Daniel Jeanrenaud busking on the tube
Daniel Jeanrenaud steps onto a crowded tube carriage. "My name ain’t Johnny," he announces to the bemused commuters, "but I sure could use some cash." He then makes up for that one-liner by launching into a blistering garage-rock version of Elvis Presley’s "Suspicious Minds".
The other passengers immediately assume that odd frozen expression that British people slip into when they realise they're enjoying themselves in public. But, by the second chorus, most people are clapping along (impressively managing to stay on the two and the four), and then, with 21st century inevitability, out come the camera phones.
At the end of the song people burst into applause. Jeanrenaud is immediately off down the carriage with his hand out: "A little money for the guitar man, please." Then he’s out the door and into the next car. "You only do one song per carriage," he tells me later. "On the street, people listen to three songs before they give you anything. If you do one song [on the tube] then go, you can make money."
"How much do you usually make?" I ask.
"Well, this morning, coming up from Brighton, I made £40 in one journey." He gives me a toothy grin. "That’s more per hour than the cops who bust you."
It makes sense. Your average London busker is a Portuguese ethnomusicology postgrad playing sax to Genesis YouTube rips. Daniel Jeanrenaud comes on in a sparkly pinstripe suit, rockabilly quiff and the kind of faux-snakeskin shoes usually reserved for West African pimps on their way to church. He plays electric guitar through a portable amp, pumping out the kind of heavily-distorted, bluesy rock 'n' roll that would have Dan Auerbach moving his entire family to the depths of North London if it meant Jeanrenaud guesting on the next Black Keys record.
But it’s not just the get-up or the sound that makes people’s heads turn. Jeanrenaud has the thousand-yard stare, the wry smile revealing black teeth and the unique mixture of gaunt and puffy about his face. A man who has lived his 54 years hard.
In an age where rockstars are well turned-out posh boys with banjos, Daniel Jeanrenaud is the last bulwark of badass. Or maybe the reanimated corpse of a badass who can still play amphetamine-garage versions of Jerry Lee Lewis songs after decades of hard drug abuse.
One look at Jeanrenaud and you know he has a story to tell. But to figure out how he fits as the last vestige of cool in Camden – removed from the £30 Nirvana prints and Obey knock-offs of his surroundings – one has to work backwards.
Daniel at Marathon (Photo courtesy of Daniel Jeanrenaud)
Jeanrenaud has actually been a shadowy figure ghosting the edges of the British music scene for years. Back in the early to mid-00s he became an underground Thing as the main attraction of the semi-legal drinking den that operated in the backroom of the Marathon Kebab Shop on Chalk Farm Road.
Marathon probably deserves an article on its own; anyone who knows this city will tell you that coked-out sweatbox was the best party in North London, and that Camden lost its soul at the precise moment Marathon lost its license. At the centre of all the madness was Daniel Jeanrenaud, hair slicked back, electric guitar turned way up, playing from midnight to 4AM six nights a week.
Word got around. "Jack White heard about me and came down," Jeanrenaud recalls. "He loved it. We did a duet on some 60s blues tracks." He shrugs: "A lot of musicians turned up – Robert Plant, Noel Gallagher, Paul Weller. Amy Winehouse always used to shout for Elvis songs. After she got famous she came back. We all went to her place for a party – I had to break in through the window because she’d lost her keys." He pauses. "I was the only one who knew how to break into a house."
Daniel with Paul Weller at Marathon (Photo courtesy of Daniel Jeanrenaud)
I ask which of his star fans he most connected with. "Kevin Shields was great. He took me to his studio to record and I opened for the My Bloody Valentine reunion shows at the Roundhouse. Of course, we went back to Marathon to do a late-night set afterwards. I had a living to make."
Aamid all that celebrity attention, what no one could ever figure out was how a guy this good was playing a kebab shop, passing around a pint glass for change. Rumours started to spread. Didn’t he used to tour with Bo Diddley? Wasn’t he in some big band in America?
Most available evidence supports the old music biz axiom: French people can’t rock. Daniel Jeanrenaud was born in Marseille, but perhaps overcame his Gallic handicap through the fact his father was a Pentecostal Minister. Yes, a blues guitarist who is actually the son of a preacher man.
"We weren’t allowed to listen to radio, but when I was five these Christian gypsy guys came and played Django Reinhardt-style guitar at our church. I begged until my parents finally bought me a guitar – then I played in church every Sunday."
The trouble came at 12, when he was sent to Bible camp in England. "I didn’t really speak English, but someone had a record player and put on 'Tutti Frutti' by Little Richard. I heard that 'a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom' and went fucking nuts. I thought that was English! It was the end of everything. That’s all I’ve done with my life since that moment. I came back with a quiff and an attitude – got thrown out of eight schools in three years."
