The band at the birth of the web

Les Horribles Cernettes, a female doo-wop group, was the first band to grace a web page.

Les Horribles Cernettes
Photo by Silvano DeGennaro

About 25 years ago, a female doo-wop quartet—comprising four women who worked at or who had social ties to the CERN nuclear research facility in Switzerland—performed an unlikely feat: providing the first band image on the web.

Les Horribles Cernettes crafted their music career on physics and tech-centric songs with lyrics like, “You can catch me on the web. Click me.” They performed at CERN events, private events and in a few scrappy music videos. When CERN launched the World Wide Web in 1990, the Cernettes were in the right place at the right time for their burgeoning group to become a part of internet lore. Just down the hall from the office of their songwriter and music director (who was, of course, an engineer at CERN) sat the man behind the web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who decided to add the vocal group’s photo to a web page about CERN social activities.

Montreal-born Cernettes member Lynn Veronneau (pictured far right in famous photo shown above) reunited with the group in July for CERN’s Hardronic music festival, which has been going on since 1989. Veronneau has called NoVA home for 17 years and now leads jazz group Veronneau.

What brought you from Montreal to Switzerland?

Love and adventure. I was dating a physicist at the time, and he was finishing up his studies over there at the European Center for Nuclear Research, and the distance from Montreal was—either it was going to make it or break it. So we decided to give it a go.

How did the Cernettes form?

The Cernettes formed around the musical director, Silvano de Gennaro, who was an engineer at CERN and was also composing music as a hobby. [He] was approached by a young woman who wanted to get the attention of her physicist boyfriend, who spent most of his time on the experiment rather than dating her. She asked Silvano if he would write a song to get his attention and the song would be performed at the Hardronic Festival. That was the song “Collider,” where the chorus says, “You only love your collider.”

That’s how the Cernettes came to be. They were kind of a one-time deal, and there was a lot of humor around it because it was a parody obviously, and they dressed in ’50s-style dresses and hairdos. I was in the audience at that show, and I was a music student in Switzerland at that time, and when I saw the band come on, I just loved it. I thought it has everything that I loved: It’s got vocal harmonies, it had humor, and it was so unusual that most of the songs were about physics.

CERN is the birthplace of the World Wide Web. What do you know about how the image was first transmitted?

While they don’t know which was the very first picture, they are sure that we are the very first band on the WWW. That picture is widely considered the first social picture. There would have been pictures of experiments, [and] there would have been pictures of scientists, the web team. It still remains one of the iconic images of the web, and CERN has kind of adopted us as a mascot.

Is it a coincidence that Les Horribles Cernettes shares an acronym with CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, as it wasn’t operating until 2008?

Not a coincidence. The LHC is the largest machine in the world, and it took decades to plan and build—the first official meeting took place in 1984. With thousands of scientists, engineers and technicians involved, it permeated the lives of CERN workers even back then. Using the acronym was our playful way to acknowledge this amazing community.

Did the Cernettes in any way prepare you for your career with Veronneau?

I guess in a way the Cernettes were sort of my baptism by being on stage, by fronting a band. I had performed as a classical singer because that’s what I was studying at the time, but I had never performed solos. So I would be part of a duet and didn’t really carry the whole performance. But with the Cernettes, we’d each take turns taking the lead, and we’d also write our own arrangements, so all the vocal harmonies are created by the singers. So I guess it was my training wheels.

Veronneau will perform at a CD release concert for their fourth album, Love and Surrender, on Sept. 13 at D.C.’s Blues Alley.