On Friday night Finders Keepers main-man Andy Votel is playing a set at that Blue Dot festival called ‘The History of Space Rock’.
To get your mind in the mood, here’s part one of a mix of the sort of stuff he’ll be playing (part two can be found here), as well as a pretty extensive write-up about some of the songs involved.
This is by far the longest article we’ve ever featured on our blog, and is NOT designed for light reading. This behemoth might take a few sittings to get through, but if you have any interest in the curious world of French space rock, then you’re in the right place.
Pour yourself nine cups of tea, turn up your speakers and prepare to blast your mind into the outer realm…
10 SPACE-ROCK NUGGETS AND HOW THE HIP FRENCH WON THE WAR ON DRAAGS.
Having been a fan of space-themed music all my life (my first record was a children's version of ‘Space Oddity’ sung by a puppet cat called Major Tom), I have come to the conclusion that all the best sci-fi themed music of the 20th century was made by the French. Here’s a list of ten black plastic reasons why I think France is the spiritual home of space-rock in all its guises, from sound effects records through to the birth of cosmic disco.
‘Cadmus Le Robot De L'espace’ - Jean-Jacques Perrey
(Philips - France 1959)
As an ex-pharmacist-come-keyboard salesman and bastard protégé of the musique concrète movement, it's fair to say that Jean Jacques Perrey is the true godfather of Gallic magnetic ‘pop’ music. Having made his vinyl debut in 1957 with an electronic sleep therapy record, Perrey emerged from his slumber in 1959 with vivid dreams of metal humanoids and new astral plains which could inhabit his bizarre electric sound experiments.
Whereas Parisian revolutionaries like Pierre Schaffer and Pierre Henry manipulated magnetic tape in a hope to destroy the foundations of modern-music entirely, Perrey took their techniques and placed them in polite theatrical context, distilling the Musique concrète modus operandi but providing an interstellar vessel for the gentrification of electronic pop music in the process.
Switching between lab-coat and fine French tailoring, Perrey's wish to demystify his medium won him the hearts of Jean Cocteau and Edith Piaf, securing some solid stepping stones in his career.
This early vinyl record for the man who, against all odds, put the melody in the magnets contains some of the earliest snippets of space music en Français and synthesised sound effects, combining the sound of the Ondioline keyboard (the contested first ever sound synthesiser... also born in France) with tape loops and echo machines—complete with a spoken word comic book narrative.
The music on this record would provide Perrey's own blueprint for his zillion selling collaborations with Gershon ‘Popcorn’ Kingsley (with titles like ‘Visa to the Stars’ and ‘Spooks in Space’) and the sample staple “EVA” (for extra vehicular activity), which 13 years later saw him successfully domesticate modular synthesisers as he had previously done with tape-music. All of which paved the way for many of the following records on this list.
‘Barbarella’ - Michel Magne & Jean-Claude Vannier
(Unreleased - France 1968 / Universal - France 2007)
Much of France's unrivalled obsession with sci-fi pop and space-rock can be attributed to the country's vibrant comic-book culture. The boom of the comic book artist was to flourish in the 1970s with the introduction of Mœbius and Philippe Druillet's magazine compendium Métal Hurlant (eventually released in America under the name Heavy Metal), inspiring artists, directors and musicians of the post ‘Mai 68’ era to experiment with the medium (including Magma's lead vocalist Klaus Blasquiz, who would design comic books and record sleeves such as Bernard Szajner's pivotal ZED LP).
One of the earliest, most respected and inimitable pioneers of French ‘bande dessinée’ was an artist called Jean-Claude Forest, whose combination of pop-art surrealism, cosmic imagery, space-craft illumination and the scantily clad female form won him the attention of controversial publisher Eric Losfeld (the man who published Serge Gainsbourg's Histoire De Melody Nelson story and the kinky comics of Belgium's Guy Peellaert, as well as Italy's Guido Crepax).
After repeatedly creating cosmic worlds for a series of raven haired doppelganger characters called Hypocrite, Baby Cyanide and Marie Mathematique, it would be his first blonde haired character who would send his career into an interstellar overdrive, under the name Barbarella.
In a climate where blondes really did have more fun, the Dino De Laurentiis acquired movie rights for Barbarella gave French director Roger Vadim the opportunity to cast his wife Jane Fonda in the lead role, leaving most of the cast and crew jobs to French and European participants including Paco Rabanne in wardrobe, Claude Renoir behind the lens and voice actor Gilli Smyth (on the eve of the formation of her band GONG) behind the curtain... lights, camera, action—cue maestro.
