In Paris with Malcolm Mclaren
In 1994 Malcolm came to see me about making a record ON Paris in the Fifties and Sixties, working with a selection of female French icons like Catherine Deneuve, Jeanne Morreau, Juliette Greco and Francoise Hardy. I wanted to know why he had chosen me for one of his brave, cutting edge works. It was going to be an art work, with no singles coming from it and not even translated into English. Was it my jazz sense, perhaps, that had brought him to my door? My broader perspective on the music and cultural scenes? My reputation for making voices sound wonderful?
‘Why me?’ I asked.
‘Well, he wheeled round on me. ‘You speak French, don’t you?’
‘I just need a producer who can speak French.’
‘Isn’t there anything else?’
‘How difficult can producing be? I need someone to translate. How much money do you want?’
‘Less than usual,’ I said, since everything he said was endearing me to him more.
‘You’ll probably only get half of it.’
‘Why?’ I wondered.
‘Because that’s the way with my projects. They always run out of money.’
How could I resist such a lack of bullshit?
‘Oh, all right then,’ I said. ‘I know a beautiful studio in Paris that we can use, that people won’t mind coming to.’
Our first night in Paris we went to a little restaurant in St Germaine and Malcolm was holding court. A poncy little twit of about twenty, who should have been wearing a monocle, came over and asked us, in the fruitiest English voice you can imagine; ‘Are you chappies record people?’
‘Yeah,’ Malcolm said, warily.
‘I don’t suppose you know what a counter-tenor is, do you?’
‘I suppose you have heard of hip-hop?’
‘Well, I sing counter-tenor over hip-hop, and I think it’s jolly good.’
‘So sing us something then,’ Malcolm said.
‘What here? Now? I couldn’t possibly,’ the berk started to bluster.
‘There’s twenty three people in this room,’ Malcolm said, after doing a quick head count. ‘If you can’t sing in front of twenty three people you’re no fucking use to me. Now, piss off.’ The young man slunk away and Malcolm returned to his stories.
Growing increasingly hungry, Malcolm was having trouble getting served. Spotting our waiter engrossed in a telephone call, he waved him over. The guy continued to talk, taking no notice. Malcolm stood up, walked over, took the telephone and dropped it back on the hook. He placed a menu in the man’s hand and propelled him towards the table.
‘You are a waiter,’ he said. ‘This is what you do. You do not talk on the telephone. That is what operator does!’
Half way through the meal an American came over and announced that Malcolm’s persistent cigarette smoking was spoiling his dinner.
‘You coming over and telling me off for smoking has spoiled my dinner,’ Malcolm snapped back. ‘So we’re quits. Now piss off.’
I just knew we were going to get on well.
We were going to be in Paris for five or six months, with Malcolm as my guide and my eyes. I have never felt as safe in my life, because he just goes wherever he wants to go. He doesn’t stop for anyone or anything, confident that the traffic will stop for him if he steps in front of it. I simply had to hang on to him and he never walked me into anything.
We started our pilgrimage at the Place St Sulpice, where Miles Davis and Juliette Greco had first met and made love. Malcolm even tracked down the exact apartment and persuaded the owner of the building to allow him to set up a makeshift studio in it, with the windows open to catch the bells of St Sulpice on a Sunday morning.
He had managed to get hold of old provincial French Gaumont Cinema advertisements from the late Forties and Fifties, produced by people like Max Ernst, Jacometti and Dali, featuring people like Picasso and a very young Serge Gainsbourg. His enthusiasm for the project and his imagination seemed boundless.
The interesting thing for me was that Malcolm wanted the film to be high-brow art, an opera about Paris in that period, but he had virtually no musical understanding, knowledge or ability. The effect he wanted to achieve was like hip-hop, made up of bits of other records stitched together into a rhythm tapestry, with rapping over the top. The whole principle of hip-hop is that it is for people who can’t play music. It is obstinately low-brow, a pastiche, a montage.
Since there were a variety of reasons why all the music he wanted to use couldn’t be used, my job was to recreate it, musically and sonically, mimicking the sounds of Fifties jazz and Sixties pop and sewing them together with sounds from old movies, and monologues written and read by Malcolm.
He wanted as many voices and personae from the period as possible. He started by trying Jeanne Morreau. She insisted on meeting him by himself at her house. He came back chuckling at lunch time.
