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HERMINE: THE WORLD ON HER PLATES
MORE HERMINE DEMORIANE
"The MOR 'chick singer' shifted dramatically out of focus" is about as good a précis of the music career of the new wave diva Hermine Demoriane as is possible in one short soundbite. An unclassifiable performer, whose career spans writing, acting, comedy and tightrope walking as well as singing, Hermine's musical reputation rests on her cult mini-album from 1982, The World On My Plates, on which the allure of her vaudeville torch songs is much enhanced by its iconic cover image of the artist loading singles into a dishwasher, poised and chic in a designer polka-dot dress.
Born in Neuilly (Paris) in 1942, Hermine Demoriane is the daughter of an engineer father and a journalist mother. At the end of 1964, Hermine visited London and immediately met the poet Hugo Williams, whom she married the following year. The couple have a daughter, Murphy. Lifestar, published in 1969, is a journal of her pregnancy. Hermine also contributed to publications such as International Times and The London Magazine. A visit to an exhibition by the artist Robert Morris at the Tate Gallery in April 1971 inspired Hermine to take up tightrope walking, which would become her obsession for the next five years. Her various works during this period, until March 1975, are fully documented in her book The Tightrope Walker.
As a tightrope walker (or funambulist), Hermine found a measure of fame by attempting to gain permission to cross the Serpentine in Hyde Park in 1973, performing with Coum (later to become Throbbing Gristle), Welfare State and The Moodies, and also completing a season with the Grand Magic Circus in Paris in 1974. However, the lasting image of Hermine the ropewalker is her appearance in Derek Jarman's celebrated quasi-punk film Jubilee, shot in 1977, in which she was cast as Chaos, a mute biker girl, and also sang a version of the Edith Piaf classic Je ne regrette rien. While never a dedicated punk rocker, Hermine had previously performed at Andrew Logan's ultra-camp Alternative Miss World contests, and appears in the 1978 film of the same name. In spring 1976 she performed two gigs as a vocalist with The Subterraneans, a short-lived outfit featuring NME scribe Nick Kent and members of The Damned, which in turn lead to Hermine recording a debut single (Chinese Shadows) with Kent and Peter Perrett of The Only Ones, although these recordings remain unreleased.
Having abandoned the tightrope even before the Jubilee shoot, Hermine returned to writing, producing three plays in 1978, 1979 and 1980, Lou Andréas Salomé, He Who Is Your Lord Is Your Child Too and The Knives Beside the Plates. The first play was seen by David Cunningham, the art-pop musician and producer behind The Flying Lizards, who had scored a surprise top ten hit with a postmodern cover of Money through Virgin. Seizing the opportunity to record another deadpan female vocalist, this time with a strong Continental accent, Cunningham contacted Hermine and invited her to record her skewed version of Torture, the John D. Loudermilk lament famously recorded by the Everly Brothers in 1964.
Of her distinctive accent, Hermine revealed: "I can't stop it. People often think it's a send-up, like an affectation, but it is for real. It's terribly bad, because I can't complain when I go to the shops, people just laugh… I'm really not interested in singing as such. For me it's a lot to do with delivery, and interpretation. I know it's pretty erratic. Either you go for it or you can't stand it. It must annoy a number of people that someone like me could get away with so much. I just try things out. I don't call myself an artist or a singer or anything like that. I find myself being called a performance artist, but it certainly wasn't anything of my doing." (Square Peg 1985)
Although the A-side was a cover version, the flipside Veiled Women was a Nico-esque original, and featuring former Moodies colleague Rod Melvin on piano and organ. As on Cunningham's art-pop productions as The Flying Lizards, Hermine didn't so much sing as intone the lyrics, over backing music featuring dustbin percussion, cartoon piano and some outré sax noise. As VS 347, the 7" single was due for release on Virgin in June in tandem with The Laughing Policeman, but after Cunningham took that single to Arista instead, Hermine found her own release shelved. However, the powers-that-be at Vernon Yard agreed to sell her 21,000 finished colour sleeves and the metal stampers for the princely sum of £59. The result was an independent pressing of 2,000 copies on her own Salomé Disc imprint, released in August and distributed by Rough Trade and Fresh.
