When Jacno Met Kraftwerk

His band Stinky Toys were forward-thinking French punk pioneers, but Jacno was so much more. A brush with Kraftwerk in 1977, a story you just couldn’t make up, changed his life…

Upstairs at the Gare de Lyon in Paris is a spectacular Belle Époque restaurant called Le Train Bleu. Opened in 1900, it would have nourished and inspired aspiring Fauvists making the long trip south in search of light. Since then, its high-ceilinged grandeur has been used as mise-en-scène in Luc Besson’s ‘Nikita’ and George Cukor’s ‘Travels With My Aunt’, and it also provided the inspiration for Kraftwerk’s seminal ‘Trans-Europe Express’ album, when Ralf, Florian and the boys went there for their tea one night in the mid-70s. 

But our first port of call with the time machine isn’t the fin-de-siècle bistro, it’s the Gare du Nord across town, to catch the ‘Trans-Europe Express’ press trip organised by Capitol Records in March 1977. Leaving Paris in the morning, naturellement. On board are 60 journalists travelling to Reims, who are then driven by police escort to a Moët & Chandon vineyard. During the journey, Kraftwerk’s new album is pumped through loudspeakers in restored Pullman wagons from the Orient Express. “Of course, there was plenty of alcohol for the journalists, so most of them were drunk upon our arrival in Reims,” wrote Wolfgang Flür in his memoir, ‘I Was A Robot’. 

One of the journalists was Alain Pacadis, a Burroughsian dandy who wrote for the French music mag Rock & Folk during the 70s and 80s, before his bizarre death in 1986. Crucially, Pacadis invited some friends along, namely musician Jacno (real name Denis Quilliard) and his partner, singer Elli Medeiros. Jacno and Elli were an impossibly pulchritudinous couple who were the leading lights in France’s first punk band, Stinky Toys. Pacadis had gone large on them in his influential White Flash column, though events on the press junket would thwart their progress and inadvertently turn Jacno onto electro. Well, that and being in the company of Kraftwerk, of course. 

“Kraftwerk were wonderful people, amazing,” Jacno told Albert Algoud in a book of interviews called ‘Itinéraire Du Dandy Pop’ from 2006, three years before his premature death from cancer, aged 52. “I never got to work with them, but they helped to rejuvenate me when I met them in 1977.” 

“Alain Pacadis was a fantastic journalist,” says Étienne Daho, who became lifelong friends with Jacno and Elli after he put on a Stinky Toys gig in his hometown of Rennes in 1978. “Alain was very bright and very sweet. When he loved people, like he did me and Stinky Toys, he went into bat for us. He would be at every party, and he was drunk and drugged up all the time. We loved him dearly and he died in the most awful way. I think he asked his boyfriend to strangle him. Very morbid.” 

Pacadis, Jacno and Elli seem to have had a good time on Kraftwerk press trip, but things went a awry when they reached the Moët & Chandon vineyard. 

“When we arrived at the cellar, we were already hammered,” Jacno told Algoud. “Once there, we made sure things degenerated quickly, and the whole scene turned bacchanal. I encouraged Elli to get on the table. Once up there, dancing a senseless sarabande, she threw up the entire contents of her stomach onto the CEO of a record company.”

“Elli was sick everywhere,” says Daho. “Oh yeah, she puked on the table too. It was a mess.” 

Which would have been fine, but the CEO in question was the boss of EMI, who Stinky Toys were about to sign a deal with. 

“EMI decided not to sign them after that episode,” laughs Daho. 

Stinky Toys ended up with the renowned French label Vogue, and, after indifferent sales of their self-titled second album, they were dropped, effectively bringing an end to the band. 

Jacno, having met Kraftwerk, had been inspired to start experimenting with electronica on the side. He picked up a cheap Korg MS-10, a Revox machine and what he described as a “two-bob synth”. The resultant seven-inch, ‘Rectangle’, was released in 1979 on a tiny independent label because nobody else wanted it. It is retrospectively regarded as something of a minimalist masterpiece and it laid the foundation stone for all French punks with synthesisers.

“He was proud and very amused telling me the story of how his music was initially received,” says Jacno’s daughter, the musician Calypso Valois. “The first time ‘Rectangle’ was played on the radio, it was so people could say, ‘Listen to this, it’s so bad! It’s so ridiculous, it’s not even a song, nobody’s singing, it’s just a guy doing noise with electronic shit’. And then it was a hit.” 

‘Rectangle’ was used as the soundtrack for Olivier Assayas’ short film ‘Copyright’ (starring Elli Medeiros), and it even ended up on a Nesquik advert. Elli and Jacno would go on to record the soundtrack to Éric Rohmer’s ‘Full Moon In Paris’ in 1984, and Jacno became a hot producer, working with the likes of Mathématiques Modernes and Lio. 

The latter, described by Daho as “a Belgian Lolita”, had a massive European smash with ‘Le Banana Split‘ in 1980. For the follow-up, Lio decided to cover Stinky Toys’ ‘Lonely Lovers’, rewritten by Jacques Duvall as ‘Amoureux Solitaires’. The Belgian chanteuse, who was a big fan of both Stinky Toys and ‘Rectangle’, asked Jacno to produce it. 

“The record company was panicking,” says Lio. “They wanted ‘Frosted Lemon’, ‘Pear Melba’, anything fruit-related for a follow up! But we wanted it to be Jacno who produced it, so we held our nerve. We recorded ‘Amoureux Solitaires’ at the Studio Ferber in Paris and it was an even bigger hit than ‘Le Banana Split’. We were registering 50,000 sales a day.”

Jacno died just over a decade ago. He’d been an influential cult figure rather than a mainstream star, a dandy provocateur with a brilliant, irreverent wit and a fatal fondness for cigarettes. 

“An interviewer once said to me, ‘Aside from Charlotte Gainsbourg, nobody has a heritage like you do’,” says Calypso. “But it’s weird because everybody knows Gainsbourg. My father has this weird position in French music in that people involved in music know who he was, but apart from being the guy who wrote ‘Amoureux Solitaires’, the general public don’t know him. He’s really the only one to hold this special place.” 

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