Evariste aux fans: interview with Hero Culte part one

evaristeÉvariste (aka Joël Sternheimer), December 2012, photograph by David Tinkham of Datapanik Design

It’s not very long since I discovered the music of Évariste so this has all moved very quickly indeed but I have been most fortunate in tracking down Évariste and getting an interview with him in Paris.  It happened on a very wet and very cold day in early December 2012, in the office of Évariste’s alter ego Joël Sternheimer.  For the first time in  my life – and I have been there many, many times before – I got lost in Paris and arrived late, wet and feeling slightly sick with worry that I might have missed my chance for an interview after travelling all the way from England to France especially to meet my new French music hero.  In the event it turned out fine – the interview took place in English (for which I was most grateful!) and I found Mr Sternheimer very shy but also very talkative, which was just how I imagined he would be.  Here, finally, is part one of the interview, which I think should be called The Pete Seeger Story, you’ll see why:

Hero Culte (HC):  I understand you were 23 when you first auditioned with AZ…

Évariste (E):  Yes

HC:  But when did you first start writing songs and singing?

E:  Writing songs, in fact already as a teenager and as soon as I could have a tape recorder, which was something I asked my parents repeatedly for and they were saying, “Well, it will come and it will go like that…”  But I insisted so much that in the end I got one – Geloso, Italian one tape – and then I started to, since I could record, to make some songs.  Later I bought a guitar – there were also the cassette recorders which came out.  And then I really started, but I was already past twenty something.

Evariste Tilt Feb 67 18

Évariste’s tape recorder, as seen in Tilt-Magazine, February 1967

HC:  I’ve read that you were a bit of a child prodigy, that you were really intelligent and had your PhD when you were 23…

E:  I had a doctorate in theoretical physics, oui.

HC:  Also I read that you learnt to speak Hebrew in 15 days!

E:  Well, I took courses during 15 days, but it’s okay.  Technical conversation would be difficult but daily conversation is okay.  I’m from a Jewish family with no father because of shoah, holocaust you call it, and so that took the thing in a certain direction…

HC:  I have another story to ask you about, and that’s that I read somewhere that you sang with Pete Seeger in America in front of Martin Luther King and an audience of a million or so, is this true?

E:  This is true.  It was in April 15 1967…

HC:  How did it happen?

E:  Ah! It was a… well, the story takes a few steps…  After the doctorate I was invited to Princeton to work with a great specialist in my field – Eugene Wigner, a well-known physicist, a specialist in group theory, which I had to get more acquainted with than I already was.  And I was offered to be his assistant, so I took the ship in August 1966 – Pacquebot France – which took 4½ days.  When the boat left France I had my invitation and assistantship in my pocket and when the boat reached the United States I learned that there was a whole turmoil in the University because there were what was called “monetary restrictions” because of the war; the assistantship with Wigner didn’t exist anymore.

Evariste Tilt Feb 67 9

I was offered another [assistantship], but I was perhaps maybe a little spoilt child and I soon realised that the direction in which the research would proceed was not the one I was intending in the beginning or was invited for.  And after a few days I declined the assistantship, so I had the problem of how could I live – how could I make a living?

There was a French speaking professor, Maurice Bazin, who said to me, “Well, look you’ve long hair, I’ve heard that you are musically inclined – why don’t you cut a record and this way you will be able to do the research in the direction which you like?”

Evariste Tilt Feb 67 11

HC:  Did you already have your hair in the Évariste style, long on one side and short on the other?

E:  It was long, it wasn’t really intended to be the style – it was, you know, the time of Beatlemania and Lennon and McCartney’s way of having long hair.  And it wasn’t really intended, but not long after when I cut a record they made the sleeve of the record and there was some hair that went down the eye [in the photograph] and so, you know how they are, they said, “Well! That’s it!”


HC:  But then did you cut it so it was short on one side and long on the other?

E:  Ah! You remember how Lennon and McCartney combed their hair? They had it this way round, so I just put the connection with the political situation and I translated it: left ahead and right back.  And so made it mod and rocker.  That was a joke, but there was some political intention with this!

I had left the story where it was, when that professor told me, “Well, you have long hair why don’t you sing.”  And he knew that I was musically inclined and making some songs for myself. And I started thinking about it.  I did a trial in Gerde’s Folk City in Washington Square in New York where they auditioned wanna-be talents and I sang a few of my songs there and the boss came and said, “Well, you should go on.”  Of course, the reception was rather polite because I sang in French but… except a song called Herzl Rent A Car!  But he said, “You should go on, there’s something; you’ve got something”, and that made me think.

It happened that it was on the Tuesday afternoon and that I had dropped a course which I was supposed to attend; more precisely, Tuesday afternoon conferences in the Institute for Advanced Study.  And so I had gone there and missed it for a couple of weeks and then gone back and [J. Robert] Oppenheimer who was the Head had seen this, and at the end of the conference came to see me to ask me what was happening.  And so I told him about the situation, of which he was very well aware.