De Laurentiis and Vadim's initial casting of legendary composer Michel Magne was a truly inspired choice. Made famous for his film work on the bizarre black comedy crime trilogy Fantamos, the impeccably dressed Magne would later become recognised as pivotal figure in progressive French music.
Dedicating the concept of his entire first solo album Musique Tachiste to an obscure art movement combined with an anti-Musique-concrète manifesto, it was plain to see that he planned to change the course of popular French music.
Amongst other accolades Magne would found and operate the famous Strawberry Studio (not the Stockport one) at Hérouville castle, where space-rock artists like Magma, Pink Floyd, David Bowie and a host of French prog-rock legends would record. He would also invent a metaphysical amusement park called Dismal-Land for his 1975 album Moshe Mouse Crucifixion 40 years before the Blek-le-Rat stencil-art protégé Banksy came up with the same idea...
In 1966 Magne did a pioneering collaboration with pianist Martial Solal called Electrode which required the help of an unknown, fresh-faced contemporary arranger by the name of Jean-Claude Vannier (the man who would later provide the music for Serge Gainsbourg's Histoire De Melody Nelson album).
The Electrode album would galvanise the writing partnership of Magne and Vannier, forging something of a Mr. Miyagi/Daniel LaRusso partnership that soon saw Vannier move on to his zen master's plateau.
In late 1967 at the Barclay studio in Paris, Magne and Vannier would team up with orchestrator Jean-Claude Petit and Irish born singer Jackie ‘White Horses’ Lee to record the first draft soundtrack theme-music to the cinematic adaptation of Jean-Claude Forest's Barbarella.
Embodying Magne and Vannier's stylistic trademarks of huge Eastern inspired stings, loud plucked bass, and crystalline percussion, this theme stands up as a blueprint for the last wave of sensual Yé-yé pop before 45rpm singles and scopitones (video jukeboxes) moved aside to make way for feature length concept LPs.
Tragically, but typically, the cues composed by Magne and arranged by Vannier were turned-down by the Hollywood partners in favour of replacements recorded by the New York born, Paris educated Charles Fox and kaptain of kitsch Bob Crewe.
In the same year Magne would enter the studio to record two tracks for a Brigitte Bardot vehicle called A Cœur Joie, which required the English language vocals of a young, unknown, travelling beatnik called David Gilmour (on the eve of Gilmour's own induction into space-rock poster boys Pink Floyd), who appears uncredited on any format of the film, or it's rare soundtrack.
With or without the Barbarella connection, Magne's legacy as a seldom recognised guardian of Gallic space-rock still grows from strength-to-strength. If he hadn't been plagued with depression, ultimately leading to his suicide, then he would quite possibly be a household name.
‘Astronef 328’ - Jacques Penuel
(Fontana série Parade - France 1968)
As Magne's work as a composer continued to escalate, Jean-Claude Vannier would learn to stand on his own two feet as a regular patron of the major studios in Paris. In between his first commitment to vinyl for a single by Alice Dona in 1965 and his first collaboration with Serge Gainsbourg in 1969, Vannier would compose and arrange for an endless list of optimistic solo pop performers such as Brigitte Fontaine, Barbara, Dani and Sylvie Vartan, collaborate with Vangelis (of future Blade Runner infamy) and work closely with a wide range of one-hit/none-hit wonders.
In 1968 he would provide arrangements and incredible strings for a significant emerging folk-pop singer called Jacques Penuel on a unique 45rpm single. Called ‘Astronef 328’, it told the story of a lost spacecraft and its courageous crew who had been missing for 28 days.
The track ends with Vannier’s unique orchestral percussion effects, with a high pitched vocal treatment to represent an intergalactic intercom system which is failing to contact Earth. Sounding like a strung-out folk-funk troubadour pushed through a Joe Meek Machine, ‘Astronef 328’ is the closest Vannier ever got to the space-age recordings of his unacquainted, Nice based contemporary J.P. Massiera, while still retaining his penchant for slide guitars.
This sound could later be found on JCV soundtracks to films like Kathmandu, La Horse and a cheeky come-back record by France Gall called Les Petit Balloons. Space-rock had found its folk roots.
‘Fohat Digs Holes In Space’ - Gong
From the album Camembert Electrique
(BYG Actuel - France 1971)
Like all the crew and cast of Barbarella, Welsh born voice actor Gilli Smyth left the film-set only to see the movie underperform at the box office in 1968—it was only after its re-issue in 1977 that it built its cult following.
