Greil Marcus once said of the ‘60s cult act the Moby Grape that they sounded more like a gang fight than a rock band. It’s one of the great lines of rock criticism. Apply that line to les Négresses Vertes, though, and it’s something close to stone truth.
Les Négresses Vertes coalesced in Paris in the late 1980s, a loose-knit crew of outcasts — buskers, circus folk, punk rockers, immigrants, Roma — who came together partly to make music but mostly to watch each other’s backs in a local scene plagued by racist violence. Their 1989 single, “200 Ans d’Hypocrisie, ” was for the French bicentennial what the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” was for the Royal Jubilee — a thumb in the eye of a self-satisfied Establishment, a rebuttal from a disenfranchised underclass for whom the promise of “liberty, equality, and brotherhood” was a cruel hoax.
I was reading a lot of British music press around that time, and I caught an article about LNV in The Face. I’ll admit that what sold me was the description of them as “the French Pogues.” I tracked down a copy of their debut disc Mlah, and discovered that the two bands indeed shared a boozy bravado and a raucous, acoustic-based sound. But LNV cut their own path, drawing on a range of influences unfamiliar to Anglophone pop — flamenco, chanson, rocksteady, even Algerian rai — and laid it all over with lead singer Helno de la Rota’s hammy lounge-lizard shtick. In a way, it was more akin to the British two-tone movement of the early 1980s, sifting joyous party music from the wreckage of colonialism, greeting a new and uneasily multicultural future with a big sloppy kiss. It was brash, it was infectious, and xenophobic snobs couldn’t stand it; I was in love.
In the summer of 1991, my then-girlfriend (now my wife) made a jaunt across Europe, and returned with a copy of LNV’s second album, Famille Nombreuse. And that, to indulge in a cliché — a fine old French word, that — is where it all came together.
On Mlah, the band’s many modes were all on display — Hey, here’s a ska tune! Now here’s a rockabilly number! And this one’s a Gypsy song! — but Famille Nombreuse found them integrating their influences into one powerful and idiosyncratic style. “Sous le Soleil de Bodega” (download) whips Gipsy Kings guitars, North African percussion, gang vocals and horn punches into a strong, spicy brew with a flavor all its own. It crackles with electricity, even if nobody is plugged in.
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And listen to that breakdown in the middle, with a multitude of voices growling and chortling with laughter — that’s characteristic of the Négresses Vertes sound. On the quasi-title track “Famille Heureuse” (download) — which means “Happy Family,” to drive home the point — the brief trombone solo is followed by a little smattering of applause, and you can hear the horn player murmur, “Ah, quelle audience!” There’s a lot of studio chatter and crosstalk throughout; band members crack up and cackle, whoop with delight, shout encouragement to one another. It’s not rock ‘n’ roll, not exactly, but it’s got that feeling that rock ‘n’ roll conveys so well — of a bunch of people together in a room, listening to each other, making something together.
There’s a hint of the sound of two-tone creeping in here, also — or at least a cross-Channel echo of Madness’s “Our House.” Madness also makes a convenient touchstone for “Belle de Nuit” (download) — the track rides an off-kilter bossa nova groove, with swooping, almost comical brass, into a full-tilt middle eight. Guitarist Stéfane Mellino, who co-wrote most of the album, takes the lead, and his gruff vocal makes a nice rock ‘n’ roll counterweight to Helno’s zoot-suit playboy act. The wonder of it is how they keep all the elements in balance. The sound and presentation are playful, but the act never devolves into a joke; the band simply lets you hear how much fun they’re having making this music, and their camaraderie and high spirits are endlessly endearing.
It’s easy to love an act whose members are friends before they are bandmates — even moreso when it’s them against the world — and les Négresses Vertes still sound more like a gang than a rock band. But the dark, headlong rush of “Car C’est un Blouze” (download) seems to suggest that sometimes the world wins, and even brave fighters get cut down in their prime (at least, insofar as I can tell: even native French speakers have a hard time deciphering these lyrics, so dense are they with street argot, Arabic slang, and the peculiar Pig Latin-style syllable-flipping that produced Helno’s nickname, his given name being Noel). Sadly, that happened with LNV, as Helno died of an overdose the year after Famille Nombreuse’s release. The band regrouped in a stripped-down lineup led by Mellino; the follow-up ZigZague was a triumph — tight, focused, and forward-looking — but the band never developed more than a tiny cult following outside of France, and petered out some years later. Mellino is now a solo artist, pursuing a more traditional rock sound.
But for a while, les Négresses Vertes were a gang, a circus, a tribe to which we could all belong. To invoke another critic, the English writer Mark Sinker has written that rock is, as much as a musical style, a utopian social project — a promise that anyone can do it, and you can all join in. And les Négresses Vertes, in their laughing, reckless clatter, took on that project with drunken gusto, creating a republic of song where many voices could come together in celebration of the world as it is, and as it could be. Vivent longtemps les braves! Vive longtemps la musique! Vivent longtemps les Négresses Vertes!