This is the 32nd post in a weekly, yearlong series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song will be posted each Monday throughout 2016. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
Belgian new wave artist Plastic Bertrand’s best-known song is the quirky, punk-inspired “Ça Plane Pour Moi,” the lyrics of which are entirely nonsensical French gibberish. Released in late 1977, the song reached the top 20 on the charts in a dozen countries. The song peaked at Number 47 in the US and at Number 58 in Canada.
But a month before “Ça Plane Pour Moi” was released, English musician Alan Ward released “Jet Boy, Jet Girl” using the moniker Elton Motello. “Jet Boy, Jet Girl,” performed in English, was sung from the perspective of a 15-year-old boy who had an affair with a man.
Both “Ça Plane Pour Moi” and “Jet Boy, Jet Girl” had the same backing track and the same high-pitched “ooh ooh ooh,” a similarity attributed to the fact that both songs had been produced by Lou Deprijck. That backing track was recorded by session musicians, including guitarist Mike Butcher, who would soon join Ward’s Elton Motello.
“Jet Boy, Jet Girl” never enjoyed the success and fame that “Ça Plane Pour Moi” had, which is easy to believe given the song’s subject matter, though it did make modest appearances on the pop charts in Australia. As such, it’s often assumed to be an English-language cover of “Ça Plane Pour Moi,” despite the fact the songs were recorded independently and “Jet Boy, Jet Girl” actually came out first. Neither one seems the candidate for widespread success: One song is a list of French words, whereas the other tells a disturbing story of teenage sex, jealousy, and violence, all in graphic detail.
It’s that backing track that connects the two songs. Ward is not listed as a co-writer on “Ça Plane Pour Moi,” nor does he want to be. He wrote the lyrics for “Jet Boy, Jet Girl,” and Yves Lacomblez wrote the lyrics for “Ça Plane Pour Moi.” To Ward, that’s a separate song with its own history.
And its own drama. Deprijck was involved in a lengthy court battle with the record company over whose voice was on the recording of “Ça Plane Pour Moi.” In 2010, after a panel of experts spent three months studying the original track and a 2006 version, a linguist announced that it was Deprijck on the original “Ça Plane Pour Moi” and not Roger Jouret, the man behind Plastic Bertrand. Jouret then claimed that he was victimized by Deprijck and forced to take credit for the vocals.
One can see why Ward would want no part in any of that.
For the purposes of this post, we will treat “Jet Boy, Jet Girl” and “Ça Plane Pour Moi” as two songs with two different lyricists with two different visions. In other words, we will not consider one as as a cover of the other. And yet because both are undeniably connected by the background track, we will review covers of both songs.
As “Ça Plane Pour Moi” was the bigger hit, we’ll start with those covers.
Telex’s “Ça Plane Pour Moi,” like so many great covers, reinterpreted the song and turned the conceit on its head. Lacomblez and Deprijck recorded “Ça Plane Pour Moi” as a punk pastiche of sorts, meant to both celebrate and parody the burgeoning punk movement. In the hands of Telex, the youthful punk flourishes that defined the original are abandoned, replaced instead by calm, dispassionate vocals over a steady synth track. Listening to forward-thinking synthpop from the late-’70s can be a double-edged sword: you get excited to hear how advanced the band was, and yet wonder how this album fell through the cracks while some of the derivative synthpop that followed became well-known.
Appearing on the 1992 compilation “Freedom of Choice: Yesterday’s New Wave Hits as Performed by Today’s Stars,” Sonic Youth’s version replaced the horns with hazy, distorted guitars. But the spirit felt true to Lacomblez’s and Deprijck’s intent, and maybe even passed the original in feeling like a punk song. It was hard to make out what Thurston Moore was saying, but when the entire song comprises gibberish from a foreign language, what he was saying was unimportant, even if his words hadn’t been drowned in guitar feedback.
The Swedish Eurodance singer Leila K gave the song a backing dance beat to turn this into a dance track with light industrial undertones. Emphasis on the light. Don’t go in expecting KMFDM, per se, but there’s a scratchy guitar interlude that might make you think of Tones On Tail or bits of Nine Inch Nails’ “Pretty Hate Machine.”
The Humphries’ not-quite-klezmer, not-quite-surf-rock version would have sounded at home in one of Guy Ritchie’s stylized gangster movies. Just try to hear this without picturing a montage of Jason Statham and Vinnie Jones from “Snatch” or “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.” You can’t do it.
