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Beau Dommage: the essentials

CBC Music

Written by Jean-Étienne Sheehy

In French Canada, Beau Dommage’s songwriting skills and popular success combined for a long-lasting impact on Quebec’s cultural and inner core. Four of the Montreal band’s five albums were released in a short span — between 1974 and 1977 — with songs focused on day-to-day life in their home city, drawing on nostalgia for Montreal without shying away from its flaws.

But despite that specificity, Beau Dommage’s music remains universal — and timeless — more than four decades later after their debut. To celebrate this contribution to the country’s musical landscape, the band will be inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame on Sept. 23, along with fellow inductees Neil Young, Bruce Cockburn and Stéphane Venne.

Related: How to watch the 2017 Songwriters Hall of Fame show

There was a need for Beau Dommage in the 1970s, as bandmates Pierre Bertrand (vocals, bass, guitars), Marie Michèle Desrosiers (vocals), Robert Léger (keyboards, flute), Michel Rivard (vocals, guitars), Pierre Huet (lyricist), Michel Hinton (keyboards, accordion) and Réal Desrosiers (drums) demonstrated by the triple-platinum sales of their 1974 debut album. The band’s audience included everyone from post-1967 Expo adults, disenfranchised from the peace and love movement and ready to reconnect with their culture, to idealist teenagers who finally recognized themselves in French–Canadian pop music. After disbanding in 1978, with a few one-night reunions in the 1980s and 1990s, Beau Dommage reunited in 1994 to release a fifth album, which was also self-titled.

Selecting 10 essential Beau Dommage songs is as exciting as it is heartbreaking. After all, every song from the band’s 11-song debut album — aside from “Un ange gardien” — happens to be a classic of the French–Canadian repertoire, in terms of both popular impact and songwriting quality.

Below, 10 essential songs from Beau Dommage, as picked from its five studio albums (and excluding live recordings and reissues).

Song: “Tous les palmiers”
Album: Beau Dommage (1974)

There couldn’t be a better introduction to Beau Dommage than this opening song from the band’s debut album. Here, the band members introduce elements that would later define their sound, such as their three-part harmonies and the familiar images and sounds of Montreal’s working-class neighbourhoods (like a mom asking her child to come home for supper). The band itself can be found at the core of “Tous les palmiers”: the address repeated at the end of the song — 6760 Saint-Vallier — belonged to Léger’s apartment, and was the band’s first headquarters.

Song: “À toutes les fois”
Album: Beau Dommage (1974)

The beauty of this song’s lyrics is in the simplicity and honesty of Léger’s approach, as he writes about feeling upside down after running into an ex-partner — a song written through the eyes of a friend that the ex-couple has in common. The lyrical weight is given even more heft with the chorus, which benefits from electric guitars and harmonies. “À toutes les fois” is neither heartbreaking nor naive, but instead deals a swift dose of simplicity, marking a departure from the excesses of 1960s romantic pop.

Song: “Chinatown”
Album: Beau Dommage (1974)

On this track, Rivard sings about an evening out in Montreal’s Chinatown, which once provided a window to a world outside of the city for those who had never left the island. With the first snowfall of the year in the background, Léger’s flute defines this song. “Chinatown” embodies Beau Dommage’s urban nature by going beyond lyrics about the city; here, they also sound like Montreal.

Song: “La complainte du phoque en Alaska”
Album: Beau Dommage (1974)

“La complainte du phoque en Alaska” survived the test of time as the band’s most recognizable song. Behind the naive love story of this seal stuck in Alaska, Beau Dommage delivers its most memorable chorus (translated to English): “It’s not worth leaving those you love behind to spin a ball on your nose.”

As a punchline to this ballad, Rivard reminds us in the lyrics that this story might just be a piece of fiction — “C’est rien qu’une histoire, j’peux pas m’en faire accroire” — but also says he recognizes himself in the seal: “Mais des fois j’ai l’impression que c’est moi qui est assis sur la glace/ les deux mains dans la face.”

The true testament to this song’s legacy is that Félix Leclerc recorded a cover of it for his 1975 album, Le tour de l’île. While Quebec’s founding songwriter didn’t usually perform covers, his version of “Le phoque” served as an exception.