Oppenheimer was obviously very aware of the situation and apparently he had guessed that it was connected with [the assistantship].  And so I told him about my situation and what Bazin had said and that I was really thinking of being independent in my research; I was taking it seriously.  And then I saw Oppenheimer whose face was… well, he was already very ill but from the image I had of him from the outside I somehow connected it with guilt about Hiroshima.  That’s what I felt.  And as a matter of fact, other people who saw him at the same time had the same impression.  And when I told him that I was thinking of becoming independent he told me, “Ah!” I saw his face lightened; like hope coming back, like life coming back to his face.  And he said, “If you think you may find a way to become independent, do it! If I was your age now, that’s what I would do.”  That’s what he told me, the Father of “Big Science”.

And so I really thought about it and for the winter holidays we had vacation and I came back to France.  I had some friends in the recording business; I had already, as a matter of fact, had an audition before, but then this time I called my friends and said, “Well, I would like to see if it might work.”  In fact Lucien Morisse, who was the head of AZ Records, was very enthusiastic.  Gérard Woog had seen me and he was [Morisse’s] Artistic Director – he said, “Well, I am completely amazed!  I can’t take a decision by myself, so let’s go see Lucien.”  Lucien Morisse was enthusiastic and so we cut a record in a couple of days.  Just like that!

It was in between December 20-somethingth and January 1st.  And I even went out of the recording studio to take the plane back to the States and I forgot my guitar!  So that’s why I bought a new one in the Princeton University store, which Pete Seeger signed later.

Evariste Tilt Feb 67 14

But then what happened was that near the end of the month I saw a whole crowd coming, Paris Match and Télé 7 Jours and television and so on, because the record was a hit in France.  And I was very surprised about it.  I came back [to France] for two weeks in February for this reason…

Evariste Tilt Feb 67 5

HC:  Which TV show did you appear on?

E:  That one was Tilt Magazine by Michèle Arnaud, who was the producer.

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HC:  I saw a clip of Connaistu l’animal qui inventa le calcul intégral but I wasn’t sure which show it was on.  I have Dim Dam Dom

E:  Ah! Dim Dam Dom is another one.  One of the first colour TV shows – this was a few months later.

Evariste Wo I Nee 3

HC:  Were you on any other shows as well?

E:  O yes! I have a whole list at home…

HC:  Wow! Send me the list so I can try and find the shows [HC Note: He did and I did find some of them, see here].  When I first saw you, it was on Dim Dam Dom, and I was just amazed – “Who is this Evariste?!”  Especially in the context of the show because you were so different to everything else…

E:  That is so nice!

HC:  Then after that I saw the clip of you doing Connais-tu l’animal…, which was just wonderful.  How did you develop your performance, with the (making bad attempt at doing the leg under the arm thing Évariste used to do)?

Evariste Vient de paraitre 18

E:  Ah! At that time, I could do it.  Not anymore!

HC:  But it’s very physical and exciting to watch, because it’s so… strange.  Did you perform any other songs apart from Wo i nee and Connais-tu l’animal on TV?

E:  O yes, there were several.

HC:  I have to find them!  Did you know that somebody had released an album of your songs?

E:  I have seen this; it is a pirate album of course.  I have seen this but…

Evariste Do You Know The Beast LP

The bootleg album…

HC:  It’s created a bit of interest in you on the internet, with people writing about you and your music – people referring to you as a genius and so on.  Some have been likening you to Kim Fowley, do you know Kim Fowley?

E:  Erm…

HC:  He was an American musician, he did quite a lot of unusual records; he was kind of… slightly outrageous for his time in the ‘60s.  Well, they compare you to him, but I think you’re better than that anyway.  I just wondered what you thought of the comparison…

About your lyrical inspiration, from what I could work out – I’m not fluent in French, I’m fairly good but I don’t understand everything – it seems to be a lot about mathematics, the moon and Antoine and Jacques Dutronc.  Was that a comment on the pop scene at the time or did you not like them…?

E:  Not at all.  I mean that thing, which has perhaps been misunderstood was a reference to a mathematical theorem which is called Gödel’s theorem – you may have heard of it…

HC:  [looking blank]

E:  …it states that from the inside of a system, you can’t prove that it is not contradictory.  And on these grounds there is an ideology that you should describe something from outside, which for me is quite contradictory to what I learned as a Jewish boy in the Pesach – Passover – holiday.  In the seder Passover one says: What is the difference between the wise and the bad?  The wise look at things from inside and the bad look from outside.  So I was a bit upset with the way the theorem was applied.  The demonstration relies on sentences which are so-called proto-descriptive; which talk about themselves.  And, so, I made this sentence:  Ce que je pense d’Antoine et de Jacques Dutronc… It’s a sentence, which starts with C and ends with on.  And Ça commence par C, ça finit par on, also starts with c and ends with on… So that’s what it was intended to mean, nothing more than that – the sentence is auto-descriptive.  But that was not at all understood!

HC:  That’s very clever!  But there’s some other references as well, like, how did you manage to relate La chasse au boson intermédiaire back to Antoine and Dutronc as well?  Mais où sont donc passés Antoine et Jacques Dutronc…”?

E:  This was in the second record, and so it was a reference to the first one!

HC:  I thought maybe you really hated them!

E:  No, not at all.  As a matter of fact although I never met Antoine, I had him once on the ‘phone and I thanked him for having paved the way for the recording companies…

HC:  Because he was an engineering student, wasn’t he?

