While I was researching this bit of music, I ran into this interview by Jean-Claude Vannier. In no uncertain terms, Jean-Claude tried to guide the interviewer away from asking questions about what he’s known for. If you’re known for something as iconic as arranging the music for Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melody Nelson it would be easy to skate on that achievement alone. But clearly, as a musician, he had created much more music that had enough worth to be judge on its own terms.
Recent reissues of his first album – an instrumental work called L’enfant Assassin des Mouches – tends to cloud how interesting his own non-instrumental, sung work is. That’s where we, on this side of the pond, are at fault. In 1975, France was graced with his first chanson album, a self-titled affair also known as Mimi, Mimi, Mimi that was never released in the States. Unjustly forgotten, it has a lot of the unique touchstones he’d lend to other brilliant artists like Francoise Hardy, Brigitte Fontaine, and Claude Nougaro. Drawing cavernous arrangements by augmenting classic chamber instruments – violas, cellos and piano – with an ensemble of modern ones, acoustic guitars, rock drums, and electric bass, Jean-Claude was able to create an enveloping sound that just dropped you into the air of a different kind of Pop music. Perhaps one that still remains very foreign to Anglophiles or to an Americentric world.
Not quite rock, glam, country, experimental, or progressive, it was a different kind of French music far removed from airs of sophistication other French artists loved to affect. Largely self-taught, Jean-Claude grew up admiring the music of Burt Bacharach, Gershwin, but preferred performing songs that snuck in his own taste for a distinct type of soundcraft. When the tone of a moto revving up can set the stage, why not use it? If you can affect the “sound of the countryside” by affecting sounds into some kind of wicked sonic nostalgia, why not do it? And when he somehow finds a way to pull it off in memorable songs that sound like nothing else out there, why not venture further?
Elton John’s Honky Chateau gave us a brilliant taste of Americana through a decidedly English prism. Jean-Claude Vannier promises a view into other crannies we could stand to see through a different lense.