Paris, Wednesday February 26, 2020. Faculty of Medicine entrance hall. Lemaire is presenting its Fall-Winter 2020 collection. A woman opens one door to the hall, and then the second. Ryo Kase1 takes in his surroundings and heads across anxiously. Twin sisters dressed in white rainwear stride by in silence. The attendees walk in step with the feverish rhythm of the upright bass in Jac Berrocal’s “ Rock’n Roll Station ” and Vince Taylor utters the words, “ Rock‘n Roll Station is a station where we can do what we want to do. Everything is possible... ” Lemaire sound designer Pilooski sat down to talk with the man behind this unique tune.
“ I recorded my first record in a church on the outskirts of Sens with a wash boiler, a frying pan and some chickens. ”
The anecdote encapsulates the artistic vision of Jac Berrocal, an iconic, genre-defying figure in the French alternative scene—a touching, eccentric artist whose style hovers between indie rock and free jazz. Jac Berrocal draws from own experiences to paint atypical, cinematic sound landscapes using his trumpet and a wide range of objects. A scholar of experimental music and improvisation with a keen interest in painting and architecture, Jac has thrived on musical collaborations with artists from diverse backgrounds for nearly five decades. He has crossed paths and played with Sunny Murray, Pascal Comelade, MKB (F. J. Ossang), James Chance, Michel Portal, Lizzy Mercier Descloux, Jacques Thollot, Francis Marmande, Yvette Horner, Christophe, and one Vince Taylor.
A fallen star dubbed the “ Black Angel of Rock ”, Vince turned heads with his sensual charisma and leather outfits directly inspired by Gene Vincent2. A 60s rock idol, he earned a bad-boy reputation for stirring up trouble during his stage performances and spent most of his career in France. Considered by many as one of the founding fathers of the 70s punk scene, he counted David Bowie among his admirers—legend has it that he was the inspiration for Ziggy Stardust. In 1976, Jac Berrocal and Vince Taylor recorded a left-field hit evocatively titled “ Rock’n Roll Station ”, a throbbing, minimalist song imbued with futuristic melancholy. Vince imparted a sense of nostalgia for his rock years to the bassline and stripped-down, surprising rhythmic structure.
Pilooski : How did you come up with the idea to write “ Rock’n Roll Station ” ?
Jac Berrocal : “ Rock’n Roll Station ” came to me in early 1976 while I was working on a new album called Parallèles3. My plan was to invite friends like the plastic artist, painter and theater director Michel Potage, the trombonist and future astrophysicist Roger Ferlet, the saxophonist Claude Bernard, and Bernard Vitet [a versatile figure in the French music scene who worked with Brigitte Bardot, Eric Dolphy and Serge Gainsbourg, amongst others]. “ Rock’n Roll Station ” is also an homage to Luigi Russolo4, an Italian futurist painter and composer who is considered the father of noise music. Back then I was thinking of making a track true to the raw, original spirit of 1950s rock, and I was especially interested in the concept of a guitarless rock song. Around the same time, a friend gave me a copy of Lou Reed’s Coney Island Baby. I listened to it on repeat and thought it was gorgeous. I was particularly fond of the spoken word. The idea of inviting Lou Reed began to grow on me—I imagined him laying down vocals on a very minimal riff, like a trance, a single note repeated endlessly. Time passed and I gradually let go of the idea due to the difficulty of getting in touch with him directly.
Pilooski : You were in Paris at the time ?
JB: Yes, I would rehearse in the cellar of an antique dealer friend on Rue de l’Arbalète. I had created a noise set-up with watering cans, wash boilers and broken trumpet parts. The music fell somewhere between free jazz and musique concrete, a sort of homage to the Italian futurist Luigi Russolo, not long after I had seen his organ of noises.
Pilooski : How did you get the idea to invite Vince Taylor ?
JB : By chance, through a friend who mentioned him to me. He was living in Paris at the time and would often pay him a visit. I already knew his music, of course. I grew up listening to it as a teenager. I was also fascinated by the brash, punk character who wreaked havoc on concert venues in the 60s. My girlfriend introduced me to him. We got along pretty well chatting over a couple of drinks about Chet Baker and jazz in general. That was when I completely forgot about Lou Reed and no longer had any doubt about the voice of “ Rock’n Roll Station ”. He was very enthusiastic about the idea of singing over jazz—I mentioned the homage to noise to him and we fed off each other.
Pilooski : Where did you record ?
JB : My friend Bernard Vitet offered to let me record at his place, in the living room of his Art Deco villa on the Left Bank. His home had also been used as a studio by a few jazz and pop artists from the 70s, like Don Cherry and Brigitte Fontaine. The mobile studio was very basic : Pierre Bastien’s upright bass, a mic, and a bicycle that we had found on a street corner. We used the moving spokes as a rhythm instrument in certain parts of the song.
Pilooski : Certain moments are layered with ghostly synths that add a kind of melancholy…
JB : Those are actually harmonies played with my trumpet and sent through effects. I was listening to a lot of Jon Hassell5 back then, and to how he altered the sound of his instrument. The layered sounds add a sort of reverie and accentuate the nostalgic element.
Pilooski : Who wrote the words ?
JB : I did. I wanted to sum up my vision of the 50s in an abstract, jumbled way—the spirit and the energy of the post-war years, things that had made an impact on me, the importance of radio in spreading culture, the song “ Brand New Cadillac ”, a sort of homage to Vince, in a way. Guitarless rock, sung by the man himself. The upright bass was also a quintessential instrument of the era, so it all made sense… We recorded very quickly, in only two takes. Vince did vocal exercises at the start of the song and then focused on the words he was reading or improvising. Everything is based on improvisation around a theme, in the same vein as the jazzmen who we were both fans of. First Vince sang the lyrics of some rock hits of the era, which lent a form of lyricism to the song, and then he ended with a more spoken vocalization, ideas thrown out on the fly. Unfortunately, we didn’t save the first takes for lack of resources—we were self-producing at the time and we didn’t have enough tape to record everything.
Pilooski : How did people react when the song was released ?
JB : The release didn’t really gain traction. Vince Taylor had been forgotten by show business and was going through a rough patch. He didn’t have a terribly great reputation. And we didn’t want to promote the record before it was released, most likely out of superstition. Vince Taylor had been an idol to me and I couldn’t believe that he was singing on my record. The press didn’t know where to place the track, which was too hard to categorize—not jazz enough for some and not rock enough for others. The song’s success and cult status came much later [it was rediscovered and grew in popularity following a 1994 cover by the experimental pop project Nurse with Wound] and now I’m asked to play it wherever I’m performing. It was very moving for me hear it a few months ago in a setting other than that for which it was created.
1. Ryo Kase is an acclaimed Japanese actor known for his work with international film directors such as Clint Eastwood, Hong Sang-soo, Abbas Kiarostami, Gus Van Sant, Martin Scorsese and Kiyoshi Kurosawa.
2. Gene Vincent was an American rock ‘n roll and rockabilly singer who helped popularize the latter genre and wrote one of its most successful songs, “ Be-Bop-A-Lula ”.
3. Parallèles was recently reissued by the label Rotorelief as part of the Berrocal 1973-1976-1979 box set.
4. In 1913, Russolo wrote a manifesto, The Art of Noises, which put forward the idea that different forms of music are omnipresent in our daily lives.
5. Jon Hassell is a trumpeter and multi-instrumentalist who championed world music in the 70s.