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The French progressive rock scene

Written by Philippe Blache
(special thanks to Tony)

The events of May 68 in France triggered off the emergence of the French rock scene, most notably the progressive one. The collective reaction of the young generation towards the system and the government was, to a lesser degree, similar to the anger expressed during the Vietnam War for the USA by the hippie movement. It was during concerts and performances in small places in the Parisian underground that bands began to rise from obscurity.

At the end of the sixties and the very beginning of the Seventies bands such as Ame Son, Fille Qui Mousse and Red Noise were successful locally in making their name despite the dominance of mythical bands of the time which largely came from England or the USA. The English Pink Fairies, the Doors and off course Arthur Brown were among the most notorious figures of Paris' musical nights, essentially touring in clubs and historical "underground" places as the Rock'n' Roll Circus. Among the first wave, the multi-national collective of Gong was at the head of the free-psych rock French rock movement. Daevid Allen's tribe had stayed in France until 73 for the recording of one of their most famous albums "Camembert Electrique". Dashiell Hedayat (usually known as Jack Alain Leger for his writings and translations) who also recorded with Gong has published during the same period two personal space rock albums inspired by that poetry and the "acid test".Lesser-known than Gong, Ame Son figured as an important and notorious band during these early years. They were recognized to be the first to express the psychedelic rock musical sentiment here in back in the 60's.

Nearer to "Canterbury", Carpe Diem is an interesting jazz-rock band with classical arrangements. Published in 1975, their first album "En regardant passer le temps" is an album which mixes musicians' virtuosity to an achieved sense of "groove" and melody. In these early days, their sound was quite unique on the French scene. For others, intricate works in the genre of classic English progressive rock bands as Genesis, Pink Floyd and King Crimson, the second wave includes Pulsar with their mysterious and dreamy "Halloween" (1977), Asia Minor and their sophisticated and very orchestrated "Between Flesh and Divine" (1981). Shylock which released two albums at the end of the seventies ("Gialorgues" / "Ile de Fievre") has made an interesting dialogue between King Crimsonesque style and avant-garde influences.

Far removed from Gong and others, impregnated by the "Canterbury" scene and more orientated towards avant-jazz, experimental rock is the popular French progressive band Magma. Christian Vander's incredible music is maybe the only time a band from led to the explosion of an entire sub-genre: Zheul! Magma's hybrid contemporary jazz music was rapidly followed by other strange & original French bands as Zao or Dün. The influence of Magma music is seen everywhere. Many new Japanese formations carry echoes of this atypical musical universe. Still in the experimental side of French rock music, Fille Qui Mousse was one of the most original. In opposition to classic rock standards they delivered avant-rock, radical compositions as Faust, Can had done. The free fusion rock quintet Camisole was in the vanguard of the RIO sound, delivering uncontrolled, improvised, theatrical rock songs, breaking all musical conformism. The band was at its peak in 1977, just before its meeting and fusion with Lard Free and appearance on the project "Urban Sax" founded by Gilbert Artman (Lard Free frontman).

Another incredible and unique band was Clearlight, conducted by the pianist and keyboarder Cyrille Verdeaux. With their first album, "Clearlight Symphony", released by Virgin in 1975 this band has developed a new conceptual musical universe based around classical romanticism, jazz, experimentation and "psychedelic" atmospheres. The band toured in Europe and with Gong. Cyrille Verdeaux has recorded several solo albums for grand piano and keyboards since, occasionally working with long-time Clearlight member Christian Boule. With Tim Blake and Cyrille Verdeaux on keyboards, guitarist Christian Boule recorded "Photomusik"; a vast collection of spacey rock compositions in a similar vein to Clearlight, if however less-inspired.

