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Vive les minets - French Dandyism in the 1960s

Posted by Eric Brightwell, October 8, 2014 08:00pm | Post a Comment
As a fan of fashion, youth subculture, and the 1960s, at some point I was bound to be made aware of the French minet subculture. Obviously, since I'm writing about it, that momentous occasion has arrived at some point in my past. I can't remember when or where it occurred (the internet is a safe bet) but in the intervening years I've found very little about this stylish group. Compounding my frustration is the fact that what little that I have uncovered about minets is almost always written or recorded in French -- a language of which a month of skipping class at College les pins Castries did little to improve my command. The French Wikipedia (Wikipédia) is humorously blunt in its entry: un jeune homme vêtu à la mode, équivalent masculin de la minette. Last and least -- most of what has been written about minets in English is by writers discussing within the larger context of mod subculture -- a style tribe about which far too much is artlessly written and rehashed.




With that in mind, however, kindly allow me briefly add to the conversational clutter concerning mod, as its evolution is tied closely to that of the minet. Although today mod is often characterized as a mid-60s, working class subculture fueled by the holy trinity of amphetamines, scooters and soul music, it first appeared in the late 1950s when a largely middle class group of mostly Jewish teenagers with families in the clothing business and for whom the chosen drug was apparently coffee. Modernists, as they then to themselves referred, championed modern jazz over trad jazz (which was championed by the Acker Bilk-listening, bowler-hatted, beer-swilling, baggy sweater-and-duffle coated trads). Sharing their love of modern jazz were the beatniks, but their beardy, black, cultivated scruffiness was rejected in favor of the natty continental style associated with untouchable icons of French cool like Jean-Paul Belmondo and Alain Delon

The caffeinated coffee bar scene had sprung up in the London's Soho area and attracted skiffle fans, rock 'n' rollers, beatniks, trads, mods, and more. There were venues like Les Enfants Terrible, Le Macabre, Le Kilt, and La Poubelle which catered to a caffeinated clientele of French au pairs, expats, children of diplomats, students, tourists, and the Francophile Modernists, who adopted the custom of smoking Gauloises, the French cut hair style and Shetland wool cardigans paired with brushed or quilted bluejeans, white socks, and loafers (either tasseled or penny -- with a genuine American cent piece, of course). The English exposed the French, in turn, to a better class of pop music. 



The mod's French cousin first appeared in Paris around 1962, often lurking around Le Drugstore which despite its name, was more akin to a department store. It was supposedly the only place in France where one could keep up with the English music scene through editions of the now defunct weekly, Melody Maker. Perhaps more importantly, it was also open later than other businesses. 



Shortly after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, the American Ivy League look which had so distinguished him from his buttoned-up predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, proliferated on the campus of The American University of Paris. Madras or seersucker jackets were paired with pastel sweaters, oxford shirts, blue jeans, and shoes from English manufacturers like Church's and John Lobb. Suits, when worn, were snug and made of Harris Tweed, herringbone cheviot, hound's-tooth, or mohair. That same year Maurice Renoma opened his shop, Renoma, which was likely the first French boutique with the English-and-American-influenced minet aesthetic.



Seize millions de jeunes' mod expose


The Ivy League look was also influential on the mods over in the UK. In 1965, Office de Radiodiffusion Télévision Française were curious enough about mods to send a production crew to London where they filmed an episode of the series Seize millions de jeune, which aired in May. In October, the same series turned its sites to the minets. 



Seize millions de jeunes' minet expose

For mods, obscurity was prized and finding soul records that no one else had was rewarded with cultural capital. Americanophilia and Angolophila had long been present in French youth subcultures -- going back at least to the zazous of the swing era up to the yé-yés of the late 1950s (who were of course detested by the minets) and snobbery (ironically, since snobbishness is one of the stereotypes most commonly attributed to the French by Anglos) seems to have been less important. Not only did minets embrace mod groups like The Small Faces and The Who, but well-known British Invaders like The Moody Blues, The Pretty ThingsThe Spencer Davis Group, and The Yardbirds.

As with mods, the minets also championed American rhythm & blues, rock 'n' roll, and soul acts like Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry, James Brown, Otis Redding, and Wilson Pickett -- who were heard in Europe via anti-authoritarian British pirate radio stations like Radio Caroline and Wonderful Radio London (both of which launched offshore in 1964) and the English language Radio Luxembourg. However, whereas most mods seemed only to appreciate mostly black American music and style icons, the minets were embraced the sunshine pop of The Association, the baroque pop of The Left Banke, and the garage rock of The Shadows of Knight. Approval was also granted to rebellious figures like James Dean and -- after he starred in 1966's The Wild Angels -- Peter Fonda


In May 1966, the American magazine, LIFE, ran a piece titled "Face It! -- Revolution in Male Clothes," the sartorially subversive subjects of which profiled men in the UK, the US, and France. Five months later, the first song which acknowledged the existence of the minets topped the French pop charts, Jacques Dutronc's "Les play boys." First Nino Ferrer, then Vignon (né Abdelghafour Mouhsine but sometimes referred to as "Le James Brown marocain"), and Michel Polnareff were among the few French pop singers rated by the minets before the dawn of Dutronc.