E:  He was an engineer, yeah, at an engineering school.

HC:  Because I was thinking when listening to the records that it would seem odd if you didn’t like them…

E:  No, I loved them!  On the contrary, I was very excited by the song Élucubrations.  On the contrary, I loved that.

HC:  Yes, because I thought that with Jacques Dutronc, he might have actually appealed to you because although he was very handsome and kind of conventional in his appearance, the lyrics he sang were sort of at odds with his appearance because they were very caustic and kind of critical of certain parts of society.  For example, with Et moi, et moi, et moi

E:  Ah! Dutronc, that is the game that he played.

HC:  And Antoine too, I know some people were dismissive of him and said he was a bit of a novelty act or that he was not too talented, but I really admire him – he has some clever lyrics, things like Pourquoi ces canons particularly, which is a lovely song that goes round back on itself…

E:  I heard him once say that he has a magical power and he took his harmonica and [hums harmonica line from Elucubrations] everybody around says, “Oh, yeah!”

But I had started to answer your first question and…

HC:  [Somehow rather rudely talking over Évariste and asking a question despite the fact he wanted to return to the Pete Seeger story…]  I wondered as well that you had created this personality for yourself as a performer, calling yourself Évariste, and I know why you called yourself Évariste, but was it…

E:  This was because when the occasion came to make a record I had to find a name – at that time, they used stupid names, you know.  I was talking about it to a young fellow student who was an École normale supérieure student, and he said why not Évariste referring to Évariste Galois.  And that’s how it came.

Evariste Paris Match 2a

HC:  Another mathematics reference.  And I wondered if it was a reference to… you mention Nicolas Bourbaki in Wo i nee, and that was also a creative personage…

E:  They were several personages! But one of them was Claude Chevalley who was the Director of the Maths Department in the Université de Vincennes after May ’68 and I taught there for a while.  But, anyway, with Bourbaki we learned the little bit of mathematics that we know.

HC:  I wanted to ask you as well, you wrote all the music but when you recorded it was orchestrated by Michel Colombier…

E:  That’s right.

HC:  How did that happen?

E:  Because he was orchestrator at AZ Records for Lucien Morisse and so we met – this was arranged by the recording company – and he liked it.  I remember the question I asked which was a special question at that time for a recording, I asked him, “What can we do so that the batterie [drums] are heard as poum poum and not as tak tak?”  And he said, “Well, that’s our problem!”

And when the song Calcul intégral was recorded, when I was singing the song myself I was just doing one chord – that’s all I knew, Em – and I was hitting the guitar.  Hitting the guitar with my [knuckles], like that [demonstrates it on the table].  And so he got inspired by that and superposed to the batterie [drums], somebody who was alone in the cabin and who did that [makes gesture of rapping knuckles] on the guitar, and that made the sounds special for the time.

HC:  And do you remember who was in the band?

E:  Yes, Michel Colombier was director; there was Francis Darizcuren; Raymond Gimenez; at the organ was Eddy Louiss, who become famous also as an organist; in the choir there were several chorists, one of them became very well-known, Danielle Licari, who sang ba-da-ba-ba-da-ba-da-ba-da-ba-da-ba…, that Concerto pour une voix by Saint-Preux.  Saint-Preux is today a friend, that’s funny.

HC:  And did you ever do any concerts or live performances?

E:  Yes, at that time, yes.  But maybe we should start the story where we left it – you asked me about Pete Seeger and I didn’t finish the story… so, it was bad things that were happening in the United States in the end of fall of 1966, which were somehow connected with the Vietnam war.  And Maurice Bazin was actually a Leftist activist and he had given me this advice, because he hoped that it would open my political consciousness; that’s what he said to me after.  And what I didn’t know at that time was what really happened, because this has been known partly – but very partly – when the Pentagon Papers appeared and fully, or at least more fully, recently after [Robert] McNamara, who was involved, passed away.

And what happened in reality is that the American government had asked some bright physicists to collaborate with them for the war.  The thing was that McNamara had been appointed by [John F] Kennedy and he was not in a very good agreement with [Lyndon B] Johnson, who took over, and so to keep in with Kennedy’s idea to take the best and the brightest and so on, he had the idea to ask the physics community if they could imagine more modern weapons that could take over the bombings in North Vietnam, which in his eye was inefficient and of course very costly.  And several agreed to cooperate, others did not – and that was the so-called Jason division.

The story is told well in the Pentagon Papers, partly, because there was a bunch of physicists who suggested to use many things which were futuristic at the time –  a barrier called the McNamara Fence, which would be protected by lasers and so on.  [Charles] Townes – one of the inventors of laser – was one of the people who made suggestions, and also one of them, we don’t know who, suggested to use cluster bombs: BLU-26, bombs made of bombs.  These were immediately used by the military who had not really thought about it before.

And these bombs were dropped on North Vietnam.  Many are still there because very often the bomblets do not explode and so they are like mines and still kill.  It was recognised by the Oslo Convention a few years ago as a war crime, but it’s a very difficult situation…  And that was what I declined to go to, by dropping the assistantship.


