Stairway to Heaven
, arranged for a wheezy brass band (with Jimmy Page's guitar solo rendered funereally on tuba and tenor sax) was what finally convinced me that some sort of outer limit had been reached. One had endured the vibraphone I'll Be Your Baby Tonight
, choral Honky Tonk Women
and accordion Buffalo Soldier
. But we all have our snapping point, and this was mine.
French radio is many good things – eclectic, idiosyncratic, fad-resistant, finely niched – but it is also the home of the terrible cover-version. Sometimes whole programmes consist of covers only: one of our local stations has a show hosted by the world's last captive scat fan, who unleashes a merciless hour of nothing but scat assaults on songs you used to like. Scat singing can be bearable if it is Ella Fitzgerald taking a jazz standard out for a walk. Applied to Springsteen, or Queen, or Randy Newman, it is beyond deplorable.
It is also, I'm sorry to say, at its worst when committed by French performers, especially if they have only shaky English and resort to delivering lyrics in the unconsonanted form known as yaourt (yoghurt), whereby the words have been learned phonetically, rather than with any semantic attention. It is not just a French affliction. Go to any Greek beach where a cosmopolitan bunch of youngsters are gathered around a guitar and a bottle of Retsina, and you'll hear exactly what yaourt musicianship can do to great songs. Hey jew/ dobbie affray/ taser samson an mail it butter…
French radio does this to you all the time. In lockdown, it is like a day banged up with those 1970's budget Top of the Pops
compilations, only less diverting; or that period in the 1960s when every successful single begat a litter of copycat covers to snare the unwary. Somewhere I still have a grim rendition by someone called The Dowlands of All My Loving
, given to me by my grandmother because the girl on the record counter at Binns had assured her it was better than The Beatles' version, which was sold out.
The reason is a triumph of cultural nationalism over taste. French popular music is by and large a crock of… well, let's just say, it's not always generously appreciated in the global marketplace. Alarmed at an unstoppable Anglophone incursion, the French Government introduced a law in 1984 that 40% of music output had to be either French-made or sung in French. The rules were amended in 1994, 1996 and 2016, to encompass additional factors like local content or new talent, and to settle ambiguities, like whether Sacha Distel singing Raindrops Are Falling on My Head
should count against quota. They are now incomprehensible. The 40% was cut to 35% in 2016, and many stations find ways around it. But national stations tend to stick to formula. Radio Nostalgie, specialising in the 1970s and 1980s, plays French/English songs turn about. Listeners to the (excellent) classical stations had better like Debussy.
The upside of cultural interference is financial fealty. Radio France, funded from the TV licence, runs seven national networks with 40 stations, while 18 commercial networks – improbably initiated under François Mitterand – take the station count to 850. The Radio France family includes the extraordinary FIP (France Inter Paris) which plays, with minimal speech, cross-genre music chosen by independent panels of experts. It broadcasts 44,000 different tunes a year by 16,000 different artists, often album tracks from independent labels. Tracks are thoughtfully sequenced for interest, contrast and linkages: a rap may be followed by the original song whose riff it nicked, sorry sampled, to rant over. The Beach Boys' debt to Bach for Lady Lynda
might be acknowledged. Twitter boss Jack Dorsey says it is the best radio in the world. But it really is good.
If British local radio is the decayed rump of a 1970's concept, its French equivalent can look distinctly vibrant by comparison. In truth, it faces many of the same structural problems, notably a migration online of listeners and advertisers. Some argue that the quota system exacerbates these difficulties, since online streaming platforms are free of quota obligations. Radio is losing up to a million, mostly young, listeners a year. Yet French radio has the benefit of steady policy support, and it shows. A medium-sized conurbation like greater Montpellier can offer no fewer than 10 local stations, plus sundry transient community broadcasters, and a diversity that is impressive by any measure.
Here, for example, Aviva denotes an interesting radio station rather than a dreary insurance company. Housed near the town synagogue in the old Jewish quarter, it resists its reputation as a Jewish station, insisting that it takes no chapel funds and that Judaism is just one faith among many discussed in a robust educational and cultural output. In common with many stations, even the classical ones, it also broadcasts a lot of jazz. Good jazz is never hard to find in France. Given its pariah status in the UK, the British jazz fan who settles here can feel close to heaven.
Alternatively, there is FM Plus, a station with loose ties to local Protestant churches, but with a wide social, sporting and cultural agenda; or RCF Maguelone, rather more firmly tethered to the Catholic diocese. There is Divergence FM, devoted to measured discussion of social issues coupled to an eclectic musical palette; and Radio Campus, targeted at Montpellier's huge student population. There is the L'Eko, dedicated to the latest electronica, or the pop-driven RTS (Radio Thau Sête).There are local franchises of national networks, like France Blue Hérault; and there is Radio Lenga d'Oc, broadcasting in the Occitan dialect.
My favourite is the refreshingly bonkers Radio Clapas (pronounced, feel free to snigger, clap-ass). My last earthly ambition is to live long enough to fathom its programming policy. It specialises in hour-long slabs of juddering incompatibility. In the UK you can put on, say, Radio Two at breakfast and know that it will be making much the same noise at supper time. Clapas will give you an hour of movie themes, followed by an hour of hip-hop, followed by an hour of world music. You can sit down to lunch tuned into that era where every act was called Bobby and existed only to prove how badly the world needed The Beatles. By the time you reach coffee, it might have become Handel operas. One senses that staff are encouraged to follow their obsessions. For a while there was an hour every weekday morning of Miles Davis: just
Two hours listening to FIP might bring you John Renbourn, Mstislav Rostropovich, T-Bone Walker, Tom Paxton, Esbjørn Svensson, Eazy-E, Maya Birani, Kevin Ayres, Ali Farka Touré, Kurt Weill, Judee Sill and Bukka White: music you wouldn't hear in two years of Radio Clyde or Forth. Provided you can sit out the odd smoky chanson (which anyway sounds better in situ), then you can savour the exhilaration of feeling your musical barriers fall away. In an age of records made by algorithm, it is a joy to find that music can still surprise you.
Mind you, as I write this, FIP has just broadcast an unspeakable salsa version of Jimi Hendrix's Hey Joe
, followed immediately by the man himself performing The Wind Cries Mary,
as if to remind listeners of just how untouchably good Hendrix can be when you keep Los Preposteros away from his music. French radio has rich rewards to bestow, provided you're prepared to take the rough with the smooth. Even so, there's a lady who's sure all that glitters is gold. Oom-pah-pah.
Keith Aitken is a journalist, writer and broadcaster