France

Album: Shakedown Street (1978)
  • Way down in the south of France
    All the ladies love to dance


    According to Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir, this may be the worst song the Grateful Dead ever recorded. While speaking to music journalist/musician David Gans, Weir named the song when asked about any "spectacular failures of judgment," adding, "I didn't actually write that one – it just sort of happened. But it sure as hell didn't happen right."

    The rest of the band must have agreed, because "France" was never performed live. The song is a low-water mark on an album that was largely discredited by fans who considered it a tawdry sell-out. In that regard, Dead percussionist Mickey Hart sort of agreed. "We were trying to sell out," he says in the liner notes for Beyond Description (1973–1989), "'Oh, let's make a single and get on the radio. Sure. We failed miserably once again. I mean, we could never sell out even if we tried, and we tried."

    Despite the low regard for "France," it was released as the B-side to "Shakedown Street." Like most Dead singles, "Shakedown Street" with its "France" B-side never caught on with mainstream radio and didn't chart.
  • Robert Hunter wrote the song's lyrics while Hart wrote the music, with Weir wrapping up the final arrangement. The song is sung by Donna Godchaux, who was a Dead member from 1972 to 1979.
  • Rolling Stone included the song in their "Terrible Songs by Great Artists" list, calling it "yacht rock."
  • The original conception of the song was very different from the final product. In the book Box of Rain, Dead lyricist Robert Hunter writes: "'France' was written to tapes of a joyous afternoon Latin jam at Mickey Hart's ranch, the same jam that spawned 'Molly Dee' and 'Northeast by West.' It was recorded by the Dead with abbreviated lyrics and a very different feel. The first four-and-a-half verses above [referring to the lyrics printed in the book] appear on the album Shakedown Street."

    As presented in Box of Rain, the song originally contained 13 verses, which seems oddly epic for a tune that doesn't seem particularly complex or philosophical, unless of course there's something profound coiled deeply in the words. Otherwise, it seems to just talk about how nice it would be to be in France where the women perpetually dance, and how nice it is to be in love.

    One interesting part of the song, however, comes with the words:

    Hit me where I live
    I'm not victim to the blues
    I just want to stick around
    Learn to pick and learn to choose


    That part of the song may explain the simple, happy, celebratory nature of the words. Early in his career, Hunter was hell-bent on a visionary quest in the manner of Arthur Rimbaud or Jim Morrison, determined to "obliterate his senses" (mostly with drugs) in order to find the deepest spiritual truths. Later, he mellowed out from the intensity of this mission. Perhaps there's something of that mellowing on display in "France."

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