It happened that some people who had accepted were indeed among the brightest, and there were others who didn’t accept.  And Wigner was amongst them – Oppenheimer also – and the story was that this way I met them and Wigner was very happy at what I had done by refusing another assistantship.  I didn’t know why, but later I could understand.

But maybe perhaps the worst thing of all is that the administration had a filter, I don’t know, that dropped some names of people who were supposed to have been in contact with the Jasons themselves.  And they were very much assaulted by the Leftists who said, “Well, you have been collaborating….”  And these people said, “Why? What?  What are you talking about?”  The thing is that in fact the administration had dropped out the names of those who had said no.  And they kept secret until very recently, when it was declassified, the people who really did collaborate.  I would have been involved in that if I had said yes, and that’s what I said no to.  This was on two grounds; on the ground of scientific disagreement, and on the grounds of, I would say, personal sympathy for people who were in this category of saying no.  And this, what I told you, I just discovered recently on the internet because the people [who] really were [involved] had spoken a little bit of the report of the end of August 1966, which long classified had been declassified with the new presidency.


HC:  The Pete Seeger concert?

E:  And, so, I was contacted by the Leftists and, you know, in August 1966 the opposition against the Vietnam war was a minority – but a few months later it became nearly a majority of people.  On April 15th 1967 there was a huge demonstration which was organised in front of United Nations with all the people converging there.  Martin Luther King was indeed there and Pete Seeger had asked me to be with him, in a car which was going down the avenue, and to sing together with him.  And he also asked me to sing the song Le Déserteur by Boris Vian.

And, as a matter of fact, my song Calcul intégral, which starts with French and English was inspired by the English version of Le Déserteur by Peter, Paul and Mary.  So, you know: Messieurs qu’on nomme grand / Men whose names are great, as they were singing, and which was after Monsieur le Président, as Boris Vian had sung.  And to have French and English at the beginning was borrowed from that.  So, indeed, we sang together with Pete Seeger the Boris Vian song; happy to know that we sang together because I didn’t know the chords!

HC:  Why did you make so few records?  Did you decide to stop or was it because you were concentrating on your research?

E:  Two reasons combined: first one, when May ’68 burst out, on the contrary to what happened in the United States where I was like “Fabrice at Waterloo” – that’s an expression in French coming from Le Rouge et le Noir by Stendhal – that the soldier in the war couldn’t understand what was happening.  It was resented, it was felt, so in the United States I didn’t really understand what was happening besides the fact there were demonstrations against the war.  And in May ’68 there was no war, and there were even critics who said that this happened because there was no war!  But it was evident there was something deep, in that it was something with a quite different meaning.  So I was involved in May ’68, and cut a few songs, and Lucien Morisse could not release it within AZ because it was too political.  But he gave the authorisation; he gave the permission to do it, by myself, in self-production together with the musicians and other people.  And, as a matter of fact, it was as far as I know what started self-produced records in France and elsewhere too.  As far as I know.

evariste-la revolution-front cover

So that was already half a step away from the majors.  And the other thing, then, that played a definitive part was when Lucien Morisse committed suicide in 1970.  And you know I had no father?  When I found Lucien Morisse, he was like a father – we had a very intense relationship.  And so when he died, well… I didn’t cut records after that.

I still went on singing in the 70’s because there was the anti-nuclear movement in France – I sang there, with some success because there were some which were abandoned.  But then what happened in 1977 was there was a demonstration against the Creys-Malville [Superphénix] breeder reactor in France, where there was a demonstrator – a physics professor – who was killed.  And one of the policemen who protected the reactor had his right hand taken away.  From this I made the connection with the psalm 137 in the Bible, which you may know: “If I forget thee Jerusalem, may my right hand forget me.”  And I said, well, there is something forgotten in the understanding of matter which was imposed over populations and the real work is in physics to correct what is missing.  Then I really started to go back completely on physics.  It was at the end of ’77.

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That’s where we leave the Évariste interview for now – don’t worry, he may have been talking about the end of his recording career here but there is much more to come in Part Two very soon!  Sincerest thanks to Évariste for giving me so much time for the interview and thanks also to David Tinkham for the moral support and the photograph!

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Polnapop – La Poupee qui fait non x 6

One of the reasons I decided to do this blog was because as an English fan of French music I find I have very few people to talk to about my record and memorabilia collection; whilst quite a few people may have heard of Serge Gainsbourg, all they seem to know about him is the Whitney Houston story or, worse still, they have this idea that he was some kind of sex dwarf (even though he wasn’t short!).  It pains me greatly to hear what people think they know about him – they’re always wrong – and Joann Sfar’s film Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque) did not exactly help in that respect.  But I’ll get onto that some other time, because this first post is not actually about Gainsbourg; it’s about Michel Polnareff.  And if British people know very little about Gainsbourg, then unfortunately they know even less about Polnareff.  Well, there’s good news because I know loads about him and I can get it off my chest here.

Polnareff is still around and (supposedly) recording today, but for me the music he made in the 60s and 70s is the best of all.  So we’ll start at the beginning when Michel Polnareff was only 21 years old and he released his first EP La poupée qui fait non in May 1966.  I am using a number of sources of information for this article (see the end of this article for details) and you may well notice that some of the information – coming from Polnareff himself – contradicts other information; what can I say?  Polnamyth or Polnamythomane maybe?

