18 Juillet 2021
Elephant & Castle, the true, happy and little-known story of a gifted group that broke the codes of prog rock.
In the early 1990s, Elephant & Castle had turned the established order of progressive rock upside down. In France, the musical genre, ignored by the media, was curling up under the precepts of an English neoprog with a hard rock touch and languishing under the tutelage of a French progressive rock inherited from classical songwriters. On the one hand, you needed leather and guitar solos; on the other, songs with strong lyrics and a rural background. The ultimate references were Marillion and Ange, which no band dared to trespass. Progressive rock stood frozen in its glorious past, in the wake of King Crimson, Yes and Genesis.
Landing on the Parisian scene at the end of 1991, Elephant & Castle broke the codes. Their elaborate rock, inflated with the energies of Led Zeppelin, Queen or Alice Cooper, convinced the fans that prog rock had finally entered a new phase. "Elephant & Castle invented a music that should make progressive rock radio-friendly", the fanzine Blue Angel stated at the beginning of 1992. A few weeks later, Francis Zégut proved this prophecy right when he programmed the song Between Now And Then in his evening show Colors on RTL, the most listened to radio station in France.
It all started with a handful of shows performed in early 1991 in a few small Parisian venues. Advised through word-of-mouth, three journalists from the fanzine Varia, the Bible of progressive music in France, were amazed at what they saw. That wasn’t the time yet for videos shot with smartphones and liked on social networks: one trusted those who had actually been there. They were the "influencers" then. After seeing the band on stage, the three writers had a revelation: with their pop-orientated songs, Elephant & Castle was writing the future of French prog music. An uninhibited, renewed, released prog rock at last!
Elephant & Castle played with energy. They delivered their songs in a hurry, in a fury. The audience had discovered a solid mix of rock energy and progressive subtlety. Short tracks deprived of repetitions and endless solos. Intense music leaving no room for emptiness, boredom or uselessness. Graceful and heady tunes. Five musicians forming a real united, happy and eternal band, led by a singer whose voice cavorts, rages and whispers. Stein had a flair for the show. His charisma and extravagance had him compared to icons such as Peter Gabriel or Freddie Mercury. Plus Stein had that androgynous beauty which has fascinated crowds ever since the early days of rock. Elephant & Castle were the perfect response to the criticism addressed at the time by journalist Hervé Picart in Best magazine to French progressive bands who "favored hard work over rage". It would take only a few more reviews for the band's fame to spread like a disease. Unstoppable.
Elephant & Castle was formed a few years earlier halfway between Marseilles, where two of its founders were born, and London which gave the band its name.
Edouard Poujaud and Patrice Steinberger (born in 1965) met in 1976 at the Vauvenargues college in Aix-en-Provence, in the sixth grade. They were 11 years old and neither of them had ever touched an instrument by then. They couldn't even read music. Since the boys no longer dreamt of becoming a knight or a cowboy but aimed at being rock stars, they decided to start a band. Their only sword, their only gun would be their guitars. Patrice, then a hyperactive teenager, decided to become a drummer. The quiet Edouard would become a guitar player.
They sailed to London
The two friends started inventing their own mythology. Music would be a matter of life and death. They would devote everything to their art: pocket money, holidays, leisure, talks, thoughts, Christmas gifts. They took odd jobs in order to purchase the instruments. Two other students joined the band, now called Vision: Jean-Luc Gonson on keyboards and a bass player known as Théo. They only wanted to play their own songs. They had no intention of doing like Sous-Sol, a rival college band playing Telephone covers which they made fun of. Born in Marseilles with an assumed Southern accent, Patrice and Edouard stood out among the people of Aix whose bourgeois manners they despised. Their parents were employees, craftsmen or independent contractors.
Music soon became an obsession. As soon as they reached the age of legal majority, Edouard, Patrice and Jean-Luc gave everything up and sailed to London.
