B&F IN FRANCE 1985
(Report originally written for the Teddington Corps "Grapevine" magazine)
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I wonder what it is that induces rock’n’roll rebels to write articles for respectable magazines? Perhaps it was the latent threat hidden behind the twinkle in the editor’s eye, or perhaps it was the promise of royalties? We may never know. What we do know is that earlier this year the French Territorial Youth Secretary decided that he would like to include some music into his National Congress Youth Rally which might actually interest the youngsters. Apparently the Army in France don’t have rock bands (not much different to this country then!), and so it was that the poor unsuspecting man wrote to England and asked to be put in contact with this country’s finest Salvation Army rock band. Something must have been missed in the translation, as the man was put in touch with B&F.
On receipt of the invitation to go on a free trip to France, we considered all the disadvantages for a full ten seconds, and then replied that maybe we were interested in the idea. And thus after six months of intensive planning, rehearsal, press conferences, French lessons, and of course the usual most helpful "assistance" from NHQ, the band arrived at Portsmouth to board the ferry to Le Havre. Here began our experiences of trying to get all that equipment through Customs without being made to unload it all, a feat we eventually achieved, but not without a few silent prayers.
In case you are interested (and still awake) the normal B&F line-up of Karl (vocals), Harry (guitar), Herbie (bass), Alvin (keyboards), and Simon (drums), was supplemented for this trip by three similarly unbalanced individuals, without whose help we really would have had to get somebody else. They were Andy Piper from Bromley, who acted the sound engineer; Mark Walford, also from Bromley, who portrayed the part of the lighting engineer; and legendary B&F roadie Peter Blair from Colchester, who did a very creditable impersonation of a driver, a photographer, and a person who likes to throw up on cross-Channel ferries. But more of that anon.
The outward overnight journey was completed almost without memorable incident, except for Peter’s aforementioned impersonations. On arrival at Le Havre we found ourselves face-to-face with the TYS himself, Major Keith Howarth. The major had unexpectedly arrived there by train, so that he could show us the way to Rouen, but was rather distressed when he computed that we now had nine people to fit into eight seats! (No Major, we really can’t get more than three people in the cab of that truck!!) Andy volunteered to ride in the back of the truck with the gear, although we had no idea whether this was illegal in France as it is in England, but nevertheless this was going OK until we were stopped half a mile down the road by French Gendarmes. Our worst fears were confirmed - they wanted to see what was in the back of the truck - and despite our loud coughing and surreptitious banging on the side of the van in a vain attempt to warn Andy to conceal himself, as the shutter rose up there sat Andy on a pile of speakers. Completely unable to hear our warnings due to the Walkman on his head! For some inexplicable reason the Gendarme found this extremely amusing, and was still laughing as he waved us off down the road. Strange sense of humour the French have.
Eventually Herbie realised that he had to drive on the right, and we made it to our first venue at Rouen without further incident. This narrative could go on all night (and probably will) but let me just say that the folks in Rouen had really done their homework for us: the publicity was fantastic and we drove into a town covered in large yellow posters advertising our gig. They had hired a church for us to play in - not just any old church you understand, but a total monstrosity of a church - more of a cathedral really. It could seat several hundred people, was 300 feet tall, and had the most appalling acoustics that we have ever experienced! So in order to demonstrate our respect for the sanctity of this beautiful building, Peter promptly reversed the truck up a small flight of steps and through the front door of the church. After spending the day setting up all our equipment the CO took us on a short guided tour of the Rouen town centre before the concert. This included the very spot where Joan of Arc was martyred, and although suggestions of a Blood and Fire open-air meeting on this site didn’t go down very well with the French, we suggested that "Send the Fire" may have had a slightly different meaning for her.......
And so to B&F’s debut concert in France: we were told that about 130 people turned up (according to the French this was a very good crowd for a Protestant event), and they made it clear from the start that they appreciated our performance very much. Strange sense of music the French have. We had been concerned that communication with the audience would be a bit difficult, but it didn’t take us long to realise that both our music and our message transcend the language barrier. OK, we admit it, we may have been aided just a little by having a French officer to translate for us during the gig, and it was quite amusing to see him jump up to a mike at the end of every song in order to translate our random thoughts for the benefit of the assembled multitude. Even he was a little shaken though when Simon wanted to say that he had "butterflies in his stomach", and completely thrown when Simon had a "frog in his throat", but we got through unscathed. At the end of the evening two members of the audience knelt at the front of the church to make decisions for the Lord.
