Now I know that many of you, who have honored me with your readership thus far, have sometimes questioned some of my more eclectic choices but I am fairly certain that this will challenge even some of my more earnest supporters, because I have in past years become something of a fan (and therefore completist) of 60s French Girl Singers or as the movement was known “YeYe”.
The English have always been a bit sniffy about French pop music – perhaps in revenge for their views on our cuisine and tailoring – but “YeYe” seemed to grow out of the meeting of two traditions – France’s “Chanson” which had from Piaf onwards always put its emphasis on the lyric and its subsequent meaningfulness (expressed particularly by exponents such as Juliette Greco), and American Rock N’ Roll stylings. However, early examples of this show the Gallic versions as simply very tepid imitations of their transatlantic brethren – this where you would classify the recently departed Johnny Hallyday. It was when the 60s Beat of Swinging London came across the channel that this completely new sound seemed to emerge where the lyrics and often quite limited vocal delivery (edged with a strange sweetness) allied themselves with the persistent drive of Anglo-Saxon RnB.
It produced a unique hybrid and one that should not be overlooked as it would suck in virtually all of France’s great icons (musical and otherwise) at one stage or another.
Jean Emanuel Deluxe’s fantastic book on the subject covers nearly all the leading protagonists of the genre including the magnificent Gillian Hills (the original “Zou Bisou Bisou” for Mad Men fans), the feisty breakbeat of Jacqueline Taieb and of course, Gainsbourg’s amours La Bardot and La Birkin but he outlines the most influential as being the Four Queens – the sensationally beautiful and hugely talented Francoise Hardy, the atomic non-stop Sylvie Vartan, the future TV Star Chantal Goya and my particular favorite, France Gall.
Think Kylie in go go boots.
She was elfin, charming and enormously attractive and a star as a teenager who went on to even greater critical acceptability as her career advanced – recording Jazz albums and Ella Fitzgerald tributes – but in the 60s she was France’s pop sweetheart and deservedly so.
Her early recordings may come across as the innocent schoolgirl singing tales of the emperor, “Sacre Charlemagne” but listen to “Attends Ou Va T’En” and I defy you not to transport yourself to the Champs Elysees in 1964. Yves Saint Laurent, Gauloises, Le Jazz Hot… effortless and atmospheric. A worldly sound from one then so very young.
Tragically, she died this week.
I had originally intended to write for The Vinyl Vault about a record of hers called “Les Sucettes” which in our new enlightened world of #metoo, should now prove to be another shameful act perpetrated by a male chauvinist media circus as a schoolboy snigger. In this case, whilst the abuse was not physical the humiliation was infinitely more public and who should be at the heart of it, none other than that old goat, Serge Gainsbourg. The “sucettes” or lollipops, were naturally a slang for a different kind of act which were made all the more provocative when sung by the innocent and unsuspecting Mlle Gall. It was a cruel joke and one for which she would never forgive him or those who sanctioned it.
Gainsbourg was, however, a fantastically talented writer – there’s a lot more to his work than his grunting with Jane Birkin – and he had naturally eschewed the “YeYe” sound but was nevertheless approached by France Gall’s father (another famous musician who had already overseen several million sellers for his daughter) to create a Eurovision entry for his daughter. “Poupee De Cire Poupee De Son” may well have been Gainsbourg’s quite searing indictment of the pop scene but it ended up being – alongside “Waterloo” – the greatest of all Eurovision winners. You can even hear it Japanese if you want.
Sadly, even at this moment of triumph for her, it would be blighted by tragedy as she rang her then boyfriend, the loathsome Claude Francois (Clo-Clo France’s answer to Fabian) to celebrate, who proceeded to reduce her to tears by telling her that her performance was out of tune and flat.
Mercifully, Europe could agree on one thing that night.
This kind of pulsating rhythm may have been hated by the French orchestras who played it – famously they would boo when having to play the Eurovision smash because it was so fast – but it was adored by admirers all over the world. Tarantino would use April March’s note for note update of “Laisse Tomber Les Filles” in “Deathproof” to great effect.
This was a wonderfully exciting record and real Girl-Power classic, decades before anyone was urged to spice up their life.
While this driving sound would evolve into strange psychedelia like “Teenie Weenie Boppie” and “Chanson Indienne”, it was capable of showing her understanding of the pop world and how Paris and the “Salut Les Copiains” crowd operated and she was really the Princess.
I have always thought that if you want to know what Paris sounded like fifty years ago before student riots and the like, when pop still swung then nowhere is it better summed up than in “Made In France” – a plea to remind youth that France was just as cool at the all-encompassing British Invasion.
Her last years were equally filled with tragedy and her performances were limited but if ever there was a heroine for those times it was France Gall – a perfect Pop Icon who retained dignity in a world that did not always return the favor. Vive La France.