Why are Justice, Phoenix and Daft Punk so in love with soft rock?

Since Air's Moon Safari, Gallic hipsters have doused themselves liberally in l'eau du fromage. Mais, pourquoi?

The trailer for Phoenix's new tour documentary, From A Mess To The Masses, is all cold hard urban underpasses and sweaty stage invasions, painting a rather grittier band than the smooth stylists from Versailles we know. No one's fooled. They're not about austere cityscapes or punk cliche. They're a Gallic Eagles glossing gorgeous melody with an FM rock sheen, and no amount of roughing up is going to give them an edge. Along with so many of France's hip musical exports of the last 15 years, Phoenix betray a lifetime soaked in curiously unfashionable 70s soft rock.

Take Justice. Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay can barely open their mouths these days without summoning loon-panted legends of the 70s, but claiming kinship with Blue Oyster Cult puts the lid on it. There's a seam of naffness to Justice's techno cock-rock formation which is peculiarly French. Peculiar at least to the cooler end of French pop. Think Air plundering lava-lamp easy listening for their Gauloises grooves or the queasy likes of 10cc, Manfred Mann's Earth Band and even Buggles looming large over Daft Punk's brilliant 2001 album Discovery.

And this mad love carries on with the new breed. History couldn't give two hoots about the Hudson Brothers, an Oregon band signed to Elton John's Rocket Records in the mid-70s and produced by Bernie Taupin, but Boulogne-born electro producer SebastiAn kicks off this year's otherwise blistering debut album Total with Hudson River, little more than a track-long sample of the Brothers' With Somebody Else. The song sounds so ELO it may as well be wearing massive Aviators and ruining long-lost John Lennon demos.

What is it that draws the chic to the resolutely un-chic? Phoenix reckon it's about distance. So far away from all that Stateside action, they say they were never hamstrung by notions of cool. America may have drawn cred distinctions between, say, Al Green and Simon & Garfunkel, but the Phoenix chaps lapped up the lot. And what about the band formed by guitarist Laurent Brancowitz and Daft Punk's Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter in 1992? As the entire western world went grunge, Darlin' were named after a 1967 single by the Beach Boys.

The pop charts also offer clues to that elusive national psyche. In 1979, new wave's breakthrough year, France celebrated by nailing Supertramp's Breakfast In America to the top of the album chart for 40 consecutive weeks. Justice are sons of the prog nation that sent Pink Floyd to No 1 for a total of 57 weeks in the 70s. Bangalter and de Homem-Christo were impressionable young schoolboys when the Buggles (them again) spent 12 weeks at the singles summit. No one stood a chance.

In the end it's left France with a pretty raw deal. While we were importing all that unabashedly great pop from Sébastien Tellier and the rest of the Ed Banger roster in the mid-noughties, the French public was enjoying 20 unbroken weeks of Crazy Frog at No 1. Now there's an amour fou.


Matthew Horton

The GuardianTramp

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