Clocking in at only 82 seconds, The Presidents of the United States of America’s cover — released as a single — blitzed through the verses to get all the words in before the end. It took me longer to write this summary of the song that it took to listen to it.
English garage band Thee Headcoatees, which included singer-songwriter Holly Golightly, covered “Ça Plane Pour Moi” for its 1997 album “Punk Girls.” The vocals sounded so smooth that it was easy to forget that the words were just words strung together. It was easy to hear this version and think, “If only I knew French, I could hear her saying something profound about politics, love, philosophy.” Even “queen of the divan” sounded sophisticated in this version.
Los Banditos’ overwhelming version was a messy melding of Dead Milkmen/Minutemen-esque guitars, Ray Manzarek-reminiscent keyboards, and futuristic beeps and noises. Each listen is an assault on the senses as you try to filter out which sound is which. Which is not a bad thing in this case, particularly because we are still talking about a song in which the lyrics were an afterthought, at best.
Franco-German dance project Pigloo makes dance songs aimed at kids, and packages those songs in music videos featuring cartoon penguins. Because, well, I don’t know why, but this reggae-tinged “Ça Plane Pour Moi” starts off sounding like Musical Youth’s “Pass The Dutchie before picking up a little speed. It’s a weird premise, we will admit, but we promise it’s not going to be the weirdest version you’ll see on here.
If Nouvelle Vague has a formula, I have yet to figure it out. I hope I never do. The band has done lounge versions, bossa nova recasts, dreamy organ songs, and no two covers sound the same. The band’s “Ça Plane Pour Moi” appeared on its third album, appropriately called “3.” This sunny track toggled between bouncing ska tempo and slowed-down sunny reggae. I dare you to listen to it and still be a grumpasaurus afterward. You can’t do it.
The literal French translation for the phrase “Ça Plane Pour Moi” is “It is gliding for me.” In a more general sense, it is used to mean, “All is going well for me.” Netherlands band Keessie & The Seltens Of Swing’s stylized rockabilly version of “Ça Plane Pour Moi” captured the spirit of that phrase perfectly, probably more than any other version. The ’50s nostalgia of this version fit within the overall style of the band, which draws a lot of inspiration from Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent, and Eddy Cochran in its live shows.
On Tiger Bell’s “Ça Plane Pour Moi,” frontwoman Lovisa Thurfjell sang with the energy of about a dozen Kathleen Hannas, and though she was singing nonsensical words with no context, she sounded pissed enough to want to jump down your throat. It was impressive, albeit scary, that she was able to summon that amount of swagger and rage to sing throw-away lines.
German ska revival band The Busters — ruminate on that phrase for a moment — covered “Ça Plane Pour Moi” for its 2014 album “Supersonic Scratch.” And as interesting as the phrase “German ska revival band” might be, this song also included an accordion. And a big burly man singing in the Jamaican emcee. It’s kind of like leftovers night: there’s no reason for all these ingredients to be together, but upon tasting them together, there’s no reason for them not to be, either.
There are fewer covers of “Jet Boy, Jet Girl,” but there are still a handful of notable ones. Most of them alter the lyrics to be slightly less graphic, the most notable change being “he gives me hell.”
Captain Sensible, lead singer of The Damned, recorded a cover of “Jet Boy, Jet Girl” while the band was on hiatus in 1978. With mumbled lyrics, sloppy guitars, and a tinny recording quality, the messy track sounded more like a bootleg than an intentional single. “Jet Boy, Jet Girl” was already tangentially connected to The Damned, as Ward’s band before Elton Motello was a punk band called Bastard, which included eventual Damned guitarist Brian James.
British punk band Chron Gen released “Jet Boy, Jet Girl” as a single in 1982. The sped up version, coming in at less than two and a half minutes, blitzed through most of the lyrics, with the exception of “he gives me hell.” That part — replacing “he gives me head” — was enunciated clearly, as if that was the one lyric the band wanted to emphasize it had changed.
The Bamboo Kids covered “Jet Boy, Jet Girl” on its 2005 album, “This Ain’t No Revolution.” Featuring some impressive guitar solos that clearly were inspired by Chuck Berry, The Bamboo Kids’ version sounded more like a pure rock track than the punk-derived original.