Standing at the bow of the Sealink ferry crossing the Channel, in an icy December wind, they pulled up the collar of their jackets. Patrice Steinberger was listening to Alice Cooper's I’m Eighteen on his Walkman. He had just turned 18 and England was in sight. The year 1983 was drawing to a close. The three young men had packed some clothes in a bag, instruments in a trunk, and jumped a train and then another train, then a boat, and yet another train to reach London. Patrice, Edouard and Jean-Luc left behind them a country where rock music played by the likes of Berurier Noir or Trust had a hard time breaking through the Indochine or Goldman pop songs. The Top 50 TV show would soon promote stupid shallow hit singles. The English capital, though wet and rainy, looked like a musical Eldorado. The three boys believed in their destiny. London would be their rite of initiation, the place and time when they would understand there was no turning back.
All rock clichés
Edouard was the one who came up with the idea of leaving everything behind. He had been scouting in the summer of 1983 and came back to pick up the others in the fall. No need to argue: Patrice and Jean-Luc were convinced they had to leave to be born again. When they arrived in the English capital city, they immediately found work and accommodation. They were hired as diver, porter or housekeeper at the Enterprise Hotel in Earl’s Court for £200 a month. They stayed at Railton road in Brixton in a squat run and inhabited by political exiles and South African artists. They ended up rehearsing with a mixed-race American singer with a bowler hat who called himself Gypsy at the Snow White Squat Center in that area on the right bank of the Thames known as… Elephant and Castle.
Their life was precarious. They managed to collect food from the leftovers of restaurants, tampered with telephone booths using an umbrella rib in order to call their French families for free. And to stick to rock clichés, they experienced a range of drugs.
They played live. The band performed their very first show at the Frontline Theater. No one remembers the date. "We played at 100 miles per hour because we had snorted speed," they recall.
A band with two leaders
Most of all, Patrice Steinberger and Edouard Poujaud focus on writing lyrics and music. London was the place where the duet developed a working method that would give birth to almost every Elephant & Castle song: the guitar player finds a theme around which the drummer (who was not yet a singer) writes a melody (and vice versa). They would spend hours lifting up a tune, finding a bridge, perfecting a chorus. Though exhausting, the sessions were often productive. Sometimes sterile too. Patrice and Edouard, obsessed with perfection, worked slowly and produced only a handful of titles per year. Because they had never covered any songs, they had to invent their own techniques and processes. As a Led Zeppelin fan, Edouard Poujaud played his guitar on open tunings just like Jimmy Page, which lead up to a wide range of possibilities in terms of melody. The high note of Edouard's chords brought along melodic conterparts that Patrice, all along, would perfectly deal with.
If Edouard was the one aiming at perfection, Patrice had the ability to find catchy tunes. In London, they became the co-leaders of the band. “The only way for the band to work was if we both agreed,” they later explained. That will never change
In the fall of 1984, the police closed their London squat. The band was unable to find another free accommodation despite their attempts to break into empty houses, resulting in several arrests and occasional nights at the police station. It was time to go back home and stay safe. Edouard Poujaud, Patrice Steinberger and Jean-Luc Gonson travelled back to Marseilles. Or more precisely to Fos-sur-Mer, the neighboring town better known for its industry than for its beaches. Singer Gypsy remained in London. Patrice decided to take his place. When you already write all the music and lyrics, why not sing them? They recruited a bass player, Ronan Paris, and a drummer, Jean-Jacques Nersessian. The latter is a fan of jazz-rock in general, and Toto in particular.
Just like Steve Hackett and Peter Gabriel
They christened the band Hurlevent and recorded their first songs at the Cactus studio in Marseilles: Le Dormeur du Val, K’ssé, Terre Humide and For Sale. In those four tracks, theme changes, bridges and guitar or keyboard solos alternate every minute. Glockenspiel, acoustic guitar, mellotron. A concentrate of progressive clichés that can only stir a benevolent smile or annoyed dismay now. The brand new band gave their first performance in Vitrolles in June 1985, with Patrice Steinberger singing. Edouard Poujaud had long hair and a beard, he played the guitar and the mandolin sitting on a stool. Patrice, wearing makeup and a costume, played the transverse flute. They looked just like Steve Hackett and Peter Gabriel. Genesis’s influence was overwhelming.
