Robb Johnson, exemplary writer of la chanson anglaise and something of an authority on the more established French variety, continues his appreciation of the France's best-known rock star Johnny Hallyday
All Rock’n’Rollers face this inevitability: they get obviously older, they no longer surf the fashionable Zeitgeist, and what looked their height of cool now looks as embarrassing as flared trousers at a Clash gig.
Johnny’s response was to begin to redefine himself as an artiste of A Certain Maturity, and this redefinition involved a degree of honesty both about Johnny’s age and cultural identity.
In the mid 80s he made two albums - Rock’n’Roll Attitude and Gang - both of which featured images of him looking seriously grown-up, and both of which were written by musicians - Michel Berger and Jean-Jacques Goldman respectively - who as artists themselves had made conscious efforts to establish a French language of rock, rather than imitate Anglo-American models.
There were no covers, no translations. All your rock'n'roll dreams come true
Johnny in crowd-pleasing form
Then in 1989 Hallyday produced the magnificent Cadillac, working with Etienne Roda-Gil, which used the title song to note that Detroit, the mid-west home of rock and soul, was founded by a French explorer.
And it’s a truly great Rock album, too, as is it’s successor, 1992s Ca Ne Change Pas Un Homme.
Although recorded in New York, this is for me the album where Hallyday is most openly French. The chanson tradition has come to specialise in songs where in one way of another, the singer is a protagonist squaring off against the existentialist problematics defined elsewhere by the writers Sartre and Camus.
Piaf’s catalogue is dominated by Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien; there is also Mon Dieu, Heureuse, and the characters in her dramatic narratives like Les Amants D’un Jour and Bravo Pour Le Clown.
The same is true of Brel’s work; indeed his entire last album is pretty much all organised around this theme of facing into dark and creating meaning out of the silence of the universe. Ca Ne Change Pas Un Homme, with the title song & songs like Puis Je Sais, Pour Exister, and the beautiful La Guitare Fait Mal magnificently articulate these ideas within the context of the black R’n’B heritage and the rock ballad.
The album is also characterised by a consistently effective marriage of the rhythms of the French language with the rhythms of the musical settings that are derived from the black Afro-American tradition. The album also has one of Johnny’s rare songs of an overtly political nature.
Hallyday has said that he isn’t particularly interested* in party politics, preferring instead to concentrate on the eternal verities of relationships. However, his songs are permeated by the spirit of the original politics of rock’n’roll - they are intrinsically anti-militaristic, pro-nonconformity, pro liberty and pro-freedom.
So it’s probably not surprising Johnny closed the album with a powerful statement in favour of the demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. The only other time that I’ve seen Hallyday take a similarly unequivocal position was during the recent French presidential elections when it looked like Le Pen’s fascist party could enjoy a significant electoral victory. Johnny’s website contained a clear statement to the effect that Johnny had always stood for inclusion and equality, and left the reader in no doubt that Johnny wouldn’t be voting fascist in the coming election, and hoped his fans would follow his example.
Ca Ne Change Pas remains one of my favourite albums of all time. It’s a magnificent achievement, and if it wasn’t in French, it would be recognised as an album to stand alongside the very best work of international rockers - the Stones or Springsteen.
But paradoxically, if it wasn’t in French, it probably wouldn’t be quite so brilliant.
Of course, not every album since then has been of such an equally high standard, or of such breathtaking intensity. and anyway, a lot of what Johnny Hallyday has always been about is that classic 50s teenage notion of “having fun”.
The 90s saw a succession of albums where Johnny seemed at times to be wavering between his new, more mature identity, and a conscious nostalgia for the simplicities of classic rock’n’roll and R’n’B.
There was the enjoyable but undistinguished English language Rough Town, and a live album in Las Vegas. But as the decade wore on, and the millennium and Johnny’s 60th birthday approached, the albums again got a little more focused, a lot more considered.
Johnny’s image also seemed to undergo a serious overhaul again, sharpening up the style with razor sharp jackets, chiselled features and the ubiquitous highly cultivated beard. Ce Que Je Sais, released in 1998, begins with the title track, a beautiful piano and orchestra soundtracked chanson that reminds us, in case we’d forgotten in all this talk about Rock’n’Roll, that Johnny sure can damn well sing, and that Edith Piaf would have been completely at home with.
The album saw a return of the distinctive powerful ballads that had characterised Ce Ne Change Pas Un Homme, a cheery song about being French, and the fabulous rock anthem stadium-crowd pleaser statement of intent that is Allumer Le Feu.
Masterminded by Pascal Obispo, it’s probably my joint second favourite Johnny studio album, along with the double A La Vie, A La Mort that was released in 2002 to coincide with Johnny’s 60th birthday. A double album, a faultless collection of thunderous rock songs and beautiful ballads, one can only quibble that perhaps its ambitious number of tracks means that like many double albums it’s a little difficult to apprehend in its entirety, and tracks get lost in the process.
But it’s certainly got some magnificent highlights, and over time repays repeated listening. It’s also a good indicator of just how confidently French Hallyday has become; more and more his singing style avoids the decoration that is a defining feature of the African-American tradition, and which suits the rhythms of American-English but which sounds distinctly uncomfortable when applied to many other languages.
Instead, his determination to hit the note and nail it to the wall with a touch of affecting tremolo, is classic Piaf, and suits the rhythms of the French language perfectly.
The same journeys of age and identity can also be identified in Hallyday’s live performances. If the albums are capable of magnificence, Johnny’s concerts are that magnificence squared.
And for the final part of the exercise, how about an unfashionable defence of French pop music?
* Salut! Live note: Robb may need to tell us how this squares with Johnny's support for Nicolas Sarkozy - and the sudden decision not to become a tax exile after all once Sarko had won! Sarko's cabinet is admirably inclusive, but he was accused by the French Left during the campaign of stealing Le Pen's clothes.