The music video for “Le Petit Train” by ’80s duo Les Rita Mitsouko was an elaborate production filmed in Bombay. Dancing her way through the infectiously upbeat tune, sari-clad frontwoman Catherine Ringer asks, “Petit train où t’en vas-tu? Train de la mort, mais que fais tu?” The lyrics speak of serpentine trains passing through the countryside, carrying children and grandparents “to the flames through the fields.” As the song reaches its climax, Ringer – whose father was an artist and a concentration camp survivor – trades the fixed smile of her Bollywood dance routine for close-ups that reveal tears flowing down her face while she continues to sing. Ringer’s background in avant-garde theater can be glimpsed in many of Les Rita Mitsouko’s music videos, which appear after the jump.
Les Rita Mitsouko was formed in the early 80s by Ringer and guitarist Fred Chichin in France. Early in their career, Ringer and Chichin had the fortune of working with two great producers: their eponymous first record was produced by Conny Plank, famous for his work with Kraftwerk, Neu and other various bands associated with krautrock. Their second album was Tony Visconti’s top pop project after David Bowie. A year later, the duo was featured in Jean-Luc Godard’s film Keep Your Right Up.
Many band biographies omit the fact that prior to her musical career, Catherine Ringer was an underage porn actress. If you Google this fact, you will find some shiiiit (literally) that’s highly NSFW. I bring this up because I find it empowering that Ringer went on to become one of France’s biggest pop stars (though they were arguably more popular elsewhere in Europe). Had they been an American act, would Les Rita Mitsouko have reached the same level of success? I think back to the heartbreaking interview that Marilyn Chambers gave a few years before she died, recounting with sadness a life of failed attempts to break into “straight” film, and have my doubts.
Ringer’s past did not go unmentioned, however, and she defended herself sharply against criticism, as can be seen in an infamous showdown with a drunk Serge Gainsbourg on a French talk show. After Gainsbourg calls Ringer “disgusting” and “a whore” as she attempts to describe her experiences in porn, Ringer politely explains that her work in this realm was part of her experience of life as “L’Aventure Moderne.” Gainsboug’s relentless, slurred name-calling finally prompts a harsh retort along the lines of: “you can rant all you like, but no one can even understand what you’re mumbling there. Even the sound man is complaining about it. And you smell bad.” Ouch. Curiously, a few years later, Les Rita Mitsouko covered Gainsbourg’s song “L’Hôtel particulier”on their album Système D.
Les Rita Mitsouko toured extensively. Throughout the years, they worked with an eclectic array of artists that included Iggy Pop, Sparks, American jazz star Archie Shepp, Serj Tankian, and members of hardcore French rap group Assassin.
Lovers and artistic collaborators for over 30 years, the duo continued to be active until Fred Chichin’s death in 2007. In 2008, Ringer released her first solo album, which included tributes to Italian composer Nino Rota that she and Chichin had started working on before his death. Ringer remains active, and updates on touring can be found at the Les Rita Mitsouko site.
[Hat-tip to Wobbly for introducing me to this group.]