Hurlevent rehearsed in the tiny boiler room of a building, 4 meters long and 1.5 meters wide. They felt cramped in Marseille. After London, they needed another capital city to fit their ambition.
The band settled in Paris at the end of 1985 on a new basis. They changed their name to Elephant & Castle, a tribute to the London district where they sprouted. The lyrics were now written in English because "rock music is English just like flamenco is Spanish", Patrice explained in an interview. And the working rules were strict: two weekly rehearsals, shared financial expenses, agreement of all the members to validate a new song, interdiction for a member to refuse a show. They had all found jobs in hotels or the catering industry to work part time or at night, which left them enough time to work on music, on the band, on their dreams.
Elephant & Castle started writing, rehearsing, recording. And scoured the record companies and labels in Paris and London where Patrice and Edouard frequently went to hand out demos. When Peter Gabriel, Genesis, Yes or Queen played a concert, Patrice reached the front row to throw a demo tape at the feet of Phil Collins or Freddie Mercury. He ended up a professional thrower.
Rock is an adventure
Little by little, Elephant & Castle made its mark and attracted the interest of tour managers and producers. In 1986, SOS Racisme programmed them for a major show at La Bastille. The night before, on the way back from rehearsal, Jean-Jacques Nersessian had a motorcycle accident. A broken knee and one month stuck in a hospital – the show was cancelled. Bad luck was always around but it strengthened the band.
Like that crooked manager who claimed to be the heir to Ibanez guitars because he had the same name. The guy was always loaded with cash. He drove the five musicians around in a limousine, hired bodyguards for them and showered everyone with champagne. His act lasted for a year. The group was initially impressed and seduced by his personality. But when one day, at the Ministry of Culture where he had connections, Ibanez offered to organize a big show for the deaf, Elephant & Castle understood that they were dealing with a lunatic and decided to cut all ties with him, despite the agreement on lifelong management (!) they signed with him.
Like that casting notice from a production company looking for a rock band. Elephant & Castle auditioned to become… the Beagle Boys for the French Disneyland that would open a few months later. What a joke!
Take it or leave it!
Like that tour organized in the south of France in January 1987, which turned into a retreat from Russia. That winter, Provence was covered in snow. It was -10° Celsius in Marseilles. Ice had frozen still the very place Elephant & Castle was heading to. The closer the band got to Marseilles, the colder the musicians were. Water bottles were freezing in the cabin. They had to light a fire under the engine to restart the vehicle. When they finally reached Marseilles, it was an apocalypse: the city was blocked by hundreds of cars abandoned in the streets and all shows were cancelled.
Like that producer from a record label who was interested in the melodic potential of the band and got them to work on a track. He asked for lyrics in French. Then for a slow tempo. Then for guitar arpeggios. Then for a sax solo. Elephant & Castle complied each time. The track is called Seconde Classe. It's mellow and goofy. The band got nothing but self-loathing from this experience. They swore to themselves they would never do it again.
From now on, they would only trust their own convictions and wishes. Take it or leave it: Elephant & Castle would not let anyone mess with their identity.
In 1987, Jean-Luc Gonson left the band he co-founded and went back to Marseilles. He no longer believed in it. Rémy Hennequin, a classically trained pianist and a fan of Deep Purple, took his place as a keyboard player. The band had pinned an ad in Star's Music, a store in Pigalle: "Band influenced by Yes Genesis looking for a keyboard player". Rémy auditioned at the Elephant & Castle rehearsal studio in Joinville-le-Pont on The Game Of The Goose.