‘It’s not often,’ he said, ‘that you’re met at nine o’clock in the morning by a woman in her seventies, wearing a feather boa and a nightdress and carrying a bottle of champagne, saying “let’s get serious”.’
‘What happened then?’ I wanted to know.
‘Oh, I got thrown out.’
‘I showed her some lines I wanted her to read. She got as far as “I like to make love before I put in my curlers”, and she got cross and threw me out.’
We then went to plan B and called on Juliette Greco. Malcolm tried the same hair curler lines and she read them through.
‘I have had the greatest poets in France write for me, and you are asking me to sing this!’ She slammed the score down. ‘Anyway. I only sing in French!’
‘We’re not doing very well, are we,’ Malcolm said as we found ourselves back out in the street again.
‘We can use that ‘I only sing in French ’ bit in a monologue,’ I suggested. So we did.
The next song involved the late Jim Morrison of The Doors. Malcolm decided we needed to go to Père Lachaise, the cemetery where Morrison is buried, (and the title of the song), which is famous for being full of stray cats. He wanted to talk to Jim direct and thought the best time to do this would be in the evening, when it was dark and the cemetery was closed to visitors.
We were driven out by our cameraman, a good old French poseur with his 4X4 jeep, army camouflage boots and stubble. Malcolm crow-barred the padlock off one of the gates. As we made our way in amongst the graves our macho cameraman took fright and ran for his life, but Malcolm persevered, leading me deeper with a torch. I wasn’t bothered. I’m pretty good in the dark. When he found the large, graffiti-covered mausoleum, Malcolm climbed on top and called out to the spirit world.
‘Jim? It’s Malcolm here, Malcolm McLaren. I’m doing this song, and I want to do it in your style, about Père Lachaise and the cats pissing on your sepulchre. I wondered if you minded.’ He turned back to me. ‘I’m fucking petrified!’
‘Sing the song to him,’ I said.
‘Okay.’ So he started, his eerie quiet feint voice ringing through the silence of the graveyard. that’s commitment.
The next icon on Malcolm’s list was Francoise Hardy, the French singer whose voice and visage virtually every young man in England and America was masturbating to back in the Sixties. We arrived at her flat to find it all black; black walls, black carpets, black stairs, black blinds, black furniture, black cups and black saucers. She was also wearing black.
‘You’re going to have to take over in here, mate,’ Malcolm told me, ‘I can’t see a fucking thing. It’s all black. What’re you all in black for?’ he demanded of the puzzled Francoise.
‘It’s the colour my husband and I….’
‘Who’s your husband then?’
‘Oh my God, that posy git!’
I could tell he was not endearing himself to her. Her husband was a well-known left wing satirist, singer and song-writer in Paris who was, quite frankly, a bit of a posy git, always wearing a leather jacket, leather trousers, winklepickers and sunglasses, and smoking huge Cuban cigars. The sort of outfit a man in his fifties can only get away with if he lives in Paris, a city where fat, ageing, gout-ridden pop star, Johnny Halliday, still rides around town on a BMW bike, but has to be lifted on and off by his minders. God knows what happens if he meets a stop light.
Francoise agreed to work with us but after a while she threw Malcolm out and insisted on talking only with me, who she referred to as “ce charmant Irlandais”.
‘I think we should do it in the bedroom,’ she said, once Malcolm had departed, something which I find a surprising number of women say to me. So that is what we did. The problem for me, of course, was that in my mind’s eye, as I sat holding her hand on the bed, listening to her talk, she was still the same young girl that I remembered from the Sixties, when pictures of her in jeans and long sweaters, with the wide, generous mouth and heavy fringe of hair were all part of my early love-affair with France. I couldn’t see any of the ravages of the subsequent years and consequently spent the whole time with an erection.
Undaunted, as usual, by the banishment, Malcolm re-appeared a few hours later. When he next left Francoise took my hands once more.
‘Listen,’ she said, ‘I want to do this, but I am terrified by this man.’
‘A lot of people are terrified of Malcolm,’ I said.
‘Can’t I just do this with you?’
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘I promise. I’ll come and pick you up tomorrow morning at half past ten. I’ll tell Malcolm that the session is at twelve thirty.’