La poupée qui fait non / Chère Véronique / Beatnik / Ballade pour toi (Ce que je cherche est en toi)

(Disc’AZ EP 1024, May 1966)

Polna poupee001

Back in May 1965 Polnareff was living the beatnik life, homeless, often starving (he claims that he once went 13 days and nights without eating a thing), and generally slumming it on the streets of Montmartre busking with his guitar or playing piano at La Crémaillère or the Clan d’Estaing to earn some money.

During this period he met an English girl called Sue who spoke with a lisp (I don’t know why that’s important, but Polnareff mentioned it so I am mentioning it too!).  She was hanging out at Montmartre with her mother, listening to Polnareff and his friends playing their music – she told him that if he should ever go to London, he should stay with them.  He took Sue at her word and later that year went to London, staying for five months (according to Polnaréflexion) or one month (according to Polnareff par Polnareff), even though, as he put it, he found her apartment “sordid, not clean”.  But beggars can’t be choosers, I guess.

Whilst in London he visited Soho, Kings Road, and Carnaby Street, and tried his hand at selling some of his compositions to publishers in Denmark Street.  Polnareff says he went door-to-door introducing himself and his music:  “Voilà, I’m French, I write, I sing… …I must have seemed strange with my way of insisting on my talent and the big career that was waiting for me.”  But nothing doing…  One of the companies who turned him down was Southern, apparently.

Then in November 1965 Polnareff was presented with a chance to earn himself a recording career when he entered a talent competition at La Locomotive – the first prize was a contract with Barclay.    The finals took place on 12 February 1966 and, yes, Polnareff won – in one version of the story, Polnareff says it was with his versions of Peggy Sue and That’ll Be The Day (Polnareff par Polnareff) and in another he says it was with one of his own compositions called Second Hand Girl (Salut Les Copains, No 69, April 1968).  But did Polnareff want the prize?  No, he said he didn’t want to be a singer and he was only singing for his own amusement.  What?!!

The plot thickens on this one as Polnareff says in Polnaréflexion that he refused the prize and so it went to a singer called Alan Shelley who came second place; in Polnareff par Polnareff he says that he refused the prize and offered it to his friend Cyril Azzam who came in second place; elsewhere in Polnareff Le Roi des Fourmis Christian Eudeline quotes Jacques Mercier (Dynastie Crisis) who was there, as rhythm guitarist of les Rockers (the band who were accompanying the acts in the competition) – he said that Alan Shelley, who came second, took the prize in the end and that Polnareff was already recording his first single but had not told anyone else about it at the time.  In Salut Les Copains (No 69, April 1968) Polnareff indicates that it was a few months after turning down the Barclay contract that he was picked up by Éditions SEMI when a representative of theirs heard him singing on the streets.  But this is just not possible…

Given that the final of the competition took place on 12 February 1966 and that by early March Polnareff was in London recording with Jean Bouchety, I’d say Jacques Mercier’s version of events could well be right.  But how did this other contract and arrangements for the recording come about?

According to Polnareff’s school friend Gérard Woog, he introduced Polnareff to Lucien Morisse who was CEO at Disc’AZ and Programme Director at Europe 1.  Woog also worked as a talent scout for Rolf Marbot of Éditions SEMI (Société d’édition Musicale Internationale), which represented the entire Peer-Southern catalogue in France.  Woog convinced Polnareff to sign a contract with them, although apparently Polnareff wasn’t keen on the idea.

In Polnaréflexion Polnareff says that “a spectator” at one of his busking sessions at Sacré-Cœur asked him: “Don’t you want to record a single?” He says this “spectator” introduced him to Rolf Marbot and although Rolf Marbot was not too interested in what he heard, his female colleagues were absolutely thrilled.  In Polnareff par Polnareff the spectator is named as Woog and Rolf Marbot’s female colleagues are named as Huguette Ferly, Christiane Landrieux and the lyricist Vline Buggy; Polnareff says they were convinced he would become “a phenomenon”.

Huguette Ferly, who was the Artistic Director for Éditions SEMI, then introduced Polnareff to Jean Bouchety.  Bouchety was an arranger / producer who had played with the likes of Django Reinhardt in the 1940s and went on to arrange and produce for acts ranging from les Chausettes Noires, to Vince Taylor, and Jacqueline Taïeb of 7 heures du matin fame.  I also understand he may have been responsible for some of the music used in Prisoner Cell Block H – if so, you bloody ripper, Mr Bouchety!

Jean Bouchety (left, sitting) and Michel Polnareff (right, dozing on settee)

Bouchety was then working as an arranger for Barclay – the company that offered Polnareff a contract when he won the competition at La Locomotive – and Ferly asked him if he would consider working with Polnareff on his first single, which was to be La poupée qui fait non. 

Polnareff went to see Bouchety a few times and they recorded demos so Bouchety could work on the arrangements and lyricists could be brought in to work on the texts.  In Polnaculte Franck Gérald, who was roped in to write the lyrics for La poupée qui fait non, recalled meeting Polnareff at the time and noticing that he looked to be suffering from malnutrition, with bad teeth and skin so see-through that the veins were very prominent.