As Hermine explained to Adrian Thrills of the NME: "The record is now in my own hands and not just the product of a big record company. I'm happy to be in full control. No whim of some young executive is going to shake me this time. I very much doubt if I'll get to use the 19,000 sleeves left over, but at least it's out." Both singer and story made good copy, and print reviews were positive, praising an "intoxicating, mysterious record" (Zigzag) as "fabulous" (New Music News), "somewhat reminiscent of Françoise Hardy" (Music Week) and "brilliant - a mutation even worse (and therefore better) than the Nashville Teens could ever have conceived of" (Sounds).
After the death of the French intellectual Jean-Paul Sartre in July 1980, Hermine organised a "soirée existentialiste" at the Notre Dame Hall on Leicester Square. The bill also featured This Heat, Family Fodder, People in Control and Furious Pig, as well as dancers and "pulp music" by Paul Burwell and Anne Bean. According to Melody Maker, "A strange evening of entertainment it turned out to be, wavering between incongruity, pretentiousness and a couple of welcome surprises. Hermine herself alternated between changing clothes, washing glasses behind the bar and occasionally coming on and singing little numbers in the style of a bar-room Marlene Dietrich."
After the Salomé Disc edition of Torture sold out, Hermine licensed both tracks to Human Records, who then requested two further tracks to expand the single into an EP. Foxes Will was a mini-epic featuring cello by Graham Painting and bassoon by arranger Felix Fiedorowicz, while Born a Woman treated the old Nashville standard to a deliberately crass boogie treatment, courtesy of producer/arranger Alig, of Family Fodder. Charles Bullen of This Heat also co-produced the latter track. Much delayed, the four-song EP finally appeared in March 1981.
In October 1980 Hermine began performing musical breaks at The Comic Strip, the pioneering alternative comedy club then resident at the Boulevard Theatre (Raymond Revuebar) in Soho. The connection came about after Hermine was introduced to Strip writer/director Peter Richardson by members of the band Furious Pig, and would in turn bring her into contact with comedians such as Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson, Keith Allen, and later Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders. Her musical links included renditions of Torture, Blue Angel, Wives & Lovers and Valley of the Dolls, for which she often burst out of a paper cone made of copies of the Financial Times. Reviewing the opening night, The Stage described Hermine as "a beautiful girl who can't sing and is liable to break down into a fit of giggles, and is quite frankly hilarious".
Elsewhere, Edward L. Fox of the NME wrote that Hermine "sings quiet, funny songs to a tinkly piano. She soothes the minds of the drinking and lounging audience away from thoughts of the hail of unemployment statistics going on outside. Her songs are all about repression and physical pain. The voice is imperfect and fragile, with a strong accent. She begins her act on a high stool in the dark, a red bicycle lamp held in each hand below her face, and sings a 'torch' song called Blue Angel in the red light. She disappears, then re-enters the light to sing again in a hesitant, distant style, as if she was performing in public for the first time."
Hermine's sojourn at The Comic Strip ended in February 1981: "It's good fun some nights. It depends how pleased I feel with myself. I appear for ten minutes doing two or three songs at a time. As for the show itself, I'm getting tired of it, because I know all the jokes. There are people there who haven't changed one syllable in their acts since October. Then there are the drunks who laugh for the wrong reason. I can't stand that drunken laugh."
After Richard Strange's celebrated Cabaret Futura closed down in May 1981, Hermine took over Monday nights at the Latin Quarter in Wardour Street together with Anne Bean. These events included performance artists, odd groups, audience participation and a Desert Island Disc-style spot, in which interesting guests introduced interesting records. Sadly the new event night lasted just two weeks before the club was closed down and boarded up (with their piano still inside), after which the extravaganza moved to the Screen on the Green in Islington.
Hermine's second single was recorded in 1981 and coupled a version of Dory Previn's Valley of the Dolls with a gorgeous original song, TV Lovers. The sound was gentler than before, dominated by piano and cello, with TV Lovers (written by Ian Kane) described by Hermine as "a song with a lot of cliché words". Relations with the Human label were already strained by the time it appeared in July 1981, and reviews were mixed, ranging from "sensitive, creative, contemporary quality pop at its best" (Music Week), "unutterably sophisticated" (Hot Press) and "atmospheric and intoxicating" (Zigzag) to merely "nice to have around" (Sounds). According to the NME, "Hermine could be Françoise Pascal in the process of slowly but surely swallowing the medicine chest", while Record Mirror judged the single "encore une flop".
