Étienne Daho – Week-end à Rome
Last year, at the age of 44, I visited Paris for the very first time. Quite how it took me so long to get there is frankly inexplicable, but the problem with leaving it until middle age is that your entire vision of a place is composed entirely of all the famous good bits and you run the risk of being hugely disappointed. Happily for me, Paris turned out to be exactly like it is on telly – within two minutes of stepping out from Gare du Nord I’d heard an accordion and seen a poster with Vanessa Paradis on it (advertising something or other, possibly just her own beauty), and I was grinning like an idiot. I’m right easily pleased, me.
My main preparation for the trip involved making a playlist consisting of all my favourite French pop (by which I mean smashing tunes by Ms Paradis, Mylène Farmer, Jakie Quartz and France Gall) and French-related pop (by which I mean Je Ne Parle Pas Français by Girls Aloud and Our Last Summer by ABBA). These, I imagined, would sound great while wandering around on my own taking in the sights, and they did. In fact they sounded even better than ever, though the greatest moment of all occurred when, having nipped into a club called Bears Den, I heard the rumbling intro of Désenchantée bellowing up from the basement, prompting me to hurtle downstairs and finally dance to it in its natural setting, while showing off my French language lip-syncing skills to an indifferent crowd of locals.
The only song on my playlist not by a female artist was by colossal French superstar Étienne Daho and it is called Week-end à Rome, and if you haven’t heard it before you might want to sit down round about now.
If your pop memory stretches back as far as 1995, right about now you’ll be thinking something along the lines of ‘goodness me, this sounds exactly like He’s on the Phone by arguably the greatest pop group ever, Saint Etienne.” If your memory doesn’t stretch back that far (which is entirely possible if a little depressing for some of us), I suggest you go and listen to it this instant.
Before we get into how all this came to be, let’s focus on how brilliant 1984’s Week-end à Rome is. For a start, it is nice and computer-y, with lots of blips and bleeps fluttering around the gorgeous, ever so slightly wistful tune. Also I tend to think it’s structured quite unusually – unlike almost every other pop song, it’s the verse that does the job which is normally reserved for the chorus i.e. that’s the bit you hum. And then the chorus is sort of the same but with a different melody and anchored by a sob-inducing keyboard refrain. It’s genius, and it keeps adding amazingness as it progresses – a proper saxophone solo, some almost Trevor Horn-ish drum rolls and a fabulously sensual spoken word bit from a French lady who sounds progressively more distracted as she goes on. In fact in several respects Week-end à Rome would have been a brilliant record for Horn’s pals Dollar to nab and have a British hit with – it would certainly satisfy David Van Day’s apparent preference for being the lead, and no-one does breathy sensuality quite like Thereza Bazar.
I don’t have much idea about what’s going on in Week-end à Rome, other than it’s about, er, a weekend in Rome. I did do French at school but I’ve forgotten most of it now, and sticking the lyrics into Google Translate has proved to be no help whatsoever – I’m fairly sure Étienne isn’t actually singing “I would like to wedge the bubble in your bubble / put my wobbly heart into your jar, your aquarium” and if he is I’d rather not know. For me, French pop is mysterious for the very practical reason that I don’t usually understand any of it, and I love not having a clue.
Whether this was also true for Saint Etienne, I don’t know. Round about 1995 they became pop pen pals with near-namesake Étienne Daho, resulting in a collaborative EP entitled Reserection, which was initially only released in Japan and France and for which I paid a ruddy fortune. It’s here that He’s on the Phone makes its first appearance, though at this point it’s called Accident (Week-end à Rome) and is completely different, in a faintly Like a Motorway-with-added-gorgeous-strings sort of a way and with words that are most definitely not a direct translation from the original. I like to think that – rather like Eric Thompson making up entirely new stories for The Magic Roundabout – they loved the tune but couldn’t be arsed translating it and instead made up their own words
This was but of course just the first step on He’s on the Phone’s transformation into a tune that even now makes mid 90s clubbers go all misty eyed. I do hope this next part is true, as it gives hope to all of us with a tendency to leave things to the last minute, but apparently in a ‘blimey, we don’t have a single for the greatest hits’ incident, the band gave Accident to Steve Rodway (Motiv8), who turned it into the Twin Peaks-y total banger we know and love today and gave the ‘tienne their biggest ever UK hit ( not counting that Paul van Dyk collaboration, obviously), reaching no.11.
Obviously I was unaware of all of this at the time, having lost touch with my own French pen pal many years earlier, and it was a long time before I happened across Week-end à Rome and all the bits slotted properly into place. It only made me love He’s on the Phone more.
In a sterling bit of work for Anglo-French pop relations, Étienne Daho and Saint Etienne stayed in touch, with Sarah providing backing vocals on the Ian Catt programmed Les Passageurs (from 1996’s terrific Eden album) and, in a lovely reversal of the Week-end à Rome incident, Étienne reworked her signature solo tune Ready or Not into Le Premier Jour (du Rest de ta Vie) in 1998. It’s all very satisfying, don’t you think?
Entered chart: was not released in the UK
Who could sing this today and have a hit? WELL. There is a fabulous, couldn’t-be-more-French version by Vanessa Paradis and Étienne himself already in existence, where he gets to do the breathy sensual bit, though god knows it would never stand a chance here. It is lovely though.