In-between Gilli took jobs as a voice actor (voicing an advert for La Chamade perfume, amongst other things) and returned to the Paris home of her Australian boyfriend, Daevid Allen (who had been forced to leave the English band Soft Machine due to problems with his travel visas).
Forming the improv-psych-rock band Bananamoon (with a French rhythm section that would later call themselves Ame Son), Daevid decided that it would be a good idea if the group should set up their instruments amongst the gatherings of May 68's riots, which, as history denotes, got a little out of control.
With their pictures published in the newspapers as riot instigators Gilli, Daevid and the band fled Paris and drove south through Spain and over to the Balearic island of Majorca where, having met other travelling musicians, they founded a spiritual collective called Gong, returned to France, and made space-rock history.
Signing to free-jazz magazine spin-off label B.Y.G. Actuel, Gilli, Daevid and friends recorded an LP called Magick Brother, Mystic Sister which combined psychedelic hippie-rock with an educated display of concrete tape sound effects.
By the time their follow-up album Camembert Electrique was released, Gong had become recognised as a fully-fledged communal space-rock band. Taking advantage of Michel Magne's Strawberry Studio, they laid down genre defining tracks like ‘Fohat Digs Holes in Space’, a bass driven, phased keyboard workout with sax unisons and cosmic, tape-delayed vocals. The whole track was also recycled for the band’s soundtrack to a freakish cycling documentary called Continental Circus.
By the time of their third LP, the group had embarked on their ‘Radio Gnome’ trilogy of pot-headed pixies and teapot shaped UFOs which commanded the inclusion of the VCS-3 synthesiser at the hands of Londoner Tim Blake (a keyboard player who extended a silver chord between Gong and Hawkwind), and funky bass player François Moze (a founding member of the group Magma).
Garnering international acclaim by this point, the band left B.Y.G. Actuel and secured a deal with Virgin Records, and on account of the bands mixed heritage became recognised as an international (or outernational) interest with a bone-fide claim to the space-rock throne.
“Iss’ Lanseï Doïa’ - Magma
From the album Magma 2 - AKA 1001° Centigrades.
(Philips - France 1971)
Perhaps viewed as a fair-weather friend to Gong's inter-communal existence, bassist Francis Moze was in fact a committed and vital pillar beneath French pop's sci-fi infatuation and concept rock anon.
His first ever release was a 7" single sung in a mock Austrian accent based on the learnings of radical psychoanalysts and sexual-revolutionary Wilhelm Reich (whose Orgone theory claimed that energy collected in custom built sex-booths could cure terminal illnesses).
After risking their 15 minutes of pop infamy on such a niche concept, the band known as Zorgones split off into two uneven factions. Drummer Geza Fenzl joined the pioneering French band Dynastie Crisis whilst multi-instrumentalist Moze, producer Laurent Thibault and singer Lucien ‘Zabu’ Zabuski teamed up with jazz drummer and John Coltrane obsessive Christian Vander to create what would become France's most committed idiosyncratic interplanetary rock group ever, Magma.
Under Vander's iron fist, the group would not only create their very own genre of music (known as Zeuhl) but would also write all their songs in their own language (Kobaïan) which represented the native tongue of a group of ex-pat earthlings who had fled our planet in retreat of man’s social and chemical pollution.
Magma's avant garde progressive rock documented the trip to planet Kobaïa and the struggles met when other humans tried to conquer the new planet. After positive critical acclaim the band would adopt an impressive cast of characters into its rotating personnel.
This list includes Claude Engel (from Jean Claude Vannier's rhythm section), Teddy Lasry (the son of Jacques Lasry, the man who recorded the music for the 1970's ITV kids programme Picture Box), Klaus Blasquiz (cartoon strip designer for Actuel magazine and former collaborator with cosmic French legend Richard Pinhas) and a former unruly Yé-yé pop singer called Stella (who had once recorded a single with the snappy title ‘If You Know Something Scarier than a Vampire Then Please Let Me Know Because It Will Make Me Really Happy’).
Although they recorded most of their material at Michael Magne’s Strawberry Studio, the similarities between Gong and Magma didn't end with studio rotas and communal bass players. The mutual invested interest of ex-Soft Machine manager and Marmalade Records founder Giorgio Gomelsky helped push the band (complete with tight black T-shirts and matching Blasquiz designed logo jewellery) in the direction of a well-oiled publicity wheel which spun both bands in the same circles and live circuits, sharing agents, engineers and lighting technicians (including a young dude called Bernard ‘Zed’ Szajner).
To this date mutual fans of the groups, and the first wave of Gallic space-rock, regard Magma as an aggressive Yin to Gong’s hat-stand Yang.
