Hands up who likes French New Wave? Now keep them up if you like Jonathan Richman. OK, this post is for you. Several years ago I picked up two wonderfully obscure 45s by a band called France/Angleterre – in tip-top condition and for a paltry 25 cents each. As you can see the covers are superb. I would have bought them for a lot more money judging by those alone. And I would have handed over still more dosh after noticing that one contained a song about sometime hero Jonathan Richman, and the other contained a track that my schoolboy French translated as ‘I Want To Penetrate You With My Guitar’. Sounds so much more romantic in the French, non?
The singles were put out on Wang Bang records, a self-releasing indie label if ever there was one. A quick googling tells me that the band were from Rouen and these 45s were released in 1981 and 1982. It looks like there’s another 45 that was released in 1980 (which has duly been placed on my wants list) but that’s pretty much all I could find out. That established, it was time to play them.
‘Je Veux Te Penetrer Avec Une Guitare’ is, if you can get past the disturbing imagery of the lyric, a fine example of post-punk new wave from the Wire/ Joy Division school. With angular and atonal guitar / keyboard and a hookish melodic bassline, it’s as 1981 as a Royal Wedding. The b-side ‘France Cinema’ is an instrumental track in a similar vein which runs along very nicely. Or at least that is until the screaming girl comes in about half way through. Her cries and pleas for help take on a much more sinister tone when you consider them in light of the flip side. The nightmarish photo and the phallic guitar icon on the front cover ram the idea home, clouding the fact that, musically speaking at least, this is a great 45. It’s just a shame that you could never play it for Grandma.
By 1982 it sounds like France/Angleterre had grown up a bit. Leaving behind the shock tactics of ‘Penetrer’, their next 45 was a volte-face tribute to the master of childlike naive-rock, Jonathan Richman. To my ears ‘Jonathan Richman’ is the best of these four sides. It’s also better than the other Jonathan tribute song I know of, the 1992 single ‘Jonathan Jonathan’ by London based country rockers The Rockingbirds. Not that their tune is a dud – but let’s be honest, French new wave from the early 80s is almost always going to be cooler than British country from a decade later…
But back to France/Angleterre. ‘Jonathan Richman’ and it’s flip ‘Michael’ are great post punk outings with those cool-as-ice closed drum and dry guitar sounds that were soon to go out of vogue as the effects smitten 80s progressed. I don’t know which Michael they’re singing about, or if they love him or hate him, but he sure inspires a good song. Thinking about it, I’m not even sure what they’re saying about Jonathan, but I’m assuming it’s kind. Regardless, both tracks are perfect to bust out at parties. Far more poppy than the previous single, and with the more conventional structure of verse/catchy chorus/unusual solo, this 45 is a true find, and definite keeper. Indeed both are now safely tucked away in my new wave singles box, dignified and old in their fresh plastic sleeves.
The chances of me finding an obscure, limited pressing of a 24 year old French indie record about Jonathan Richman for next to nothing in the middle of NYC are obviously extraordinarily slim. The chances of finding myself sitting next to the actual Jonathan Richman in a Lower East Side bar might be even slimmer. So you’ll be surprised to read that that’s exactly what happened to me about 10 years ago. At the time I was huge fan who would go and see his live shows and even check out his new releases (at full cost no less!). So when he walked into the busy bar with his drummer Tommy Larkin and the young lady he’d recently left his wife for and proceeded to sit next to me, I suddenly felt nervous. I knew I had to say something to him even though it wasn’t my style. But then this was Jonathan Richman, author of Girlfriend and Kookenhaken, the original Suburban Romantic & Modern Lover himself.
A little while later, and after much procrastinating on my part, an opening appeared. Tommy went to the toilet and his new woman went to the payphone. I seized the moment and leaning over I casually said something fairly innocuous like ‘Hey Jonathan, I’m a big fan. Just wanted to say hello.’ I suppose I was hoping this would be the start of some sort of conversation. Maybe we could talk about how his new record was doing, or when his next show was. If it was going well I could ask him if he wanted one of my band’s CDs. Or if that didn’t feel right we could just chat about the weather, what a good juke box this bar had or some such. I mean, judging by his records he must be a really cool guy right? Friendly, decent, approachable, right? Wrong. Jonathan said ‘Thanks’ and went and sat somewhere else. Cheers. I finished my beer and went home.
Coming across France/Angleterre’s version of Jonathan Richman was a far more rewarding and inspiring experience than coming across the man himself. I still go back to thrift stores looking for records. But since our brief encounter I’ve not been to see Jonathan Richman perform or bought any of his recordings. Not even for a buck.