Paris Bells

When it comes to songs, some places seem to lend themselves more to clichés than others, one of those being Paris, which perhaps has one of the most stereotyped images of capital cities. Romance, cafes, springtime, accordions – all images easy to reach for.

Sometimes, however, those songs can touch an unexpected chord. One of these was Abba’s Our Last Summer, later adapted for the film Mamma Mia. It shouldn’t work. On paper the lyrics sound like Bjorn and Benny got a guidebook to Paris and started ticking off all the things that should be mentioned - the Seine, the Eiffel Tower, the Notre Dame, the Elysee, the Mona Lisa, no regrets. Even ‘croissant’ got in by virtue of rhyming it with ‘restaurant’. The original version, however, is more effective than it might first appear. Part of that is the strength of Frida’s singing. However it is also because the gaucheness of the words make it sound like what it actually was-Bjorn’s recollection of a teenage holiday romance in Paris. Clumsy clichés are what you expect from a lovelorn youngster abroad.

Another such example was Marianne Faithfull’s Paris Bells from 1965, in phase 1 of her career. In the early and mid sixties France, and Paris in particular, cast a bit of a spell on British music and culture. Beatnik culture had drawn heavily on Paris for philosophy, scraggy beards, berets and girls in pale make-up a la Juliette Greco and British folkies and buskers cut their teeth on the streets of Paris. This influence seemed to linger for a while. If you look at clips of Manfred Mann from this time, Manfred Mann himself, with his beard, glasses and polo neck sweaters, looks as if he must have a book on French existentialism propped up on his keyboards.

By 1965, though French pop music may not have travelled well and Johnny Hallyday remained an unknown this side of the channel, some French singers were making a mark in Britain. Francoise Hardy had a top twenty hit that year, as well as being name-checked by Bob Dylan on the cover of his Another Side of Bob Dylan album-‘For francoise hardy at the seine’s edge’. Others-France Gall, Mireille Mathieu, Richard Anthony - followed. The Beatles’ Michelle came out on Rubber Soul, with Paul McCartney remembering the Left Bank influence in his Liverpool Art School days. Paris seemed so more sophisticated, bohemian, cultured, particularly to the young.

In was in this context that Paris Bells was released, in the wake of the success of As Tears Go By. It is a simple fragile song written by Jon Mark, Marianne Faithfull’s regular guitarist, but atmospheric and nostalgic nevertheless with Faithfull’s tremulous soprano voice of that time shimmering over the words. Like the Abba song, it remembers a lost relationship against a sketchy vignette of Paris- dawn over the shuttered houses on the cobbled streets and the barges on the Seine with a backdrop of bells ringing. The traditional and romantic Paris of the 1950’s, the memorable city scenes of the Red Balloon film of 1956.

The song wouldn’t have worked in the hands of many of her contemporaries but her contradictory image then of vulnerable innocence mixed with worldly sophistication fitted the whole mood perfectly. The listener could imagine her escaping to Paris with a head full of philosophy and romantic literature to take up with some Byronic figure with a tortured soul and dark glasses writing poetry in an attic, living on gauloises and espresso and offering a relationship doomed to heroic failure (a Gallic Nick Cave perhaps). It was a side of Paris that many sought, rather like the hippy trail to India and Afghanistan of later years.

Paris, of course, crops up in one of Marianne Faithfull’s later and more well-known songs, her version of Dr Hook’s Ballad of Lucy Jordan and delivered now with a very different singing voice. There, it is as a fantasy that was never going to happen. In real life, Paris did happen for Marianne Faithfull, with an apartment off the rue St Honore, which is probably not like the Paris of either song. Yet any visitor to Paris takes with them the image they want to see: that of Paris Bells remains one to look for.

Link to song


  1. Geoff, this is my favorite column of yours yet. This one combines so many of my absolutely precious favorite things: Manfred Mann, the Red Balloon, gauloises. And I love the idea of a a Gallic Nick Cave! Amazing. He'd look a bit like this, I think: http://www.brooklynvegan.com/img/music2/yanntiersen.jpg. THANKS for this column - SO great! Truly the highlight of my week.

