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Copyright Nick Morgan and crew

Concert Review by Nick Morgan
JEAN CLAUDE VANNIER with the BBC Concert Orchestra, Crouch End Festival Chorus and special guests Jarvis Cocker, Badly Drawn Boy, Mick Harvey, Gruff Rhys, Laetitia Sadier, Seaming To and Brigitte Fontaine.

The Barbican, London, October 21st 2006

“I’m sorry Nigel, but you know we won’t make it back to the hotel for dinner”. “Yes, I bloody well do, and now you have the gall to tell me that you want to go clubbing too. I mean no dinner, and you know how bad I get after midnight. I’m just not fun Jeremy”. “But we want you there, Nigel”. “Well you won’t get me anywhere after this load of old nonsense – do you know how much I paid for these sodding tickets, and we’ve had almost two hours of rubbish, no dinner, and not a sight of a star or anyone I recognise… it’s just a huge con!”

I’m not sure that I’d share that damning condemnation of the evening’s first half (or the second), but then unlike the gentlemen on my left we’d taken the precaution of stocking up on carbohydrates before the concert. But by the end, they certainly weren’t the only ones with a bemused expression on their face, and I for one had the word “nonsense” writ large in my little black notebook.
The Barbican was packed with, according to the horribly sycophantic programme, “mods, prog rockers, soundtrack fans, world music lovers, hip-hop fanatics and psychedelic die-hards” – I’m still puzzling to figure out which group I belonged to. I could tell we were in the company of the cool – so cool that you could hear shards of frozen piss explode into a thousand fragments as they hit the ice-white ceramic of the men’s urinals downstairs. And in case you didn’t know it’s painfully hip to admire the work of French composer Jean Claude Vannier, one time collaborator with “omni present luminary” and “one-man revolution” Serge Gainsbourg. The two worked together on a number of projects, notably Histoire de Melody Nelson (“the almost inimitable LP which defied categorisation”), and the never before performed (now, I wonder why?) L’Enfant Assassin des Mouches, a work composed by Vannier with a story line written by Gainsbourg. Apparently only about 200 copies of this disc were pressed (now, I wonder why?) and it wasn’t till last year that it was re-released by Finders Keepers, a Manchester collective “dedicated to the obsessive and painstaking perusal of obscure, obsolete, exquisitely obnoxious, unbelievable, underexposed and undeniably delectable discs of experimental pop music from the psyched out sixties and seventies”. And it’s their fault that we’re here, because somehow they persuaded the Barbican to stage the show, the BBC Symphony Orchestra to play, and two thousand of us to miss our dinners and Match of the Day in order to sit and listen to this ….nonsense, although that’s not to say it wasn’t fun.
The evening is divided into three sections. First Vannier leads the orchestra through a number of his own compositions – some of which he sings - alternating between composer’s podium and piano and organ. He cuts a striking figure, slightly stooped, wild hair, baggy creased jacket, the bearing of the sort of faux intellectual that I imagine used to inhabit every Parisian bar and café, expressive gestures – well, you know Serge, sort of French. “I am very happy to be here with my friends” he tells us, “with my English friends, for you know, music she has no passports”. He’s not really talking about the orchestra, or the excellent Crouch End Festival Chorus, but the ace band of session musicians assembled in the right hand corner of the stage, most of whom played on the Melody Nelson sessions.
They look like a bunch of crafty cockney cab drivers who’ve taken the night off, but in fact we have on guitar the legendary Big Jim Sullivan (he has apparently played on over a thousand chart records, including, of course Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg’s ‘Je T’aime’) and Vic Flick (guitar maestro on the original James Bond theme and the title music to British TV soap Crossroads), on drums Dougie Wright (one time Yardbirds drummer), and on bass the truly world-famous Herbie Flowers (whose numerous accomplishments include the bass line on ‘Walk on the Wild side’ and composing credits for Clive Dunn’s ‘Grandad’ – cool or what?). Along with pianist Cliff Hall they make a gutsy band – with Flowers deep bass guitar and Sullivan and Flick’s fuzz boxes being at the heart of many of Vannier’s arrangements.    

Birkin and Gainsbourg
" Je t'aime... Moi non plus" (1969)

Michel Musseau
Where was I? Oh yes – three sections. So we got some chanson stuff from Vannier, sort of Sacha Distel meets Maurice Chevalier, then ‘L’enfant Assassin’, which to be frank was only made bearable by the work of lugubrious sound-effects maestro Michel Musseau (sewing machines, blenders, matches, frying pans etc.) and the wit and dare I say self-effacing humour that occasionally sparkled through (the image of the chorus firing off aerosols of fly-spray will stay with me for a long time).
Oh yes – and the giggling of the wind section and the bewildered expression on Big Jim’s face. Just for the uninitiated it’s a gripping (not) musical tale of a child and his encounter with the King of the Flies that Gainsbourg must have dreamt up over the wrong side of a few pastis. And then, post interval and with Nigel and Jeremy’s dinner truly out of reach, a thankfully short Melody Nelson (it’s about an older man’s obsession with a young girl), with an array of ‘stars’ taking turns on vocals including Jarvis Cocker, Badly Drawn Boy (nice voice), Gruff Rhys, Bad Seed Mick Harvey (I’m not sure if he got the best tune, or, if as a Gainsbourg disciple he just tried harder, but he outshone the rest), Seaming To (giggling vocals) and the marvellously affected diva Brigitte Fontaine, out-camping Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard.
So that was all well and good. But I have to say that this was a case when the sum was not as great as the individual parts. No matter how grand or eloquent the supposed vision behind these pieces there’s no getting away from the fact that at its core the music is (and was) formulaic, imitative and shallow. And the Gainsbourg narratives are almost embarrassingly hackneyed, and seem to reveal a disturbing predilection for young girls in white knickers which is not at ease with the moral and sexual hubris of the twenty first century. No matter what the programme says I’m struggling to find anything progressive or psychedelic about either pieces. My little black notebook says “Euro-pop melodies with fuzz box guitar”, “it all sounds like the middle section in McArthur Park”, “tedious TV themes”, “Our man in Morocco?”, “the soundtrack to the two minute plot development bit in an Italian porn film”. And more.
So it’s a triumph of self-conscious style over substance – cool music for youngish hipsters who veer to the wrong side of kitsch and think it’s clever. Of course it’s entertaining; the band are great, sound effects man Musseau is theatre in his own right, it’s wonderful to see so many people on stage (I was working it out Serge – with our front row gallery tickets at thirty quids it worked out at more than three musicians for a pound) and Jean Claude Vannier is, in his shoulder-shrugging way, Jean Claude Vannier. But please don’t expect me to take any of it seriously. Like Nigel said, it’s nonsense. - Nick Morgan (concert photograohs by Kate)

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