Title: Down and out in Paris & London
Author: Simon Garfield
Publish date: February 1985
Down and out in PARIS & LONDON
After a year on hold as a result of Frankie’s worldwide success, Anne Pigalle is due to release her first record for ZTT this month, and great things are promised. Interview by Simon Garfield. Photographs by Richard Croft. Styling by Hellen Campbell. Makeup by Laetitia Fox.
HOLLY JOHNSON could conceivably be one of those popstars who never feels bad. And at the beginning of December most people in his position would have felt awful. The Frankie single was down. The Frankie album was down. The US tour was over, and outside the ZTT building just off the Portobello Road it was raining and already dark at three in the afternoon. Yet here he is -bouncy, trouncy, flouncy and fun, wrapped up tight with a raccoon’s tail dangling from his hat, scraping around the office for Power of Love cassettes and teeshirts, in fact anything he can find to give to Liverpool friends for Christmas.
A rough-mix tape of Anne Pigalle’s first album fades out between tiny Johnson squeals of “Oooh, give us that!” and “Oooh, is that for Ped? Lucky sod - how come he gets all the friggin’ pressies?”. Then he hears the tape. “Oooh, is that Anne Pigalle?”
“Oooh, how depressing! I’d go mad if I sounded like that. God, she’s ruined my whole day!”
A MINUTE later Anne Pigalle’s in the room. Holly Johnson’s gone, of course, but you can hear him somewhere downstairs: “Oooh, girrus that! Cor! Oooh! Oooh!”
Upstairs, Pigalle snaps the tape from the machine and suggests we talk somewhere quiet, anywhere away from Frankie, Frankie, Frankie. Why not concentrate instead on an artist ZTT signed well over a year ago and whom she feels is currently receiving less than proper treatment; namely, herself.
If it wasn’t for Frankie she might already have achieved one of her true life ambitions, she says: to be heard widely in the country where she believes it matters. If it wasn’t for Frankie she might already be a small star. Then again, without Frankie it’s unlikely whether you’d now be reading this. Unlikely whether there’d now be so much interest in ZTT’s latest (and only) offering from Paris, a wraparound slink of a Piaf-style chansonnière, perhaps the only thing on earth that depresses Holly Johnson.
The name, she says, is pretty well the only false thing about her. In fact it’s the thing that tells you the most. It’s the sleazy French tourist angle down to an artform. “It’s the Paris streets,” she’s fond of explaining. “The prostitutes. Come, come.” Her work’s what we understand by the tourist angle too; dark, stealthy, emotionally thick-set ballads, richly accompanied by accordion and, one suspects, street-corner, monkey-bearing organ-grinder. They would not work well on television, and they wouldn’t work well at the Hammersmith Odeon. They’d work a treat at the clubs and on radio, but they’d work better still if the clubs were smoke-choked and if the radio crackled through the very small hours of a weekend.
Yes, on first hearing it’s that kind of smooth, hacky sound associated with just about all the French clichés you can handle. And with that as a base, Pigalle has built ambitious and far-reaching love dramas that stand apart effortlessly from what she considers to be truly depressing happy-happy chart-pop. It’s nothing that new, but it sticks out because of the time in which it falls.
“You could say they’re after-the-party songs. You’ve had a great time but you have to question yourself afterwards about your relationship with others. You’ve got to ask yourself: ‘Was that good or was that bad?’ before you can go to a party again. Unless you’re a complete idiot. I like to do the sort of things in which you can involve art. I want to make it clear that I’m not just a simple soul”
Her real name and age embarrass her and she’s unhappy about disclosing either. Her early life is drawn out of her equally painfully. The interview is still a new toy and her fluent English appears wary of trick questions and personal prying. She takes exception, for example, to any enquiries about her parents: “Maybe,” she hesitates, “they just wouldn’t like to be talked about.” An uncertain, dark past seems altogether more romantic to her.
The way she tells it, her early years were spent ninety per cent very street-hip and one hundred per cent artist. Looking back, “It’s a bit like a film script. And I think I was aware of that fact from the age of two.”
BORN IN the South of France, Pigalle moved to Paris aged five days and grew up in relative poverty - “a pretty low life”, she recalls. “I think I must have been an introvert from birth. I was shy, very sensitive, and up until eleven I was best at everything there was. Sport, maths, writing - I was always first in the class. But after eleven I just couldn’t get into that any more. I thought learning couldn’t bring me much and I became fascinated purely by people. I used to be shocked by people who I first liked and who later turned out to be really disgusting beings. I developed a lot of hatred for people who I thought were ugly in the head.” And true to the spirit of the times, Pigalle did her own spot of rebelling. Her clothes began running out of synch with the rest of the street, and most days, she ran home from school to practise the ‘I can’t take it, it’s all to much’ routine.
Aged thirteen, Pigalle took to the streets with two girlfriends, leaving school each day to drop in with “a lot of mixed-up music freaks” in the sort of community spirit she reckons has now gone for ever. But when her early band Klaxon Flirt failed to bear fruit she began to look increasingly to Britain as the sort of place where she might get some of her ideas out of the old system at last.
