Vanessa Paradis and Lenny Kravitz couldn't get the timing right [November 8, 1992]
Plus: En Vogue, Inspiral Carpets, and Therapy?
Greetings, Time Travellers! 👋 Welcome back to the week of November 8, 1992.
📰 In the news this week: The Church of England narrowly votes to allow women to become priests.
📽️Cinema-goers get to see Daniel Day Lewis be all heroic in The Last of the Mohicans
📺On TV, Top of the Pops celebrates its 1500th episode! Musical guests include En Vogue, Vanessa Paradis, an archive clip of The Supremes, plus that stupid Mario Song.
🎶 Number One song in the UK Top 40 is ‘End of the Road’ by Boyz II Men, but today let’s look at…
This week’s Number 6: ‘Be My Baby’ — Vanessa Paradis
Reincarnation, if you believe in it, raises an important question: is this current lifetime a blessing or a punishment? Have you been elevated up the path of existence because you earned such good karma last time around? Or have you been knocked down a few rungs, and this life is an exercise to teach you something like humility or patience?
Vanessa Paradis raised this very question in a 2010 Guardian interview, where she said:
I do sometimes strongly hope that in a past life, my most recent life before this, I was absolutely horrible, evil, hideous. Because otherwise – well, hell, to even things up next time around, I'm going to have to pay for this one, am I not?
What she meant was: being Vanessa Paradis in 2010 was a pretty sweet gig. Paradis had a string of international hit records under her belt, plus a prestigious César award for acting. She was living with—but not quite married to—the universally-beloved-in-2010 star Johnny Depp, and they were raising two beautiful kids in a fashionable part of Paris.
Meanwhile in 2010, things were going equally great for her producer, collaborator, and ex-boyfriend Lenny Kravitz. He was putting the finishing touches to a record he’d been working on for a decade, Negrophilia (later renamed Black and White America). Kravitz also had a thriving design and photography business, and he was about to follow up his award-winning role in Precious with an iconic appearance in The Hunger Games.
Surely this must be heaven. Right?
Out of sight, out of mind ain't what love ought to be
If I had the opportunity to swap lives with Lenny Kravitz, I think I’d turn it down.
Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of reasons to want to be Lenny Kravitz. He’s an astonishingly talented and handsome man, and he has dated some of the most beautiful women in the world, including: Lisa Bonet (mother of Zoe Kravitz), Nicole Kidman, Adriana Lima, Marissa Tomei, Devon Aoki, Natalie Imbruglia, Naomi Campbell, Kylie Minogue, and Madonna.
Music is his one true love though, and he’s dedicated his life to becoming a virtuoso. Like Prince and Stevie Wonder, he has been known to play every instrument on his records.
There is just one flaw, something that separates him from people like Prince and Stevie Wonder, and I’m pretty sure it’s something that eats him up inside:
Lenny Kravitz has never had an original idea.
Or, at least, Lenny Kravitz has never been perceived as any kind of innovator. His whole career has been dogged by people saying that he’s just a phony rip-off merchant ever since his first big chart success in 1991 with the Philly soul-inspired ‘It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over’, a track so retro that some people thought it was a cover version.
Now, here’s the thing. The 1980s were perhaps our must future-facing decade, a time when people demanded that everything should sound shiny and sci-fi. It was also a time when everything associated with the 1970s were considered cringe, hence the decline of ABBA (as discussed here previously.)
Being retro was still considered kind of dorky in the early 90s, and the reaction to Lenny Kravitz was generally along the lines of, “is this guy a Jimi Hendrix tribute or something?” Check out the sheer disdain of this LA Times headline from 1993:
That review goes on to say:
What place in the post-mod pantheon do you assign a fellow who’s as talented as he is humorless, who has an ear that just won’t quit to go with a wit that just won’t start…Is it possible to recognize the consuming emptiness of this enterprise and still embrace Kravitz’s considerable craft? Probably, though you may well hate yourself in the morning, or the ‘90s, whichever comes first.
Despite all of Kravitz’s talent, he was often shown the same critical respect as Bjorn Again.
For a guy who’s so talented, who so clearly has the sensibilities of an artist, this must be a special kind of torture. A kind of hell.
