Progressive rock in France : a short overview

Écrit par ADMIN - Philippe GONIN (CAS)


Progressive Rock in France : a short overview
by Philippe Gonin


The early sixties were known in France as the « yéyé » years. If the mid sixties saw a new generation appears it was not until after the riots of May 1968 that a large number of groups, which could be considered as “progressive”, emerged. The period between 1968-1971 represented the golden age of the “prog rock” emergence in France.

In a large acceptation, progressive music is “an art form, one that is concerned with abstraction and introspection, rather than with commercially-driven trends and fashions that shape work created purely for entertainment.” (Bradley Smith). From the beginning, in France as well as in England or in the United States, the notion of progressive rock included, psychedelic rock, prog folk, free rock, symphonic rock and more widely, all music that we can called “experimental music”. In that way, experiments like those made by Richard Pinhas (with Heldon) who called on the voice of philosopher Gilles Deleuze (le voyageur aka Ouais marchais mieux qu’en 68) and who composed a music inspired by the minimalists Philip Glass and Terry Riley or Brian Eno’s Ambient music, Etron Fou Leloublan, Dashiell Hedayat (with the album obsolete) or Brigitte Fontaine who collaborated in the album Comme à la radio with the Art Ensemble of Chicago could be considered as progressive music. 

While an aesthetic unity seemed difficult, if not impossible to achieve, certain lines of strength appeared and in a more restrictive acceptation, “progressive music” brought together bands who played a music inspired by jazz, classical music, and proposed a more constructed, more “intellectual” music. Even if resorting to classifications is always artificial and risky, we can notice that the influence of jazz remained dominant to bands such as Triangle, Magma and even the first Martin Circus (before the hit single Marylène), whereas the others were more or less under the influence of English groups : Pink Floyd (Pulsar, Wapassou or Catharsis), King Crimson or Genesis (Mona Lisa, Atoll, Ange, though the latter intelligently freed itself from its English model due to quality texts), whereas the others turned more gladly to Soft Machine, Caravan (Carpe Diem) or American references like Zappa and the “Mothers of Invention” (Moving Gelatine Plate), without forgetting the essential reference to classical music (Bartok, Stravinski with Magma, or romantic music with Pulsar)

Texts, often turned to legends, popular tales and epics (Mona Lisa, Ange).Some of them were creating their own universe like Gong and especially Magma which “invented” a complete cosmogony and thought out a work which was both coherent and spread over several albums, like the trilogy called Theusz Hamtaahk. 

Formally, songs were being developed in a long format (Magma’s Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh; Pulsar’s Halloween, Wapassou’s Salammbô) or played without interruption, and albums were preferred to “singles”.   The alternation between verse and chorus was often interrupted by long solo sequences in which musicians’ virtuosity could shine out. The rhythmic breaks were sometimes numerous (Magma).

While the synthesizer (Moog, Arp synth, VCS3…) became the favourite instrument for lots of bands (Pulsar, Heldon), other instruments like woodwinds (frequent use of the flute as a soloist), violin (Zoo), “exotic” instruments (sitar: Wapassou) or the mellotron were still frequently being used. 

The image and the artwork also took a new importance: the members of Magma wore dark clothes decorated with an emblem which became the symbol of both the group and their universe. After the Beatles’ Sergent Pepper, a new attention was also paid to cover art (like Mona Lisa’s le petit violon de Monsieur Grégoire or Pulsar’s Halloween). Even though there was no artwork specialists in France like Storm Thorgerson’s Hipgnosis (who made nearly all the Floyd’s covers), some bands were begin to work with the same illustrator on several projects such as Ange with Philippe Huart (Au delà du délire, Le Cimetière des Arlequins, Emile Jacotey…). Some of them (like Mona Lisa or Ange) paid attention to their scenic performances (just like Peter Gabriel with or without Genesis).

Unfortunately, many of these groups knew only a short-lived career whereas others, as promising as they may have been, quickly drifted towards more openly commercial music, just like Martin Circus. In fact, it was apparently difficult to become a “rock star” in France during the 70’s, due to the reality of the French music world (which sociologist Gérôme Guibert called “le Grand Partage”: between “entertainment” and rock and between French rock bands and English or American rock bands), television and radio’s indifference for rock (with some exception). Although most groups did not survive the breaking of punk music, some sometimes continued to produce insignificant albums (Atoll, Ange), whereas others, after a period of lethargy, proved that their music could exceed the phenomenon of fashion (such as Magma).


Bibliography :

Deshayes, Eric ; Grimaud, Dominique. 2008. L’underground musical en France ,Marseille, Le Mot et le Reste.

De Caunes, Antoine. 1978. Magma, Paris, Rock & Folk, Albin Michel.

Gonin, Philippe. 2014. Magma décryptage d'un mythe et d'une musique, Marseille, le Mot et le Reste

Guibert, Gérôme. 2006. La production de la culture, le cas des musiques amplifiées en France. Paris, éditions Seteun, Irma.

Smith, Bradley. 1997. The Billboard Guide to Progressive Music. 1997, Billboard, New York

Rock & Folk n°127 “spécial France”. 1977. Paris. 



Discography :

Ame son : Catalyse (1970, BYG, cd reissue Spalax SP 14823)

Ange : Le Cimetière des Arlequins (1973, cd reissue Philips/Phonogram 84 2238-2)

Ange : Au-delà du Délire (1974, cd reissue Philips/Phonogram 84 2239-2)

Atoll : L’araignée-Mal (1975, Eurodisc-WEA, cd reissue Musea digipack FGBG 2101 France)

Catharsis : Masq (1971, Festival, cd reissue, Spalax, SP 14201)

Carpe Diem : En regardant passer le Temps (1975, Crypto, cd reissue FGBG 4122)

Brigitte Fontaine avec Art Ensemble of Chicago : Comme à la radio (1970, cd Saravah SHL 1018)

Gong: Camembert électrique (1971, BYG cd reissue Charly 2001 SNAP 09 CD UK)

Gong: Angel’s Egg (1973, cd reissue Virgin)

Hedayat (Dashiell) : Obsolete (1971, Shandar/Mantra, cd reissue Mantra 642075-2)

Heldon : électronique guérilla/It’s Always Rock’n’Roll (1974, Disjuncta, Cobra ; 1993, cd reissue,  Cuneiform Rune 51/52)

Magma : Kobaïa (1970, Philips cd reissue Seventh records REX VII - France)

Magma : Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh (1974, A&M, cd reissue Seventh records REX IV-V)

Martin Circus : Acte II (1971, Vogue, cd reissue magicrecords 175642)

Mona Lisa : Le petit violon de Monsieur Grégoire (1976, Crypto, cd reissue Musea FGBG 4009)

Mona Lisa : Avant qu’il ne soit trop tard (1977, Crypto, cd reissue Musea FGBG 4107) 

Pulsar : Pollen (1974, Kingdom, Vogue, cd reissue Musea FGBG 4015)

Pulsar : Halloween (1977, Kingdom, Vogue, cd reissue FGBG 4022)

Wapassou : Salammbô (1977, Crypto, cd reissue Musea FGBG 4112)

Zoo : Zoo (1969, Riviera, cd reissue riviera 43835-2)

30 ans d’agitation musicale en France (1969-1997, contains 3 cd’s with some previously unreleased tracks) (2002, Spalax SP 14711)