Clothilde: Queen of the French Swinging Mademoiselle

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At the height of the Yeh Yeh Girl craze, literally dozens upon dozens of teenage girls filed through the recording studios of Western Europe and, from there, onto the airwaves. For every true artiste like Francoise Hardy, I suspect there were many more who were compelled by external forces such as svengalis and stage parents. Yet, as the brief and quite odd career of Clothilde demonstrates, the results in those cases were not always as manufactured sounding as that might imply.

Clothilde was actually one Elisabeth Beauvais, who was discovered at the age of 19 by a French pop provocateur by the name of Germinal Tenas, also 19. After some goading from her actress mother, Beauvais reluctantly signed to French Vogue records and began life as Clothilde, complete with a repertoire and image carefully handcrafted by Tenas. In the liner notes to French label Born Bad Records’ new compilation Clothilde: Queen of the French Swinging Mademoiselle 1967, Beauvais, interviewed by Alexandre Hussenet, repeatedly stresses just how much she hated everything about being Clothilde, from the songs penned for her by Tenas and arranger Jean-marie Di Maria to the mod outfits Tenas selected for her. For Tenas, however, this worked out splendidly, as it caused Beauvais to project exactly the sullen and disaffected demeanor that he was looking for.

And indeed, when one looks at the available photographs of Clothilde from the period — which roughly spans the majority of 1967 — one is looking at a young woman who is completely over it, rather than, as you might otherwise suspect, one who is simply trying to project rock star cool. (“If she had had her way,” says Tenas. “She would have worn just tees and jeans like a protest singer.”) Approaching his task with a Situationist’s clinical irreverence, Tenas hoped to create Clothilde as a sort of anti-Yeh Yeh Girl, one who would mock by contrast the manufactured likes of France Gall (though, to be fair, some of Gall’s work under Serge Gainsbourg’s tutelage had quite an irreverent streak all its own).

A major influence upon Tenas’s sensibility was the confrontational French satirical magazine Hara-Kiri, whose dark humor he tried to incorporate into his songwriting. The magazine’s slogan was “Journal bête et mechant” — “a stupid and vicious magazine” – which Tenas appropriated for the title of one of Clothilde’s songs, “La Chanson Bête et Mechant” – essentially “A Stupid and Vicious Song”. An exemplar of the gallows wit that became a trademark of Clothilde’s sound, the song sees the singer detailing in the most blasé manner possible a series of gruesome pranks that she’s played on various loved ones. The single “Fallait pas Ecraser la Queue du Chat” is likewise a chronicle of mayhem — ranging from amputation to decapitation — that befalls the unfortunate protagonist after he steps on the titular cat’s tail.

To compliment this somewhat offbeat lyrical content, Tenas and Di Maria’s songs, while written in the pop idiom, incorporated a variety of disorienting musical flourishes. “Fallait pas Ecraser…” highlights an arpeggiated, off-key hook that sounds like it was created by a random noise generator, answered by an intrusive blast of flatulent trumpet. Elsewhere, background vocals seem to heckle as much as support the lead. Against this backdrop, the presumably miserable Clothilde sounds like a shell shocked Alice lost in a Jaberwockian musical hedge maze. Which is to say, it’s all pretty wonderful.

Sometime around the beginning of 1968, Elisabeth Beauvais’ tolerance for being Clothilde finally reached its fraying point, prompting Germinal Tenas to mercifully release her from her contract. Having never even performed live, the only artifacts she left behind were two EPs, as well as an Italian language single that all involved seem to today consider inexplicable. The upside to this, of course, is that today one can own the entirety of Clothilde’s recorded output on a brisk, ten track collection like the Born Bad disc. Barring the most unlikely of developments, we will never see a Tupac-like outpouring of unreleased Clothilde demos and foreign b sides. The artist has closed the curtain on all that.

With stories like Clothilde’s, its common practice for us to wonder what might have been. Might Beauvais have eventually come into her own and taken control of Clothilde’s image — perhaps, in the process, taking her music in an unforeseen direction? In this case, those are questions I prefer not to ask. Pop history is often a sloppy business. We should consider ourselves lucky when a story plays out with as neatly defined a beginning and end as this one has, with all the participants alive, and all within an economical time frame. Not to mention that it has a pretty wild soundtrack.