AThe first thing Daniel Vangarde says when he walks into his record label’s office in Paris is that he’s never done an interview in English. On the other hand, he adds, he had never done an interview in his native French until this morning. He never bothered to talk to journalists at the height of his career, when he was a key figure in French pop: an artist, writer and producer behind a string of releases that range from the wildly obscure to the instantly familiar. And he certainly didn’t expect to meet the press at age 75: Vangarde had retired years ago and moved to a remote fishing village in northern Brazil.
But then a record company unexpectedly approached him about a career-spanning compilation named after Zagora, the label he founded in 1974, that piqued his interest. When they sent him the tracklist, he told them that some of the songs on it were not his. They were – he just completely forgot about them.
At least part of the renewed interest in Vangarde’s career is due to the success of his son, Thomas Bangalter, who until recently was one half of Daft Punk. It’s ironic considering that hearing Daft Punk was one of the reasons Vangarde gave up making music in the first place: “I thought, this is the new generation coming up and it’s going to be hard to compete. “
But Vangarde’s career is fascinating in its own right. It started with a bullish teenage plan to break into the music industry by simply writing to the Beatles and proposing to let him in – “I was sure I could bring them something,” he chuckles – and ended in the early 1990s when Vangarde retired. disgusted after a series of bitter rows with the French music industry.
In between, he pursued a career that was downright diverse. On the one hand, he wrote protest songs deemed so subversive that they were banned: his 1975 solo album of the same name suffered commercial failure due to its lead single, Un Bombardier Avec Ses Bombes, an attack on France’s role in the international arms trade. “The great honor I had was that I did one television appearance and then it was censored in France. Even today you cannot talk about that topic.
On the other hand, he was the mastermind behind the Bouzouki Disco Band, whose oeuvre conspicuously lacked attacks on the military-industrial complex: as their name suggests, they dealt exclusively in Greek-themed disco tracks with names such as Ouzo et Retsina and Greek Girls. Also on his résumé are huge international pop successes – Vangarde and his longtime collaborator Jean Kluger were behind late 1970s hitmakers Gibson Brothers and Ottawan, of DISCO and Hands Up (Give Me Your Heart) infamous – as well as fabulous cosmic disco. released under the names Starbow and Who’s Who, and obscure Japanese-themed funk rock concept albums favored by today’s crate diggers.
The content of 1971’s Le Monde Fabuleux des Yamasuki has, as Vangarde puts it, “got a bit into fashion” in recent years: the album has been sampled by Erykah Badu, included on a mix album compiled by Arctic Monkeys, and on the soundtrack of the TV series Fargo. It was remarkably ahead of its time: a frenzied, cartoonish mix of different musical cultures that also attempted to provoke what would now be called a “dance challenge” (the album cover comes complete with instructions on how to perform the steps).
Vangarde was always interested in music outside the standard western pop canon. “I like to travel, I like exotic instruments, I listen a little bit to the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Stevie Wonder, but most of the music I like is African music, Arabic music, reggae,” he says. But the inspiration of Le Monde Fabuleux des Yamasuki was not due to much exotic travel. “Do you know the TV series Kung Fu, with David Carradine? That’s what it was about then. We thought we should make an album about kung fu, and it became something Japanese.”
He worked across genres – he reworked a song from the Yamasuki album in Swahili as Aie A Mwana, then covered by, of all things, Bananarama – but it was disco that turned his head, his mind blown after hearing Chic’s Le Freak in a Parisian club. In addition, it was a genre that did not share the traditionally dismissive Anglo-American attitude of the time towards French pop. Vangarde prospered, as did his compatriots Space and Voyage. “There was no prejudice in disco, I think because the audience had experienced prejudice – it was black, it was gay. They were in no position to be snobs.”
In fact, he loved disco so much that when the backlash happened, he felt compelled to defend the genre: if you hear him say it, DISCO, Ottawan’s immortal anthem, is effectively a protest song. “It was the time when they were burning the disco records in the US, and I felt crazy that people were saying this would stop: it’s a rhythm, you can’t stop people dancing to a rhythm. So I said we’d do a song about disco to show that it’s not over. And the rhythm didn’t stop,” he adds triumphantly. “Because what is techno? A continuation of disco.”
For all his pop success and tolerance for a cheesy novelty number, Vangarde was always a curiously unbidden figure, turning down high-profile production jobs if he liked the artist too much, as in the case of reggae stars Third World or salsa supergroup the Fania All-Stars. “I didn’t want to be involved. I just wanted to be a listener – I didn’t want to lose that magic.”
How implacable it turned out in the late 1980s, when he got involved in a battle with the French music industry, initially over royalties. Research on the subject led him to take up the case of Jewish composers who had lost their intellectual property rights – and the merits associated with them – during the Nazi occupation of France. This became a controversy that eventually involved then-President Jacques Chirac, but Vangarde says a subsequent official report on the matter was “all lies – a massive cover-up”: no money or rights were returned. It was another factor in his decision to retire. “I had a big fight with Sacem, the copyright company. To write a song and give it to this company – why would I do this?” He shrugs. “I don’t do that anymore.”
It’s pretty easy to see where Daft Punk might have gotten their famous no-compromise attitude towards the music industry. As their careers began to take off, it was Vangarde who suggested they make a list of everything they didn’t want to do and present it to all the labels they wanted to sign, thus earning credit “for his precious advice” on their debut album, Homework.
“They didn’t want the label to interfere with the vision of the music, or the videos, or their image. This is one of the keys to their success, because when you go into the system, it has to please the A&R [people], it must please the radio, and the music changes. Daft Punk was original, they had talent and what they envisioned reached the people without interference.”
Vangarde says he does not feel like going back “into the system”. He says he never listens to the music he made in the 70s and 80s – “I wrote 350 songs, and I couldn’t sing one for you” – and he looks baffled at the suggestion that this new retrospective compilation might maybe lure you back to the studio. “No, I am very happy now. They wanted to release an album, I decided to do interviews for the first time in my life. And now,’ he smiles, ending our conversation, ‘I’ll stop again.’