Bertrand Burgalat is probably known best in the UK for ‘This Summer Night’, a deliriously perfect single he recorded with Robert Wyatt and released as a single in 2007. It is a wonderful example of Bertrand’s artistry, and remains perfectly life enhancing. The accompanying video, directed by Daniel Klein, is completely joyous too.
The music of Bertrand Burgalat has many recognisable elements in, which may not even really be there, but they fit together in a way that has become so perfectly Bertrand’s. There is a run of records by Bertrand, that takes in Portrait-Robot, Chéri B.B., and Toutes Directions, which has to be among the most frequently played here over recent months. And the odd thing about that is a sense of not really knowing anything (much) about Bertrand, though perhaps that is part of the magic. He is naturally enigmatic and eccentric. And there is a new record due any day now.
Bertrand was part of the same circle that AIR emerged from, and his own delayed debut in 2000, the CD The Sssound of Mmmusic, is really the perfect realisation of the AIR/Stereolab soft pop and easy electronics aesthetic with lovely bossa nova traces. Moving onto 2003 and his composition and production for April March’s Triggers shows a fierce modern pop sensibility that suits perfectly anyone whose strong belief it is that certain songs by, say, Kelis, Broadcast, Sea & Cake, Amerie, Girls Aloud, Sugababes and Missy Elliot are as good as anything ever.
Portrait-Robot was Bertrand’s 2005 set, with his distinctive look and sound unveiled. The image was of a sort of André Maranne, the sergeant in the Clouseau films, playing an international playboy in an old Colombo episode. Musically, Bertrand’s creations were difficult to dissect, but there were sort of suggestions of the Canterbury Scene, Deodato, TVPs, early 1980s Stranglers, Peter Skellern’s ‘Hold On To Love’, The Associates’ Sulk, Michel Legrand, and particularly the Munich disco sound, and in particular the propulsive drumming style of Keith Forsey where it overlaps with the driving beat that fuelled the Northern Soul scene.
The stand-out track was ‘Spring Isn’t Fair’ which came with a Daniel Klein video loosely based on the cover artwork from Ruth is Stranger Than Richard by Alfreda Benge. And, very neatly, it is Alfie’s poetry that Bertrand sings in his own inimitable way. It is one of four songs which feature Alfie’s very special words, which in their directness and sweet simplicity suit perfectly Bertrand’s classically all-wrong but oh-so-right voice.
In 2007 the Burgalat sound was refined further on Chéri B.B. from which came the collaboration with Robert Wyatt on the inspirational ‘This Summer Night’. The words on this were again by Alfreda Benge. If there are suggestions of that glorious moment in the late 1970s when groups like the Electric Light Orchestra dived enthusiastically into the disco pool then that is fair enough. It is an impression further strengthened with the instrumental ‘Une Nuit à Taverny’ which has quite something of the late, great Glitter Band Bell singles about it.
Appropriately, therefore, the architect of the original Glitter sound (a life-changing thing here in 1972 and 1973) Mike Leander has his song ‘I’ve Been A Bad Bad Boy’ covered by Bertrand on Chéri B.B. Originally sung by Paul Jones in the film Privilege, it was wonderfully covered by Simon Turner during his Jonathan King-directed attempt at being a teenybop idol in the early 1970s.
King’s approach was rather él-fish in that his strategy was just not quite right. The LP he made with Simon (reissued as part of a compilation featuring also some King of Luxembourg tracks on the Richmond label in 1992) is great, but it was never going win over the young girls, being far too knowing. King’s schtick was to go for a sort of 1960s bubblegum Tommy James & the Shondells meets Peter Noone thing, and there is nothing wrong with that, as the New York Dolls would have enthusiastically agreed at the time.
Ian Svenonius sang ‘I’ve Been A Bad Bad Boy’ too when playing the role of David Candy for the Mike Alway-directed project Play Power which suggests a Colombo episode featuring a reclusive pop star in a white suit, like David Essex in Stardust, shut away in a solitary mansion speaking his increasingly erratic diary entries aloud into a state of the art tape recorder while organ-led music swirls around and wordless vocals waft through the air. Like all Alway concepts it is a little undercooked and maybe all the more pleasantly strange for being so. Ian later interviewed Mike for the BB Gun magazine.
Bertrand Burgalat’s Chéri B.B. also features a cover of Vic Godard’s ‘Out Of Touch’ which is given a great galloping disco treatment. Around the same time Vic was revisiting the song for a project reimagining the lost 1978 Subway Sect LP which had been recorded with dub scientist Mark Lusardi. The 1978 Now set included ‘Derail Your Senses’, which on decrepit live tapes of the Sect was known as ‘Derailed Sense’, which as a title has been borrowed once or twice by others, most recently for a film on Vic and the Sect, featuring apparently among the talking heads Jonathan Coe.
Jonathan was perhaps the first person to mention Subway Sect in a novel, when they get a passing mention in his early work The Dwarves of Death. More recently there has been a mention of Subway Sect in David Keenan’s historical farce This Memorial Device, a comic spoof which could be called Carry On Up The Messthetics. It also mentions Fire Engines, but then so does Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, and maybe This Memorial Device is High Fidelity for Wire readers.
Toutes Directions is Bertrand Burgalat’s record from 2012, and it sees the B.B. formula become even more concentrated, as the elements of adult-oriented soft pop and light disco fuse perfectly, with ridiculous attention to detail. The highlight is ‘Berceuse’, very much a lullaby with words again by Alfreda Benge, presumably for Bertrand’s baby daughter Jacqueline, but maybe not. It is certainly an incredibly beautiful composition, somehow a little like one of the old intimate Suicide ballads like ‘Dreams’.
It forms part of a very important sequence of lullabies by Alfie. There is ‘Lullaby For Hamza’, written as the war in Iraq began in 2003 (and it is tempting to cross-reference to The Closed Circle here), when Alfie was inspired by an article by Suzanne Goldenberg about a baby boy born among the bombing of Baghdad in 1991. Then there is the haunting ‘Lullaby For Irena’ which is a tribute to her mother who died a short while before this song was recorded with Ros Stephen’s beautiful mournful music giving enough of an Eastern Europe feel to be right. And after that a celebration of new life in ‘Berceuse’ seems so beautifully apt.
The whole record Toutes Directions is effortlessly elegant, almost aristocratic in its bearing, which is somehow what we demand of our French art, something sophisticated and a little off-centre. It even comes with some enchanting liner notes by Andrew Loog Oldham, which is a wonderful endorsement. And this was not the first time Andrew had written notes for one of Bertrand’s projects, having provided words for the 2002 Tricatel compilation The David Whitaker Songbook, a wonderful set featuring the great arranger’s work with Nico, Lee Hazlewood, Marianne Faithful, France Gall, AIR, among others, and a selection of David’s compositions for film soundtracks.
Andrew’s wonderful Francophile annotation for Toutes Directions quotes from the liner notes for Chéri B.B. which were written by Mike Alway. Mike’s él adventures were apparently a huge inspiration for Bertrand and his Tricatel label, and it is easy to imagine him sitting on a balcony somewhere over a glass of wine, listening to one of Mike’s stories about The Monochrome Set. Hopefully they have done so recently.