1 Bernard Fevre3

Bernard Fevre: the devil inside

The unwitting father of experimental disco paved the way for the likes of Giorgio Moroder and Aphex Twin – and was largely unaware of his enduring influence

Taken from the 2007 February issue: 

Last December, a modest 60-year-old Frenchman called Bernard Fevre whipped a basement club in east London into a sweating frenzy with his relentless tribal rhythms, eerily modulated vocals and darkly hypnotic synths. That same month, a man known as Jackie Giordano was arrested in Paris, his run of dodgy dealings seemingly having caught up with him.

The two men’s lives were strangely linked – in 1978, going by the name Junior Claristidge, Fevre crafted the extremely rare electronic masterpiece known only as the Black Devil Disco Club, an astonishing psychedelic voyage into deep, dark space disco, with lyrics by Joanchim Sherylee (Giordano). But what is extraordinary is that this London gig was only Fevre’s third performance, and he had only recently discovered that this obscure record he’d made in the 70s had a devoted cult of fans (the first two gigs took place the week before, in Antwerp and Rotterdam). It is a situation that Bernard, when asked, only shrugs and describes as “amusant”.

After recording that seminal record, Giordano disappeared, and Fevre forgot about it, returning to his life as a library music composer until, in 2003, the Chemical Brothers sampled one of his hard-to-find library pieces, triggering a small payment. Then in 2004, Aphex Twin’s Rephlex Records stumbled across the LP in a car boot sale (paying 20p, as legend has it), and obtained the rights to re-release it in a series of 12”s with remixes by Luke Vibert. Even then, Fevre remained largely unaware of the interest surrounding his music until Paris-based musician and rare record dealer Gwenael Jamois looked up his name in the phone book, called round and talked about the album he’d made over two and a half decades previously. Jamois also explained that since the album had been released (on a very limited scale on RCA’s Out imprint), it had become an incredibly influential piece of music, helping drive the development of Italo-disco as produced by the likes of Giorgio Moroder in the early 80s, and continuing to cast a long shadow into acid house and beyond. James Holden, 26-year-old techno wunderkind and Border Community boss, comments: “I liked him from the first few bars that I heard. There are two things – the fine line that he treads between joyous naivety, and knowing everything there is to know about how to make records. And also the way it’s totally disconnected from current music but is still totally relevant. Mainly, though, it’s just really lovable.” As well as Holden, Aphex Twin and Vibert, other high-profile fans include Morgan Geist, Andrew Weatherall and Black Strobe. Bernard shrugs and smiles. He doesn’t buy records, so none of this means that much to him.

What did mean something, however, was listening to that album he had made all those years ago, and which he had forgotten about so completely. “Wow – it was a shock. I couldn’t believe it,” he exclaims. “Then it all came back. I asked myself, ‘How did I make this?’ I was pleasantly surprised – ‘Actually, this is alright!’ At the time, I don’t think anyone liked what I was doing, and it’s taken me 28 years to realise that it was actually pretty decent.”

We’re sat in the creator of this “pretty decent” record’s small flat in a dilapidated banlieu of east Paris, cracking open a second bottle of vin de table. Amusingly, there is a packet of Black Devil cigarettes on the table, discovered by his wife in a nearby tabac. Oil paintings by his first wife hang on the walls, striking pieces of kitsch but slightly twisted 70s art, one of which adorns the cover of that first LP. A grey cat paces around, looking decidedly undiabolic. Gwenael is present, helping with translation, while Bernard is getting nervous about the following week’s gig in Antwerp (Gwenael also assists him playing live). “It concerns me a bit. Will my ventilators expect me to turn up in devil wings? Do they think I’m a Satanist? I don’t want to let anyone down.” (Bernard doesn’t speak much English and his recent investigations into his admirers have been via the internet and Google’s translation service. He is talking about his fans.) 

Bernard Fevre back in 1976

By his own admission, he is largely unaware of modern music, or even the explosion of dance music in the 90s for which he unwittingly helped lay the groundwork. He hears a bit here and there, but describes himself as a musical “sponge”, and says he is careful to keep his distance from music, because he fears he is easily influenced. Not speaking English helps him to not know about it, he adds with a chuckle. In many ways, it’s hard to believe; likewise, it’s hard to reconcile this softly spoken Frenchman with such a legendary piece of plastic. 

Born in 1946, Bernard Fevre grew up in a working-class suburb five kilometres from Paris. From a young age, he was a fan of The Beatles and of Ray Charles, and says he was playing piano with both hands at the age of four. In the early 60s, he was “a rebel”, leaving school at 14 to work in the factory, and joining a band in the local nightclub. He took piano lessons for three years, then joined a soul and R&B outfit, getting a residency in a club in Deauville (the owner of which, Regine, would go on to own the famous 1970s club New Jimmy’s in Paris). The jam is now pumping – in conservative postwar France, Fevre is just 17, playing music for a living and, in his own words, earning “more money than a doctor”. 

