The First French Band That Mattered
"Hygiaphone" comes on in the car and my dad just loses it. He cranks up the volume and throws his hands up in the air, ultimately letting go of the wheel. He's singing the words at the top of his lungs and laughing at how childish he looks. During the song's instrumental breaks he's shouting out facts about the band and saying, "This is good music! You should listen to them more!" My dad is convinced that Téléphone is the greatest rock n roll band that ever lived. They inspired a generation of nerdy French boys to rebel in a way that made them connect to one another. Téléphone was the emblem of coolness and hope. The band was a role model that the French youth could look up to when in doubt and desperation. The seismic shake that these four musicians created marked a generation of young French people and stuck with them many decades after.
Téléphone was a rock n roll band founded on November 12, 1976. It was one of the rare French bands to export itself to other countries as the opening act for Iggy Pop and the Rolling Stones. In 10 years of activity, the band performed over 470 concerts, released five studio albums, and sold six million CDs, making them the second-largest selling band in all of France. In June of 1977 Téléphone performed its first major concert by substituting for Blondie, who last minute could not make it as the supporting band for Television at the Olympia in Paris. The artistic director of Pathé Marconi EMI Records happened to be in the room that night, and signed them. That same year the band released its first album, Anna, produced by Mike Thorne.
It is hard to understand the importance of Téléphone without knowing what was going on in France in 1976. We are in the middle of the punk invasion in England with the Sex Pistols screaming "Anarchy in the U.K.," while France is still floating between tiresome varieté française and tacky French disco. Every teenager thinks that England is the number one source of hip music and no one wants to have anything to do with the outdated bands in France. "Pop" radio is not even a thing yet. The few stations that are playing music promote only lame artists like Johnny Hallyday or Claude François who sing about going to school dances and kissing their girlfriends. That's as hard-core as it gets. There aren't any rock bands and there really aren't any decent bands that sing in French.
Moreover, the French government isn't allowing anything that could cross the line and give any hint of rebellion. Everything is censored and you can still feel the tensions of the May 1968 uprising during which the youth had protested against the "traditional society," capitalism, and imperialism. The country is in financial and social crisis, and it's impossible for young people to find jobs. The culture is stagnant, and everyone is craving something to satisfy their desire for a community and solidarity.
Téléphone happens to be in the right place at the right time and manages to create a culture from their music. They are the only ones doing what they are doing and people latch onto them instantly, relieved to finally claim something as their own. Téléphone is the spokesperson for the youth. They say what isn't being said in the media and they get everyone to follow them in doing so. When asked about their band, the members of Téléphone speak out. "Rock is the only place where there is a notion of a group. I don't play bass and I am not a bassist. I am Téléphone. I am a part of Téléphone, and that comes before anything," says bassist Corine Marienneau. The French want unity, and the only thing that ties every teenager together at this point in France is Téléphone.
The band is evoking the issues of their time. "Métro C'est Trop" and "Argent Trop Cher" are suffused with the grey and dull colors of Paris; nothing is revolutionary and nothing is moving forward. Téléphone addresses these matters, which strikes the youth as innovative. Everyone is taken by surprise and listens attentively. Téléphone understands why there is so much frustration in the country. They shouldn't even be saying any of these things but they don't care. They are not afraid of being censored and they want to wake France up.
Although in many ways a rebellious band, Téléphone is quite proper. The lead singer Jean-Louis Aubert never swears and uses excellent grammar. None of the members support the drug culture: "A 13 year old kid with a needle stuck into his arm is not something that we promote, but we're not nuns, and we're not here to give lessons, so instead we write about what matters." Kolinka adds, "I don't understand why they're all getting stoned. It's not because of us, it's because of what society gives them, and it's because the older generation looks down upon them. I think those people are just ignorant and old, with brains filled with politics more than moral incentive."
Téléphone appeals to anyone who will listen to them. They are for all ages, and they speak the truth. People want to escape from the social and economic nightmare of France and Téléphone can do that for them. They dream of going to New York in their tune "New York Avec Toi," and evoke the American Dream that every French kid wants to make come true.
* * *
The date is September 8, 1979 and we are at the Fête de l'Humanité where Téléphone is scheduled to play. This is a couple of months after the band's release of its second studio album, Crache Ton Venin, and it has been selling like crazy. In the crowd we see a group of 12-year-olds singing "La Bombe Humaine" in anticipation of the concert, while an array of adults in their work clothes are sitting on the ground waiting with excitement in their eyes. Some kids are interviewed saying things like "So you see, Téléphone is good because they shred, and that allows me to evade from the real world," while others are more reflective and state, "What I like about Téléphone is that they don't have shitty lyrics. That's why they're different from all the other bands." The show begins and we see Téléphone run onto the stage wearing masks of French presidents over their faces. The crowd is going wild.
Almost all of the songs are written by Jean-Louis Aubert, and all of the tunes are sung in French--one of the main reasons of their success. On the new album we hear songs about adolescent rebellion on "J'suis Parti De Chez Mes Parents" or the story of the rejection of an unjust society in "Fait Divers." However, it is "La Bombe Humaine" that later becomes the anthem of a generation and embodies the essence of Téléphone's message. It is not only a snapshot of France in 1979, but also an expression of what's inside every confused kid of that era. "La Bombe Humaine," or "The Human Bomb," explains how the French society at the time is auto-destructing. The Human Bomb is a collective responsibility, a personal awareness of our situation as humans, and a cry for help from the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Aubert starts the song with his eyes closed and a single electric guitar tracing his words. Everyone in the crowd is mouthing the lyrics perfectly, and it looks like each person in that audience is about to cry. Their eyebrows slant, their eyes squint, and their necks move back and forth. They're keeping it together so that they can finish singing the song.