A year later, Ronan Paris and Jean-Jacques Nersessian were fired. After the show performed for Fête de la Musique, they had left to drink shots while the remaining three members were putting away the equipment. Elephant & Castle’s rule is to share everything – the truck loading and the beers – or nothing.
The band recruited Alain Marquès, a bass player familiar with funk and reggae music, who asked if they would hire a blind musician. Of course they would.
Nersessian eventually reintegrated the band by answering an ad published in the daily Libération. He is THE Elephant & Castle drummer, they all agreed upon his auditioning. His powerful strike grounded the band and allowed Edouard, who was not a rhythm guitarist, to be in tempo. His frantic use of cymbals gave the music a shiny touch. He and Alain Marquès, as a rhythm section, regulated all the dreams or disagreements of the band. They always pointed in the right direction. They knew how to deal with a tune that no longer progressed or put an end to the arguments and misunderstandings of everyday life.
Elephant & Castle had finally become a “true” story. A real band rather than a simple gathering of musicians. "Everyone brings their heart and guts to it, they just lay them on the table", Rémy says. Everyone enjoyed playing all the songs, which were credited to all the band members. Nobody ever winced. They were always together, talking about music, living for music. They worked all the time, writing songs and rehearsing on their free hours. The band remembers sleeping only a few hours a night but never being tired. They felt so happy.
What was the next step? An album. The very first. To throw their songs to the face of the world, to proclaim their talent. Elephant & Castle had recorded about fifteen demo tracks between 1987 and 1990, which they sent to the record companies. A bunch of artistic directors noticed the band’s personality. But they also felt they wouldn't be able to reshape it to their taste. At the time, radios were picked on for not playing enough French music (quotas would be imposed by a law voted in 1994), French rock bands Mano Negra or Noir Désir ruled, as well as French rap music with NTM, IAM or MC Solaar (They changed the history of music in France). The french music industry dared not try anything new.
Elephant & Castle kept waiting in the lobby. At Real World, Peter Gabriel's label, located in Bath, in the English countryside : when Patrice and Edouard arrived soaking wet, Basil Anderson offered them "coffee, comforting and encouragement", they remember with gratitude.
The stage would make a difference: Elephant & Castle played a handful of concerts in 1991… and the rest is history. The music magazines praised the band so much that it eventually reached the ears of the prog rock labels. In May 1991, Elephant & Castle recorded a six-track demo in Saint-Ouen (suburbs of Paris), leading two labels to offer the band a contract. The band wished for a production agreement which would get them into a studio with a producer as an artistic director. But the Ugum label in Bordeaux decided to publish the demo as it was, despite its flaws, notably Patrice’s accent, which he will be criticized for. But basically, if English is an international language that can be sung with a cockney, Manchester or Bristol accent, then why not French?
They finally had a deal with Ugum. The agreement was signed. Now was the time for the band to conquer the world. They asked a friend to paint an album cover, another drew a logo, photos were chosen, lyrics were typed. The band members changed their names to Stein, R.P.P. Hennequin, Don Marquès and Avedis on the album cover, which was simple and green – Edouard Poujaud’s favorite color.
One thousand copies of The Green One were printed and released on November 6, 1991. Everything went very quickly after that. The album sold out in only two weeks. The label had to press another 1,000 CDs. Reviews flew in the European music magazines: France, Italy, Germany, Poland, England and the Netherlands. The French national press gave it a try: Télérama, Libération. French radio stations like RTL and Ouï FM or indy stations played Between Now and Then.
Though not necessarily positive, all reviews agreed on the band’s sense of melody, straight-to-the-point songwriting and perfect singing. Elephant & Castle turned down the prog rock clichés by stripping their tracks down to the core and depriving the lyrics of the usual prog rubbish (elves, magic fountains, rainbows) to address everyday life. The band was compared to such icons as IQ, Rush and Saga.