As with the German Krautrock scene, the French scene was also born out of reaction to the heavy influence of British / American bands. The French response was an alternative rock scene concerned with experimentation and electronic instruments. Founded by Richard Pinhas, Heldon was at the forefront of this musical direction. The debut album ("Guerilla Electronique", 1974) clearly announces the tone: distorted sustain guitar, tape loops & electronic circular combinations. Heldon is recognized as a major band in the development of the French underground rock scene, providing a unique mix of electronic-punk, pre-industrial music. Solo, Richard Pinhas largely devoted himself to albums for intergalactic synth voyages in the manner of Klaus Schulze and other German electronic pioneers. The major albums of these extended synth works are "Rhizosphere" and "Chronolyse".

The closest comparison with German's cosmic music came from Bernard Xolotl and his dabbling in long "epic" and "atmospheric" synthesizer's experimentations. After years spent in electro-acoustic research, this French musician, who was also a painter and writer pursued his musical career entirely in "ambient", "new age" territories. Recorded in 1983, "Last Wave" is one of his most memorable efforts. Not far from electronic and minimalist territories, Gilbert Artman's Lard Free is a great musical figure of the French underground rock scene. "Hallucinogenic" sounds and pre-industrial rock music reveal the identity of this band. They released their first album in 1973 ("Gilbert Artman's Lard Free"), followed by two others ("I'm Around About Midnight" & "III"). There are connections with others bands such as Heldon and Clearlight: Richard Pinhas from Heldon made his debut in Lard Free on guitar and synth parts ("I'm Around About Midnight", 1975). Gilbert Artman collaborated with Cyrille Verdeaux and Clearlight for the very orchestrated and "psychedelic" soundtrack "Visa de Censure n° X" (1975). Member of the "Musical Electronica Viva" collective for electro-acoustic research, Yvan Coaquette founded the band Spacecraft with John Livengood. From out of this collaboration came "Paradox": a massive electronic performance with guitar and machines.

In a totally different musical direction, the folk rock band Malicorne released a handful of semi-progressive albums in style close to Gryphon and Ougenweide without a sense of medieval / pre-renaissance inspiration. Traditional, Celtic music is mixed with pop ballads sung in French. They released their first self-titled album in 1974. "Almanach" (1976) is a good progressive folk effort, largely filled with acoustic instruments and a discreet addition of keyboard arrangements. Also from the folk scene, Tangerine and their albums "Memoire" & "De L'autre Côté De La Forêt" delivers a beautiful and ethereal acoustic "trip".

In touch with "La Variété" music and "chanson française", mainstream rock bands such as Ange, Atoll, Pulsar marked another step in 70's progressive French music. Very popular, Ange combine an accomplished sense of the lyrical with King Crimson's Mellotron influence and original symphonic rock, acoustic passages. "Le Cimetière des Arlequins" represents their summit. Later, they developed a very theatrical rock where vocals hold the central role and somehow picking up where Peter Gabriel of Genesis had left it. Until very recently (until Descamp's retirement) Ange was an incredible live attraction. They have also inspired many "clone" bands since, such as Mona Lisa.

Related interviews


by Philippe Blache (P.B.), Paris, 25 / 09 / 2009

P.B: afterward, what was the release mechanism, the beginning of the musical odyssey Heldon?

R.P: at the beginning there was a group of blues, "blues convention " which I had been formed with the one who became the first singer of magma Klaus Blasquiz. After one year or two we stopped because we did not get any more, not with Klaus who remained a good friend but with the two others. At the same time of my studies at the faculty I thought of making some music more "seriously". I formed a group which was called schizo, a kind of introduction to Heldon. A first disc was published and distributed for free of charge in X thousands exemplaries followed by a second support album for the RAF, without being Leninist at all (laughter). In 1971/72 there are the courses of Deleuze which I discover a little bit by chance. I say by chance because the meeting with Deleuze was made during the viva of Lyotard. I begin to follow his courses, I begin to read it then that falls on me because it is really impressive. At the same time there is a group I began to form around two, three friends, mainly Patrick Gauthier who is going to stay then there is quickly a stable formation including François Auger on drums, Didier Batard on bass and Patrick Gauthier on synths. I decided to stop the entity Heldon even if it was a variable entity because both members with whom I was on tour decided to stop. I say to myself that I will continue alone. I had already begun to make disks in solo, there was not much difference between what I made in solo and what was published under Heldon. The last disk of Heldon is Stand By (1979). From the beginning it was published in eight or nine countries (including Japan...) because it was signed on Barclay's.

