Thursday, March 27, 2008

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Sifting through the ashes of the twentieth century, archeologists of the future will be forced to conclude that sometime around 1961, young people (primarily guys) the world over were compelled to don matching suits, assume collective names in English (not always but often, even if their native language was something else), and wield guitars and the occasional drum, to uncertain effect. Was it a religious phenomenon? A form of mating ritual? An initiation rite? Perhaps a bit of all three. Even tiny Belgium was not immune to the craze. Here we see Paul Simul & les Blue Jets, from Fleron. Paul perhaps harbored certain grandiose ideas, or maybe he was just naturally high-spirited.
Les Médiators, from Gives-Ben-Ahin, were remarkable in featuring the lovely Nadia, on guitar and singing! Their base rate was BF5500 for six hours (that would be about $180, sending each of them home with roughly 35 bucks in their pockets, in circa-1962 money). Although their string ties drawled "Western," their accordion said "bien de chez nous."
Les Tuniques Rouges, from Verlaine, also featured an accordionist, although their leader insisted on being called "Tommy." They, too, were working-class kids from the industrial suburbs around Liège. They, too, look irredeemably Belgian.
The Ansambl Aleksandra Subote, by contrast, appear to have been Romanian, but their card was found in the same pile, meaning either that they were uncommonly ambitious, relentlessly touring the continent the way Nazareth would a decade later, or else that their families had emigrated to the mines and factories of the Province of Liège, which were enjoying the last glints of prosperity then.
The Cousins ("Les Cousins") were the superstars of this milieu, a Brussels-bred Ventures-with-vocals who just about defined Belgian rock & roll in the early 1960s, holding their own against the superstars (Johnny, Jacques, Sylvie, Les Chats Sauvages) who emanated from Paris. At YouTube you can savor a few of their videos. I especially appreciate the one that shows them performing their hit "Kana Kapila" (lyrics in tiki-lounge Hawaiian) in an indisputably authentic Belgian beer mill:
There is a deep poignancy to the Cousins warbling something like "Woman, come, let's make music quick" in the ancient language of the South Seas, while behind them Jojo, a sèche dangling from his kisser, pours out glass after glass of Stella.
The Narval's--addicted, like so many francophones, to the génitif saxon--boldly decided not to display their instruments, instead choosing to pose in the most modern setting they could think of: across the river from the Liège Holiday Inn. Their modernity may indeed reflect the fact that they postdated their colleagues by a few years, at least if I'm correct in assessing José's Nehru jacket.

Such things were occurring all over the globe, from Thailand to Latvia and from Egypt to Peru, a previously unimaginable mass of youth, gyrating frantically, enthusiastically grooming, grinning and finger-popping, wiping their 45s on their sleeves, mispronouncing English words--while their grave and beaten elders shook their heads and muttered imprecations. How did this happen, and why, and how is it possible that, nearly fifty years later, a version of it persists?