On French Bands and Context

In the 1980s there was a resurgence of the ’60s garage-band rock sound that drew on ’70s punk, like the Ramones, and what is sometimes loosely called “1960s punk”—bands like the Sonics and the Standells. Some French garage bands in the 1980s covered old ’60s American rock and pop tunes, releasing them in English along with new songs in French or English. The Dogs (sometimes “Les Dogs” but just listed as “Dogs” on their records—not to be confused with the later British band) did this on their 1982 release Too Much Class for the Neighborhood—which was entirely in English (as were most of their records, actually). I once played songs from it for a friend who complained about the lead singer’s French accent. But his accent made it way more interesting to me. Listening to it again, I think his English is great and the words are completely understandable.

It’s easy to forget how hard the English language is. Just think of the variety of our past tenses. I sang the song. A song was sung in her honor. He said he’d bring the coffee; he brought the coffee. [Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary lists brung, brang, and even broughten as “substandard” past tenses for bring—they’re used in English dialects regionally, but are not standard.] Also, some of the sounds in English are difficult for people simply because those sounds don’t exist in their own languages.

One thing lost in translation is context. When singing a song in another language you often need to do research to understand something in the lyrics/poetry. Another French garage-rock band, the Calamities (Les Calamités, 1983–88) released their first LP in 1984 (A Bride Abbatue in France; The Calamities in the US), with both French and English songs, which included a cover of the ’60s hit “You Can’t Sit Down.” The lyrics “When you’re on South Street” wind up as something that sounds like “When you’re on Sigh See.” I’m not poking fun here; I mean, why would a French teenager in the 1980s know about some street in Philadelphia, PA, that had a “scene” in the 1960s—it was where “hippies meet,” according to the Orlons’ song “South Street” (hippies meant hipsters in this context, not flower children). Also, there was no Internet then; now we can just Google places and it’s so much easier. The Calamities (three filles and un type) broke into the US college radio market with this record, probably because it included songs in English, expanding their audience. Check out “Toutes les Nuits” from this LP. And if you want more songs in French and English (sometimes simultaneously), listen to the band Stereolab—less garage-band, but lots of ’60s electronic keyboard sounds. (Coincidentally, I discovered while writing this that the lead singer of the Dogs, Dominique Laboubée, appeared on that Calamities record.)

Informational footnote: I was in an elevator last week when a news blurb came on the Captivate media screen about Scarlett Johansson releasing an EP, and one of the twentysomethings in the elevator said, “What’s an EP?” Her friend had no idea. I said “Extended Play” and then got off the elevator, realizing as the door shut how completely unhelpful that was. So, that’s what it stands for, but it usually means a record that has more songs than a single, sometimes 3 to 5 songs, but is not as long as an LP (“Long Playing” record), which usually have more like 10 songs. Sometimes EPs were just extended versions of the hit single, often dance mixes so it would get played in clubs, with one or two additional songs on the B side (which theoretically enticed people to buy the full record). The Dogs first released songs on EP, as did many others, because it was cheaper than an LP, or else the bands only had three or four songs at that point.

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