marie et les Garçons’ live cover of the Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner,” which provides ample ammunition to cynics convinced that the French are no more capable of playing rock ’n’ roll than they are of winning a World War. The oh so Gallic accent of singer Patrick Vidal–who acquits himself well on the compilation’s other tracks–sounds ridiculous on this one, and his gushing fan boy shout-outs to the Modern Lovers and the Talking Heads don’t help. There’s no denying the “Roadrunner”builds to a rousing climax, but most listeners will be laughing too hard by that point to notice.

Marie et les Garçons aren’t the only good band from the country of Maximilien Robespierre and tête de veau–France also birthed the likes of Métal Urbain, Stinky Toys (I know, I know), and Oberkampf, amongst others. So before you go mocking the rockers of l’Hexagone, best remember it was the French who invented the guillotine.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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