Kirk Degiorgio looks back on a dreamy acid track that changed the course of French electronic music.
The early '90s are often described, with much justification, as the golden age of European techno. The Detroit techno blueprint had been absorbed and adapted by artists across the continent. From London to Eindhoven, Glasgow to Ghent, Rome to Berlin, European artists inspired by US imports set up labels while DJs and collectors began to look to homegrown releases with excitement.
Across 1992 and early '93, a handful of French releases were added to the mix. As techno fans in London, we were always open to good music wherever it came from. We had no preconceptions or prejudices, so new silver-labelled releases from a label called FNAC were snapped up.
But buyers in the country of origin had a very different attitude. At the time, France wasn't known for house or techno. The scene wasn't popular domestically, as hip-hop culture dominated the clubs while rock dominated the airwaves. There was a small underground movement, provided for by the main players behind FNAC, who distributed US and European records. But it wasn't an easy sell.
Because of this, FNAC releases by artists such as Deep Side, Shazz, Laurent Garnier and Deep Contest gained more appreciation outside of France. A 1993 release, however, helped change the image of French electronic dance music at home and abroad. In that year, a small collective formed a group called Choice. It consisted of producer Shazz, the DJ and producer Laurent Garnier and the sound engineer Ludovic Navarre, who would later find commercial success as St Germain.
The trio worked on three or four tracks for an EP together at Shazz's studio in Paris, but felt they needed one more tune. Garnier was working on his solo material at the time, which included the track "Wake Up. " Not having his own studio, he would go to Navarre's place in Saint-Germain-en-Laye to continue working. (Navarre would later use the area for his best-known artist name.)
Garnier remembers a torturous journey to the studio one Tuesday night. "The traffic was super busy and Shazz and myself were like super angry," he recently recalled. "When we finally got to Ludo's house we did a nine-, ten- hour session that resulted in 'Acid Eiffel.'"
The equipment setup was fairly minimal, the classy production testament to Navarre's engineering skill. Garnier laughs when he remembers the gear at their disposal. "We had a tiny mixer with little knobs, the Roland TB-303 went through a proper rackmount delay and reverb, but everything else—the pad, strings, percussion sound and what I call the "whale sounds"—came out of the Roland JD-800 synth. The hats are always changing because Shazz adjusted the EQ live during the mixdown."
The next morning, Garnier presented his weekly radio show on Radio FG, a station linked to the Parisian gay scene that played house and techno. He called Eric Morand, the owner of FNAC Records, before the show. "I told him about the session and said, 'I think we've got the track you're looking for, so get tuned in.'" Morand called straight afterwards to say, "Look, I love the track but I think the real test will be at the Wake Up party this week."
Wake Up were parties organised by Morand and Garnier at the legendary Rex Club in Paris, attended by everyone on the underground French house and techno scene at the time. "Shazz, Ludo, Eric, DJ Deep—everyone was there," Garnier said. "In the middle of the night, I dropped the music and put on some ambient noise—a rain sound or something like that—and played 'Acid Eiffel' from a DAT. I played it from the first second to the last, all 13 minutes. At the end, there was a strange silence. It lasted for ten seconds until everybody cheered and clapped. Eric rushed into the DJ booth to say, 'I'll sign it now.""
Due to its melancholy mood, "Acid Eiffel" is unusual for a club anthem. It has that wonderful combination of being sad and yearning, but also strangely uplifting. Garnier puts this down to the influence of Detroit techno, where similar moods are present on tracks like Rhythim Is Rhythim's "It Is What It Is" and "Icon."
"Acid Eiffel" presents its memorable acid lines in a context very different from acid's Chicago roots. The 303 is clean, spacious and ethereal. It floats above the track like a constantly morphing cloud. The chirruping percussion recalls 808 State's "Pacific State," another uplifting classic. The "whale song" sound Garnier describes was a nod to classic disco. Despite the track's length, the constant movement, due to the live mixdown, means it never feels repetitive.
Following months of mild success and sales, Derrick May heard "Acid Eiffel" at a Wake Up party. He jumped into the booth to ask about the track. Afterwards, he called Garnier to say he'd like to licence it to his Transmat off-shoot, Fragile.
The re-release on Fragile later that year was key to breaking down some of the barriers in France towards homegrown techno. The prestige of a Detroit release acted as a seal of approval, and the record became hugely popular. "At this time I was running a record store and France had always been very difficult towards its own production—especially then," said Garnier. "This is before the success of the French Touch sound, so our aim was to sell records outside France, hoping it would eventually be accepted back here. We were building our dream."