In December 1981 Hermine performed at the opening of the multimedia exhibition Art and Artifice at B2 in London, which also featured work by Derek Jarman and Andrew Logan. Her surreal performance at this event co-starred a ten-foot high 'pet' Tyrannosaurus Rex, designed and operated by Jules Baker, who returned for Hermine's show at The Fridge in Brixton in March 1982. Always eclectic, Hermine also organized Café des Alliés, a series of eight shows at the Centre Charles Péguy on Leicester Square at the end of March 1982, combining performance art, poetry and music from a diverse cast of 40, including Ian Hinchliffe, Keith Allen, Steve Cripps, Carlyle Reedy, Deborah Evans (The Flying Lizards), Anne Bean and David Medalla, exploring themes related to the First World War and the overall experience of being foreign. At about the same time Hermine took a role in John Maybury's film The Court of Miracles.
Although Hermine's striking image and performances generated any amount of reviews and column inches, capturing the wit of her live act(s) in a recording studio proved more difficult, and no British labels showed any interest after the Human deal ended. Happily, the cosmopolitan Brussels-based indie Crammed Discs stepped up to the plate, and agreed to release a six-track mini-album, comprising minimalistic versions of Blue Angel (Roy Orbison), Too Many Men In My Life (Ruth Wallis), The Thrill Is Gone (Henderson & Brown) and I Won't Make It Without You (Nick Lowe), together with two originals by Ian Kane, Happy Holidays and Waiting. Most of the material was newly recorded at Elephant Studio, although Blue Angel was an older recording salvaged from cassette. Despite Hermine's limitations as a vocalist, The World On My Plates is an attractive and charming record, and the one on which her cult reputation as a "new wave diva" is based. The iconic sleeve image by Richard Rayner-Canham, of Hermine loading singles into a dishwasher, unarguably adds to the allure, and later became a popular postcard sold through the ICA.
Of her chosen cover versions, Hermine revealed: "I don't like songs that are too schmaltzy. It's very difficult with what I do not to fall into the schmaltz thing. I'm very wary of kitsch. I think you have to be very careful to put on a good show, which is demanding of people and at the same time one which they can enjoy."
Released by Crammed in April 1982, The World On My Plates was supported by a handful of live dates around Europe, including Paris (with Allez Allez), Brussels (with Marine) and Gent (with Minimal Compact). Undoubtedly the strangest was a support slot with metal merchants Girlschool at the London Hammersmith Odeon on 13 May, at which Hermine was joined by Jules Baker's giant pet dinosaur. The album sold well, reaching no 13 in the Rough Trade indie chart on the back of enthusiastic reviews, and also gained a release in Japan. The critics were now universally appreciative:
"Another music from a different kitsching. Musical backings are kept to a minimum: mistily tinkled piano keys, occasional snaking columns of cello and a bit of fake jazzy sax. Hermine is French and continues to exercise her almost petulant, devil-may-care abuse of bland English vowel sounds. It is this foreign larynx wrapping itself around, and warbling through, these songs that gives rise to the common torch singer description of 'Ridiculous!' Her quietly dazzling ability is to tread excruciatingly close to cabaret novelty yet shed light on the contradictions and dogma lurking within these songs. This vinyl succeeds in capturing the humorous but strangely unsettling talent that she displays live where the singles failed, and six songs allow time to savour and soak in the Hermine experience." (Mick Sinclair, Sounds)
"Show me the way to the next café bar. Hermine lives in a demi-monde, a world of sleaze and cramped vamps. The torch sets this shadowland alight, though with a flame that puts Carmel, Ronni et al to the stake. All six tracks are wonders, and the voice coats every word in fondly rolled broken English. Old standards like Too Many Men in My Life are knocked out with a smattering of lines like 'eet ze sac' that brings the French farce of the singer into line with the ribald American humour of the lyricist. This one deserves to go gold." (David Dorrell, NME)
Unsurprisingly, given the spurious "torch singer" tag, Hermine found herself bundled up with the spurious "new jazz" trend, and appeared at The Joy of Mooching, a season held at the London ICA in August 1982, alongside Allez Allez, Swamp Children, the French Impressionists, Biting Tongues, Weekend, Animal Nightlife and Animal Magic. The ICA performance proved typically theatrical and tongue-in-cheek: "Not so absently toying with an Eiffel Tower model - some fragments of some songs - some slapstick Nico - clown-y brandishing of scissors after severing the bass player's pigtail. To say that she doesn't sing very well is les appropriate than to say that she makes the most of what she does. She would never get away with it in a lot of places, but she does here. Her group of alto and soprano saxophones, and bass or piano support attentively" (Mark Cordery, NME)
In November 1982 Hermine embarked on another string of Crammed-sponsored live shows around Europe, including dates at North London Polytechnic and The Hacienda in Manchester, both with the Honeymoon Killers, followed by several headlining dates in Germany, and a short French tour with Minimal Compact and the Honeymoon Killers in December, and a Crammed event at the Transmusicals festival in Rennes. By now her highly entertaining live set included covers of Cry Me A River, La Valse de 99 Ans and Is That All There Is?, the latter adapted as a hilarious extended monologue on the vagaries of the independent music scene. However, touring was not to Hermine's taste, as she subsequently revealed to Square Peg magazine: "I found myself turning into a kind of send-up of a singer. There was a double bass and a saxophone, and it was like a group and I was really becoming stale and ridiculous. Especially on tour I couldn't stand being with the musicians. I get bored when things start to go smoothly."