Dutronc was employed as a songwriter and artistic director at Disques Vogue, whose previous efforts to exploit subcultures included records by Dylan-inspired hippie, Antoine, modish Les Mods, and beatnik Benjamin. Rising above all silly subcultures was the magnificent Françoise Hardy, who would years later marry Dutronc. Benjamin had recorded the satirical, "Et moi, et moi, et moi," a collaboration between Dutronc and Jacques Lanzmann -- an established novelist, ex-boyfriend of Simone de Beauvoir, and future director of the epic holocaust documentary, ShoahUnsatisfied with the Benjamin's version, Dutronc gave the song a shot and it almost topped the charts. 



Dutronc's second single, "Les play boys," was released in October 1966 and the lyrics humorously acknowledged the minets with the lines:

J'ai pas peur des petits minets
Qui mangent leur ronron au Drugstore
Ils travaill'nt tout comme les castors
Ni avec leurs mains, ni avec leurs pieds


"Les play boys" resided at the top of the charts for six weeks and sold more than half a million copies and Dutronc become one of the few French musicians adopted by the mods. The two subcultures continued to convergently evolve and around 1967 a psychedelic foppishness began to undermine the dignified dandyism of both. Furthermore, the original stylists of both were becoming a bit old for  adolescent scene-dependent soul searching and group-derived displays of non-conformity.

Even as the scene lost its style steam the void left by the departing originals was filled by growing numbers of new, peacockish recruits. Catering to them were new hangouts in and around Saint-Germain-des-Prés including Carette, Le Club Pierre Charron, Le Mimi Pinson, Le New Store, Pub Renault, Le Relais de Chaillot, and Scoss. If maturation and domesticity claimed most of the original minets, more were led away by the events of Mai 68, the cultural effect of which was far more resounding than even the tunes of their 45s. 

The final generation of minets continued to dance dance dance at then-new clubs like Le Roméo Club Paris. When Jim Morrison and Pamela Courson moved to the Le Marais area of Paris in 1971, Courson frequently crossed the Seine with her dope-dealing chum, Count Jean de Breteuil, to hang out with the last minets at places like Brasserie Lipp, Cafe de Flore, and Les Deux Magots. Whilst I wouldn't want to be the first person to suggest that Morrison was inspired by minets, Courson was certainly aware of them and Morrison did seem to trade in his leathers for a preppier look. 


Jim, Alain and Pamela - 28 June, 1971, St Leu d'Esseurent (image credit: Alain Ronay)

The impact of the minet subculture seems to have mostly faded in the 1970s although the Japanese cityboy (シティーボーイ) trend of the late 1970s (associated with the magazine Popeye) similarly embraced a preppy yet anti-authoritarian bohemianism -- as does Free & Easy, which promotes the what they call the "rugged ivy" aesthetic (although few would argue that either are fully-fledged subcultures). In 1998, Franco-Teutonic band Stereo Total released a song "Les Minets" on their album, Juke-Box AlarmThe current preppie-but-not-peppy uniform of the Hipsterjugend - though uninspired in its execution -- is perhaps nevertheless in part inspired by the minets -- although that shouldn't be held against them (and one of their betters should tell those knaves to starch and tuck in their shirts). More clearly aspiring to minet revivalism are so-called Paris Mod Allnighters, with a flyer from one such event pictured here.





The little that I have found about minets which I can share is this short documentary, Les Minets du Champs, which is really just a short interview with former minet Bernard Bacos, who's one of the scene's only chroniclers of which I'm aware (check out his website, Paris 70). There is at least one written work, Christian Eudeline's Anti-yé-yé: Une autre histoire des sixties which I haven't read but has a nicely provocative title. 



Probably the highest profile look back at minet movement was La bande du drugstore, the debut film of writer/director François Armanet which I also haven't seen and has so far only been released on a PAL 2 DVD with French audio and no subtitles. That film also resulted in the release of a soundtrack available on CD, a format for which there are thankfully no region codes and which includes many of the aforementioned bands as well as the Autralian band The Easybeats, Sam & Dave, Cream, Little Esther Phillips, Sonny & Cher, Christophe, The Troggs, and The Full Spirits.




*****

If you've got more information on minets, please let me know in the comments and... 



Ruth Crawford Seeger - Modernist-cum-Folkie

Posted by Eric Brightwell, March 8, 2009 07:43pm | Post a Comment
Female composers getting the short shrift is certainly nothing new, and is by no means limited to classical music. But as an admittedly casual fan of atonality, dissonance, modernism and serialism, I was surprised in February of this year to, for the first time, stumble across Middlewestern composer Ruth Crawford Seeger's unique, innovative musical voice. She immediately became a featured artist on The Lunatic Asylum and I became interested in her story.