After all this, the TYS unveiled his latest piece of daring planning: he had devised an ingenious little plan which required us to take down all of the equipment, load the van, and then undertake a four-hour drive to Paris before we could get any sleep!! Nice one Major. Somehow our drivers eventually reached the Palais de la Femme, having been awake for 24 hours by now, and we tumbled semi-conscious into our beds. Next morning we discovered it was a women’s hostel!!!!
The Palais de la Femme, so we were informed, is the largest women’s hostel anywhere in the world. It has over 650 bedrooms, along with conference halls, a shop, and a restaurant which is open to the public (and serves over 4000 meals every day). In spite of the predominantly male nature of our touring party, the Army had decided not to discriminate against us on the grounds of gender, and our intrepid heroes had been given one large room to share: can you just imagine the chaotic effects of herding eight English male lunatics, sorry I meant eight B&F members, into one room?
The story couldn’t possibly take any more twists could it? Oh yes it could, for this is a B&F tour. Early in the morning women started walking into our bedroom. What could be happening here? Could all those rumours about B&F tours really be true after all? The explanation, as ever , turned out to be surprisingly harmless: the palatial accommodation afforded to us was no less than the hostel’s TV lounge - and nobody had bothered to advise the residents that it might be best if they altered their early morning viewing habits for a few days.
Later we discovered that the other official delegates to the French Congress (none other than the British Commissioner and the ISB) had been put up in a five star hotel, while we were given the TV lounge in a women’s hostel. Why am I never surprised at the way the Army treats us? Is it just because we play a different kind of music that qualifies us to be treated so differently?
On the instructions of the TYS we were due to have free time in the afternoon in order to have a tourist’s-eye view of Paris, but first we must set up our equipment in the theatre where the Congress events would take place. And what a theatre it was! Completely underground and accessible only by staircases, it held about 800 people and boasted staging and technical facilities which were out of this world compared with the venue of the previous evening. The acoustics were slightly better as well!
We had lunch and then spent the best part of an hour grappling with the absurd rabbit warren known as the Paris Metro. Eventually we emerged into daylight again in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe, only to have to disappear down another tunnel to actually reach the thing. However the experience now threatened to turn nasty, as soldiers and policemen with guns started arriving at the Arc at the same time as us. Strange sense of timing the French have. But the whole thing resolved itself rather neatly when we discovered that, instead of coming to take our drummer away, they were merely changing the guard around the Eternal Flame. This (in case you can’t guess) is a flame which burns under the Arc as a memorial to all France’s war dead.
Some bright spark suggested that wouldn’t it be a good idea if we walked all the way from the Arc to the Eiffel Tower?! There were a number of reasons for this; one, we would see more of Paris; two, we wouldn’t have to tackle the rabbit warren again; three, there was this French girl walking along the road........ So off we went, down the Champs Elysee, and eventually over the Seine to the Tower. At this point some of the party decided that they could afford the extortionate price being asked for a ride up the Tower in a one hundred-year-old elevator, but Peter (still recovering from his cross-Channel experience) decided to remain on terra firma. I kept him company.
Friday evening saw us visiting the opening session of the Congress, and in trying to sneak in up the back and remain totally incognito we inadvertently occupied seats which were reserved! Unfortunately we couldn’t understand what the officials were trying to tell us as they shouted at us in some incomprehensible tongue, and thus we ended up making the entire theatre aware of our presence. Strange language the French have.
Back to our five star accommodation and this time, just after the lights finally went out, the pillows started flying across the room - closely followed by shoes, and then all manner of clothing and, well, just about anything that came to hand really.
The big day dawned. The big guitarist yawned. When we were originally invited on this trip it was to provide 45 minutes of music as the centrepiece of the Youth Rally. By Saturday morning that had been whittled down to 20 minutes (perhaps they’d received advance warning?!) but nevertheless this was what we had come all those miles for. Our efforts to finish setting up our gear were severely hampered by an unscheduled Officer’s Rally in the morning being held in the very same theatre, and even more hampered by the fact that when we eventually got onto the stage we found that while we weren’t looking some idiots had decided to take down a lot of the equipment which we’d spent the previous morning putting up! A rather heated conversation followed - well, as heated as you can get via an interpreter! I’m sure they got the message nevertheless. We got to work on it, and were eventually ready to play about 15 minutes before the scheduled start of the Youth Rally. The TYS requested that we play music whilst the kids were coming into the hall, which we did, although I’m not sure whether his definition was very accurate! Both Karl and Simon were now suffering throat infections, and some of the vocals were a little ropey (no change there I hear you say) but Harry filled in more than adequately prior to the show.