Jeanrenaud dropped out and drifted into petty crime with French motorbike gangs. "Most of those guys are dead now. The only thing that kept me out of serious prison time was that I got my kicks with music more than stealing."
Jeanrenaud (second from left) with The Kingsnakes (Photo courtesy of Daniel Jeanrenaud)
Then, at 18, he got hitched and followed his wife Joan to San Francisco, where she began a celebrated career as cellist for the Kronos Quartet. "I landed in America and thought, 'I’m in the home of rock 'n’ roll. I need a band.'" Jeanrenaud found kindred spirits in three members of 70s garage-psych cult heroes The Flamin’ Groovies, and together they formed a bruising rock 'n’ roll outfit called The Kingsnakes.
"We played loud and wild. We got banned from every venue, but the people loved us, so club owners would always have to come and ask us back for double the money. We played shows with the Dead Kennedys and blew them off the stage. Bryan Gregory from The Cramps became a big fan – I sold him my old Flying V."
The Kingsnakes started picking up steam and Jeanrenaud found himself sharing stages with his heroes. "I was hanging with guys like Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins – guys I’d worshipped in France just a few years before. When we opened for Chuck Berry, he broke a string and I lent him my Gibson. He came up after and said, 'You’re good. Now I’ve played "Nadine" on your guitar, you can name it Nadine.' I thought I could die right there – Chuck Berry had just told me that I could play, and named my guitar."
But just as The Kingsnakes were taking off, Sly Stone introduced Jeanrenaud to the wonders of freebase cocaine. "We were jamming and Sly wanted me to join his band. By then he was fucked up. He could only hold a groove for about 30 seconds, but when he played he still had syncopation like no one else. I was already partying pretty hard, but with the freebase things went really crazy."
At the same time, Jeanrenaud’s marriage to Joan was hitting the skids. "I was a straight man in San Francisco in the 80s, fronting the only real rock 'n’ roll band in town," he smiles. "It was hard to stay married."
Daniel with Bo Diddley
He wound up back in Paris, broke and with no band. A young Manu Chao, who idolised Jeanrenaud, promptly broke up his own group to form a new version of The Kingsnakes. A revolving line-up of the band went on to sign with New Rose, the iconic label that brought bands like Gun Club and The Saints to Europe. Once again Jeanrenaud found himself on tour with former heroes like Bo Diddley, Link Wray and BB King. But, again, the lifestyle took its toll. "I tried to calm things down back in France, though I would still often go five or six months without seeing the sun."
Another marriage came and went, and in 1997 Jeanrenaud found himself in London. "I needed money, so I tried busking. At first people tried to rob me, so I started carrying a rubber bullet gun I brought over from France. But I like busking; it’s playing rock 'n’ roll to people, and that’s all I’ve ever cared about."
One night, Jeanrenaud stopped for food and, after an impromptu gig, began his 11-year residency at Marathon. "Marathon was the French Foreign Legion of rock 'n’ roll," he grins. "It’s where guitar players go to lose their identity."
"That’s where things got really nuts. I moved in upstairs and it was a constant party. Everyone always had a bag of something. I just divided my time between freebase and jamming with Jack White."
Of course, being a genuinely fun, interesting thing happening in London, Marathon was shut down by the local council. Back in 2011 this may well have saved Jeanrenaud’s life, but all it meant to him then was hitting the streets and busking again. His trio, the Camden Cats, now has a monthly residency at the Blues Kitchen, but his main gig is still the trains. "The Northern Line is best," he claims. "People coming up from Soho – they dance. Camden isn’t what it was, but I still love it."
Jeanrenaud genuinely doesn’t see any downward trajectory in his career. "I’m playing rock 'n’ roll. That’s what I do. Trains or stadiums – I don’t give a fuck."
In the modern British scene, where success is largely determined by how many corporate partnerships a band is tied into, it's a refreshing perspective.
In another man it might also be dismissed as bravado, but with Jeanrenaud you believe it. Both his shtick and his attitude come straight out of the juke joints of 1950s America: musicians sang for their supper, always put on a show and usually carried a gun. That raw sound and elemental approach is what Daniel Jeanrenaud has devoted his life to, and still does to this day.
I ask him briefly about the busking licenses recently brought in by Camden Council. He gives a contemptuous snort. "I have a license for rock 'n’ roll. Chuck-fucking-Berry gave it me."
Very few people can make that claim. Daniel Jeanrenaud may have paid a high price for the privilege, but he’s one of them.
Buy Daniel's latest record Get Up! here.
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