Aubert issues a call to arms. He sings of wanting to speak to us about the weapon of the future, how it was birthed from the world, and how it will cause its end, "Je veux vous parler de l'arme de demain/ Enfantée du monde elle en sera la fin." As soon as he finishes these first few lines and the instrumental part starts to kick in, he's already about to rip his hair out. He's running his hands through his mane, and his body is twitching robotically as though he could crumble to his knees at any moment. Aubert repeats the word "la fin" three times. The last time, his voice turns into a quiver and nearly cracks. The drums, bass, and electric guitar immediately attack and the singer builds everything inside of him to let out as big of a growl as he possibly can. This is a moment where Aubert is not the humorous rebel that he generally intends to be. Now he is just a child. He is scared to death and all he can do is scream.
He sings about how his parents have turned into prescription drug addicts because of the way society treats them and calls out to them as "Mommy" and "Daddy," blaming the world for all of their problems. This is the ultimate sign of his breakdown--a grown man bawling to his parents as he watches them degrade. He says that he could explode at any moment if someone provokes him, "Si par malheur au cœur de l'accélérateur/ J'rencontre une particule qui m'mette de sale humeur/ Oh, faudrait pas que j'me laisse aller."
By the end of the second chorus Aubert has lost it and is croaking rather than singing. Louis Bertignac on guitar has to take over the lead vocals as Aubert is panicking and screaming "Faudrais pas que j'me laisse aller" ("I mustn't lose my sanity") hysterically over and over again. By the final chorus every band member has joined in with supporting harmonies. The build up of the entire song is here and everybody in the audience has sweat running down their neck and a heart beating at a thousand miles per hour. Instantly, the music cuts out as though it never began. There is a chilling silence, and the crowd bursts into a roar of understanding and appreciation.
The exchange taking place between the audience and Jean-Louis Aubert is exceptional. Everyone is mesmerized and no one dares to make a sound. The audience has become Aubert's accomplice and confidant. The silence is breathtaking and so rare at a big Téléphone concert. There is fear, confusion, but also an extreme sense of anger. The performance represents in all of its facets the desire to fight what is happening in 1979 France, and the frustration and despair that follows the inability to do so.
The singer is pouring out his heart and soul and what he is saying is entirely honest and truthful. It's blatant and it's there for all of us to see. Aubert is not hiding anything, and there are no embellishments. This is the culminating point of everything that Téléphone stands for. It is the extreme contrast to everything that Giscard d'Estaing's ineffective centrist government has been promoting.
"La Bombe Humaine" is the most beautifully written and produced song I have ever encountered solely because of its complete vulnerability. The "Human Bomb" is a hair-ripping, shirt-tearing rock song about the world coming to an end. It is the final straw before Aubert reaches insanity. Téléphone is fed up and completely burnt out by France and its behavior as a whole. They are denouncing society.
* * *
On April 21, 1986, three million albums sold and 10 years of triumph later, the members of Téléphone announce the breakup of the band. They have decided to independently pursue their respective careers as their ideal of the group no longer carries the same significance. Aubert states, "There wasn't the enthusiasm that we usually had, so we decided to stop because we need to do everything with enthusiasm." Bertignac says, "Téléphone became a business and a company more than a rock band; we weren't having fun making music together anymore."
Their fans react in despair and feel betrayed. The band receives letters begging them to get back together. "They say that we're giving up or that we are letting them down. They need to understand that what we have decided to do is a positive thing. We're doing this so as to not ruin all of the great things we have done in the past. We've always given our maximum into what we do, and now we're just incapable of doing that anymore," states Aubert.
The beauty in this is that Téléphone stops before its decline. Just a year prior to this they had released Dure Limite, an album filled with some of their greatest and most touching hits, such as "Cendrillon," evoking a young girl's decline into overdose, and "Ca C'est Vraiment Toi," an upbeat tune to lose your shit to at a party. No one would have suspected that they'd soon break up. Téléphone stopped at the right time, and thanks to this move they remain a gem that maintained its shine for 10 good years until it vanished, leaving its deep imprint on French youth.
Téléphone came around and woke up the scene by becoming the first French rock band—a breed that at the time was non-existent. What made Téléphone so special and fresh was the fusing of four talented musicians singing in French paired with the rebellion that every kid dreamed of. All of this was then drenched in a mixture of pure rock and liberation.
The thing with Téléphone is that at the end of the day they made good music. They had poignant lyrics and melodies, and they managed to draw you in with their guitar riffs and irresistible drum beats. To a young person like me, they are what the Ramones are to young Americans: a band from the ‘70s that epitomize rock music. We feel cool and alternative when we listen to them because our parents used to do the same back in their day. But to the now older generation, they mean so much more. For my dad, Téléphone is relevance. It is honesty anchored in a time when most forms of true expression were being censored and hidden by the government. They are a guiding light for him in times of disorientation and growth, and they are a friend.
Téléphone filled in the gaps of what was missing in France at the time. They did their job, and then they disappeared. When they broke up, the French youth had lost the steady anchor they used to call their own but had been left with what Téléphone had nourished them with. Now these young French fans have turned into grown working men with families who do not know of their past fandom of a rock band. They've resorted to collared shirts and tailored waistcoats and only blast Téléphone when they are alone in their car. They reminisce on their rebellious teen years screaming "Argent trop cher!" at the top of their lungs, with the windows closed.
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