She packed her big trunk for Stoke Newington at sixteen. And she got by, just, living in designer Al McDowell’s squat and surviving on schemes and, er, “warm love”. “I could never do the sort of jobs where horrible people were superior to me. Well, you can imagine I didn’t get too far. I always think you should remain poor if the opposite means you have to compromise anything. But people were good to me and I gave them my whole friendship in return.”
The concept is a little hard to grasp. “Well, I didn’t sell my soul. I exchanged it, like in the old times you exchanged a piece of meat for some other service… For instance, I think I’m attractive to some people simply because I can see things very clear and fast.”
Financially things haven’t improved too much - her five album ZTT deal certainly hasn’t made her wealthy yet - but you can’t help thinking that Pigalle feels she ought to suffer a bit more for her art. She’s big on classic myths that way. “I could have found some really rich guy, you know what I mean? The album we’re finishing could have been a lot more commercial too, but I don’t like the idea of that. They say why not make something commercial first and then change, but you can’t do that. You become marked, and people will not think it’s true.”
The odd film appearance (“done for cash because it was a lot more interesting than working in Woolworths”) helped to smooth the way at least a bit. And as the lead female voice in The Kiss, composer Michael Nyman’s nine-minute Channel Four exploration of that little build-up before oral harmony, Pigalle plumped for the sort of cheesy romantic sophistication which accompanies her songs perfectly. Not least because the slightly mousey femme fatale flatly refused to kiss her partner at the end. All that fuss and then nothing…
She also had a small part in Truffaut’s The Last Metro. For The Kiss she was cast because she “looked Etruscan”; for the Truffaut because the crew thought she’d make a great whore. “But when I arrived they saw I was too pure. They put so much lipstick on me and I still didn’t look right.
“But I don’t really think I can act anyway.” That’s actually rare modesty there - not much of that around all interview. When she came here Pigalle didn’t really think she could make it as a singer either. Or at least she says she wasn’t too keen on being one. “Even now I just want to explore ideas.” Like? “You can’t explain it - you can just do it.” Fine. “I’ve always wanted to express myself, but sometimes I get so excited about something that I just can’t express it.” Mmm.
As always, of course, the expression is right there slap in the middle of the music. After-the-party songs and all that. But spontaneous art it isn’t - parts of the first album have endured a gestation of about three years, right from the time Pigalle met Nick Plytas down at the Wag Club.
Jazz-based sessionist Plytas played organ with guest vocalist most weeks. Pigalle still lacked a cohesive style when the two were introduced by a mutual friend, but the hit if off at once and Plytas joined the poverty circle.
The record companies didn’t fancy them at all. Pigalle throws up her arms in disbelief, and this you’ve probably heard a few times before: “God, everyone was really horrible - and that was only if you could get to see them! There are so many bad people in this industry, so many bad every things. There are so few people who have any imagination at all” Dread to think how cynical she’ll be in two years.
Two demos, recorded “very horribly” and including the proposed first single, Why Does It Have To Be That Way, were hawked far and near, and the duo’s repertoire turned in on itself yet more, becoming yet more inaccessible for anyone unwilling to take chances. “It was a depressing time. We knew it was good, but you do need a bit of support. We looked around and there wasn’t any.”
The still dormant ZTT was a last resort - over a year ago they knew little of either its pretension’s or its talents. Morley, she says, liked the “idea” (which was true to form), and enthused after a performance at The Titanic. “A straightforward love song. Mmm, no one’s done that for a long time!” chuckled Trevor Horn, who at one point looked like he’d produce the album (it was eventually done by Luis Jardin). They signed only Pigalle, although it was understood that Plytas would remain her closest collaborator. Horn went down the stairs and along the corridor whistling something about the power of love songs.
And you’ve still not heard a note! In short, Pigalle was placed in a mink-lined box with a ‘Do Not Open Till Spring’ label stuck on the lid. Spring ‘84. But then Frankie effectively replaced it with another one that said ‘Hold Till Autumn’. Now it’s February 1985. “It’s been pretty bad for me, you know. I don’t just want to get my picture into the magazines…”
Indeed the publicity train, in ZTT’s case always a good few absurd months ahead, began to look a bit foolish. Ads began appearing in June with Pigalle posed raising one arm, cigarette spliced between the fingers, as if to say, ‘hi!’ or ‘merde!’, promising something “so pure and superior” for the autumn. Brief interviews began appearing in September. But maybe we’ll never hear Pigalle on record at all…
“Oh don’t. The real problem is that the things I do get ripped off so unbelievably - I see it all the time now.” She claims the ad on the back of last July’s BLITZ - that cigarette wave - has already been stolen by a well-known artist. “It’s a little game for you to discover who. But even inside ZTT things get stolen, which doesn’t make you feel too good. People tell me not to think about it and say that true original talent will always come through. It’s probably true, but I still can’t help getting annoyed.”
AT A PARTY in Holborn a few hours later she turns round and says: “I’ve got a little bit of culture for you.”
“In the twenties, or thirties or forties - when was the gramophone invented anyway? Well, some time ago there was this chansonnière called Damia, whom Piaf copied a great deal. Anyway, when people heard Damia sing, a lot of them later committed suicide. Suicide! That’s interesting, don’t you think? Personally, I’ve always been a great fan of hers…”