‘L'agonie’ - Jackie Chalard & Gilbert Deflez
From the album Je Suis Vivant, Mais J'ai Peur
(Pathé - France 1974)
The remaining shrapnel after the premature explosion of Zorgones resulted in drummer Geza Fenzl joining the new band Dynastie Crisis featuring his old band mate vocalist Jacques Mercier (who were both previously in a 60s beat group called... Les Turnips!).
The main driving force in Dynastie Crisis however was bass player Jacky Chalard who had previously played in a band called Trust (who made one almost conceptual LP called The Mutant). For fans of Parisian progressive-pop such as Martin Circus and Triangle, Dynastie Crisis sported a pretty unshakable discography of quality singles and albums before Geza Fenzl left the band to be replaced by Celmar Engel.
Shortly after Fenzl's departure Jacky, a known face around Paris, was approached in a local karate dojo by a science fiction writer and radio comic critic called Gilbert Deflez who was interested in pressing up a vinyl record of his latest sci-fi novella, Je Suis Vivant, Mais J'ai Peur.
Deflez was renowned for his spot on the Europe No.1 radio station providing fans of Druillet, Mœbius and Métal Hurlant magazine with weekly spoken word fantasy stories which begged for sound effects and subtle music (harking back to Jean Jacques Perrey's seminal 1959 work). After regular dojo-discussions with Chalard, the two creatives approached Pathé EMI artistic director Laurent Thierry-Mieg to help them expand the idea for a full LP release of Deflez' sci-fi story featuring a cast of other excitable radio DJs providing the voices of various android and astronautical protagonists.
The result is one of the best examples of futurist prog-pop, mixing repetitive bass-driven grooves with deep French spoken word, processed keyboards and tape-delay trickery, providing nothing short of a science-fiction equivalent to Gainsbourg's Melody Nelson.
The cover art was also illuminated by a protégé of Asterix inventor René Goscinny called Enki Bilal whose French sci-fi designs which would also become regular inclusions in Metal Hurlant. Having agreed to appear on the album under Chalard's direction the group Dynastie Crisis almost immediately disbanded, with each member pursuing careers in conceptual pop music. In 1975 Celmar ‘Marcel’ Engel released his first solo single, an early synth-pop effort called ‘Petite Fille Aux Yeux D'or / La Fête Des Têtes’ complete with a picture sleeve of a blue figure with a bald head. Those in the know would get the reference point instantly.
‘Ten Et Medor’ - Alain Goraguer
From the album La Planète Sauvage
(Pathé - France 1973)
The instantly recognisable blue headed characters in the film internationally known as Fantastic Planet were originally invented in 1957 by French science fiction writer and trained dental surgeon Pierre Pairault under his nom-de-plume Stefan Wul.
The original novel Oms en série was adapted for screen under the French name La Planète Sauvage by French animator Rene Laloux and was funded by Polish born art-house producer Anatole Dauman, who would also contribute to films by Jean-Luc Godard, Wim Wenders, Andrei Tarkovsky, Chris Marker and Walerian Borowczyk.
Previously left to the imagination of the reader the first visual realisation of the blue ‘Draag’ humanoids came from the pencil of legendary satirical illustrator Roland Topor and have become indelible in the visual memories of generations of sci-fi fans and record collectors ever since.
Topor was a pillar of European counter-culture having provided satirical and sexual artwork for the first books of the aforementioned publishers Eric Losfeld and Louis Pauwels as well as being a regular contributor to the Hara Kiri monthly (which later morphed into the satirical Charlie Hebdo magazine). He also founded the art group The Panic Movement with Alexandro Jodorowsky (director of The Holy Mountain and future Mœbius collaborator) and Fernando Arrabal AND write the book The Tenant which was later adapted for screen by Roman Polanski.
Using Topor's drawings Rene Laloux would work at the studio of legendary Czech animator Jiří Trnka (whose rare Cybernetic Grandmother film is arguably the greatest unknown sci-fi animation of all time) to bring the film to life but it was the inclusion of some very special music and sound design that would add a future-proof layer to the film, influencing artists and musicians for years to come.
Pianist and keyboard player Alain Goraguer had previously been a long-term composer for poetic singers Serge Gainsbourg and Boris Vian in the 60s. Having stepped out of the limelight in the early 1970s, the release of La Planète Sauvage saw a spectacular unexpected return for Goraguer leaving behind his piano-jazz roots and adopting the clavinet driven instrumentation of the day.
