Graded on a Curve: Jacques Dutronc, Jacques Dutronc

Celebrating Jacques Dutronc, born on this day in 1943.Ed.

Who says the French can’t rock? I do, mon ami, I do. They can write like mad motherfuckers, as anybody’s who’s ever read Arthur Rimbaud or Louis-Ferdinand Celine or Alfred Jarry knows, and I would never impugn their oral skills (“The French they are a funny race; they fight with their feet and fuck with their face”) but rock? As in roll? Don’t make me le har har har.

But if the French can’t rock per se—and I know there are exceptions such as Les Négresses Vertes, whom I saw once in Philly and got hit in the head with a filled water bottle—they can do something every bit as interesting, it’s just I don’t have a word for it. It’s what Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot do on “Bonnie and Clyde” and Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin do on “Je T’Aime Moi Non Plus” and Francoise Hardy does on “Il Vaut Mieux Une Petite Maison Dans Les Nuages” (my rough translation: “I Live in a Small House with Ted Nugent”) and it’s cool as shit. Chanson modifié? Whatever you label it, it beats most rock by a hasty French retreat.

And thanks to my Dutch pal Martijn, I have a new name to add to my list of superchic French pop-toners. Martijn suggested I give the coolly named Jacques Dutronc a listen, so I did, and I’m sold like the Eiffel Tower for 10 Euros to a rube. Dutronc may look like Le Lurch de la France on the cover of his self-titled 1966 debut—either the most arrogant or least imaginative l’homme in the world, Dutronc’s following six LPs were self-titled as well—and he’s wearing a shirt so bright green I suspect it’s a product of photosynthesis, but the rad hair says it all. This man is all French, and he means business.

The music on Jacque Dutronc is so eclectic, so all over the place, that it’s revelatory, and what’s more, Dutronc comes closer than any sixties Frenchman (or any Frenchman period) I’ve ever heard to doing the seemingly impossible—namely, actually rocking. It’s a weird species of rock, sans doute, but there’s no mistaking “Les Cactus” for anything but a rocker. Ditto “L’Opération” and “Les Gens Sont Fous, Les Temps Sont Flous.” It’s for this reason his early songs have been called “rough but clever exercises in European garage rock” and French rock’s first “musically competent and non-imitative incorporation of African-American and African-American-British influences.” Say that three times fast, and you will die.

Born in 1943 in Paris, a well-known city in France, Dutronc played guitar for French rockers El Toro et Les Cyclones and wrote songs for Francoise Hardy (whom he later married) before going the solo performer route. He also played in Les Chaussettes Noires, the band of Eddie Mitchell (aka Claude Moine), who later played with the likes of Jimmy Page in London and recorded in Memphis and Nashville with many of the sessions musicians who worked on Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde.

As I said before, Jacques Dutronc is an eclectic affair, and it opens on a silly note, namely “Les Play Boys—Pseudo Vidéo.” This what I hear in my head when I imagine bad French pop. It opens with a chorus of singers repeating, “Cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep do waa!” to the accompaniment of a cheesy Brie piano and handclaps. Dutronc sings it music hall style, especially on the lines, “Croyez-vous que je sois jaloux? Pas du tout, pas du tout!/Moi j’ai un piège à fille, un piège tabou,” and during the big band ending.

“L’Espace D’Une Fille” is much more my cup of tea, a mid-tempo Dylanesque/Byrdsian romp with lots of cool electric guitar fills and the rattling of a tambourine. Dutronc sings it in a flat tone, and this one could be a Galaxie 500 song in another dimension. In short, I love it to death, especially that reverb-drenched guitar and Dutronc’s vocals, and it provides the perfect lead-in to “Sur Une Nappe De Restaurant” (or “On a Restaurant Tablecloth”), which boasts a big drum opening and bops along to some moody organ and electric guitar, and Dutronc’s whiplash vocals, especially on the wild maracas rattle of a chorus. There’s no whisper to a scream for Dutronc—he sings in a near monotone that will mesmerize you.

“J’Ai Mis Un Tigre Dans Ma Guitare” translates roughly as “I put a tiger in my guitar,” and the only problem with this otherwise cool and propulsive number is that I barely hear a guitar, much less one with a tiger in it. That said it has a wild beach sound, with some stripped-down guitar riffs, a tambourine in overdrive, and Dutronc’s great vocals. The damn thing rocks, no doubt about it, but it would be perfect with at a short but frenetic guitar solo somewhere in its environs.

