We had a poor cover version for Christmas, so now here’s a decent one for New Year.
Think of sixties French pop and quite a few names might come to mind – Serge Gainsbourg, Françoise Hardy, Johnny Hallyday, Jacques Dutronc, France Gall – but probably not Michel Polnareff, the ‘bad boy’ of the scene, despite a huge amount of competition in this regard. He won a talent competition, turned down the major label contract, wrote a hit single – “La Poupée qui fait non” – that was covered by Jimi Hendrix and The Birds, was banned from the radio, suffered depression and eyesight problems and was finally ostracized and left bankrupt after distributing a “pornographic” promotional poster for a tour. After spending the next couple of decades in the USA he made a comeback in the early 90s, and that’s where we join the story.
Pulp people may be more familiar with the version the group performed for French radio in 1994, but the ‘proper’ recording dates from a year earlier. Along with the likes of Saint Etienne and Nick Cave, they had been asked to add a contribution to an album of Polnareff covers. Information about the session is fairly limited, but it seems remarkable for a few reasons.
1. The session was in Axis Studios in Sheffield, not in London. Ok, not a big deal, but it was their first time recording out of the capital since ‘O.U.’.
2. Instead of Ed Buller – whose fingerprints can be found over almost everything from this era – the session was produced by Stephen Street, the Britpop producer, later responsible for Parklife and The Great Escape, and this is clear even from the start. Instead of layered keyboard sounds we have a crisp pop-rock sound remarkably familiar to anyone accustomed to Chris Thomas’s work on Different Class. Does this suggest that the progression between albums was just down to a change in producer? Well, no. But it was at least an indication that the group were versatile enough to be taken in very different directions. A version of Lipgloss recorded in the same session remains unreleased, so the jury is still out on whether Street could have worked as a producer on His ‘n’ Hers.
3. On guitar we have one Mark Webber, still two years away from officially joining the group. Mark had been around for quite a while now, running the fan club and sometimes playing on stage, and it’s fitting that we hear his debut performance coincide with the first incidence of the Britpop sound he would soon be part of.
The song itself is structured much more like mainstream pop than anything else they were doing at the time, so it may be a mistake to pin it down to either Street or Webber. The group approach it with gusto, hammering out the stomping rhythm, and building everything to a crescendo in much the same way they would with ‘Like A Friend’ a few years later. Guitars and synths are light for the most part, sparkling and burbling rather than trying to lay down atmosphere. For his part Jarvis seems to have improved his French since ‘Manon’ – though having a native speaker writing the lyrics is always an advantage. Initially they did try to translate it, but it sounded a bit too silly – Le Roi De Fourmis means ‘King of the Ants’ and the song’s wordplay would be lost in translation, leaving only a series of bizarre non-sequitors. There is a brief English spoken-word section though, and he manages to fit in a bit of ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma.
The recording was fine – a good performance, a little slight (as covers tend to be) but a bold step forward anyway. The release, however, didn’t go as planned. As with anything Polnareff-related, it was beset by legal issues (which may also explain it’s non-inclusion on the His ‘n’n Hers deluxe edition), and wasn’t released until 1999, and then only in France. Sometimes there’s no harm in something being a little difficult to find, though, and in this case the unearthed treasure is far from disappointing.