Immediately after the opening of the Rally, Commissioner Cachelin (Radio Luxembourg disc jockey and formerly star of the Pink Panther movies) introduced us. At least we thought he did (several times) but each time we were about to get started he began talking again. That language thing again. Eventually we managed to find our interpreter backstage and asked him to be sure to tell us as soon as we had been introduced. He did, and once again our intrepid heroes took the stage. Then they put it back and B&F started playing their opening number "Sight to the Blind" on it. The Commissioner wisely retired (not as a career move - only to the back of the theatre). Following an extremely energetic performance of "Stop the Pain", Harry took the spotlight to perform Simon’s beautiful song "I Should Have Known". In between each of the songs band members gave brief but punchy testimonies which were translated for the benefit of any French people who may have been in the building.
Shortly before we went onstage the TYS had told us to "wind the kids up"!! We asked if he really knew what he was saying (no sane person EVER said that to B&F!!!!!) and he said yes, so for our fourth and final number of the Rally what could be better than "This is the Noise"? This is an extremely raunchy and noisy anthem about freedom in worship, and during the performance most of the audience were up on their feet dancing. Karl decided that he would leap into the audience. So for added excitement Harry decided that he would fall off the stage as well, but somehow he managed to achieve this without the majority of the audience even noticing. Strange sense of impending doom the front row had though. A couple of crew members from the theatre came around and picked him up and put him back on the stage - still playing his guitar.
The pyroflash worked perfectly on the last note, and we left the stage with the French youngsters demanding an encore. Now here was a problem that we’d rarely encountered in England: not only did they love us, but they made so much noise they made it clear they weren’t going to let anything else happen until they had an encore from us! The TYS had spelled out to us that his schedule for the afternoon was pretty tight, but we still had to make two more appearances before the audience would stop shouting. We assumed they were shouting for more, but now I come to think about it........
In the evening, after we had packed all our gear, we watched an excellent performance of "The Blood of the Lamb" in French. Very good indeed, even if we couldn’t understand a word of it. We then retired to our communal TV lounge, where Doctor Barnett whiled away the rest of the evening giving us all the benefit of his simultaneous translation of the French soundtrack of some appalling film. Still couldn’t understand a word.
4.30am. Not very amusing, this bit. Still at least we were too early even for the breakfast TV viewers. We had to be at Le Havre by 8am, because the ferry was due to sail at 9am and we had to get through Customs yet. There wasn’t much to laugh about on this leg of the trip, as we had first to find our way out of the back streets of Paris without a guide, and then try to reach the port in time to catch the boat. With a heavy load and a head-on wind (no, nothing to do with our bass player this time) the truck wouldn’t do any more than 50mph, and we arrived at Le Havre at 8.45am. We told the Customs officials we must have clearance because we’re taking back exactly the same gear we brought out and they, to our relief, waved us through immediately with nothing to declare.
The ferry journey back to England was obviously going to be a bit bumpy, as a storm had been blowing up in the Channel all night, and massive waves were already crashing over the harbour wall at Le Havre. After consuming breakfast in the restaurant some band members watched a film in the cinema, some band members fell asleep, whilst some bandmaster spent the entire journey perfecting his aim into sick bags, sinks, toilets, etc..
On arrival in Portsmouth we tried the same argument on the British Customs, and surprisingly enough they too waved us through without being too objectionable. Although they were a bit concerned about Harry’s duty-free, we told them it was for his father and they let it go.
And so here endeth my epistle of five days in the life. My abiding impression of the French Salvation Army is that it’s much smaller than its British counterpart, but it is probably much closer to what William Booth intended it to be. The French Army owns hostels, shops, factories, warehouses; runs inner-city missions; employs down-and-outs in all of these places; and carries out a powerful evangelical ministry in far more difficult circumstance than we have to deal with in Britain. Over 90% of the French population call themselves "Catholic", and of these the vast majority are unchurched and often hostile to the true Christian Gospel. Working in this situation the Army has won, and continues to win, both new converts and a great deal of respect from the French people.
(originally written November 1985)
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