Wouldn’t it do them justice to rid Les Calamités (literally “the calamities”) of the embarrassing phrase “girl band”, durably stuck to their skins and plaited skirts? It’s nothing but a pink puffy cloud obscuring their true importance as a “band” full stop, as well as their fleeting though mind-bending trajectory. In just a few months going on stage with a handful of original songs recorded here and there, they became, from Dijon to Rouen, Paris to Toulouse, Bordeaux to Strasbourg, the darlings of an uncompromising rockers’ demanding scene. Tolerated by some, maybe, they were also consecrated, certainly (should they have needed the accolade). The trade-off was a succession of quick and distinctive verse-choruses for which the adjectives “fresh” and “light” seemed to have been invented again. They delivered just as many covers, which gave an idea of the origins of their songwriting: one foot in the fifties (on the dancefloor), the other in the sixties (in the garage). All of this leading to their final hit, a successful incursion in the top sales with a popular song for everyone to hum at ease, from seaside campsites to the cool kids of the capital. Everything the Calamités touched, with their classy, rigorous, casual ways – plus just enough amused detachment – turned into gold. No mysteries, so little drama… and just like that the meteor flew by, giving its public little time to realise the full importance of these small-scale, three-voice anthems sung with a style given both by arrogant innocence and cheeky ease. Without playing the cards naturally assigned to girls (sexy attitude, feminist clichés, dilettante groupism) they managed to combine a pop teen spirit with a shameless rock’n’roll energy. Too short-sighted to face it, too jealous to admit it, and a bit too misogynist to write it on the front page of magazines, the local musical press preferred keeping its little secret warm. Today still, the same images emerge: the good girlfriends, the big sisters, the cousins and blah-blah-blah. The Calamités were however and at once, one step behind – some kind of 50s-60s classicism – and one ahead thanks to their writing talent and French lyrics. That wasn’t too hard to get. But when it finally became commonplace knowledge… well it was too late. They were gone already. They were someplace else.
We know the story; it’s nested in the memory of every French rock encyclopaedist. Three childhood friends in their teens, Caroline, Isabelle and Odile form a band. They live in Beaune, Burgundy, and do so mostly uneventfully. It’s the early 80s. One thing leading to another, with a repertoire made up of just as many covers as personal compositions, they find a drummer after trying many, fire up local, then national venues, befriend the Dogs and other rock’n’roll bands (or call it garage, whatever you will) and record an album, À bride abattue, for the label New Rose. Coveted by fanzines mostly, then approached by the magazines Best and Rock & Folk, they also appear on regional then national television, from Les Enfants du Rock all the way to Platine 45 with Jacky. When all the doors seem wide open, they choose to focus on the end of their studies instead. Caroline definitely moves on, while Odile and Isabelle push things just a bit further and treat themselves to a hit that easily makes its way into the Top 50: the famous Vélomoteur, fan-produced by Daniel Chenevez – one-half of the successful duo Niagara and a savvy producer. TV appearances, success, and that’s that. The story ends there, with little or no tears or pain.
What remains of the Calamités in 2021? A dozen recordings, already reissued twenty years ago (on the label Last Call, affiliated to its parent label New Rose), ten or so TV appearances floating around on video hubs, a thorough fansite (Calamiteux, or “calamitous”, disconnected since) as well as a bunch of pieces written by amateur historians and critics, all desperately retelling the same biography over and over, like one would a good old story: that of the sweetest of girl-bands, heralding… What exactly? Who knows, in the end? Les Calamités remain a geographic, temporal and mental oddball: they didn’t claim or expect anything from anyone, and, above all, they were having fun, shattering the glass-ceilings that could have stopped them with their clairvoyant and totally assumed amateurism. The Calamités profoundly touched the ones with whom they would cross paths and apparently effortlessly so, thanks to their natural talent for writing a handful of good songs turned classics. And that is a rare gift.
“I perfectly remember the day I first heard the catchy single Toutes les nuits on Europe 1, in Maneval’s show. I rushed to my tape deck to record an excerpt, which I listened to over and over again, until I finally got the album À bride abattue, released on New Rose. That album was everything I liked: brilliant compositions, pushy and skilfully arranged; refined, mischievous lyrics, a lo-fi spectorian sound like in the sixties, with heavenly voices and lots of harmonies. The cover depicts a girl band of students sporting pencil skirts, ponytails and pumps, dropping their tracks like they don’t care. There’s Odile and Isabelle on the guitar, Caroline on the bass and Mike on the drums. The result is a series of unstoppable hits: Toutes les nuits, Malhabile, Le supermarché, Nicolas, the moving Behind Your Sunglasses, but also some perfect covers: Teach Me How To Shimmy, With A Boy Like You, The Kids Are Alright, You Can’t Sit Down. All gems. This carefree, charming, innocent album lightened up my early eighties. And I still listen to it.”