‘Les Esclaves’: the album that invented French psychedelia

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It might be hard for the surrounding nations of Europe to admit, but France has always been a titan of the cultural industries. Throughout history, the country has produced a wealth of the finest writers, poets, filmmakers and musicians. Particularly in the 20th century, France experienced something of a cultural renaissance, helped along by a defiant young generation of filmmakers and musicians. Even within the mind-bending world of psychedelic rock, France was well ahead of the pack. 

Psychedelic rock is often thought to have its roots in the hippie movement and anti-war counterculture in the United States. Particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area, groups like Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and the Grateful Dead helped to define the popular sound of the genre. Over in Europe, however, the psychedelic scene was much more experimental. The romanticism and artistic expression that have storied the cultural history of France proved to be a natural fit for the new world of psychedelic rock.

During the latter part of the 1960s, the music scene of France moved on from the pop optimism of the yé-yé movement and delved headfirst into the strange, experimental world of psychedelia. Groups like Présence, André Demay, and Les 5 Gentlemen began to tear down the boundaries of rock and roll, replacing them with something distinctly more far-out. Even today, the music scene of France still bears the remnants of this early psychedelic scene, with artists such as Melody Prochet, Moodoïd and La Femme carrying the torch of French psych rock.

So, where did the lineage of this incredible psych-rock scene begin? The answer is a lot more obscure than it deserves to be. In 1969, CBS issued a long-forgotten LP by the short-lived group Popera Cosmic as part of their Série Apollo series of releases. Entitled Les Esclaves, the album failed to make much of an impact on the musical mainstream upon its initial release, but its impact on France’s psychedelic movement was untold.

The album, spearheaded by François Wertheimer, was wildly ahead of its time and featured a stacked line-up of personnel, including a young Jean-Michel Jarre. Succeeding in creating a vibrant psychedelic soundscape, it is often considered the first dedicated psych-rock album to be released in France. It went on to have an all-encompassing impact on the era of concept albums that soon followed.

Aside from French psychedelia, Les Escalves also formed a major influence on the country’s flirtations with funk and disco. The advent of this innovative new sound signified the end of the yé-yé years, introducing a much more inventive and experimental sound. Within the grooves of Les Esclaves, you can hear the pioneering influence of musique concrète blended with this newfound world of psychedelic rock, the results of which still sound like the future of music, even after five decades.

Despite its incredible content and long-lasting influence over the music scene of France, Les Esclaves was barely promoted by CBS. In fact, until its reissue in 2018 by Finders Keepers Records, the vitally important record had been unavailable since its first pressing in 1969 – copies of which still fetch up to £600 on the second-hand market. Nevertheless, the album is certainly worth a reappraisal. Over 50 years after its initial release, the record remains one of the greatest psychedelic concept albums of all time; it is easy to see why its enduring influence has been so wide-reaching. 

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