Jenny Ondioline

25 February 2016

It occasionally bothers me that on first listen I wasn’t crushed by Stereolab into the deepest depths of musical infatuation. This encounter was footage of them playing ‘French Disko’ on The Word, a stylistically confused British TV show on Channel 4 in the mid­ 1990s. The audience were freaking out in rave gear; they must have been paid to be there. I can imagine instead a sea of swaying hips at the Hullabalooza festival, nonchalant kids with sweaters tied around their waists.

Stereolab paints a picture of post­modern slacker heaven, severe­-faced and glued to their instruments, their performance bizarre against the enthusiastic television studio audience.

Despite being weirded out that initial time, I return to the video often, with positive vibrations rushing through my soul; Stereolab have become the most important band I know. ‘French Disko’ appears as a B­side on the Jenny Ondioline EP from 1993 and the title track from that release is untethered sonic glory.

But it is the album version of ‘Jenny Ondioline’ on Transient Random­Noise Bursts with Announcements that is the true epic voyage, the defining song of the band’s early minimalistic and progressive style. Spanning 18 minutes, it takes heavy cues from the krautrock sound of 1970s West Germany, sucked through a vacuum of obscure intellectualism borne from the 20th century.

Lead­singer Lætitia Sadier often interprets Marxist theory in her lyrics (from ‘Jenny Ondioline’:

“The unbeatable system engenders rot / that’s what is exciting / the challenge as the new nation”), herself being a neo­Situationist uncannily born in France in May 1968. It’s never dogmatic though and her concoction of French and English words, usually sung in a low monotone register, act harmoniously as an unplugged instrument.

Part One of ‘Jenny Ondioline’ extends the EP version and marks it at both ends with an expansive gust of distortion from Tim Gane’s guitar. This is a repetitive song. It barely strays from E for over seven minutes, only interrupted by short harmonic pseudo­choruses.

While ‘Jenny Ondioline’ doesn’t have a club drop, there is a high level of anticipation created by those choruses, a powerful desire to return to that initial chord, chugging along. When the tune strays from the riff, you are reminded how intensely you were locked into the groove, digging every bar as though it was the first hit. It’s odd that some songs that last only two minutes become boring soon after beginning. Yet, in the krautrock tradition, cruising on three chords or less can remain engaging ad infinitum.

The Ondioline was an analogue keyboard created by Georges Jenny in 1941, and has been used on many seminal electronic albums, including Jenny’s contemporaries Perrey­ Kingsley on their playful The In Sound from Way Out! (1966). That album’s title was later adapted by fellow counter­culture icons, Beastie Boys, a few years after Transient Random Noise.

Part Two emerges from the dust with a slightly altered tune and slowed down tempo. The Ondioline returns too, vibrating incessantly over the motorik beat, a drumming technique pioneered in the krautrock era. There is a strong resemblance in Part Two to the legendary ‘Hallogallo’ by Dusseldorf group, Neu!, with added vocals and random noise bursts.

Stereolab member and Queenslander, Mary Hansen often interplays vocals with Sadier, adding punch to a repetitive refrain in Part Two, before both drop out entirely. An announcement shuts down the music at 14 minutes with an instructional voice that I hope is Delia Derbyshire, saying, “The following sequence is recorded equally on both channels / but is out of phase”.

Then the band launches into a sonic freak­out, more a reflection of their punk influence than any German nod. This is the transience, spewing out reality’s madness into a brief mess of noise, before pegging back to the safety of a 4/4 rhythm, all the way home.

There is chunkiness to ‘Jenny Ondioline’. Splitting apart the tune’s repetition, minute performances trickle and develop, shifting just enough without actually tampering with the beauty of its simplicity. Searching for different instruments in the thick of the forward movement is a meditative practise and I can never fully grasp all of them at once. This elusiveness in the wall of sound is addictive. When it’s finished I long to return to the E chord.

Dedicated to Mary Hansen

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