P.B: how would you explain the resurrection of Heldon at the beginning of the 2000s. What was the effects media?

R.P: we had a beautiful budget and the record company gave to us the time we need, it was a present and it happens rarely. Moreover the basis of the group was there. On the other hand the release of the disk Only Chaos is Real (concept based on the subject of the "social entropy" of Markowitz) did not work and then as Dantec did not want to make any more stage we preferred to stop.

P.B: For you what are the key albums?

R.P: over the first period, between 1972 and 1984 certain albums, I can say that "after blow", naturally, appear to me to be rather bad, to say the least "secondary". It means that today I would not re-release them. for example "Heldon 2" and "Heldon 3", even "Agneta nilsson ". But some of them remain very good, even references in the world of "electroacoustic music", I think about "Interface" or "Stand By". "A dream without special consequence" was a real revolution if we think about its publication date, in 1976. That prefigures the beginning of the industrial music with bands such as Throbbing Gristle. "The traveler" (based on a text of Nietzsche with the voice of Gilles Deleuze) is a piece which became what we call a classic, I do not know why. However all the disks were constantly available on the market, if we include the USA and Japan with the European territory. In fact there are problems only in France... Nobody is a prophet etc.... Otherwise from 1999, the experience "schizotrope" and the solo albums, there is of more or less good, more or less definitive albums, but nothing that I really regret. The Label Captain Trip in Japan has rereleased "Of the One and the multiple" an album which I like particularly. And then there are collaborations, notably a recent one with the noisy-experimental group Merzbow. Now if I had to go back on certain things it would be in the first albums, I would delete quite a lot of elements. What is strange it is that the public and Cuneiform ( my record company) has in no way the same ideas: Albums as " Go teia "or" of it rock only n roll " were approved by a large majority while, initially I did not want to re-release them. It is rather a decision where I can't be the judge. In any case the last cds "Metatron" or "Tranzition", are among those I prefer. I think of having achieved, with "Metatron", a kind of "tray"(plateau) of composition which it will be very difficult to maintain. The experience " Schizothrope " was also very beneficial, but three albums it's good, being enough. It is necessary to know how to be renewed even if it means "paying the price", namely remain silent during a moment. The most difficult in the life of a musician that's "The silence".

At the beginning of Heldon the world of electronic music was very poor. We can only appreciate the krautrock in Germany, Eno in England, Yellow Magic in Japan and some Americans with the MOOG synthezisers and we have sum up things. It is surprising how today, when we speak about French groups to the USA, to Japan, it is always Magma and Heldon who are named, sometimes Daft Punk. All the rest is really non-existent, naturally independently of my musical tastes. It is with the 80s when the synthetic music extended until become sometimes anything or nothing, music for supermarket. The technology within everyone's reach, contrary to what we would have been able to believe, did not allow the hatching of more music in the noble sense of the term. It is not enough to have an "apple" at home to make some music, we make "plof plof" or "tictic", in fact we widen the market, the mass consumption. But there it would be necessary to enter into a vast critical analysis of all the system with the production sound as the basic example. Everything is flooded in it "everything amounts", but this process watched for us for a long time. In conclusion, as regards the electronic music, in spite of an incredible debauchery of technological means, maybe there is much less sound creation, "real" composition today than thirty years ago. We are much more in the "reproduction", in the return of the Same, Identical. The music could feed on a negative surplus, more at least or more of nothing but fortunately, here or there, rarely but always, arise from islands of creation which sometimes reinforce the process itself, the plan of sound composition.

P.B: what are the personal and artistic meetings which were decisive during your musical trajectory?