Love is just like a flower, baby, it has to grow
Life had some ups and downs for Vanessa Paradis too.
She was catapulted to international fame at the age of 15 with her French-language single ‘Joe Le Taxi’ and overtly marketed as a Lolita fantasy, which is very gross and weird, but we’d need a whole other newsletter to analyse all that. For now, let’s focus on two outcomes of ‘Joe Le Taxi’.
The first is that Paradis—a child at the time—was slut-shamed for it, as if she had all the power in the situation. People spat at her on the street and graffitied sexist abuse outside her house.
Secondly, she found that she did have a surprising amount of power, because everyone in her life now treated her like a star. Looking back, she said:
It was a shock to realise that people around me never, but never, disagreed with me. I was really mean, really capricieuse to them sometimes, just to see how they would react. I'd go to a TV studio and pretend to be really angry, demand some food like caviar, whatever. I would think: 'Okay, this time they will get pissed off.' But they didn't. You kind of forget who you really are, the real sensations, the real emotions and relationships with people.
To Paradis’ credit, she didn’t go through a child star flame-out, but instead developed a kind of steely-minded determination and set about building her dream career. In 1990, she approached Serge Gainsbourg and talked him into writing her second album, Variations sur le même t'aime. It was a huge hit in France.
A year later, she decided to break into the English-language market. She moved to LA, became fluent in the language, and set her sights on her preferred next collaborator: Lenny Kravitz.
Kravitz took some persuading, but he eventually agreed to write, produce and even perform on the record. Sometime during this process, the two of them fell in love. That moment must have felt like heaven.
Cause all this love is for you
Vanessa Paradis is a Lenny Kravitz album. Every note, every lyric, has his fingerprints, which is another way of saying that it sounds like a Super Sounds of the 70s compilation.
(It’s actually a really good record with a great cover of ‘Waiting For The Man’, give it a listen.)
In a way, Be My Baby is the most audacious track on Vanessa Paradis. The whole concept is clearly based on the notion of, “what if Brigette Bardot had collaborated with Phil Spector?”, which is quite daring in itself. But to name the track after perhaps the greatest pop song of all time? The risk of a pratfall is huge, and there were plenty of people in 1992 who would have loved to see Kravitz and Paradis take a tumble.
‘Be My Baby’ disappointingly failed to crack the American market, although it was a huge hit internationally. Paradis never managed to become an American star in her own right, but she did become a fixture of the American tabloids as her relationship with Kravitz continued throughout the decade. They looked amazing together, just peak 90s #couplesgoals.
The two broke up in 1997, around the time that Kravitz introduced Paradis to his pal, Johnny Depp. Lenny later said, “I was madly in love with her. Vanessa was the perfect woman, but she came at the wrong time.”
When you walk out the door
Vanessa Paradis came at the wrong time, and so did Vanessa Paradis, and so too perhaps did Lenny Kravitz.
I’m sure you’ve already picked up on the huge irony of the Lenny Kravitz story, which is that his 70s revivalism suddenly became immensely cool in the late 90s and had remained in fashion ever since. Oasis, Kings Of Leon, and many other acts have fewer original ideas than Lenny Kravitz and they do just fine.
Also, there have been plenty of hit records that share DNA with Vanessa Paradis in the intervening years. Probably the most notable example is Amy Winehouse’s collaboration with Mark Ronson, Back To Black, which essentially confirmed Lenny Kravitz’s theory that all popular music should sound like it was recorded in 1972.
Recently, Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak did a whole album where they cosplayed the 70s and everyone loved it.
Maybe if Kravitz was around in the 70s, he would have earned more critical respect. Maybe ‘Be My Baby’ would have been a bigger hit if it came out around the same time as Duffy and Gabriella Cilmi. Maybe Vanessa and Lenny would still be together if their timing had been just a little better.
The right person at the wrong time. That’s a special kind of torture.
Or maybe it’s just another step on the road to enlightenment. Maybe they’ve learned something that will help them get it right in the next lifetime.