Epitomising the emerging French funk genre and achieving the zenith of the nation’s orchestral psych-rock sound La Planete Sauvage combined huge symphonic swoops with Miles at Fillmore style keyboard crunches and bizarre panned vibraslap percussion while guitar fuzz and prominent funky drum tracks motivate the immaculate score to its chaotic climax.
Without once adopting synthesiser technology La Planète Sauvage's score is heavily reliant on organic and mechanical sound-effects for which Laloux enlisted one of the lesser-known heroes of the Fantastic Planet project—keyboardist/flautist Jean Guerin. With Guerin's bubbling sound design deflecting off Goraguer's angular funk, the sound of Fantastic Planet provides the perfect audio bed for Topor's surrealist creature-creations, freakish fauna and lunar landscapes (drawing visual similarities to Luigi Serafini's 1981 book Codex Seraphinianus).
It’s an amazing, pivotal release for a French major label which also demands to be savoured in its natural cinematic context whenever possible. Cited as a huge influence on Air's soundtrack to The Virgin Suicides and providing samples for the likes of The Beatnuts and Madlib amongst many more, this record opened the minds of a young generation, and the wallets of the old major music mafia.
‘Hache 06’ - Philippe Besombes
From the album Libra
(Pôle Records - France 1975)
At 25 years old Patrick Verbeck's discography consisted of just one LP release. The album, simply called Libra, would be the product of the aforementioned style of independent studio that would begin to shape the future of French conceptual pop. Located in a small basement in west suburbs of Paris (ambitiously christened Studios du Chesnay), it would be the makeshift laboratory of one Philippe Besombes.
As a former chemist-come-Musique-concrète enthusiast Besombes was inspired by an early chance meeting with Jean-Michel Jarre which expanded his fascination with contemporary electronic music. In 1973, while working for La Rochelle contemporary music festival, he was approached by a group of graphic designers and film-makers called The Pattern Group to replace some un-approved Pink Floyd music that they had used to score a dialog-free science fiction film about a small rural town that becomes the victim of satellite crash followed by a media furore.
Besombes attacked the brief with unwaning aplomb, working throughout the day and night using his own arsenal of keyboards, sitars and unpredictable modular synthesisers as well as tape-editing and found-sound techniques. Utilising the professional bass guitar skills of Patrick Verbeck, the organs and vocals of BYG artist Alan Jack and space-folk musings by singer songwriter Alain Legros, Besombes assembled a cast of extra local friends to commit musical sound to his hungry tape machines before the Frankenstein butchery begun (thus creating the first of many feature length electro experiments with Besombes at the helm).
While waiting almost two years for the finished film to reach completion Besombes would combine synth collections with kindred spirit Jean-Louis Rizet and the duo would record their self-tiled double LP under the group name Besombes-Rizet. The album’s stripped down use of pure electronics with organic drums has since attracted fans of Silver Apples and Bernard Szajner's ZED.
By 1975 the music from the Libra soundtrack was sequenced for a full album release and both LPs came out in the same year on the Pôle label funded by another local synthesiser-nut called Paul Putti. Barely two years into the label's existence Putti decided to sell the label's space-age Zeuhl-fuelled catalogue to one of the bosses of BYG records in order to concentrate on an ambitious new pornography empire.
The BYG connection lead to a widespread re-issue of Libra (on a new imprint called Tapioca) which by this stage coincided with the formation of Besombes incredible all-new band Hydravion who would find a home with the freshly formed sci-fi fanatical label Cobra Records. As for the band Design, despite the band member’s regular abductions, they did manage to spend a short time in Magne's Hérouville Castle under the direction of Magma's Laurent Thibault releasing just one solitary track in 1971.
As a side note, the importance of Laurent Thibault in the French rock constellation cannot be overstated here. Under the auspices of his self-run Theleme label, a short-run outlet for alternative French bands and Magma off-shoots (complete with its Magma-esque Blasquiz designed logo), Thibault would release tracks by many of the artists mentioned here, most of whom featured on a compilation recorded at a Hérouville residential event called Puissance 13+2.
Along with in-house engineer Dominique Blanc-Francard, Thibault ensured a steady influx of hip local patronage and hi-tech synth technology to facilitate space-rock's sonic requirements. One-off recordings such as Blanc-Francard's own ‘Spectre’ project and Time Blake's ‘Saratoga Space Messengers’ showcase the studio’s keyboard technology.
‘The Fremen’ - Zed
From the album Visions Of Dune
(Sonopresse - France 1979)
The drum-heavy production on records by the likes of Besombes-Rizet, Spectre and Silver Apples has done a lot to future-proof their music. By stripping away the overtly stylistic ‘rock’ watermarks these records would not only denounce their past but arguably predict the dance music traits of the future.