“It's strange because at the time, I was a proper hippie. But I wanted to go to something more punk, with a darker energy” – Bernard Fevre

As the 60s began to swing, Bernard joined another band – exploring new techniques, modifying his synths and creating new effects with a soldering iron. There was a brief interlude for national service, when he played trombone in the military band (he and his friends adding a bit of boogie). Then, for the next ten years, Bernard toured as a keyboardist-cum-sound engineer for traditional folk outfit Les Franc Garcons, making them one of the first touring bands with live stereo sound, and running riot with his homemade psychedelic effects. (“Think Glenn Miller produced by the Chemical Brothers,” explains Gwenael.)

Bernard forgets how, but mythical French library music figure Eddie Warner hove into view at this point, and gave Bernard “a good deal” at his label Illustration Musicales. Bernard revelled in his solo creative freedom, crafting charming and ahead of its time electronic music, as evidenced on recordings such as The Strange World of Bernard Fevre. And it is here that he met Giordano, who was already working as a producer at the label. After Strange World, Bernard says he lost control of his other albums that he published with Giordano – he doesn’t know what happened to them, he says, looking overcast for a moment. 

At that time, Bernard was spending a lot of time clubbing – mainly in black soul and R&B clubs where, by the mid-70s, disco from America was beginning to creep in. “I realised that I just loved to dance,” he says. “I loved to party, simple as that. But to me, disco only existed on the dancefloor.” (He was aware of the drugs around, but says he wasn’t into them.) 

One likes to think that the key moment of inspiration happened in a flash beneath a giant mirrorball refracting lights across a sea of loud polyester shirts, but whichever way it was, Bernard decided that he was going to create a disco record. Essentially, he set out to harness the seething, pheremonal funk of disco and hitch it to the cerebral, detached intellectualism of his early electronica. “I only ever really came across ‘pop’ disco,” he explains. “And it made me want to take disco to another dimension.” 

“I wanted to make a record where the synthesiser was the whole record. I have a good knowledge of the classical orchestra, and I saw it as a new instrument and not as a toy, as was often the case in France. I have a lot of respect for synthesisers; you can make a whole palette of sound and that was my motivation behind making the first Black Devil.” 

His newfound party pal Giordano arranged some downtime in a studio outside Paris, and Fevre set to work. Girls come to check out the trendy new music. Unfortunately, it scares them off. Giordano does little apart from worry about the deal with RCA but does write the lyrics, which are in English, and Bernard sings them without understanding them – oddly poetic and existential, they fit his abrasive, alien soundscapes. “It’s strange,” he says, “because at the time, I was a proper hippie. But I wanted to go to something more punk, with a darker energy.” 

And after that, as the album started to make waves on the music underground, nothing. “I’m always about the future,” he says. “So, I forgot about it. It was an experiment – I didn’t think anyone liked it.”

When he listened to it again a couple of years ago, he says that the years just melted away and he was immediately inspired to create more music. The result is 28 After, released on Lo Recordings, its title a reference to all those years in-between. “It was like a cassette tape had been broken and we sewed it back together,” he smiles. The music is a continuation of where he left off; Bernard still had those same modified synths, and some dusty tape loops of drums from the original sessions. He shows me into his cramped home studio, where he also uses a computer these days, but mainly for recording. Most importantly, he had the mindset: “How I was then is still there. It’s still fresh. Although I did beat my head against the wall to get back to that sound, it would be silly to say I hadn’t.”

“It’s an honour to release,” says Jon Tye, head of Lo Recordings. “The first album is surely one of the most individual and significant electronic albums ever made. And when you hear all the tracks together in a live situation, it’s like having ingested a powerful hallucinogenic which makes all the tracks cohere into a perfectly formed musical universe.” (Later, Fevre reveals that he is already at work on not only new Black Devil material, but what he calls Strange World 2, “using new technology but with the same aim”.) 

The Black Devil rebirth has been a rollercoaster. In Antwerp, he was received like royalty. In London, the response was more selective but equally enthusiastic; many in the club had not even been born when the first album was released, but punched the air, or leapt about and hollered at this curious Frenchman transported across generations by the power of his vision. “Fans today are more like musicians,” he says later, after some thought. “When they watch me play, they really want to understand the music, how it is made. In those days, it was just there to make you dance – and nothing else. I find that fascinating.” 

Next month, a brace of remixes are set to spread the devil’s wings further above unsuspecting dancefloors. 28 years later, the music still sounds punky, fierce and wild. You can taste the grease on Black Devil – it has been made mechanically, and the dirt gets under your fingernails. It’s good that the Devil has rediscovered his best tunes. This is the strange world of Bernard Fevre, and it’s good that we are now part of it. C’est amusant.