Got unresolved feelings of 😍 for Vanessa and Lenny? Tell me about it in the comments
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Elsewhere in the charts
Number 20 (↑ from 24): ‘Free Your Mind’ — En Vogue
The chorus comes from a Funkadelic song called ‘Free Your Mind And Your Ass Will Follow’, but the Funky Diva-ness of it is absolutely 100% En Vogue.
Number 23 (New Entry): ‘The Queen of Outer Space’ — The Wedding Present
A new month, a new Weddoes record. Next month we’ll take a proper look at The Hit Parade, the compilation of all their 1992 singles.
Number 28 (↑ from 38): ‘Queen Of Rain’ — Roxette
This is a very “song that came 11th in a Eurovision semi-final and the hardcore Eurovision fans are absolutely raging about the injustice” kind of track.
I don’t mind Roxette, personally, and I definitely prefer the ones where Marie is dominating the vocals.
Number 31 (New Entry): ‘Who Pays The Piper?’ — Gary Clail On-U Sound System
The ex-roofer does an anti-drugs song. The song is fine. It’s no ‘Human Nature’, but it’s fine.
Number 36 (New Entry): ‘Bitches Brew’ — Inspiral Carpets
There is a tiny hint of greatness about this minor-key number. A suggestion that the Carpets could have been more than Madchester also-rans (a genre that is itself a kind of also-ran in the landscape of British indie.)
I mean, naming a song after an excellent Miles Davis album (and a middling Aerosmith single) definitely shows some ambition, at least.
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Album of the Week
Nurse — Therapy?
Irish TV used to have this great late-night music show called No Disco, which was appointment viewing for 90s indie kids. For a few years (until her very tragic death in 2000) the show was hosted by Uaneen Fitzsimmons, an extremely cool Northern Irish woman who spoke in slow, measured prose.
I got to hang out with her once, and she turned out to be nothing like her TV persona. She was energetic and friendly, and absolutely consumed by a passion for music. When she talked about her favourite bands, records and gigs, her eyes sparkled and she talked a mile a minute.
She got especially excited when she told yarns about the local Northern Irish scene of the early 90s. This was a proper scene, one of those moments where everybody’s in a band, everybody’s going to gigs, and everyone knows that something huge is about to happen.
And when she was telling these stories one name kept coming up: Therapy, Therapy, Therapy.
Therapy? had released two beloved indie records (Babyteeth and Pleasure Death) before signing to a major label, which presented them with something of an existential crisis. Some of the people on that Northern Irish scene were howling at them for selling out, while the label wanted to position them as a grunge band (A&M even offered to get Butch Vig to produce).
Where do you go when you’re on the cusp of this big moment?
If you’re Therapy? you go to a farmhouse in Carlow. You lock out the outside world, and you spend two weeks writing songs, and then you just go for it. Nurse opens with a man screaming, “here I am, motherfuckers!” and that us-against-the-world spirit doesn’t abate for the next 40 minutes.
Nurse completely eschews anything coming out of Seattle and instead leans into a metallic, industrial, radio-unfriendly sound (NIN released Broken just a few weeks earlier.) Because of this, it’s aged really well, with a kind of timeless sound that could have been recorded at any point in the last 40 years.
Which is not to say there aren’t tunes here—it’s certainly cathartic to sing along with the “I’m fucked” bit of ‘Neck Freak’.
The album only yielded one single, ‘Teethgrinder’, which ties together a lot of the records big ideas: angular guitars, spiky riffs, well-chosen samples. Rage, anger, doom, but also some of that sense of excitement from their garage band days.
Maybe the most surprising thing about Nurse is what’s not on the record. Within six months of the album’s release, the band had recorded and released an EP of new material which included their signature hit, the absolute riff monster that is ‘Screamager’.
A record exec might say that was poor planning. Therapy? would have shifted more units if they’d held Nurse until a single like ‘Screamager’ was ready to go, and then the label could have constructed a release schedule around it.
But early 90s Therapy? obviously didn’t give a shit about any of that. You can hear in the riffs that Nurse was animated by the joy of being young and in a band, by the excitement of rocking like bastards, by the love of records and gigs and being part of it all, by the sheer excitement of making music.
Tell you what, it must have been one hell of a scene.
Nurse or Troublegum? Drop a comment and tell me all your Therapy? thoughts.
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