But despite being given this opportunity to make something of himself and to build a career in music, Polnareff seemed to be making demands over and above those usually indulged in as yet unproven talents.  Polnareff claimed that he insisted he would only record in England; in Polnaréflexion he says he told Rolf Marbot: “I’m not interested in singing in France.  In any case, I won’t stay here.  France is not ready for my music.  Listen, no, I’m sorry… I really prefer to go and work in England or America…”  But in Christian Eudeline’s Polnareff Le Roi des Fourmis (ECLIPSE Editions, 1997) Bouchety says he was in the habit of recording in London and so arrangements were made for the recording to take place there.  Polnareff had to meet Bouchety in London as he couldn’t bear to fly and so he travelled alone by boat.

The EP was recorded in March 1966 in the basement at Southern Music Studios on Denmark Street.  Polnareff didn’t play any instruments on the tracks.  Bouchety, not realising that Polnareff was a gifted and classically trained musician, wrote the sheet music for the tracks and called in Big Jim Sullivan to play rhythm guitar; Jimmy Page to play lead guitar; Reg Guest to play piano; and Bobby Graham to play the drums.  Although Bouchety couldn’t recall who else participated with the recordings, Polnareff says that John Paul Jones played the bass guitar.  Recording took one week, recording the music for the 4 tracks in one session; the vocals in another session; and the mixing took place in the final session.

But elsewhere Polnareff mentions in Salut Les Copains (no 69) that he had his guitar with him in the studio :  “I was scared to death but I knew what I wanted.  I had bought myself a twelve-string Hagstrom guitar, and I was very intimidated by the idea of playing in the company of experienced studio musicians like Big Jim Sullivan and Larry (sic) Page.  But it didn’t stop me from insisting on a [distorted] bass sound for the recording of La poupée qui fait non; from asking Big Jim Sullivan to play with his nails hitting all the notes; and asking Larry (sic) Page not to plug in his electric guitar.  Ah!  Let me tell you as well that all that took place in a studio 3 metres by 5 metres that was usually used for preparing Donovan’s demos and for his rehearsals.”

But if Rolf Marbot was ever annoyed by Polnareff’s supposed demands – recording only in London; his insistence that he be put up in “the biggest suite in the finest hotel” – then he wouldn’t have stayed annoyed for long as La poupée was a massive hit immediately, being played several times a day on all the radio stations in France and selling 200,000 copies in just two months.

In Polnaréflexion, Polnareff declares it was a worldwide success.  Not quite – even though Polnareff recorded the track in English as No, No, No, No, No, I’m afraid to say that it did nothing to light up the charts here.  Copies of the single in English are so scarce that it took me about 15 years to get hold of a copy (thanks to my lovely boyfriend who somehow tracked it down for me when I told him it was on my “most wanted” list).

One of the complaints I’ve had about my record collection is that it is essentially the same records over and over again with little variety; I don’t see what is wrong with that myself though.  Yes, I do have 6 copies of La poupée qui fait non on vinyl but they’re all different – here are the other 5 versions I have:

Italian language versions of La poupée qui fait non / Beatnik (Disc’AZ, J 35102X45)

Spanish issue of La poupée qui fait non EP, with Spanish titles but sung in French (Hispavox, HAZ 277-16)

German language versions of La poupée qui fait non / Beatnik (Disc’AZ, HT 300 019)

Dutch issue of La poupée qui fait non / Beatnik, sung in French (Palette, PB 40 261)

English language versions of La poupée qui fait non / Beatnik (Disques Vogue, VRS 7013)

But for those who have never listened to Polnareff before, what are the songs like?  And why would anyone want 6 copies of this rather fine single / EP?  Well, can I just pass on some advice first of all that you should get the vinyl EP or the vinyl version of the first Polnareff LP rather than any of the remastered CD versions, which have been “tidied” up, as the original versions are far superior; especially when it comes to the more garagey type tracks like Time Will Tell, which features on Polnareff’s third EP so won’t be discussed just yet…

Anyway, here’s a little bit of information about the tracks on the La poupée EP:

La poupée qui fait non:  A folk-pop song about an unrequited love; a girl who only says no to Polnareff and hasn’t yet learnt how to say yes!  He finds her very pretty and dreams about her but she doesn’t even listen to him or look at him, she just says no.  One of many songs where Polnareff complains about a girl not loving or wanting him.  The lyrics for this one were written by Franck Gérald, who worked as an in-house writer for Rolf Marbot’s SEMI.  Gérald says that in his demo version, Polnareff did not have any real lyrics and just sang sounds and English words like “you yeah”, which Gérald turned into la poupée (the doll), and “no, no, no, no, no”, which he turned into qui fait non (who shakes her head, or says no).  But in an interview in Mademoiselle age tendre (no 42)Polnareff said that the inspiration for the title to the song came from an incident that occurred in London – the story going something like this: he was in an antiques shop in London and he saw a very beautiful girl.  When she came in the shop he had been looking at a jointed doll made of jade.  As he was thinking about what he might say to the beautiful girl to get to see her again, he looked at the doll and its head appeared to move in a gesture that said ‘no’.  When he turned around the beautiful girl had gone and he never saw her again.   Franck Gérald also recalls the doll shop story in Polnaculte and says that it’s “totally false”!

