Playlist Release: Monaco ‘75

Clockwise from left: Monaco, 1970 | Véronique Sanson, 1972 | Carly Simon, 1977

[I did promise to write something more fun from time to time. Well, here you go!]

Anyone who knows me is well aware that I’m basically obsessed with playlists. I find myself paying close attention to music played in cafés, stores, and events, and it irks me to no end when somebody puts on music that doesn’t mix. It’s a cardinal sin! It’s one thing to play Rebecca Black’s “Friday”, but it’s another thing entirely to play “Friday” next to “Macarena”. (And now they’re probably stuck in your head- sorry!)

That’s why I spend far, far, far too much time on Spotify meticulously crafting playlists that represent specific sounds I like. It’s no easy task, finding songs that are both good and genre-specific (i.e. coherent), as well as fitting them together to create a smooth, seamless mix. The difficulty of the task is complicated by the fact that I’m also a history nut- I love to create mixes that reflect genres linked to a specific place and time, adding additional requirements of history, geography, and sometimes language.

Case in point: this latest release, Sounds of Monaco, ‘75. I’ve spent more than three months listening to God knows how many songs (my best guess? at least five hundred, maybe seven hundred) to craft this playlist, featuring artists from five different countries singing in four languages, recorded on three coastlines on two continents, and distilled into one neat little package of concentrated sound by yours truly.

On a basic level, what I’ve done here is create a mix of transatlantic early-70s singer-songwriters. On the American side, in the aftermath of the hippie dream’s implosion amidst the horrors of Altamont and the Manson murders, mainstream pop/rock split into multiple distinct directions, prominent among them being the singer-songwriter scene. Centered on New York City and the West Coast artist colony at Laurel Canyon, ranging from the various revolving ex-hippies of CSNY and Jefferson Airplane/Starship to Brill Building alumnus Carole King and the newcomers James Taylor, Carly Simon, and Bill Withers, what they have in common is well-crafted, deeply personal self-composed songs, the product of looking inwards after the great explorations of the late 60s.

Concurrently, across the pond, the continent’s pop/rock finally grew up. Gone are the teenybopper yé-yés of France, Italy, and Spain; instead, what you hear are their evolution into serious pop singers. France Gall, Francoise Hardy, and Nada, all yé-yé singers cursed with material of very widely varying quality, finally get consistently quality songwriters like Michel Berger, Michel Jonasz, and Piero Campi. They’re joined by singer-songwriters in the Laurel Canyon mold, but adapted to European sensibilities: Michel Berger and Michel Jonasz, recording their own music as side projects (initially), but also Yves Simon, Véronique Sanson, Louis Chedid, and Rino Gaetano.

What’s more interesting, though, is how much this playlist captures a certain jet-set lifestyle. The choice of Monaco to title this playlist is deliberate (as is just about everything else about this playlist). The jewel of the Côte d’Azur, it’s the playground of Europe’s wealthy, and a destination of choice for American “beautiful people” touring the continent. Within such enclaves, the circles are small; everyone knows everybody. And the players here are directly represented in this playlist, most notably the two protagonists of this collection, Véronique Sanson and Carly Simon.

A quick look at their backgrounds tells you they’re no Elvis or John, Paul, George, and Ringo, each the epitome of the working-class rock star, an embodiment of the egalitarian postwar order- that one can get to the very top with enough raw talent and hard work without kowtowing to the aristocratic orders of the prewar world. But instead, what you get here aren’t those who ascended into the jet-set, but those who were born into it. Take Véronique Sanson, daughter of René Sanson, diplomat and onetime Minister for Labor under Charles de Gaulle’s post-occupation provisional government. Or for that matter, Carly Simon, daughter of Richard L. Simon, co-founder of the Simon & Schuster publishing empire. They’re exactly the type that might summer in Newport or Martha’s Vineyard, rubbing shoulders with the Rockefellers and Kennedys (indeed, Carly Simon will eventually become close friends with Jackie), while spending winters in Cannes or Portofino, scooting off for a jaunt in New York or London at the drop of a hat.