1992 would be devoted to concerts. Elephant & Castle built up a real team. They hired a manager and a publicist plus two roadies, a sound engineer and a light manager – all relatives. Friends and families helped with the posters, leaflets and transportation. A fan club called "We are all Elephants" would publish a monthly newsletter and one fanzine a year for the upcoming three years, shaking up the prog microcosm and writing down the anecdotes and details that feed this biography. Elephant & Castle packed everyone in an uncomfortable delivery truck lent by friends and performed 25 concerts in 1992. Music stores, bars, small venues, theaters, festivals, in Paris and its suburbs but also in the rest of France. As guest or as main artist. Elephant & Castle never turned down any occasion to give a live performance. Everywhere they played, they were greeted by an audience of fans who knew the album by heart and brought along friends. Who, in turn, fell in love with the band.
E&C loved to play live
The highlight of it all was reached in April 1992 in Paris and Lille when the band played as guest star for Pendragon, one of the top English prog rock bands of the time. Elephant & Castle was hot Pendragon had given the band only 10 minutes for soundchecking. The sound engineer, Frédéric Pierre, reassured the group: he would do the levels on the first title Bombs. Edouard, who dreaded the stage because he changed the tuning on each song, and the other musicians had no time to be nervous and delivered a perfect performance. The press that came to see the English stars only had eyes for the French guests. The next day, the regional daily La Voix du Nord devoted half a page to Elephant & Castle, a group "which literally fascinates its audience".
Not all of the gigs from The Green One tour were so vibrant, but they all left their share of happy memories both to the audience and the musicians. Elephant & Castle loved to play live. Particularly Stein: as soon as the lights went out and the spotlight focused on him, the singer was transfigured. Wearing dark glasses on an impassive face, he seemed to explode at the opening lines of the very first song. From then on, he forgot everything else but the lyrics and played in a daze. Most of the show relied on him: costumes, fireworks, addresses to the public. Stein ran, twirled, climbed, fell, harangued, yelled, capered about. Most often, the shows reached an unprecedented intensity. All the reviews written in the wake of these concerts bear witness to the magic.
At the end of the tour, in October 1992, Elephant & Castle decided to go back into the studio. There had no time to lose: the group wanted to sign an agreement with a major record company by the end of 1993. But on October 27, four days before a recording session, Rémy Hennequin left the band. For the past few months, he had felt uncomfortable because he felt his musical ideas had less and less room. Edouard and Patrice were the soul of Elephant & Castle. They had just been overwhelmed by U2’s Achtung Baby album. Edouard Poujaud wanted that sound exactly and added more and more synth to his strings. One day, he arrived for rehearsal with a synth guitar he had just bought. What he considered a treasure, Rémy saw it as a threat. The keyboards now overlapped with the guitar. Remy left discreetly, without a rant, without effusion. He was tactful until the very end. He did regret leaving his friends but didn’t feel any grief as for the music.
A more aggressive sound
Elephant & Castle, now a four-member band, saw the departure of its keyboard player as a challenge, an opportunity for something new. All the songs were re-orchestrated: Stein provided the essential keyboard parts, which were simply deleted when superfluous (No Time No Rhyme). Some titles built around a theme on keyboards were abandoned (Squat, written by Jean-Luc Gonson, Living In A Big Town, by Rémy Hennequin). Don Marquès relaxed the strings of his bass by a semitone to create a heavier sound. Avedis launched keyboard sequences from a pad. The band adopted a more aggressive sound. Stein rapped on a new Red And Cherrys loaded with testosterone.
Elephant & Castle stripped down their music and name: the band now communicated as E&C. Like a logo, more graphic, more visual.
E&C entered the studio for the first session in a series of recordings. It took seven days to record Dry, a brand new re-orchestrated version of Second Class in English, a song they hated in its French mellow version. A budget and a schedule equivalent to that of the whole Green One album for one single title. E&C used every studio tool to make a perfect song.
