Saturday, December 09, 2006


My eldest daughter’s band played their first gig last night – with great success, I’m told. I don’t even know the full name of the band – just that it’s got ‘wobbly wabbit’ somewhere in the title. I do know that their songs are influenced by Jim Morrison and Jefferson Airplane – and sung in English (she rehearses in the shower...)

French popular music does not export well. Most British people have heard of Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier and Charles Aznavour but they rarely make Top of the Pops these days. Singer-songwriters like Léo Ferré, Georges Brassens and Jacques Brel (who was Belgian) are unknown in Britain because, like the troubadours of old, they were poets above all. Serge Gainsbourg- a brilliant and irreverent poet-musician - did have a hit with Jane Birkin in 1969, but DJs weren’t allowed to play it on the radio because it was too rude. Even though these singers are now dead, their work is still much-loved and has influenced contemporary musicians like Jean-Jacques Goldman and my hero, Renaud.

Another French icon is the ageing Johnny Hallyday, who is actually half-Belgian and definitely not a poet. 'Johnny', as he is known to young and old alike, brought rock n’ roll to France and is, in his own words, ‘a survivor’. In his early sixties, he still wears tight leather trousers, rides a Harley Davidson and dyes his hair and his current wife is a lissom blonde thirty-something. Johnny sings mainly cover versions of American songs or French songs that sound like cover versions and is such a national treasure that he has been awarded the Legion of Honour by the President. Despite having an American name (not his real name) hardly anyone outside of France knows who he is.

Now and again, a French song will cross the channel but it will be sung in English. Two of Frank Sinatra’s greatest hits were French: My Way (originally sung by Claude François) and Autumn Leaves (Yves Montand), but generally speaking, the French are chauvinistic and keep their music for themselves, as they believe it is too good to be wasted on the uncivilised bunch that make up the rest of the world. Unless, of course, they are just insecure. Why else would French law demand that forty percent of a radio station’s output be by French artists and sung in French? On the other hand, as most young people these days find it easier to listen to moronic monosyllabic rap than songs where they need to have at least a basic grasp of their mother tongue, perhaps the government is right...

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