The next morning we went to the studio and Francoise broke down into tears. The vocal booth upstairs doubled as a bedroom, so she sat on the bed and told me the whole tortured story of how she had been abandoned as a child by her charismatic English hobo of a father. Then she told me how she had been misquoted by a journalist nine years before and the whole of France had branded her a racist. women have always told me everything, it seems. All the time she was talking I could feel time marching on and Malcolm’s arrival growing imminent.
‘Isn’t there anyone you can ring?’ I asked, desperate to snap her out of it and get her singing.
‘What do you mean?’ she asked.
‘I don’t have a boyfriend,’ she bridled. ‘I’m married.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous. You’re a Parisian, You must have a boyfriend.’
‘Well, actually, there is someone i could ring. . but he’s coming here in half an hour.’
‘Can’t you ring him and talk to him.’
So she rang this man and told him how she was pouring her heart out to “ce charmant Irlandais.” Malcolm was now less than an hour away, but the ‘friend’ turned up first, highly suspicious of seeing his grande amie sitting on a bed with a strange man, but we managed to get two good takes of the wonderful, wobbly voice, with me coaxing her through the song in English, a language she had never sung in before, by the time Malcolm breezed in with five new versions written out on the backs of envelopes.
Francoise started backing away round the bed as Malcolm advanced, thrusting the envelopes at her and talking non-stop in English.
‘Who the fuck are you?’ he demanded, suddenly spotting the boyfriend for the first time.
‘I am Francoise’s friend.’
‘Oh, that’s marvelous. Just drop in why don’t you? Any bunch of fucking chancers who happen to be in Paris! Sod off!’
The boyfriend ran for his life, taking refuge downstairs, leaving poor Francoise cowering in the corner, assuring us that she couldn’t sing any of these versions.
‘You’ve gotta have a go, Francoise,’ Malcolm kept assuring her.
Eventually I persuaded him to give her a break and let her go downstairs to talk to her boyfriend. Once she was out of the room I played the tapes to him, telling him that she had changed her schedule at the last minute and turned up early.
He cocked his head to one side as he listened. ‘Well that’s marvellous then, isn’t it,’ he said when I’d finished. ‘Job done.’
‘Yup,’ I agreed,
‘So what are we hanging around here for, then? Let’s go.’
And we headed off to find Catherine Deneuve.
We had been told in no uncertain terms that Catherine Deneuve does not sing. But that is not the sort of thing that puts Malcolm off. Her manager had assured him she wouldn’t sing for him, but Malcolm convinced him that Juliette Greco, Jeanne Morreau and Francoise Hardy were all going to be on the record, so Catherine would be conspicuous by her absence. Assured that we would do nothing to make her look bad, the management caved in. Once again we were off to visit someone who was in her twenties last time I was able to see properly. The piano player we were working with had written out the bare bones of an idea for her to rap over a track. She did it brilliantly, if not quite in time, but timing can always be manipulated in the studio. Her voice was absolutely edible. This woman did not get to be an icon by chance.
Deneuve has always had a reputation in France for being a bit of an ice maiden sexually. Within ten minutes of arriving she was telling anyone and everyone that she had always thought of herself as frigid but that she had a new boyfriend and had discovered sex at the age of 52. Were we going to be long, she wanted to know, because she was hoping to rush off and meet him.
Having recorded the main rap very well, she was standing in the studio with her headphones on when Malcolm sneaked into the booth behind her and sat himself down. Like many stars, she had asked to have the lights turned out in the studio while she worked, so none of us saw him enter. We did another take and as we got to the middle bit of the number Malcolm’s distinctive north-London voice chipped in. ‘Come on Catherine, sing away.’
‘My God, no, I can’t sing!’ she protested.
‘Come on,’ he chirped, ‘sing away.’ And started to croon himself. ‘Paris, Paris, Paris.’
She hesitantly started to join in with him and then gave up again. ‘No, I can’t sing.’
‘Come on,’ he kept on as she went back to talking the lines.
Later that night I fitted this little piece of dialogue between them into an open section in the music when the rhythm stopped for a while, putting a romantic string backing around it, giving their voices a coquettish, teasing sound, like two lovers in a movie.
The next day we took the tape to play to her manager.
‘Forget it,’ he said. ‘She’ll never let that out.’
I wasn’t so sure. We went round to see her, unannounced, and asked if we could play her something. We held our breaths as she listened to the track in silence. We reached the end.
‘It’s great,’ she said. ‘I love it. Now go away.’
I always think that Malcolm epitomises the saying, “Who dares wins”.