  2. Thanks for writing about this song Geoff. Here's a less high quality recording but interesting for anyone who wants to see her performing the song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vdMxOgYQK20&. The screaming at the beginning is a bit surprising though!

  3. Oh how I love Marianne. This song will now not leave my noggin for days!

  4. Wow, what a beautiful, clear voice… I find it so shocking that her voice changed so much - I think I've only heard her later stuff, where she is husky.

  5. Yes, Marianne is a complete joy to listen to during this time in her career. That voice is so sweet and soothing. Although am not really sure how Marianne feels about her early recordings. In interviews it seems like she doesn't always fully appreciate just how good these recordings are. I think maybe she can be a little hard on herself and her early work.

  6. This song is especially poignant and powerful when you play it back to back with Marianne Faithfull's version of the Ballad of Lucy Jordan - which is about wanting to be in Paris.....

  7. Great column Geoff! You probably hate requests/suggestions, but I visited family in Boston this past couple of weeks and kept remembering Boston songs. I know you wrote about Massachusetts already but in case you feel inspired to write about Boston, here is a list of songs you could consider..... !:)

    * "As We Walk to Fenway Park in Boston Town" by Jonathan Richman
    * "Bank of Boston Beauty Queen" by The Dresden Dolls
    * "Beantown" by John Cena
    * "Bigger Things in Mind" by Westbound Train
    * "Bill Lee" (Boston Red Sox pitcher, 1969-1978) by Warren Zevon
    * "Blue Thunder" by Galaxie 500
    * "Billy Ruane" by Varsity Drag (Ben Deily)
    * "Boston" by Augustana
    * "Boston" by The Byrds
    * "Boston" by The Dresden Dolls
    * "Boston" by emmet swimming
    * "Boston" by Horror Show
    * "Boston" by Kenny Chesney
    * "Boston" by Paulson
    * "Boston" by The Party of Helicopters
    * "Boston" by Patty Griffin
    * "Boston" by Vampire Weekend
    * "Boston and St. John's" by Great Big Sea
    * "Boston Asphalt" by the Dropkick Murphys
    * "Boston Babies" by G.B.H.
    * "Boston Belongs To Me" by Death Before Dishonor
    * "Boston Bound" by The Kings of Nuthin'
    * "Boston Jail" by Porter Wagoner
    * "Boston Rag" by Steely Dan
    * "Boston Rose" by Liam Reilly
    * "Boston Subway" by The Pubcrawlers
    * "Boston United" by The Unseen
    * "Boston, USA" by The Ducky Boys
    * "Bostons" by Have Heart
    * "Bunker Hill" by Michael Penn
    * "Charlie on the M.T.A." by The Kingston Trio
    * "The Chosen Few" by the Dropkick Murphys
    * "Dirty Water" by The Standells
    * "Driving on 9" by The Breeders
    * "Etoh" by The Avalanches
    * "Fairmount Hill" by the Dropkick Murphys
    * "The Fenway" by Jonathan Richman
    * "For Boston" originally by T.J. Hurley (and, more recently, by the Dropkick Murphys)
    * "Girlfriend" by Jonathan Richman
    * "Government Center" by Jonathan Richman
    * "I Want My City Back" by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones
    * "The Ice of Boston" by The Dismemberment Plan
    * "I'm Shipping up to Boston" by the Dropkick Murphys
    * "I'm Yours Boston" by Big D and the Kids Table
    * "In Defense of Dorchester" by the Street Dogs
    * "Ladies of Cambridge" by Vampire Weekend
    * "Logan to Government Center" by Brand New
    * "Mass Pike" by The Get Up Kids
    * "Massachusetts" by Bee Gees
    * "My Sister" by Juliana Hatfield
    * "Never Alone" by Dropkick Murphys
    * "Normal Town" by Better Than Ezra
    * "Pipe Bomb on Lansdowne Street" by the Dropkick Murphys
    * "Please Come to Boston" by Dave Loggins
    * "Riot on Broad Street" by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones
    * "Roadrunner" by Jonathan Richman
    * "Rock and Roll Band" by Boston
    * "Savin Hill" by Street Dogs
    * "Shot Heard 'Round the World" by Ween
    * "Skinhead on the MBTA" by the Dropkick Murphys
    * "Subway" by Mary Lou Lord
    * "Sweet Baby James" by James Taylor
    * "T DJ" by Freezepop
    * "Tessie" by Dropkick Murphys
    * "The End of Radio" by Shellac
    * "There's A Black Hole in the Shadow of the Pru" by American Nightmare
    * "They Came To Boston" by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones
    * "Wicked Little Critta" by They Might Be Giants

