Rock en Seine Review: What The British Can Learn From French Festivals

Rock we Seine happens on the outskirts of Paris and is chock full of top names, but how does it shape up to it's English cousins?
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Rock we Seine happens on the outskirts of Paris and is chock full of top names, but how does it shape up to it's English cousins?


It’s the little things that add up to make a big difference. Having been to several UK festivals over the years I was keen for a change so I hopped on a flight to the continent and dipped my toes in the salubrious culture of Paris’s only summer festival within the city boundaries, Rock on Seine.

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Now in its tenth year, ReS takes place alongside the famous snaking river and it was from both banks of the Seine that the comparisons began to flow. And so I started to wonder: which would rock harder, a festival in France or one of our more established music events back home in the UK?

Most importantly, the music: over three days there were some great headliners and brilliant bands from all over the world (Sigur Ros/Placebo/Bloc Party/Foster the People/The Shins) spread across four stages. The festival has a neat set-up that runs right through the Domaine National de Saint-Cloud, a large park built by Louis XIII, normally populated only by semi-naked statues, now under the warm Parisian sun cold stone met warm flesh. Running in a long strip of grass surrounded by forest and townhouses, it was easier to navigate than most festivals and cut between stages. Also tiered timing meant that you could see a band one place, then nip over to your choice of two other stages (scenes) and see another band, rather than sitting about talking shit on the grass while you wait.

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Bien Venue?

British festivals often take place in the green and pleasant land of our deathly quiet countryside; where people go to rest, interfere with livestock and generally get away from all the noise and decadent behaviour we associate with rock and/or roll. This is fine if you love the great outdoors but for many of the British kids spilling out from the suburbs, high rises and narrow city streets the countryside can be something of head-fuck and a nuisance for the local townsfolk. Added to our terrible weather the spirit of the blitz barely reclaims us and decency deserts us as we are doomed to wander soundtracked wastelands, desperately in search of Dylan Thomas’s naked girls in Macintoshes (alas, there are none) up to our knees in what is most likely a mixture a mud and human shit.

For once it was a pleasure to eat at a festival, swapping GB rat meat for Ethiopian-style rice.

By contrast, a rock festival in one of the world’s most beautiful cities, albeit on the outskirts, has considerably more widescreen appeal. Paris is famous for being framed by the Seine, a lifeblood river as the Thames is to London. But far from being a tale of two cities, London only has its one-day trifles, no festivals propre – that needs to change.

Rock and Roll a la Mode…

Another big difference is attitude. With only half-irony, the French are traditionally much cooler than us. When it comes to music the enthusiasm is just the same, there is moshing for the Eagles of Death Metal, albeit, less of it than you might find in the UK, but in the main it is simply more slow-burning, more restrained. A simple reminder of this came from the pink skin/white shirt off-casts from Carry on EDL stood behind me throughout Noel Gallagher’s set, burning themselves (and others) with wanton cigarettes then dowsing the singed limb in beer, pre-mixed with dropped fag ash. Although they did serve as a choral reminder that almost all of Noel’s set sounded like Oasis on a bad day.

From the French, applause is measured as to enjoyment; there is no whooping oneself hoarse for the support band until one can Yahoo no more – and almost everyone is smoking, all of the time. This heady atmosphere was re-enforced by sweet green scent that loitered everywhere until I was (finally) offered a joint by a jittery chap with one eye and four beers.

Many of the, no doubt well-meaning, descriptions in the festival guide were so poorly/accurately translated as to become like faux-poetry typical of the average 16 year-old.

Les Pain Justes

A festival rarely marches on its stomach, many simply float about on drug-addled pins, and for the most part that’s down to the choice between cheap burgers and chips and piss-beer sold at inflated prices. By contrast, Rock on Seine offered several bars, Pinot Noir from plastic flutes and a variety of foods from across the diverse French culture. For once it was a pleasure to eat at a festival, swapping GB rat meat for Ethiopian-style rice.

Perdre de Sens/Lost in Translation

Certain things cannot be communicated easily. I might be viciously on fire and desperately asking someone (en francais) to throw a pint or at least piss on me to help. But if I fail to conjugate the correct verb, the chances are I will be left ashen-faced in both hue and spirit.

Many of the, no doubt well-meaning, descriptions in the festival guide were so poorly/accurately translated as to become like faux-poetry typical of the average 16 year-old. This makes it hard to know what to expect from bands such as who are supposed to “enlighten your soul” and or possess “boisterous guitars and elementary observation”. Music is an inherently wild and quicksilver, slip-sliding medium and as such it is often difficult to put into words (Tom Wolfe does it well), hence the clichés and pale verbosity of the low-rent rock hack; so we might forgive the French wordsmiths for rambling on somewhat obliquely, just as I have done here.

But the great thing about Rock on Seine is that it shows big cities can host their own festivals to rival Reading/Leeds and V in the UK and provide better facilities, better organised and more convenience than the barn next door.

A further problem is that interest in French music is limited for British listeners. While about three-quarters of the line-up hailed from English-speaking shores (that is, the UK and the ex-colonies) France is often unable to export much of its music to foreign lands, and as a result our cultural exchange is one-way only. Despite the great universality of music, a great song is a great song, I didn’t know many of the French bands and all except Beach House (proggish keyboarding) left little impression on me. But in saying that, the French love old-school rock and roll. This is borne out by one of their most popular bands, the aptly-named Dionysos (French spelling) who employ 50s doo-wop and backing singers against really savage guitars and at one stage a power drill. Apparently they’ve been around for years, not my kind of thing but the singer crowdsurfed out to the middle sound tower and back to the stage – some things remain the same, whatever your lingua franca.

Fin de Siecle (again)

On the one hand, I missed the classic debauchery of a British festival.  The drug-tripping revellers carrying their own puke in a spare wellington singing along to the Manic Street Preachers’ Motorcycle Emptiness were all but absent, all the freaks were too straight and instead of the nostalgic mud tides we were forced to make way for sudden bursts of sun that eclipsed every rainshower meaning we were left with dry heat and dust. And in case you should have too much fun Paris will accommodate you with free ear plugs, condoms and alcohol guidance handed out across the site. I can’t help but feel some of the danger, the risk and the ensuing fun is removed on one’s behalf.

But the great thing about Rock on Seine is that it shows big cities can host their own festivals to rival Reading/Leeds and V in the UK and provide better facilities, better organised and more convenience than the barn next door. The best kind of festival would be one that united France and the UK, with the bands hopping across the channel meaning a greater line-up for all!

Rock on Thames, anyone?

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