A slowed-down lo-fi version appeared on the special edition of Crocodiles’ 2010 sophomore album, “Sleep Forever.” The subtle keyboard was the most memorable part of this noise pop track, though it was hard to hear through many of the noise pop flourishes, not to mention the futuristic space blaster sounds.
Ukelele-driven punk band The Pukes released a spirited version of “Jet Boy, Jet Girl” in 2013. Some of the original’s punk edge had come from it being about a same-sex relationship; when sung by a woman, the song lost that gay undertone. Of course, the gender of the singer didn’t affect the punk sensibilities of the song as much as the ukelele did. Hard for that instrument to sound as punk rock as, oh, say, a distorted guitar.
Los Angeles punk band FIDLAR’s song “Jet Punk Jet Bitch” used the same arrangement as “Jet Boy, Jet Girl” and “Ça Plane Pour Moi.” The lyrics, aside from the use of “jet” in the title, had nothing to do with either song. On the surface, then, we might consider the FIDLAR song more of a sample than a cover.
I say “on the surface” rather than “definitively” because in previous posts, we’ve already seen songs where the cover versions have substantially different lyrics. In The Sex Pistols’ “Roadrunner,” Johnny Rotten couldn’t be bothered to learn any lyric beyond “faster miles an hour.” Joan Jett’s “Roadrunner” perverted an ode to Massachusetts into a name-check of places across the country. I scowled, but ultimately acquiesced, under the premise that at its essence, Jonathan Richman’s youthful rock song was more about feeling than being tour guide for any one specific place. A point he proved himself over and over by changing locations in each version.
Similarly, my litmus test for whether a song was a cover or sample of “Tighten Up” was whether the version included the riff and a chorus that centered around “tighten up.” In that estimate, FIDLAR’s “Jet Punk Jet Bitch” still falls short of cover status, but gets a little closer. That “Ça Plane Pour Moi” itself was a collection of French words that didn’t have any significance beyond how they sounded surely gives a cover artist latitude, right? But let’s say we decide the FIDLAR song is a sample. In that case, which song is it a sample of? The “jet” lyrics would indicate “Jet Boy, Jet Girl,” but should it be a considered a sample of both songs?
When I reviewed Madonna’s “Ray Of Light” and its ancestor, Curtiss Maldoon’s “Sepheryn,” I struggled to define the relationship between the two songs. “Ray Of Light” has some alterations that might disqualify it from being a straight cover of “Sepheryn,” but it surely must be more than a sample.
Likewise, I struggle on how to define the relationship between “Jet Boy, Jet Girl” and “Ça Plane Pour Moi.” One’s not a cover of the other, as the songs had no lyrics in common. The next option would be that “Ça Plane Pour Moi” sampled “Jet Boy, Jet Girl,” but that characterization feels off, too. There are samples, and then there are wholesale lifts. “Ça Plane Pour Moi” fits into that second category.
But let’s say we decide “Ça Plane Pour Moi” is a sample of “Jet Boy, Jet Girl.” How then, if at all, do we define the the relationship between the songs’ covers? Is there any connection at all between Telex’s “Ça Plane Pour Moi” and The Pukes’ “Jet Boy, Jet Girl”? The connection between the covers — if such a connection exists at all — comes simply from the connection of the source materials.
And in the case of these source materials, the connecting link is the producer. As it happens, Deprijck, who produced both tracks, also wrote and arranged that backing track. Deprijck must have known what he was doing, even if the songwriters or performers did not. By imbuing two separate songs with elements that would make them sound like clones of each other, Deprijck created sibling songs, even if neither one was technically created with the intent of being a cover of the other.
As a result, the more popular song — “Ça Plane Pour Moi” — was assigned status as “the original” and “Jet Boy, Jet Girl” was presumed to be a cover. The juiciest irony there is not that “Jet Boy, Jet Girl” came out a month or so before Plastic Betrand’s song, and that Plastic Bertrand did not perform on the track at all.
In pop culture, though, we tend to ignore such technicalities in favor of the versions we know and love the most. In this case, we have gone for the French gibberish of “Ça Plane Pour Moi” over the disturbing violent revenge fantasy of “Jet Boy, Jet Girl.” Probably a wise choice. Plastic Bertrand might not have actually been on the track, but in the court of popular opinion, he is still the king of the divan.