Ruth Porter Crawford was born on July 3, 1901 in East Liverpool, Ohio, supposedly the "World Capital of Pottery." Her father was an itinerant minister. Her mother began her musical education with piano lessons when she was 11. Upon graduation from high school, she entered Foster's School of Musical Art in Jacksonville, Florida. In 1921, when it relocated to Miami, Crawford enrolled at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, where she studied with Madame Valborg Collett, Polish-born Henriot Levy and Louise Robyn. By 24, with the completion of her earliest work, she already displayed a unique modernist voice.


In Chicago, she met Djane Lavoie Herz, who in turn introduced her to the music of sometime-serialist Russian composer Alexander Scriabin. Through Lavoie Herz, she met and fell in with transpersonal astrologer/composer Dane Rudhyar, theorist/composer Henry Cowell and pianist Richard Bühlig. Cowell was an early supporter of her work and arranged for performances of her compositions in New York, where her folkish take on avant-garde drew comparisons to the work of Charles Ives and Aaron Copland.

In 1927 she was employed by famed poet Carl Sandburg, teaching piano to his children. Having played a part in introducing her to American folk songs, she returned the favor by contributing to his publication The American Songbag. Two years later she set several of his compositions to music. That same year, 1929, she began studying composition with Adolf Weidig and Charles Seeger.

A partial early discography:

Kaleidoscopic Changes on an Original Theme Ending with a Fugue
(1924)
5 Preludes (1924–5)
Adventures of Tom Thumb (1925)
Music for Small Orchestra (1926)
Sonata for Violin and Piano (1926)
Suite, 5 Wind Instrument (1927) (rev. 1929)
4 Preludes (1927–8)
Nine Preludes for Piano (1928)
5 Songs to Poems by Carl Sandburg: Home Thoughts, White Moon, Joy, Loam, Sunsets (1929)
Suite No. 2, for Strings (1929)
A Piano Study in Mixed Accents (1930)
4 Diaphonic Suites (1930)
3 Chants: no.1, To an Unkind God, no.2 To an Angel, no.3, Female chorus (1930)
String Quartet (1931)


In March 1930 she became the first woman to receive the Guggenheim Fellowship and went to Berlin, where she composed String Quartet, sung in an imaginary language and based on the Bhagavad Gita. In November of 1931, Crawford married her composition teacher, Seeger. After receiving another Guggenheim award, they moved to Paris. In 1933, at the ISCM Festival in Amsterdam, her Three Songs for voice, oboe, percussion and strings was the only American piece performed.

In the 1930s, Ruth and Charles Seeger became Communists and their interest shifted from Adorno-inspired theory to populism. Her subsequent compositions reflected a philosophical shift, and the beginning of a musical one:

Rat Riddles (1932)
Two Ricercare: Sacco, Vanzetti - Chinaman, Laundryman (1932) (text by H.T. Tsiang)
Rissolty Rossolty (1939)


By 1934 Crawford Seeger, for the most part, stopped composing and started developing new methods of primary music education. She focused on raising her family (for the most part) rather than composing original works. She and her family moved to DC in 1936 when her husband received an appointment in the music division of the Resettlement Administration, charged with collecting songs for the Library of Congress. At this point she began arranging and interpreting folk music, which went hand in hand with both her husband's postion as well as her own developing trancendentalism. Crawford Seeger and her husband transcribed songs for the John and Alan Lomax book, Our Singing Country.


In 1948, she published American Folk Songs for Children. Eventually, several of her children became incredibly important in the folk music scene, Mike, Peggy and (stepson) Pete Seeger.


In 1951, composer Esther Williamson Ballou urged Crawford Seeger to join the DC chapter of the NAACC (National Association for American Composers and Conductors). After announcing a competition, Crawford Seeger put her other work on hold to work on the Suite for Wind Quintet (1952). It won and Crawford Seeger wrote to her friends Carl and Charlotte Ruggles, "I believe I'm going to work again -- more. If I live to be 99 as my grandfather did, I will have 48 more years." Unfortunately, she died of intestinal cancer in Chevy Chase, Maryland not long after, on November 18, 1953, just 52 years old.

  Ruth Crawfod Seeger Chamber Works CD

Crawford Seeger, according to her peer Henry Cowell, broke the stereotypical notion of female composers with her serious, adventurous and unsentimental compositions. On the other hand, she continued in the tradition of talented female composers like Clara Schumann and Alma Mahler, who sacraficed their own considerable musical talents for their families whilst their husbands soaked in the glory. Although highly regarded by her peers, some of her works, such as the first and third chants in Three Chants, weren't recorded until 1996. Yet there's no reason Crawford Seeger shouldn't be held in the same esteem as similar but more widely known composers like Schoenberg or Webern.

World of Ruth Crawford Seeger CD  Ruth Crawfod Seeger: Portrait CD
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