Song: “Le picbois”
Album: Beau Dommage (1974)

While Montreal is the common thread to Beau Dommage’s work, the band also embraces the contradictions of urban life, as it did in this ode to a weekend out in the country. The song’s townsfolk even ponder if it’s worth going back to the city after being in the woods for a day. “Le picbois” remains a beautiful testimony of Bertrand’s melodic contributions to Beau Dommage, as demonstrated by the remarkable guitar riff that opens the song.

Song: “Montréal”
Album: Beau Dommage (1974)

This is Huet’s most personal and strongest contribution to the band’s catalogue, offering a look at both his past and present. Between the memories, the tongue-in-cheek humour and lyrical imagery — like Mount-Royal standing awkwardly, held in a vise by the neighbourhood of Westmount — “Montréal” is a beautiful track that defines Beau Dommage both musically and lyrically.

Song: “Heureusement qu’il y a la nuit”
Album: Où est passée la noce? (1975)

“Le blues de la métropole,” the opening track of Beau Dommage’s second album, uses updates between long-lost friends as a snapshot, immortalizing all the things that have arguably changed for the worst after all of Expo ‘67’s various promises — like friends growing up and turning to drugs or religion to fill the void of adulthood. But the true gem of this topic — and album — comes five songs later.

“Heureusement qu’il y a la nuit” trades the humour of “Le blues” for a personal perspective on the unfulfilled promises left to this generation, a little less than a decade before this song was released. While we know where all the characters ended up because of “Le blues” — whether it’s on a farm, in jail or in a cult — one question remains unanswered on "Heureusement": why did everyone leave?

Song: “Un incident à Bois-des-Fillions”
Album: Où est passée la noce? (1975)

This Shakespearean B-side to Beau Dommage’s second album is the band’s most ambitious piece of music, progressively stitching together its blend of urban folk rock. In it, Huet tells the story of a girl who drowned in the Rivière des Mille Îles, a channel of the Ottawa River in southwestern Quebec. Bandmates Rivard and Bertrand concurrently wrote their own reaction pieces to Huet’s story: Rivard responds to the story with anger, and Bertrand with sadness. The three narratives come together in the song’s conclusion, where each perspective — Huet’s, Rivard’s and Bertrand’s — interweave within the lyrics.

This song construction results in some of Beau Dommage’s most urgent songwriting, coupled with spaced-out progressions. “Un incident à Bois-des-Fillions” also serves as a dramatic reminder of Beau Dommage’s beginnings as a theatre group, called La quenouille bleue. While the song is not as over-the-top in terms of musical virtuosity, it pushes the band to new boundaries without losing its essence. A special mention goes out to the orchestral arrangements, which lift the song enough to make it engaging for its full 20 minutes.

Song: “Du milieu du pont Jacques-Cartier”
Album: Beau Dommage (1994)

Léger’s initial lyrical and musical contributions to Beau Dommage’s catalogue shaped the band (and Quebec’s cultural fabric), although he remained in the background. For the first and only time in Beau Dommage’s existence, Léger let himself into the spotlight, vulnerably serving as lead vocalist in this sober tribute to his main source of inspiration: Montreal. In “Du milieu du pont Jacques-Cartier,” Léger talks to the city in a heartfelt, one-on-one conversation, while standing on the middle of the Jacques-Cartier bridge. While a song for Montreal, this is also a song for anyone who’s ever experienced a love/hate relationship with their home city.


Song: “Rive-Sud”
Album: Beau Dommage (1994)

After exploring Montreal’s neighbourhoods and citizens, the south shore of Montreal was the last lyrical frontier for Beau Dommage, with even a quick foray into the forests of the Laurentians. On “Rive-Sud,” the lyrical and musical delivery is as repetitive as the cookie-cutter rows of houses in Longueuil. It’s one of Rivard’s finest contributions to the band's catalogue, succinctly summing up all the things that make up the suburb — whether it’s in the comforting boredom, the need to get out of the Rive-sud and, of course, the commercial make-up that includes (at the time, at least), movie-rental stores and drive-thrus.

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