R.P: musically Robert Fripp was very important. I was lucky to meet him several times then to live all the ascent of King Crimson. but I was maybe more impressed by the music before the concerts of King Crimson, By the tapes of Fripp and Eno which passed in the background, sometimes things which were never been released on a disk. It has left a mark on this period (around 1973 / 1974). And obviously Gilles Deleuze. Excepted him I've met Lacan, Foucault. Just as all the lucky persons of this time.

P.B: can you present me the abundant literary and aesthetic imagination which fed and heightened the musical universe of Heldon?

R.P: the name of Heldon comes from a book of science fiction written by Norman Spinrad: "The iron dream". It is the name of an imaginary country governed by a kind of dictator ( Feric Jaggar). At the moment I like the American literature with Faulkner, Woolman (...)

P.B: in the Paris of the 1970s, according to you what are the groups or the artists which have the best contribute to impose the adjectives "new " and " progressive" on the French musical scene?

R.P: wherever you go abroad there is always one and a half name which always return it is Magma then Heldon. There is also Universe Zero, but they are Belgian. All I can say is that the front figure is Magma and it is well deserved (on the duration). They have a particular aura. They made a success by imposing a style.

P.B: what is the legacy of Heldon on the young generation?

R.P: I claim absolutely nothing but when I see people of Wolf Eyes or Merzbow, etc. tell that they listened to my music it is an honour, I am rather surprised...then after we become friends, it is maybe for it that we also made things together. On the next album there will be also some materials from Wolf Eyes and Merzbow.

P.B: For you what was the role of the postmodern minimalists and the researchers in electroacoustic in the musical avant-garde? Did they influence you in your works?

R.P: if you speak about Philip Glass and about Steve Reich, it is certain that they are notorious figures musically. I had discovered Philip Glass at the very beginning of the 1970s. Before that I had listened to a bit of Stokhausen. We also have to remind that the first of «Einsten one the beach» was made in Paris.

P.B: with repeated references to Gilles Deleuze's philosophy you looked to your music a kind of abstract but also tactile dimension (the physicality of the sounds in their rippling movement, their staticity.). From the point of view of the composition how do you proceed to translate by sounds this work of size made by Deleuze on concepts?

R.P: «plan of sound composition», «plan of composition of the desire», «plan of immanence» the fundamental concepts of difference and repetition. You have all Deleuze and all the history of the music at the same time. When he speaks about the blocks of duration it is obvious that there is a relationship with the sound blocks. And the work of the current musicians it is a work on the material, it is not any more the forms or the significant which count. What counts fundamentally it is the work on the material, the worked material, to become there. What account it is the "process". The term of "process" can apply as well in philosophy as in music. Personally I make absolutely no difference in music, a solo of very rock guitar can be also brilliant as a very finished composition.

P.B: in the book «one thousand trays» I raised the concept «synthesizer of consciousness». About this term your name is quoted in reference in the book. Can you clarify me in some sentences the sense then the place of this expression in the «perspectivism» of Deleuze?

R.P: yes it is the «ritournelle» (territorial motives). Deleuze worked by small notes with people. He made a note on synthesizers, in the sense of «disjonctive» synthesis in philosophy, the temporal syntheses and sound syntheses. I prefer to be quoted by Deleuze than by Fillon (laughter) . It became such an infamy all of this... Deleuze marked the philosophy of the XXth century. He appears in the top 20.

PULSAR: Victor Bosch (drums) / Gilbert Grandil (guitars) / Jacques Roman (keyboards)

by Philippe Blache (P.B.), Lyon, 07 / 10 / 2009

P.B: how did you meet each other and what was the origin of the group?

J.R: This was a long time ago. There was an announcement in the youth club, I went there and it began like that. I met Victor and I knew Gilbert a little bit. We rented a place to rehearse. We began to make blues and rythm 'n' blues covers.

V.B: The first meeting place was the youth club of Saint Jus (city of Lyon). At the time that worked well. We began as a trio. We started to make some blues rock for fun and for training. It was the successful period for rythm 'n' blues with Otis Redding, the period of Stax and in parallel in the United Kingdom it was the British blues with John Mayall, Eric Clapton's blues breakers (.) You always begin with the blues because you think it's easier, but to tell the truth that's not always the case.

