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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"1901," the ultimate French track of its time — which calls back to another time

Yesterday, it was French house. Today, it's French rock, and a tune which has its roots in that same electronic touch.

Prefacing this post with a quick note: This is not a typical Saturday post for this semester. As a huge Cal football fan (Go Bears!), most Saturday posts will be about a song the University of California Marching Band played for their most recent halftime show. However, since tonight’s season opener (vs. Nevada) kicks off at 7:30 PM (and going on at this article's scheduled posting time), I won’t have time to write about one of those tracks tonight. I’ll do that tomorrow instead.

We now return to your regularly scheduled programming.


Today’s post begins with a bit of a tangent, because 1) I love tangents, and 2) trust me, it’ll end up being related to the song I’m covering.

Yesterday I wrote about the French house that inspired Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande’s “Rain On Me,” including artists like Daft Punk and Cassius. Both of them factor into today’s Senior Year Soundtrack selection, the former in a more roundabout way than the latter.

Before Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter formed Daft Punk, they had a short-lived band called Darlin’, which they formed with their friend Laurent Brancowitz. Darlin’ was named after the Beach Boys song of the same name, and the band covered that song alongside making some original material. Here’s their entire discography.

Yeah, it’s not much, but you can definitely hear the beginnings of Daft Punk in “Untitled 18,” which sounds like it belongs on the duo's debut album Homework. Guy-Manuel and Thomas actually got the name “Daft Punk” from how a reviewer described Darlin’s output as “a daft punky thrash.” Meanwhile, Brancowitz joined a garage band his brother Chris Mazzalai was putting together. A couple years later, that band became known as Phoenix, whose 2009 song “1901” I’m writing about today. Along with the rest of the band’s fourth album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, “1901” was produced by the late Philippe Zdar of Cassius, who helped take the album into more of a synth-based direction compared to Phoenix’s previous work.

"1901" has always had this sort of mystique to me, and I think part of that comes from its introduction. The repeating sonar-like sound does part of the work towards that, but I think more of it comes from the metric tension the riff gives the opening, and the track as a whole. The main synth coming in on the second half of beat two used to always throw me for a loop, because that's such a rare place for the most prominent line to come in. It took me a number of listens before I realized there wasn't any time signature magic going on, but that the synth just enters in a cool spot that gives the track a very distinctive syncopation in the intro, verses, and post-chorus. (If you're having trouble hearing the downbeats like I did, listen for when the lighter of the rhythm guitars changes chords.)

As long as it took me to understand the song's intro, it took me even longer to understand the lyrics and their perspective. The hint was there on the tin all along: "1901" is an ode to that year in France, specifically in Paris, near the band's hometown of Versailles. In the year 1901, an era known as la Belle Époque was in full swing. It was a period of peace, prosperity, optimism, and maximalism, highlighted on the home front a flourishing of the arts and technology. Frontman Thomas Mars succinctly described the time as "better than what it is now" in a performance for American music magazine Spin. Mars' lyrics actually reference a time before la Belle Époque as well: in singing "1855-1901," he references the five world's fairs held in Paris, beginning in the former year. The next lines, "Watch them built up a material tower / Think it's not going to stay anyway, think it's overrated," speak of the Eiffel Tower, constructed for the 1889 exposition. Contrary to its warm reception today as the ultimate symbol of the City of Light and the country as a whole, the tower was not well-received during and immediately after its construction, and it was only planned to remain standing for 20 years. In fact, the Eiffel Tower was only saved initially in 1909 because of its usefulness as a radio tower. Is it overrated, as many thought of it at the time? Perhaps, but there's no denying it's the most visible relic of that era in all of Paris and France.

Fitting for a song about such a joyous era, "1901" is one of the liveliest synth-rock tunes ever made, with the jangly guitars and rising synths in the chorus helping propel it there, along with the "hey" shouts that bring the energy to a maximum. The chorus lyrics also tie into the Paris expositions, with "It's twenty seconds to the last call" seeming like a reference to the mini-trains that took millions of patrons around the 1889 fair. More abstractly, though, the line and the rest of the chorus evokes the feeling of grabbing life by the horns, not letting any opportunities slip away. The joie de vivre of summer (also referenced in the chorus) doesn't last forever — in fact, I'm writing this at the tail end of what many consider summer, the Labor Day weekend — and it's high time to live in the present while it's still here.

As for the post-chorus (some hear it as the end of the chorus, but I hear it as being separate because of the return to the verse progression), I'm still not sure what "fold it" means, and how it pertains to the rest of the song. For now, I'll guess that it fits along the lines of living in the moment. Maybe the "folding" refers to a brochure, a map, or an itinerary on a trip to this magical Parisian era. Maybe it's closing the book you're reading and just taking it all in and going for it. Considering the rest of the song, that seems pretty fitting to me... but again, as I said yesterday, I'm only one person, and everybody connects to songs separately. I can't tell you what you think of it — I can only share my perspective and wonder how others think of the same thing.

"1901" is a masterpiece of French synth-rock, which builds off multiple traditions from Phoenix's home country in its house- and synth-tinged production and its capturing of la Belle Époque. The studio version is amazing, but the live performances I've watched and heard online seem to be even better. For that reason, I'm going to end this article with a video of a fantastic live performance of "1901" and another track from Phoenix, from October 20, 2010 at Madison Square Garden.

This performance brings the whole post full circle. I started with Darlin', how it spawned Daft Punk, and how Brancowitz then joined Phoenix (whose beginnings can arguably be heard in Darlin's "Untitled 33," particularly in the chord progression and Brancowitz's solo); I'm ending this post with the reunion of those three musicians on stage in Manhattan for Phoenix's second encore. This was ultimately Daft Punk's final public appearance (the Grammys aside) before they disbanded in 2021. The performance encapsulates everything about both Daft Punk and Phoenix through a couple incredible mashups, with "1901" being the centerpiece. Sit back — or, honestly, get up and dance — and enjoy the show.


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