When Pathé released Igor Wakhévitch's seminal first LP Logos in 1971, Triangle, pioneers of French prog, were the perfect choice of rhythm section. The bands early line up consisted of François Jeanneau and a guitarist called Alain Renaud who would leave the band to form the similarly named Triptyque.
The short-lived Triptyque comprised of bassist Didier Batard and another heavy drummer called Clément Bailly, but after just one single Batard left the group to work on a record with Salvador Dali. This left heavy drummer Clément Bailly pursuing various session jobs before landing a kushty space-rock job in 1975 with Magma to accompany Christian Vander as a second drummer and extra keyboardist. In 1978, Bailly, alongside Magma's Klaus Blasquiz, was asked to contribute to a totally new project that for many represented the ultimate prog-rock sci-fi novel adaptation yet.
Visions of Dune was a conceptual proto-synth-pop opera based on Frank Herbert's seminal Dune novel, directed by a relatively unknown behind-the-scenes art director and composer called Bernard Szajner.
As the dedicated lighting technician for both Magma and Gong, and the inventor of Jean-Michel Jarre's famous Laser Harp, techno-savvy Szajner had developed a keen interest in synthesisers. By enlisting Bailly (on drums) Blasquiz (on treated vocals) and additional playing by Gong's bass player Hanny Rowe, Szajner's Visions Of Dune took the waning Zeuhl and space-rock genres into the next decade tackling the onset of synth-pop and electronic dance music head-on and paving the way for groups like Stabat Stable and Eskaton.
This Zeuhl-school adaptation of Dune however was not the first Magma-related attempt to create music to suit Herbert's landscape. The attempts to film Dune as feature film by Holy Mountain director Alexandro Jodorowsky had already requested the services of both Magma and Pink Floyd to soundtrack the script. The aborted mission represents the greatest space-rock spectacular to never be committed to celluloid in the last 1000 space years.
‘Visitors’ - Visitors
From the album Visitors
(Decca - France 1974)
During the latter half of the 1970's France's space-rock movement would take the commune concept to a logical conclusion and the rise of dedicated space-age French labels like Cobra and EGG Records provided dry shelter and hot wax. With the imminent birth of cosmic-disco and synth-pop via labels like BYG spin-off Celluloid (later introducing Daevid Allen's Post punkish New York Gong), these labels might have also represented a space-rock retirement home for cynical critics.
Originally a small beat label in the late 1960s, the EGG label would reinvent itself under the manifesto tag-line, "The most progressive European experience," and would bring together Gong's Tim Blake, Heldon, Vangelis, Magma, synth-nut Patrick Vian and Michel Magne... all on one label.
Meanwhile independent label Cobra Records would also share contracts with Heldon and would release a bizarre disco version of Joe Meek’s seminal sci-fi hit “Telstar” remade by the band’s main-man Richard Pinhas under the name THX (a clear nod to George Lucas's pre-Star Wars epic).
The rest of the Cobra line-up included a Magma spin-off called Weidorje (recorded at Magne's Hérouville castle), the amazing Lard Free and two bands called Factory and Spheroe who were spin-offs of an incredible lesser known Hendrixian group called The Chico Magnetic Band. Like many of the short-lived transitional bands mentioned in here, Chico Magnetic Band were an incredible live band who could have disappeared after just one 45rpm single before being absorbed by other astro-prog bands. Luckily, due to the perseverance of artistic A&R man and festival promoter Jean-Pierre Rawson, the group’s unfinished studio sessions would be miraculously expanded in to a full-length LP thanks to the studio trickery of one of France's most important cosmic outsider production legends, Monsieur J.P Massiera.
Based 600 miles out of Paris' major industry glare, the Nice-raised workaholic Jean-Pierre was a master at musical rescue-work. Recycling, re-pitching, looping, reversing, re-styling, stealing and butchering were his studio specialities and with a seldom waning thirst for both the supernatural and the science-fictional, his output was purely conceptual often changing the polarity of a band’s music with the flick of one too-many switches.
When Chico Magnetic Band's salvaged album met it's 1971 deadline the demo contained three bizarre instrumental tracks called ‘Pop-Or-Not’, ‘Pop Pull Hair’ and the sci-fi masterpiece ‘Pop In Orbite’, all of which consisted of re-spliced rhythm sections and effects which were quite possibly never even played by (nor played to) the members of the advertised band. In the same year JPM would combine the guitars of Dominique Frideloux with the rhythm section of the band Alice to create the fake group Belíssima, to represent the musings of husband and wife horticulturalists Philippe and Jacqueline Desbrosses.
