This is the first in a series of blog entries about Jacky Barbier’s club in Bresse-sur-Grosne, Burgundy, adapted from a chapter I wrote in a book about Jacky and the club published in 2007, coinciding with a tribute concert in Nevers celebrating the fifth anniversary of his passing. The book had been in the works since 2005, and I was commissioned to write about Jacky’s special relationship with the Canterbury Scene. For this purpose, I conducted interviews with Pip Pyle, Hugh Hopper, John Greaves, Didier Malherbe and Daevid Allen, plus input from a few others. There is some very interesting material in there which has never been read outside France, and of course several of the interviewees have since passed on, so this is a mostly faithful translation with some adaptations and some unused material from the original interviews.
À L’Ouest de la Grosne was active as a music venue from 1974 to Jacky’s death in 2002. By the late Seventies it had become a haven for the increasingly marginalised musical styles that were progressive rock and jazz-fusion, and among the mostly French bands who performed at the club during that period were the likes of Zao, Art Zoyd, Surya, Édition Spéciale, David Rose, Neffesh Music, Univers Zéro, Vortex and their various offshoots.
In the spring of 1978, two major exponents of the Canterbury Scene performed at Bresse-sur-Grosne: National Health in March and Soft Head in May. Between them, they included most of the musicians then still active on the scene, outside of the better-known bands like Caravan or Gong (and its offshoots), who would usually perform in larger venues – although Gong would later play at Jacky’s too, as we will see later on.
Jacky Barbier had attended Magma’s earliest concerts in Paris in 1970, and Magma’s original pianist, Faton Cahen, would become one of his closest friends (and without doubt the musician most often booked at the venue), so he was familiar with the non-mainstream music scene. Any visitor who was ever granted the privilege of entering Jacky’s sound booth will remember the impressive collection of vinyl records which occupied an entire wall of the room. A connoisseur of music, a fan of jazz first and foremost but not exclusively, Jacky, although coming from the post-May 68 Parisian ‘café-théâtre’ scene, had not moved into music by accident, and his visitors would quickly notice that they no strangers in their host’s eyes.
Hugh Hopper : He always made a point of introducing me to people as ‘of Soft Machine’, and was disappointed when younger visitors obviously didn’t know the band.
John Greaves : Jacky had a copy of Kew.Rhône [John’s legendary 1977 album with Peter Blegvad and Lisa Herman] and it was his bible – he played it very loud all the time to everybody, saying ‘This guy here is the guy who made it! Give him another drink!’… I remember being slightly embarrassed, as I always am…
While his knowledge of the music scene of the time was remarkable, Jacky Barbier’s interest in this music was by no means marginal in 1970s France.
Didier Malherbe : In the Seventies, if you were into not just jazz but also into so-called progressive music, Gong and Soft Machine were difficult to ignore.
As well as knowing these bands, Jacky was also aware of how unique they were even in the wider context of the UK music scene of the day.
Pip Pyle : When we played there the first time with National Health, he seemed very pleased to have us playing there. It meant something to him. He knew it wasn’t just some English bunch of total bozos!
For the musicians booked to perform at the venue, and especially those who came from England, À L’Ouest de la Grosne was appealing in more ways than one. Quite apart from the warm and colourful personality of the host, the village was a haven of peace in the depths of the Burgundian countryside, far away from large cities, with their vain agitation and role plays.
Pip Pyle : If anything, Jacky would never be star-struck for anybody. It was nice, that completely non-star thing, it was just like just a club that you’d play, and then afterwards, when you were finished playing, you’d immediately start chatting with everyone in the audience. There was no dressing room anyway! So it was just hanging out and talking, and usually, at the end of the evening, unless it was a really successful night, you’d know the names of most of the audience. That’s what I call a very good environment for playing music. Some of the best gigs I’ve done have always been those kinds of gigs, where you know everybody and you’re just playing for them.
Didier Malherbe : Jacky was above all a great host, very humane and also very funny. As for just about everything else, he was clearly a dilettante. But, as I said, he was a great host, and that was the reason we kept coming back. The atmosphere was always nice, the meals were gargantuan and accompanied by copious quantities of wine… And you had Jacky himself, just listening to him tell his stories was really something special! He had kept from his past life as a comedian some very peculiar, uniquely Parisian intonations and expressions, and whenever he spoke, it was always very funny, very inspired.
Jacky’s charisma took on an almost “exotic” connotation for his British visitors.
John Greaves : You know what a francophile I am. A francophile anarchist! Jacky represented all of that. You only had to look at him to know where he came from – that free-thinking, anarchist tradition. Somehow it was very obvious. People like him are rare – the true spirit, the true naïve… The fact that he’d managed to survive in this world, doing what he did, to the age he was [when he died], was a miracle in itself, really. The world needs people like him!