P.B: During the very beginning of Pulsar, how would you describe the impact and the success of the " progressive rock movement in France?

V.B: At this time, we quickly realised that we were witnessing the birth of a new musical movement. Thanks to Jacques who is always in search of new things, we discovered the " summer of love", which came to France with just a little delay. During this period there was The Nice, Pink Floyd, and Soft Machine; roughly speaking we discovered them in 1967. For us that was a true revolution. From there we began to play by having a cohesion of the group. We had not found our way yet then and it was from these musical discoveries that we became seriously involved in progressive music and all this movement was doing. It was part of our generation. It was convenient for us, it arrived just at this moment with all its contesting against the political power. As keyboards got a more important place in the band, Jacques starts playing keyboards and his brother stood in for him on bass guitar.

P.B: In your opinion, which bands opened up the way to this type of language and musical expression on the French musical scene?

V.B: At the end of the 60's we were very isolated in France. We played in caves. There was not a dense network, it was a little bit «everyone for himself». At the regional level it was much more difficult. In Lyon we were the only ones who were into this music style, for a lot of people it was much too challenging. And we the French did not have many contacts, communication was difficult with the outside world. We realized about the intensity of this movement later on. In 1968 we really started to be kept informed about all that was happening. Pink Floyd who came to play here at the theatre in the VIII district. For us it was a revelation, we were not the same after that concert. From then we changed the course of the band, so it marked the real début of Pulsar. That gave a direction to the band, we said to ourselves that there were a lot of things we could do. We said to ourselves that we could make fabulous things.

P.B: From this turning point, did you become familiar with the musical scene at the national level, holding meetings with other musicians' communities?

V.B: what happened was that we began by composing our own songs. We eventually integrated into small circles and we became aware that the others showed the same desire for membership of the movement.

P.B: To which extent did bands who became "classic" such as Genesis, Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream, Eloy and the others influenced your compositions? In terms of the style or musical signatures, what distinguishes you from these bands? In other words what defines and characterizes the sound of Pulsar?

J.P: Our sound was primarily one of our instruments; it was the result of our research and what we were listening to. Later on we began to compose on thematics. In the beginning we started with some pieces written by my brother then we tried to give them substance and colour. When we listen to our music we can feel a musical sensibility close to Genesis or Pink Floyd but when we are inside the music and when we are making it this is less apparent and is something that we do not realise.

G.G: They are individualities which met. What makes the sound of the group it is that we learned to make things together.

P.B: how do you agree when you start the process of composition, is it from a pooling of ideas suggested by each other?

J.P: Yes, it is a process of collective creation. Somebody brings an idea which inspires an idea for somebody else. Later on we may take several directions until we are all happy with the result. It is this moment of connection between our mutual ideas that is essential and which we try to shape in a concrete way.

V.B: It is also interesting to say that the influences that you can credit are rather sensory at the beginning, what excites you and what does not. However it is true that at the beginning the inspiration for us was Pink Floyd. Nevertheless when you listen to Pink Floyd records then those of Pulsar you realize that there is no similarity. Just as Jacques said before we have never tried to imitate them. We appreciated the fact that this music influenced us most and the fact that it allowed us to develop various climates, to enrich the sense of the musical colours.

P.B: beyond the musical influences, the music of Pulsar seems to invite us to an immersed journey in distant imaginary landscapes, full of fantasy and made of magic sensations and vaporous reveries. Do you develop certain references to visual, symbolic or literary representations?

