I first came across Stereo Total while lamenting with a friendlein about the absurdity of living in Germany after studying French for most of our lives. She suddenly sat up and said “Have you heard Stereo Total? They’re this French-electro-pop group”. “Do you mean Stereo Lab?” I said, thinking how absurd it would be if there were two titi-tata Frenchy-poo bands doing similar things. “No, they’re like Stereo Lab, but more interesting.” I hoped so. To prove her point she leant me the CD. I put it on: ‘Let’s go to a Holiday Inn – and I will show you something!’
The charmingly tuneless francophile girly voice taunted me as if we were in a playground together in the red light district. An irresistable 80s synth melody sawed relentlessly away in the background, interspersed with retro chimes. We twirled and bounced around the room: I was impressed – it’s hard to make such perfect pop.
I found out that Stereo Total were playing live just two weeks later at the Columbia Fritz, so I pulled some strings and got in on the guest list. I couldn’t wait to see the band’s liveshow: I imagined hula-hoops and bubblegum and miniskirts and and and…
The Fritz was packed, utterly packed with stylishly cute studenty girls and boys, clean-cut couples of all preferences and other kinds of happy friends snuggling together or bouncing to the electro-disco of the opening act (the great – ed.) Felix Kubin. HE was wearing tight gold lame stretch pants and a tight silver lame top, which I found a totally unnecessary compliment to the MOR sounds he was making. Every now and then he’d push a button on his keyboard and wave his arm in the air as though he just couldn’t believe the groovy-ness of his own compositions.
During the pause, I studied the Stereo Total stage set: it seemed to meet my expectations of kitschy entertainment: a giant cartoon stereo, a stand-up cactus prop (symbol of Francoise Cactus, the lead singer) and a ybkeoard dressed up to look like a baby grand piano. I got the camera ready – but when the band started the audience began dancing away so enthusiastically it was nearly impossible to find a view of the stage without somebody’s haircut bouncing in the way.
Not having done my pre-concert research, as usual, I was a bit surprised when Stereo Totale turned out to be just two people: Francoise and her long-time music and love partner Brezel Goering. I was also surprised when they didn’t look like cartoons – they looked like nice, strong, sensible, entertaining people. Brezel stood mostly at the keyboard and Francoise alternated between standing and sitting at a pared-down drum kit.
But this audience wouldn’t have cared if S.T. were wearing death metal t-shirts, they looked at them as though they were seeing their beloved idols for the first time and danced around like it was the last day of exams and this music was going to change their lives.
I pushed to the front of the stage to take some unobstructed pictures, and this cuter-than-thou student girl who obviously needed all the dance space she could get glared at my camera and said: “Just one or I’ll kill you.” That’s when I lost some respect: imagine taking bubblegum pop – even great bubblegum pop so seriously!
Pop is ephemeral. Pop is addictive. I looked around and saw Thierry Noir – the French artiste who revolutionised the painting of the Wall with his brightly coloured cartoonish faces – bouncing away beside me, practically singing along. It made sense. I finished my pictures and went back to the bar. I noticed I was sitting next to Andrew, drummer from the Neubauten and thought I’d ask him what he thought: “I think it’s great he said, very Eighties, very catchy”.
Cactus and Brezel appeared to finish their set and walked off stage. I was disappointed: they hadn’t even used the cactus prop! Then they reappeared and announced their back-up singers. Three outrageously dressed characters came out and did what back-up singers do. Just what I was waiting for! Fun, adventure, kooky Gallic cheekiness, something I couldn’t hear on the CD! The energy picked up on stage. I started not to care about the futility of pop and the cramped venue and just to want to have a laugh.
They played all the greats ‘Crazy Horse’, ‘Sweet Charlotte’, ‘Holiday Inn’ and they played them well. In between songs I began to get a bit of background on Cactus and Brezel. They’d been around in Berlin. Francoise had lived in the celebrated Rauch-Haus during its early days. Had lived and had suffered. Was one of the leading members of the Lolitas. On top of that she had written a book, a popular almost autobiography called “Auto Bigophonie”. She obviously knew what she was doing and put some effort into it.
A few days after the concert, I went to see an exhibition of Francoise’s paintings together with Stu Mead’s. The exhibition was called ‘Girls and Animals’. Francoise’s work consisted of miniature, slightly naïve copies of magazine and glamour girl photographs done in friendly pastel colours or otherwise cute-ified. Stu Mead supplied the animals. I didn’t like Cactus’s paintings myself, but I felt like she was expressing something essential in her character, something that also comes out through S.T.’s music – something light and accessible, something about fun and the meaning of life from her point of view. Coming from a student I wouldn’t believe it. Coming from a grown-up who’s eaten some shit I take it as a philosophy of survival. And, god knows, the French love pop.