How many weird bands are there in France, anyway? It’s like half the population over there traded in their Serge Gainsbourg records for some Captain Beefheart and Mr. Bungle. Yesterday a French reader named Laurent sent us yet another list of weird French bands, and yet again, we’d never heard of half of them. If you guys keep this up, we may need to open up a satellite office in Paris. You know, with our millions of blog dollars.
Anyway, among the many excellent bands Laurent suggested we check out is an experimental rock trio from Metz called Le Singe Blanc, which is apparently French for “The White Monkey.” They kind of sound like what might happen if a post-punk/math-rock band was started by a bunch of Muppets. Here’s the video for their song “Gru,” which you should really not watch if you love birds.
This week’s band is one of several recently suggested to us by the inimitable Petunia-Liebling MacPumpkin, who could probably do a way better job than us running this blog if she were so inclined. They’re a French group called Rockets, or sometimes Les Rockets or Roketz or even Silver Rockets to avoid being confused with a much less interesting American band called Rockets. And they did the whole ’70s glam/proto-disco/space-rock “We are aliens and we have come to your planet to boogie” thing the way only a bunch of ’70s French dudes could.
Rockets started in Paris way back in 1974 under the name Rocket Men. Dressed up in matching silver suits with shaved heads and silvery gray facepaint, they no doubt caused quite a scene in the French rock clubs of the day. Their otherworldly appearance and heavy use of synthesizers and vocoders suggested a strong Kraftwerk influence, but there was more to them than that: The very first track on their 1976 self-titled debut album, for example, was “Apache,” a funked-up version of a faux-Spaghetti Western rock instrumental recorded by a 1960 British skiffle band called The Shadows. They later covered Canned Heat, too. So their influences ranged pretty far beyond Ziggy-era Bowie and Krautrock—although that was clearly all part of the mix, too.
By 1979, Rockets had begun to enjoy some commercial success, at least in Europe, where their third album Plasteroid sold out in some countries almost as soon as it was released. By this time, they had developed more of a pop/New Wave sound and outfits that appeared to borrow rather flagrantly from Ace Frehley’s Spaceman look. But they had also perfected a highly entertaining live show that featured lots of robot dance moves and a scary, bazooka-like device with which lead singer Christian Le Bartz could shower the audience with sparks. Check the three-minute mark of this clip from an Italian TV appearance for a taste of the spark-bazooka; I’m pretty sure that even in Italy, they don’t let you get away with shit like that anymore.
Rockets peaked, both commercially and creatively, with 1980’s Galaxy, a brilliantly campy piece of space-rock/synth-pop with blacklight-ready cover art and high-concept songs about space travel and cyborgs and other bits of sci-fi geekery. It sold over a million copies worldwide, but the band began to unravel soon thereafter. By 1983, both lead singer Le Bartz and drummer Alain Groetzinger had quit the group, followed shortly by their longtime producer, Claude Lemoine, and their bassist, “Little” Gerard L’Her. With a new British lead singer, Sal Solo, the remnants of Rockets squeezed out two more albums, 1986’s One Way and 1992’s Another Future—the latter of which gamely tried to update the band’s sound with some Brit-rave beats, but without much success. By 1993, the band was effectively defunct.
But nothing helps revive musical careers like a healthy dose of nostalgia—so you will not be surprised to learn that as of 2000, Rockets have resumed their existence, albeit in heavily watered-down form. The closest thing they still have to an original member is keyboardist Fabrice Quagliotti, an Italian who joined the group in 1977. Although we’re not sure exactly when it was shot, we’re pretty sure this video is Rockets in their current incarnation. The spark-shooting guitar is kinda cool, we guess, but go-go dancers? Seriously, guys? They’re like a bad Eurovision band now. We prefer to remember them in their spacey and slightly awkward late ’70s heyday, like in this video:
Or even when they were getting all arty and high-concept with guest female vocalists in the early ’80s, like in this clip:
So thanks for the tip, Petunia! Who knew that over 20 years before Daft Punk, French people were already dressing up like robot/alien space creatures?
- Les Rockets (site dedicated to the “old” Rockets, in Italian)
- Rockets home page (fan site, with an excellent bio we cribbed most of this post from, in English and Italian)
- Rockets & Rocketsland (official site of the “new” Rockets, in Italian)
- Rockets.com.ua (Ukrainian/Russian fan site)
- Rockets on MySpace (appears to be a fan page, not recently updated)
How is it possible that we have yet to write about a prog-rock band on TWBITW? Clearly, we’ve been slacking! Let’s fix that right now.
Like any weird band worth their salt, France’s Magma don’t really fit neatly into any one genre; they just get called prog-rock because they share a lot of prog bands’ fondness for long, meandering instrumental passages, weird time signatures and sci-fi imagery. But musically, they probably owe more to Sun Ra and Carl Orff and David Axelrod than they do to, say, King Crimson. Led by drummer, singer and all-around freakazoid Christian Vander, the band has been around in one form or another, off and on, since 1970, and continues to tour and release new material to this day, although most of their more recent output has been in the form of live albums and DVDs.
What really pushes the band into full-blown Weirdland, however, is the incredibly elaborate mythology Vander has built up around the group. All of Magma’s music tells various stories of the planet Kobaïa, which is settled by refugees from Earth in some distant future. And most of it is sung in a made-up language called Kobaïan, which fans of Magma have actually learned to decipher and speak to one another the way Trekkies speak Klingon. Magma’s music and Vander’s Kobaïan language have even inspired their own sub-genre of music, called “Zeuhl,” which is Kobaïan for “celestial.” Next time you hear a bunch of French dudes chanting nonsense lyrics over music that sounds sort of like Pat Metheny on acid, you’re probably listening to a Zeuhl band.
Here’s some great video of Magma performing in their heyday back in 1977, when this stuff probably didn’t sound quite so weird. It was the decade of Yes and Jethro Tull, after all. That’s Vander behind the drum kit—all kidding aside, you can see why a lot of other drummers worship the guy. Oh, and don’t skip the user comments, in which the Magma faithful offer up their translations of the lyrics. Apparently, it’s all secretly religious music.