Setting up his own SEM studio and label as early as 1967, JPM worked with a wide host of poets, comedians, actors and non-musical freaks ‘n’ fakes to assist his fantastique modus operandi. Releasing conceptual psychedelic records by both Jesus AND Hitler (Christ and the anti-Christ) in the same eighteen month period then releasing a recycled LP by a recently deceased racing driver came natural to him, without any regard for criticism, record sales nor public decency.
JP Massiera represented a French equivalent to Joe Meek with the work ethic of Spanish horror director Jess Franco, tying literally any extrovert facet of popular culture to the most recent musical trends and sending it straight to the pressing plant every other week without stopping for Easter nor Christmas (at which point he'd release his annual self-pressed festive freak record).
Naturally the cosmic electronic sounds and expensive synthesisers of the early 70's appealed directly to this man's psyche and refusing to be restrained by time and money he set about lifting entire chunks of electronic concrete straight from the records of Jean-Jaques Perrey, Pierre Henry and Michel Colombier as well as many more lesser known sound-effects records without considering the fact that he was making pioneering moves in sampling culture history (with or without a moral compass to guide him home).
Mainly producing other artists, Jean Pierre Massiera made a small clutch of records under his birth name prior to his wide discography of fully fledged prog-rock-pop concept albums under pseudonyms like Horrific Child, Hermaphrodites and The Maledictus Sound before embarking on an all-out space mission called The Visitors.
Recorded at Massiera's newly relocated Studio Antibes in June 1974 The Visitors would comprise JPM's biggest ensemble thus far, taking the Zeuhl aesthetic and mixing it with Italian Goblin-esque funk and choral and orchestral effects which echoed the likes of La Planète Sauvage and Queen's score to Flash Gordon. The album provided the debut appearance of celebrated violinist Didier Lockwood and his brother Francis. JPM also pulled a Nice-based legend out of retirement in the form of rock 'n' roll singer Gérard Brent, which to French music fans was potentially as relevant as the Bee Gees resurrecting Frankie Valli's career. With a cast of over 20 respected musicians from Massiera's loyal social group in tow (and a Mini Moog in the studio) Jean-Pierre's mission to the stars was an ambitious one—but little did they know it would be something of a one-way trip.
From this point onwards Massiera's expanding discography rarely diverted from interstellar themes and with the arrival of disco music to the tourist bars of Cote d'Azur, Massiera's rhythm heavy, loop based novelty records marked his seldom disputed invention of French space disco.
After producing full-length discoid concept albums under the names JP&Co and albums fronted by Jessie Joyce and Babette, JPM would produce two sided disco singles made under the nom-de-plumes Herman's Rocket and Hercules with variations of the same rhythmic patterns and added sped-up vocals and reverse sound effects (created with exactly the same techniques he had used in the late 60's before the arrival of synthesiser technology).
For collectors discovering the name Massiera on French LP’s towards the turn of the century it was hard to believe that the prog-master and the disco-freak were the same person. In 1976 the inaugural release of the successful disco group Rockets (a boy-band version of Kraftwerk with a La Planète Sauvage aesthetic) featured two cover version of tracks from Massiera's modestly selling Visitors LP. This led to future collaborations between Rockets producer Claude Lemoine, which rendered Visitors Mk2 combining the forces of two of France's best known space-disco producers and solidifying the genre.
In 1977 members of Jean-Claude Vannier's rhythm section embarked on their own instrumental discothèque friendly projects, having honed their unshakable craft working for library music labels such as Telemusic and April Orchestra. Drummer Pierre Alain D’ahan, and keyboardist Marc Chantereau created various line-ups under names like The Peppers, Arpadys and Voyage. The release of full albums by Arpadys and Voyage included picture sleeves of astral plains and shooting stars and quickly made them Paris’s go-to space-funk rhythm section.
Elsewhere former members of Magma, such as Jannick Top and Claude Engel finally returned from Kobaïa to work on disco projects like the ill-informed-but-actually-quite-good Discoballs project performing disco covers of Pink Floyd tracks. Custom built space-funk groups like Moonbirds joined Massiera's Herman’s Rocket and Mickey and Joyce projects on Humbert Petrucci's Ibach novelty label while in the very same year Dominique Perrier and Roger Rizzitelli formed the vocoder friendly Space Art with a French sound that would proceed that of Daft Punk and Air by at least 30 years. EGG label manager Fabrice Cuitad also embraced space-funk with his Star Wars-influenced Droids, giving America's Suzanne Ciani-related ensemble Meco a run for its money.