1993 and 1994 were devoted to recording. As soon as they had money, E&C recorded songs in the 24-track studio Concorde in Paris. Edouard and Stein’s inspiration was in full swing. Marquès and Avedis provided their share of songwriting and arrangements.
In order to test the new songs, the studio time was interspersed with a few Parisian concerts in big venues: Hard-Rock Café, or the legendary Gibus and La Loco. On May 26, 1994, in the club hosted by le Moulin Rouge in Pigalle, E&C was a hit. The audience had come for the dancefloor, and yet they asked for one, then two encores. In June 1995, at the Fête de la Musique near Beaubourg, in the heart of Paris, the band performed in front of an enthusiastic crowd of one thousand people. Transcended.
In 1995, when E&C recorded five songs in the famous Studio Plus XXX in Paris with Jean Roussel (who worked among others with The Police, The Wailers, Roger Glover, Jeane Manson or Cat Stevens) and signed a pre-production agreement with MCA, the band believed in their lucky star. But the recording sessions were chaotic, the producer and the group couldn't understand each other and the artistic director who dared to sign got fired when the record company was bought by Seagram the following year.
At the end of 1996, E&C rented a concert hall in Paris to record a live album. Big sound equipment, hundreds of invitations for two evenings. About twenty titles are recorded, new songs augmented by covers of musicals (Singing In The Rain, Over The Rainbow) that Stein loved. But E&C leaved the tapes aside, no longer managed to organize working sessions. A new lunatic manager added to the distress: the band entered theaters with their gear for a concert on which the manager has never agreed. E&C performed in awful conditions.
Every rehearsal session turned into a crisis meeting. “We weren't playing anymore, we were only dealing with problems”, they remember. All the frustrations and misunderstandings emerged like secret grudges leading up to argument, anger and resentment. The band finally broke up for good in June 1997. “I couldn't take it anymore. So I left”, Stein says. "I got sick of it, so I quit," Edouard recalls. Both claim they first left the band, when it only took one for the band to die.
"After a while, when a band hasn’t achieved anything, it runs on empty," Edouard Poujaud analyzes.
Elephant & Castle is the story of a talented band, it tells the adventure of five, then four obsessive musicians who were unlucky. “When you're anti-marketing, you need a lot of luck,” Edouard explains. Basically, E&C was not formatted for a music business made of connections and alliances. They faced their own limits and proved unable to break through a glass ceiling that they didn't even know existed.
After E&C, the members did meet up for various collaborations. Stein set up a duo with a guitarist (Didier Exarchopoulos, father from the actress Adele Exarchopoulos) then a trio with Rémy and Marquès, then a duet with Rémy. They wrote music and performed under the name Crocodile Dandy. There is a good testimony on the web of one of their concert at the Alliance Française in Madrid in 2011. Recommended.
In 2014, Edouard Poujaud wrote and produced 1812 - A Russian Tale, a musical about Napoleon's retreat from Russia. Stein did the vocals.
Marquès and Avedis just vanished. And no-one ever played an Elephant & Castle song again.
So this is it, right? One album, one tour, a bunch of regrets and then it’s over? No way.
In 2020, one of their friends found a lost 5-track demo tape produced at the end of 1994. He played it… and it became obvious again: E&C knew how to write earworms. Simple tunes with subtle arrangements. The recordings witnessed the creative vitality of a group at its peak. Every track was mind-blowing, including the swan song: "We’ll never touch the stars, but why do you care", a melancholy Stein sings in the last verse of the track Elephant And Castle. “Hoo, my no-generation,” he hisses. A bitter statement.
Those songs, the reflections of a blessed era, had to be promoted again. Thirty years after The Green One, Patrice Steinberger and Edouard Poujaud searched through their cupboards, bookshelves and hard disks, and found 12 songs (including four tracks recorded live during the unforgettable Fête de la musique back in 1995) which could fill an album. Forgotten, lost tracks. The Lost Album. No regrets, no hard feelings. It’s a beautiful story. They had a great time.