“Les Cactus” is a great and frantic tune, with big drums, more tambourine, and lots of funky organ riffs. Best of all are the big breakdown—there’s that guitar with a tiger in it!—and Dutronc’s frantic vocals. “Oi, hey!” he shouts, and I take back everything I said about there being no whisper to a scream in Dutronc’s vocals. “Les Cactus” even goes out on a cool guitar solo! “Et Moi Et Moi Et Moi” is a cool shuffle with great drums and equally great vocals by Dutronc, who practically mumbles, “Et moi, et moi, et moi” and who will hypnotize you with his flat tone and heavy lyrical repetition. If this one doesn’t have you up and dancing, the French won WWII all by themselves.

“L’Opération” is one of the coolest tunes ever, a mid-tempo march that opens with a “Yeah!” and has Dutronc talk-singing his way along to the accompaniment of some most excellent percussion and one very repetitive Velvet Underground guitar riff. I don’t need to know what he’s singing about; I just love the way his vocals rise at mysterious moments, very Dylan-like, and the way he gets bona fide excited at the song’s end.

Best tune on the LP, in my humble opinion, although follow-up “On Nous Cache Tout, On Nous Dit Rien” (very rough translation: “We Cover Everything, We Are Told Nothing”) is no slouch either, but a droning rave-up with Dutronc spitting out the words as the drums gallop along and an organ provides a big backbone and the guitars spill all over the place. And if this one doesn’t get you moving, you are mort my friend.

“La Fille Du Père Noel” is a big bluesy stomp with heavy guitar riffs and a basic drum shuffle, and it just repeats itself wonderfully over and over while Dutronc makes like B.B. Le Roi. And if this is a Christmas song, which it almost certainly is, it’s definitely 50 times cooler than any Christmas song I’ve ever heard, with the exception of “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.” Meanwhile, the cool blurting guitar riff, odd percussion, and mad maracas that run through “Les Gens Sont Fous, Les Temps Sont Flous” (very suspicious translation: “The People Are Crazy, Times Are Fuzzy”) provide a very propulsive backbeat for Dutronc’s cool vocals.

He especially shines on the title/chorus, and on such nonsense lyrics as “Yo-yo houlahop et scoubidou, porte-clef et porte-choux/Porte-feuille et feuille de chou, c’est une manie un tour-lou-rou/Une folie, quand le toutou, ce petit chien, qui fait magoo,” which caused my on-line French-English translator to spew obscenities at me. Is the Mighty Jacques singing about Scooby-Doo and Mr. Magoo? Only the French know for sure! And check out the mad screams at the end!

“La Compapade” is something completely different, an African chant of sorts with lots of rattling percussion and call and response. Dutronc goes wild at last, his vocals gone native amid the mad drums and whistles. “La Compapade!” he cries and “Hey! Hey!” respond the backing vocalists, and his voice rises and rises as he sings crazy nonsense syllables (“Amakawogo, amakawogo/Agourou, agorou/Gourougourou, Gourougourou”) while dancing in a witch doctor’s spell around a midnight fire in a jungle clearing like some French colonial gone completely Kurtz.

Finally, album closer “Mini, Mini, Mini” is a happening rocker with some very sixties’ guitars and lots of tambourine and rhythmic push push push thanks to its lockstep drumming. At 1:55 it’s here and gone in the blink of an eye, but it’s one groovy tune while it lasts, perfect for dancing to on Shindig or for doing the Shistaboobah to with The Dictators in the warm California sun.

When my pal Martijn dared me to write about Jacques Dutronc, I suspected he was doing so in the same spirit in which he urged me to review Spaced Out: The Best of Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner. In short, I suspected a camp goof, not a great album. (Maybe Martijn wasn’t fucking around and Spaced Out is great too! Have to give it a listen!) I’ll always love “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Je T’Aime Moi Non Plus” because they’re cool and they’re sexy.

But Jacques Dutronc turns out to be the first Frenchman I can enjoy, not in terms of chanson and pure prurient leer appeal (Jane Birkin, ooh la la!), but on rock’n’roll’s terms, which are the only terms that matter to me in the end. Remember the name Dutronc. He’s ninety times cooler than Sting, forty times cooler than Bono, and nine times cooler than Nick Cave. Vive le Rock! Vive Dutronc!


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