Many French space-funk bands that, in many cases, emerged from session musician ensembles or the library music ghetto would in time become known as cosmic disco. It’s fair to say that the genre reached it commercial peak when a Jannick Top project, simply called Space, won a top ten hit throughout Europe with the song ‘Magic Fly’.
By the end of the 1970’s French space music pioneer and galactic hero Jean-Jacques Perrey had all but retired from music altogether. Commonly recognised as the prophet of melodic electronic pop, Perrey had gained huge success in the United States, playing a key role in attempting to put an electronic music instrument (or failing that, an electronic easy listening LP in every house).
After returning to Paris to be united with his family, Perrey quickly found that his international success hadn’t made the same journey home to France, and, without a label or community, he spent much of the 1970s making library themes for TV jingles and radio under his own name (as well as a female pseudonym Pat Prilly—a variation of his daughter’s name).
The 1980s almost didn’t exist for JJP, who took to entering TV game-shows to make money while waiting for the occasional royalty cheque from a twenty year contract with Disneyland, who still used his music for their Grand Parade. Having played a huge part in the unlikely invention of emulating musical sound, his knack of making tape loops and re-appropriating found sound eventually seeped deep into popular music production via the digital music revolution and domestic sampling technology, which had become almost affordable by the start of the 1990s.
In 1992 Brooklyn based Hip-Hop duo Gang Starr sampled a two bar loop from Jean-Jacques’ very own Moog fuelled homage to extra vehicular activity, ‘E.V.A.’ for their hugely influential LP Step in the Arena. The following year the original sample was exposed on a seminal bootleg compilation Nuggets of Funk, which breathed new life into JJP’s musical activity and provided a fresh perspective on his music as the pioneering blueprint for modern day techno, electronic dance music and, in actuality, all forms of electronic music production we hear today.
In 2016 electronic music composition is as commonplace as piano music and orchestral composition was 50 years ago and it’s less likely now that the musical representation of outer-space in film and television will be spoon-fed to an audience with quirky unpredictable sound effects or patronising robotic bleeps. Some might argue that with advanced music technology and the instant ability to self-edit and correct we have lost a lot of the spontaneity and experimentalism that also makes sound truly unique to its birthdate. If modern music and sound production is so infinitely versatile and truly future-proof then how can anybody communicate or artistically replicate a date? In the 20th century many creative artists made fantastic music creating the sound of the future, but how can we now emulate the future if we are too over qualified to emulate the present or the immediate past?
By the same token as music genres dissolve and overlap can something as omni-dimensional as space-rock still exist, does rock music itself still exist? Or is all the electronic music we listen to today a form of space-rock? Perhaps space exploration as an exciting new frontier has been demystified and lost its allure by now? How many sci-fi novels did you read this year?
From this enthusiasts perspective space-rock, space-funk and space-jazz as musical genres are as relevant as my other favourite genres—krautrock, free jazz and prog rock—and they exist safely in the past century still waiting to be rediscovered, appreciated, celebrated, re-contextualised, despised, ridiculed, put in the basket or left on the shelf.
This over indulgent essential list of French space rock records is specific to the place that I consider to be the spiritual home of the genre, but without a doubt there is also another ten amazing space themed records for every country on the map which are equally as challenging and exciting. Where would one start with Germany for example? Consider the technology of Japan and the space music rendered, or the space-themed records to exist within other genres like American new-age music or classical music and film soundtracks.
Take the cinematic blockbusters of the last century which are now deemed as classic retro cinema; 2001, Space: 1999, 1984, Silent Running, Godzilla, Mad Max, 12 Monkeys and Back to the Future with their radical fantasies of the sights and sounds of the distant future that now exist as goofy nostalgia alongside giant mobile phones and Sinclair C5s. Is it possible to make genuine futurist music in 2016 without irony or a degree of pantomime thrown in to the mix? In the last 45 years there has not been one single sighting of Magma's Christian Vander cracking a smile on stage. This guy MEANS IT. And original copies of a Sun Ra smile haven't been seen since 1957. Alternatively Jean-Jacques Perrey's ear-to-ear-smile should be cryogenically frozen as a weapon of mass distraction for future generations.
With pharmacists, dentists, horticulturists, music scholars, computer scientists, historians and political revolutionaries in its company the French Space Rock scene of the latter half of the 20th century combined dutiful academia with flamboyant theatrical zeal and childish escapism which remains unrivalled by other micro-genres either side of the millennium's turn.
Whichever side of the moon you reside... space rock is a Sirius business.