Chère Véronique:  A pop song sung in the style of Buddy Holly or Adam Faith, with a sound similar to Trini Lopez’s If I Had a Hammer.  Another of Polnareff’s “poor me, she doesn’t love me” songs.  This one takes the form of a letter to an unrequited love called Véronique.  He tells her that he doesn’t want her to laugh when she reads what he has to say, but he dare not say it.  In fact he really doesn’t dare to say it because by the end of the song he has ripped up and burnt the letter so she will now never get to read it; she doesn’t get to hear about his love for her and how at night-time in his dreams he is able to touch her fingers, her loose hair and her blueberry eyes, but that the reality of the morning snatches her away from him.  In the letter he tells her how he spends the summer watching her from the branches of a tree; that he dreams of hearing her singing his song (an indication that the words are written for someone who is himself a singer); that the very next day he is having to go away to forget about her.  The irony of him singing that she will never get to read his letter is that presumably “Véronique” will get to hear this song and will know he loves her anyway.  So was this song autobiographical at all?  Erm, let’s hope not as Véronique is the name of the white hamster that sits on his shoulder on the cover of the EP.  Unless of course Véronique the hamster had a namesake, of course?  The lyrics for this one were written by a certain Vline Buggy.  Vline Buggy was in a fact a songwriting duo, comprising Evelyne (Vline) Konyn Koger and Liliane (Buggy) Konyn Koger.  But when Vline died in 1962, Buggy decided to continue writing under the name Vline Buggy, so these lyrics were actually written by Liliane Konyn Koger.  This track wasn’t included on Polnareff’s first album.

Polnareff and his pet hamster Véronique

Beatnik:  This is a song about “a long-haired tramp” who travels around with his twelve-string guitar (a Hagstrom like Polnareff’s? Probably…), singing come what may and looking for friendship, freedom and food.  The music has a kind of 60’s Manchester sound, a bit Hollies-like.  This is the “beatnik” as hero; even if he’s ready to faint from hunger he will still share his bread with a dog.  And “beatnik” as romantic; despite giving off the impression of being wild, a girl will still manage to capture his heart and he will sing endlessly for her because life is sweet when love calls to you.  At least this time he’s not bemoaning the fact that a girl doesn’t love him, I guess!  Again, this is another supposedly autobiographical track, with Polnareff seen as the beatnik character who was starving on the streets and singing to keep things together.  The lyrics were written by Franck Thomas, who was asked to write a text for “a beatnik” who was recording for Rolf Marbot.  Thomas had co-written Syvie Vartan’s 2’35 de bonheur and went on to co-write France Gall’s Bébé requin.  Interestingly, despite what Polnareff says about only wanting to record in England, in Polnaculte Franck Thomas says that although the music for this track was recorded in London, they went to Studio de la Gaieté near Bobino where Polnareff recorded his vocals.  Thomas says that he and Lucien Morisse were present and they were amazed at Polnareff’s talent; the soundman, someone called Roche, declared Polnareff a genius.  As with Chère Véronique, Beatnik was not one of the tracks included on the album.

Ballade de toi (Ce que je cherche est en toi): A folk ballad, with lyrics written by Anne Kopelman. This is a beautiful, sad little song about a relationship which has ended.  It’s about how short life is and how long it takes someone to find you and to realise that what they are looking for is you.  And then despite taking so long to arrive at this point, they so quickly decide to move on, by which time you have begun to realise that what you are looking for is them.  It has a very sad feel to it and lovely lyrics.  Heartbreakingly lovely.

All in all, an excellent EP and even more so when you realise that it was Polnareff’s first experience of recording his own music and singing in a studio setting; and what a special voice he has!

– – 0 – –

The English language version of La poupée has lyrics written by Geoff Stephens, presumably the same one who discovered and managed Donovan and co-wrote The Lights of Cincinnati with Tony Macaulay for Scott Walker; I like to think so.  Anyway, this seems to be a fairly faithful translation other than the acknowledgement he gets as a friend and brother in this version, in comparison with the total indifference he’s met with in the French original:

No no no no no

I give her my love
She says no, no, no, no
I give her my heart
She says no, no, no, no

Cos you’re only a friend to me
Only a brother to me

She’s a pretty little doll
Who says no, no, no, no
Just a little doll
And she knows I love her so

If I ask her to walk with me
She shakes her head at me

She’s a pretty little doll
Who says no, no, no, no
All the night time through
She says no, no, no, no

If I ask her to walk with me
Why can’t she ever say oui?

She says you’re only a friend to me
Only a brother to me

She’s a pretty little doll
Who says no, no, no, no
All the night time through
She says no, no, no, no

If I ask her to walk with me
I know she’ll never say oui

The English language version of Beatnik, with lyrics apparently written by Polnareff as no one else is credited (but I somehow doubt that he wrote them), is a much more pessimistic view of the beatnik life than the French language version.  Whilst the French beatnik would share his bread with a dog even if he was fit to faint himself, the English version gets into trouble with the police for stealing meat for dying dogs; the English beatnik’s mother died when he was “justalittlebaby” (Polnareff has to rush over the words in this verse just to make them fit in!) and his middle name is Lonely, but in the French version “all men are brothers” and he takes friendship with him when he travels the world.