  8. Geoff - THANK YOU for writing about Paris! I was wondering when you would reach this city! I lived in Paris for a decade, and would love more of your writings on it. Here are a few songs about Paris that play on my ipod:

    Paris Combo's "Lettre A P".
    Camille's "Paris"
    Josephine Baker's "J’ai deux amours"
    Marc Jordan's "Slow Bombing the World"
    Ella Fitzgerald's "I love Paris"
    "Paris 2004" by Peter Bjorn and John
    "I'm Throwing my Arms Around Paris" by Morrissey
    "Paris" by Kate Nash

    Just please don't ever write about Frank Sinatra's "I Love Paris"....!

  9. Wonderful column, Geoff. Such a sad sad song. Here are the lyrics below, in case anyone wants them.............

    Past the café shutters down,
    No one stirs in the town.
    The morning after the rain
    The barges move on the Seine.
    Down the avenue lined with trees
    Paris bells ring on the breeze
    Paris bells ring on the breeze.
    Dawn is breaking, birds start to sing,
    Sun is rising, warms everything.
    The echo of footsteps on a cobbled street,
    Dim alleyways where the shadows meet.
    Down the avenue lined with trees
    Paris bells ring on the breeze
    Paris bells ring on the breeze.
    The places where we used to visit,
    The chapel where we went to wed.
    Paris bells on the breeze
    Often stir memories.
    We both knew the morning rain
    We both wandered down the Seine.
    Now you're gone away from me
    You're just a memory
    Like the bells ring on the breeze,
    Paris bells ring on the breeze.

  10. Great list Laura! And don't forget Free Man In Paris by Joni Mitchell

  11. And Crimes of Paris by Elvis Costello:)

  12. Hey Geoff, if we ARE allowed to make suggestions, then how about a Spain song? "Boots of Spanish Leather" by Dylan or "Kingdom Of Spain" by The Decemberists "Holiday in Spain" by Counting Crows? Or an Amsterdam song, like "Amsterdam" by David Bowie or "Amsterdam" by Peter, Bjorn & John or "On A Tuesday In Amsterdam" by Counting Crows or "Little Amsterdam" by Tori Amos or "5am in Amsterdam" by Michelle Shocked?

    Love the column.

  13. I think Prague deserves a column entry:) Like the song "Prague" by Damien Rice.

  14. What about Italy? When I Paint My Masterpiece by Bob Dylan (about Rome) although the version by The Band is better I think......

  15. And Germany too, no? Berlin - Lou Reed. Or Berlin - Black Rebel Motorcycle Club......

  16. I'd love another Vienna entry - how about Billy Joel's "Vienna"? :)

  17. Haha, well if we're making suggestions then how about My Night With The Prostitute From Marseille - Beirut?

  18. Thanks for all the suggestions. I have had a self-imposed rule of only doing songs of places I have been to so will have to exclude Beirut and Marseilles! Great suggestions for Amsterdam and Boston- and I wouldnt dream of doing I love Paris...

  19. Thanks for this Geoff! I attended the concert she did at the Henry Fonda Theatre in Los Angeles in early 2005..... The concert found Marianne at the peak of her powers. And at one point the audience screamed “We love you!!!” Marianne’s “Well, I love you too” was met with choruses of “But we REALLY love you!!!!” … at which Marianne turned and said to us “And I really love you too … why do you think I’m here tonight? It’s really difficult for me to get INTO the United States, you know … after all…(and here she chuckled to herself) I’m SO dangerous” … doubtless a reference to US Immigration laws that will not allow her in for any length of time owing (presumably) to her long-gone history of narcotic addiction … funny, I would’ve thought a recovering addict would be the very sort of person we’d all WANT to allow into the country – power of example and all that. But Marianne and her partner/manager Francois – who can be thanked mightily for such stunning management of Marianne’s last decade of work – have to undertake these American visits on the fly, as it were.... Anyway, thanks Geoff!