The next Hermine record would not emerge until the following year. Plans to release her debut album proper through Crammed fell through, which meant protracted delays while a new deal was pursued. In December 1983 Hermine travelled to New York, performing at Danceteria, Pyramid and the Limbo Lounge, then returned to London via Paris. Despite offering the album to 40 different labels, however, Lonely At The Top was eventually released through a revived Salomé Disc in July 1984. Produced by Dominic Weeks and Cass Davies (of Furious Pig), the ten-song album was a trademark mix of skewed covers and Weeks/Davies/Demoriane originals, the former including Death of Samantha, Yoko Ono's ode to a stillborn child, the traditional Mauritian song Noir Noir Noir and the Neil Sedaka standard Un aut' soir d'ennui. Again reviews were positive:
"Lonely At The Top is an idiosyncratic mixture of cod-Brechtian dramatics, folk song and self-consciously arty rock, wrought from a small, exotic orchestra, including bassoon, cello, accordion and glockenspiel, and delivered in a heavily mannered accent. The French no doubt have a word for 'mixed bag' and Hermine Demoriane would know it well." (The Guardian)
"A clutch of material ranging from deranged covers of Yoko Ono and Neil Sedaka numbers to originals, it confirms Hermine as the Helen Shapiro/Dionne Warwick of the offbeat 80s - the MOR 'chick singer' shifted dramatically out of focus." (City Limits)
"The originals are somewhat difficult for me to describe, lying in form and style somewhat beyond that to which I am accustomed. Her voice, a mixture of Edith Piaf, Cindy Lauper and Ophelia in her last days, intones lyrics that range from the silly to the confused, while her entourage deliver a perfunctory imitation of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. The result is not immediately appealing, except perhaps to the clinically minded. However, everything comes together on the cover versions. These seem to provide both a focus and a framework for the group's energies and the result is amazingly original, enthusiastic, intelligent and enjoyable." (Timothy C. Heck, Earwax (Canada))
Distributed by Rough Trade, Lonely At The Top sold out its pressing of 2,500 copies, but was destined to be the last Hermine record. Sessions for a second album, recorded in Switzerland, went unreleased, and live dates with Einsturzende Neubauten in Europe in June 1984 were something of a mismatch. Subsequent theatrical performance projects included Stanhope (1985), Fountain of Youth (1987, at ULU swimming pool), Masculinity (1988), L'éternelle monotonie de la passion (1988), Share-Out 89 (1989) and Moonlight and Roses. In 1989 Secker & Warburg published her book The Tightrope Walker, which combines her London diary between April 1971 and March 1975 with a pictorial history of funambulism through the ages.
Despite the absence of any new records since 1984, viewers of French & Saunders and Absolutely Fabulous on television and DVD will have heard Hermine Demoriane singing more recently. For it was she who provided the distinctive Continental femme fatale vocals on several pastiche numbers in both shows, including pin-sharp parodies of Françoise Hardy and Nico, to name but two. In the mid-1990s Hermine returned to France, having inherited her family home, which she has since developed into an arts centre. The records she made between 1980 and 1984 are but one chapter in her picaresque life story, but what a charmed - and charming - tale they tell.