Beatnik (English version)

His hair falls over his eyes
He gets up before sunrise
He’s 17 years, 17 years
They just don’t care
The world belongs to him
The world belongs to him

His mother died when he was just a little baby
His middle name is lonely
Lonely, lonely
They just don’t care
The world belongs to him
The world belongs to him

He gets some bread in his bag
A bottle of wine and a flag
People laugh at him, laugh at him
But they just don’t care
The world belongs to him
The world belongs to him

He ???
But he would fight and die for what he thinks to be true
They laugh at him, laugh at him
But they just don’t care
The world belongs to him
The world belongs to him

The police looked for him, he stole some meat
For a dying dog who had nothing to eat
They looked for him, they looked for him
But they just don’t care
The world belongs to him
The world belongs to him

His hair falls over his eyes
He gets up before sunrise
He’s 17 years, 17 years
They just don’t care
The world belongs to him
The world belongs to him

The world belongs to him (to fade)

If anyone can tell what the missing text is in this version of Beatnik, please let me know as I listened to it several times and just could not make sense of it.

– – 0 – –

Polnareff appeared on TV to perform and promote La poupée qui fait non on the following shows (and probably more):

Vient de paraître, 07.05.66, directed by Janine Guyon

Vient de paraitre 5Vient de paraitre 7Vient de paraitre 11Vient de paraitre 12Vient de paraitre 16Vient de paraitre 17Vient de paraitre 18Vient de paraitre 19

Têtes de bois et tendres années, 25.05.66, directed by André Teisseire

Tete de bois 51Tete de bois 52Tete de bois 53Tete de bois 54Tete de bois 56Tete de bois 58

Discorama, 30.05.66, directed by Raoul Sangla

Discorama May 66 4Discorama May 66 6Discorama May 66 8Discorama May 66 12Discorama May 66 14Discorama May 66 15Discorama May 66 17Discorama May 66 19

Douce France, 16.06.66, directed by François Chatel

Douce France June 66 19Douce France June 66 20Douce France June 66 22Douce France June 66 23Douce France June 66 25Douce France June 66 27Douce France June 66 30

Douches écossaises, 04.07.66, directed by Jean-Christophe Averty

Douches ecossaises 55Douches ecossaises 56Douches ecossaises 57Douches ecossaises 59Douches ecossaises 60

Jeunesse oblige, 16.07.66, directed by Denise Billon

Bienvenue chez Guy Béart, 18.11.66, directed by Raoul Sangla

Michel Polnareff Bienvenue 11Michel Polnareff Bienvenue 12Michel Polnareff Bienvenue 13Michel Polnareff Bienvenue 16Michel Polnareff Bienvenue 18Michel Polnareff Bienvenue 19

There was also an appearance on German TV (show unknown) where Polnareff sang half of the song in German and the other half in French:

And an appearance singing the track in Italian on a show apparently called Chez vous:

La poupée qui fait non – an absolute classic comprising just 3 chords!

The next Polnapop update will be on the subject of the Love Me, Please Love Me EP, but please be patient as I have other heroes to write about on here too…

Postscript August 2013:  Of course I keep accumulating records as I find them, so really this article needs to be renamed as I have more than 6 different copies of La poupée qui fait non now.  Here are a couple more I have added to the collection:

Polna poupee002

Love Me, Please Love Me / La poupée qui fait non 7″ disc AZ, Germany, HT 300022 (note the mis-spelling of poupée)

Polna poupee003

Love Me, Please Love Me / La poupée qui fait non 7″ Metronome, Germany, reissue 1974, M 25.620

Postscript February 2014:  I was recently given a copy of a German pop music magazine called Bravo from 21 November 1966 (number 48) and it includes the lyrics to Meine puppe sagt non, here they are for your sing-along pleasure:

Polna Poupee lyrics001No, the scan’s not wonky – it’s the layout of the page!

Also, it seems I now have all the TV shows mentioned in this article except Jeunesse Oblige – if anyone has this and can sell me a copy or trade a copy, please get in touch via the blog.  Ta!

Information sources:  (i) POLNAREFF Le Roi des Fourmis, Christian Eudeline (ECLIPSE Editions, 1997); (ii) Polnaréflexion, Michel Polnareff en collaboration avec Jean-Michel Desjeunes (Éditions Stock, 1974); (iii) Polnareff par Polnareff, avec la collaboration de Philippe Manœuvre (Éditions Grasset & Fasquelle, 2004); (iv) Polnaculte, Benoît Cachin (Éditions de Tournon, 2007); (v) Salut Les Copains (No 69, April 1968); (vi) Mademoiselle age tendre (No 42, April 1968), article Michel Polnareff – mes “âme câlines” et moi, p78.

All (bad) translations into English are my own.  Thanks to Dave for photoshopping the Polnareff on the J’adore picture and for tracking down No no no no no for me after all those years.