  20. Good rule Geoff! Although the song "My Night With The Prostitute From Marseille" is by a band called Beirut (It's not about a prostitute from both Marseilles AND Beirut, ha ha:) Sorry that wasn't clear. Here's the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lDuDGjw86og. So once you've visited Marseilles, you can write about it:) Or not.....

  21. I didn't see Marianne until about 1994 in Dallas. At the end of the show (in a pretty small club), she walked through the audience and said hello to us all. She's actually a really tiny person!

  22. Thanks for clerifying that, Steve!
    Thats a great list for Paris, Laura-theres a couple there I must seek out

  23. I find her life fascinating - it's such a huge mythic life (the least interesting part of was that star-crossed romance with Mick Jagger). Thanks for writing about her, Geoff.

  24. I heard her perform with the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra in February 1995 - part of the Paradise Lost program, a brilliant take on Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins. It was a remarkable performance.

  25. It's so strange to me that she has been tagged a 'survivor,' because writers who do this often hint that it was the 60s that she managed to survive, as if the decade was some kind of holocaust. On another note, anyone who hasn't heard her version of Lennon's "Working Class Hero" on the live LP Blazing Away should listen to it right away:) She changes to "we" in the middle, making the song all-inclusive. It's so great.

  26. Geoff, perhaps you will consider attending one of the two concerts by the artist in Paris next March. Please inform us if you would like a complimentary ticket. For more information please view http://www.chatelet-theatre.com/chatelet1011/recitals/marianne-faithfull,499

    best regards, Marina

  27. Marianne Faithfull is my absolute favorite singer of all time. I'm a certifiable megafan. I first saw her at UCLA’s cavernous Royce Hall last year, where she struggled a bit to fill the space with her presence while also connecting to her audience, which only took up maybe 25% of the 1,833 seats. But she held the riveted audience in the palm of her hand for the duration of her 90-minute performance. Before singing her darkly romantic Nick Cave collaboration “Crazy Love,” she stopped to re-apply her lipstick. “Nick Cave would want me to do this,” she said.

    Then I saw her at Yoshi’s in Oakland earlier this year. During one of her first songs, she dropped a few of the words. I braced myself. But then, after the song, she began a story. “I was a very close friend of Allen Ginsberg…as were we all,” she said, to laughter from the audience. “And whenever I watched him read his poetry, he always had a book in front of him with the words. Because he didn’t necessarily know them all! ‘Howl,’ any of them, it didn’t matter. And so I thought, ‘If it’s good enough for Allen…’ Because I simply can’t remember all of the words! And I suspect it will only get worse as I get older. So, I have this,” she said, gesturing to a lyric book on a stand to her left.

    Once she acknowledged it, the tension vanished completely. Marianne has always been a master at taking her limitations, knowing them, acknowledging them, and then transcending them through the sheer passion and commitment of artistry.

    Later, while praising the audience for being enthusiastic and familiar with all of the songs she played, she declared that she’d “gossip” a bit with us about her other audiences. “Sometimes I’m up here on stage, and I just see these blank expressions in the audience, and it’s not till we get round to ‘As Tears Go By’ [her biggest radio hit] that they go, ‘Oh, right, that’s how I know her!’” Naturally I was aghast at this thought; that something as precious as a Marianne Faithfull performance would be wasted on such philistines.

    Anyway! The whole evening was just fantastic. Marianne was in absolutely outstanding form, vocally and otherwise. She was adorable and hilarious and generous, and just generally a treasure. Vive la Faithfull!

  28. In an age where our stars are burning out faster and more violently than ever before, Marianne stands as a figure who did all that shit decades ago and who barely survived her 20+ years as a heroin addict. There is so much to be learned from her story and her experiences, and sometimes it’s as simple as just listening to her elegantly cracked voice and feeling her battered heart pulsing underneath it. She is nothing less than a living legend and international treasure.

  29. Further to our last message, you can email us at relationspubliques@parismail.com should you be interested in attending the Paris performance. Best regards.