V.B: at first it was the music which brought us together, we became friends. What fed our music though is the imagination, the perception, our conception of the world and the things we share together. For us the music was essential, but what was more important was the result of the communion between these four people. Subconsciously, we dug into various sources but we never tried to reproduce something. For example, on the album "Halloween", what influenced us first was a rather esoteric text which I had written. As we had listened to a lot Gustav Malher's fifth symphony, we had also been touched by the film "Death in Venice" and we reflected on the idea of a confrontation between time and the absolute. The result on "Halloween" is the convergence of these various states, impressions and convictions. On "Pollen" we started to work with our Pink Floyd influences. For the album "At the Strand of the Future" we first created the picture and the symbolism of the background, with the tortured and phantasmagorical influences of Lovecraft (for example). This is what what makes the strength of this group, every time we have to start with a theme. Little by little that is created, but we don't plan it as such. It occurs intuitively because the link between the members of the band is very strong. We have no need to speak, everybody goes in the same direction. This happens on stage too, during the improvised parts of the existing pieces.

J.R: This was the case for example with the piece "The horse of Syllogie " on the first album. It was a piece with a beginning and an end but without middle, allowing us to improvise. During every concert it was different.

V.B: The theme of the last album came from this idea of meeting years later and therefore we used this metaphor of ashes. There are traces, among the remains which spatter again in a sensational way. That is the starting point. All the texts since the beginning speak about a present world but lived in by somebody who belongs to the past, without being nostalgic. There is a logic, it is a past but in the service of the present time. For the time being, we will not be able to make an album. First of all it is a lot of work, we took two years to record "Memory Ashes". Also, the alchemy has to occur, it is necessary for us to be in the right state of mind; it is for this reason that we spend so much time in studio. This is the main difference between this bands, its history and other, more basic bands. The making of an album requires all our efforts, it demands an incredible abundance of energy.

P.B: compared to the first Pulsar, what are the innovative aspects?

V.B: Today what influences me a lot is a mixture of things. All those interferences and a do-it-yourself sense of creation which we can particularly appreciate in the House and more greatly in contemporary electro music. When I listen to mixtures of sounds I recognize the history of my musical influences but I also plunge into the recent discoveries such as Radiohead, because they are one of the bands who are most representative of what what we could appreciate previously in bands such as the Pink Floyd. I go almost everywhere in my research, but always looking for pieces and small sequences, and not only into the musical domain. Today there are fewer key bands, there will always be strongly established bands but what interests me is these passages, these footbridges we can establish between modern sound collages (for example in the electro) with our music. I listen to everything, but naturally I select.

P.B: Why was the group dissolved after the album "Gorlitz" (1989)

V.B: No, the band has never been dissolved. The problem we had is that during the 1980 there was the rise of punk music. I have no problem with it, music is cyclical. Punk was the opposite of the previous musical movement. The band has suffered from it and the record label was less active. Except for the major bands who continued to sell many albums, numerous bands disappeared or continued but the quality of their albums declined. We participated in a theatrical experiment which gave birth to the album "Bienvenu au conseil d'administration" (1980). It was a huge success, it was a beautiful experience and we had a lot of pleasure making it. It had a real avant-garde atmosphere for its time. We had the choice of continuing with the theatre but that would have been an error, because we would not doing that today. It was at that very moment that we began to relegate the band to the background. Jacques and Gilbert worked on other musical projects in quite a different context, without referring at all to Pulsar. If we had continued, I think it would have been very bad for the atmosphere the group. We were aware that a few musicians had appropriated the name of their group in the absence of the founder members who participated in the development of an original and unique sound, and that nothing good came out of it. It is just like if you remove Charlie Watts of the Stones, they are no longer the Rolling Stones, they will never be the same. There was a time when the group was dormant until the publication of "Gorlitz" in 1989. In a sense it was an indication of what was going to becomeof the band later.

P.B: Today what is the audience for Pulsar?

V.B: There was a strong experience which relaunched the band to the public. The new director at the head of the opera of Lyon called me to prepare a program at the amphitheatre. The idea was to perform around a thematic among the other artists from various backgrounds (painters etc...) with my own universe, without returning to the entity Pulsar. Someone at the opera, an ardent supporter of Pulsar ,said to me that everything was there except Pulsar. He convinced me to reform the band for the concert. We played two nights to a sell out audience. I think that the public who are interested in our music go beyond those who are interested in so called progressive music. It goes far, the band has always been based on eclecticism and complementarity.

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