But this being the 70s, the protagonists are joined by a cast of characters befitting the rock ’n’ roll era. After a stint dating Mick Jagger (who reveals all the nasty details on 1973’s raunchy Chuck Berry-esque rocker “Star Star”), Simon famously marries James Taylor in 1972 (a childhood acquaintance from their days on Martha’s Vineyard), singing together on many records, most notably their passionate, swaggering duet on 1974’s “Mockingbird”. For her part, in 1973, Sanson marries Stephen Stills, of Buffalo Springfield, CSNY, and Manassas fame, ending up on a Colorado ranch after a wedding attended by ex-Beatle Ringo Starr and the Who frontman Roger Daltrey. In doing so, she ditches her musical and romantic partner Michel Berger in a Paris hotel room, infamously leaving to buy a pack of cigarettes and never coming back.

With that little bit of context, let’s try to connect the dots and paint a picture of this transatlantic milieu. Let’s see what they’re up to, circa winter 1975–6.

Ready? (Everyone in bold you’ll hear somewhere on the playlist.)

In between writing songs for Francoise Hardy, Michel Jonasz opens for Véronique Sanson when she frequently tours France, where she’ll record a live album at l’Olympia this February. When not busy jetting to London or Sausalito to record with Stephen Stills’ band Manassas, Sanson continues to write songs to Michel Berger (check out 1974’s “Le maudit”- who do you suppose is the cursed one?), who’s currently preoccupied in Paris writing the entirety of fiancée France Gall’s 1976 self-titled comeback album. As for Stephen Stills, he’s touring and recording with CSNY (in various revolving configurations), where his bandmate David Crosby is a good friend of the remaining hippie-era San Francisco bands (e.g. Jefferson Starship) as well as the newer singer-songwriters like James Taylor. JT’s currently struggling through a bit of an artistic slump after putting out such critically acclaimed albums like 1971’s Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon, an LP recorded practically in conjunction with his friend Carole King’s Tapestry (“You’ve Got a Friend” features in both albums, with the same musicians playing). But thing is, he really couldn’t care less; he’s got Carly to occupy his time, raising their two kids and singing backup on many of her songs (including 1975’s single “Waterfall”). Speaking of backing musicians, despite breaking off her relationship with the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger (who guests on “You’re So Vain”), Carly Simon is still using rock musicians as her backing band, this time her manager’s other clients, the Doobie Brothers. The Doobies, already rock stars, are on the cusp of superstardom with the addition of husky-voiced soulster Michael McDonald, who comes highly recommended by Doobies guitarist Skunk Baxter, a former bandmate. And in which band, you ask? Why, it’s Steely Dan, that odd duo of Bard College English majors, who count among their friends that epitome of the enervating 70s L.A. lifestyle, the Eagles, including their recently departed guitarist Bernie Leadon

I think you get the picture.

Inhabiting the same interconnected world, linked by transatlantic cross-currents, it’s inevitable that a unified sound developed, one that, like the relatively easy life it accompanies, is nothing drastic, always easy on the ears. What hits you first is the omnipresence of flaky acoustic strings, oftentimes with some piano added, forming a balmy body to this set of tones. But never does it go into folk or country territory- no harmonicas or lap steels to be found here. (That would be just gauche now, wouldn’t it?) Add to that a little groove, a light beat to give it edge, and maybe a touch of horns here and there for accents, but without ever going full-tilt rock ’n’ roll. And to round it off, multi-tracked vocal harmonies and a little bit of strings to smooth things out, lest it get too aggressive. It’s exactly what you might expect from a bunch of classically-trained (but of course) well-educated 20th-century aristocrats trying their hand at pop. (Michel Berger earned a masters’, Louis Chedid was appointed a director at the INRAC film school, Carly Simon attended Sarah Lawrence College, Steely Dan Bard College, Nino Ferrer the Sorbonne, etc.)

And just as with the selection of tones, these songs feature lyrics that reflect the jet-set lifestyle. It’s an oft-mentioned bit of advice to writers that they should write from their own experience, and these artists, especially Sanson and Simon, are no exception. Their songs depict the trials and tribulations of the international moneyed class, from its dreamy visions of escape and romance, far away from the confines of the city packed with parents and café society, the ever-present legacies of wealth and privilege:

S’il-te-plaît
Je voudrais aller à Bahia
Je l’ai bien vu dans la lampe d’Aladin
Je retiendrai deux places dans l’avion
Très loin du son des accordéons
Et je t’aime
Caresse-moi

If you please
I’d like to go to Bahia
I saw it clearly in Aladdin’s lamp
I’ll keep two seats for you on the plane
So far away from the sound of accordions
And I love you
Caress me

-“Bahia | Véronique Sanson — Amoureuse (1972)

To candid reflections on life and love in the jet-set, earned through hard experience:

You had me several years ago, when I was still quite naïve
Well, you said that we made such a pretty pair
And that you would never leave
But you gave away the things you loved
And one of them was me
I had some dreams, they were clouds in my coffee
Clouds in my coffee

-“You’re So Vain” | Carly Simon — No Secrets (1972)

And in the end, sheer exhaustion at the hectic jet-set lifestyle:

Et si l’amour, du haut de son piédestal
Me kidnappe, me fait du mal
Soudain un télégramme vient m’annoncer
Que tout est dans le lac
C’est toujours la même histoire
On m’attend là-bas, on m’attend là-bas
Un taxi en bas, un aéroport
Un avion s’envole
Dans un autre monde, une autre galaxie
Ou dans une ville
Partout dans les continents
On m’attend là-bas, on m’attend là-bas

And if love, from atop its perch
Kidnaps me, hurts me
Suddenly a telegram comes to announce
That everything’s gone to pieces
It’s always the same story
They’re waiting for me there, they’re waiting for me there
A taxi downstairs, an airport
A plane takes off
In another world, another galaxy
Or in a city
All over the continents
They’re waiting for me there, they’re waiting for me there

-“On m’attend là-bas” | Véronique Sanson — Le maudit (1974)

And like a great many stories touched by the stardust of celebrity, both our protagonists’ transatlantic tales end in L.A. and New York, enveloped by a haze of drugs. Both Sanson and husband Stills will indulge in cocaine, alcohol (“Véronique”, Le maudit), and extramarital affairs (“How Many Lies”, Hollywood), leading to a bitter divorce and custody battle over their young son Chris from 1979. Without full custody of her son until 1983, she continues to split her time between the US and France, only releasing one album (revealingly titled Laissez-la vivre) between 1979 and 1985. As for Simon and Taylor, they too will battle with drugs in the form of alcoholism and Taylor’s decades-long heroin addiction (“Hour That the Morning Comes”, Dad Loves His Work) as well as numerous infidelities, with their own divorce coming in 1982 after a very public two-year separation (“In Pain”, Come Upstairs).

But that’s a story for another day. (If you’re interested, check out Sounds of Hollywood, ‘77, featuring many of the same players: Carly Simon, James Taylor, the Stones, Stephen Stills, David Crosby, Steely Dan, the Eagles, and the Doobies.)

At this point, I’ve probably rambled on long enough. But I do hope you enjoy this little package of sounds I’ve put together, a souvenir (a recreation, really) of a bygone time and place inhabited by a milieu that no longer exists quite as it did. Play it on a summer afternoon, preferably while overlooking some open water and sipping a glass of Provençal rosé. Even if you find the songs lacking (which you really shouldn’t), you should still give it a listen. After all, how often do you get a slice of “the finest spirit of patrician generosity” (as one reviewer described Simon’s No Secrets) tied up with a bow? Indulge your inner gawker! Release, if only for a moment, that version of you which takes an itty bitty peep in People magazine at the checkout and instantly feels guilty. After all, they do say that repressing feelings is bad for you…

Oh, and one more thing. Listen to it in order. It’s really important. (I’d tell you why, but then I’d have to kill you.)

Anyway, until next time! Ciao!

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Guitarist, cinephile, and sometime intellectual. Join me on a journey through ideas, music, and film as I read PPE at the University of Oxford.

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Perry Aw

Perry Aw

Guitarist, cinephile, and sometime intellectual. Join me on a journey through ideas, music, and film as I read PPE at the University of Oxford.

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