Robb Johnson, singer-songwriter, concludes his in-depth appreciation of Johnny Hallyday with a passionate and powerful defence of that much-derided form: French popular music....
When Edith Piaf died, for two days the people of France filed past her coffin, which was draped with the French flag. When she was buried in Père Lachaise cemetery on October 14, 1963 it was estimated two million people lined the streets of Paris to pay their respects.
The relationship between France and its singers has very particular, very affectionate and very interdependent qualities that I don’t think you find anywhere else.
There is also a durability about these qualities. Looking for UK equivalents, Marie Lloyd’s death evoked a similar mass observance, but that was several decades earlier, Lennon’s death was both very different and also an international phenomenon and Lady Di never had any hit records.
And there's an intimacy that is perhaps partly related to the reasons Johnny remains largely unappreciated outside the French speaking world: the shared intimacy of a separate shared language.
France delights in recognising and celebrating artists who manifestly come from the people, and who speak of and to the people, la foule, artists who also recognise and celebrate the importance of the lives of the individuals who make up the audience.
This is a very different relationship to the kind of smug patronage that this translates into when it is expressed in the Anglo-American entertainment industry. In the French version of the relationship between the star and the audience, there is an unspoken understanding that the artist has a responsibility to the audience, and there is an underlying respect for that audience, and for each individual face in that crowd.
Hallyday’s audiences present as the common man and woman of France: predominantly white and probably working class, but not exclusively so. Indeed, my Johnny T-shirts and CD purchasing has got me into a lot more animated and amiable conversations with a variety of ordinary French people than I would otherwise have enjoyed.
Concert audiences are drawn from every generation going since the 1950s; there are grannies, grandchildren, Johnny look-a-likes, middle-aged ancient treasured faded T-shirts, and M & Mme Ordinaire in sensible anonymous Monoprix. However, even in enormous stadiums, Hallyday concerts are deeply intimate affairs, marked by genuine interchanges between stage and auditorium that go far beyond the standard “Do you feel alllllllll - right?” of stereotypical rock festery.
And you’d never catch Hallyday sneering at his fans like Lou Reed did one time I saw him: “That’s more than you deserve”. Johnny is conscious of the need to put on a show if the occasion allows. His stadium concerts always have lavish sets, and have in the past involved ramps and motorbikes, and several magnificent entrances ranging from Johnny appearing by magic in a suspended booth to descending from the heavens by means of a crane.
But he also regularly plays smaller shows, where it’s just him, the band, and the audience. Indeed, my favourite Hallyday gig was one of the relatively smaller ones at Bercy, Christmas 2003.
We’d seen the tour earlier in the year in a stadium in Lille, and it had been a splendid, lavish occasion. Six months later, without the lavish staging, and Johnny looking pretty frazzled by all that gigging, the band were utterly magnificent, merde-chaude to the power of 10 (Rejean Lachance’s playing on that old warhorse The House Of The Rising Sun simply awe-inspiring, reminding just what a great song it actually can be), and Johnny absolutely sang his lungs out.
Unfortunately, having already released a live album from earlier in the tour, his record company refused to turn the tapes they recorded into another album. Shame. Let’s hope they emerge at some point, like the tapes of Johnny’s English language tour gig at La Cigale, a small theatre in Montmartre.
Despite being born in Belgium (a not uncommon place of origin for giants of French culture) and being deeply in love with American rock’n’roll and all its iconography, Hallyday has managed to continue this particular French cultural phenomenon of the intimate relationship between performer and audience into the 21st Century. Indeed, he celebrated the new millenium with a series of gigs at the Eiffel Tower.
But this embracing of the Piaf tradition is also increasingly manifest in his choice of songs. Songs are designed to reference his relationship with his audience - most obviously Entre Nous, the song that kicks off A La Vie, A La Mort. Plus his choice of encores in recent years has included classic chansons from both Brel and Piaf with Johnny accompanied by a lone piano singing L’Hymne A L’amour to the crowd.
The English-speaking world unfortunately seems to delight in any opportunity to have a supercilious sneer at France and the French, and this taste for snobbery is often at its most blatant when it comes to music, with an almost breathtaking tendency to misunderstand, stereotype and diminish the achievements of French language artists working in the field of popular song.
Perhaps this is simply sour grapes at not having had the culture that could produce the song that got turned into My Way. When it comes to popular song, certainly as far as the 20th Century went, you have a roster of artistes, spearheaded by the likes of Piaf and Brel, that leaves most of their English language compatriots looking like Friday night karaoke. Hallyday, moreover, not only sings rock’n’roll in French, but he actually does it extremely well.
Personally I can’t stand Elvis Presley, whether it’s the smirking way he appropriates black music, the way he stood so obediently to attention in the army, the pathetic jumpsuits he pranced round Las Vegas in, or that awful succession of films he made that always seemed to be the B movie whenever I went to the cinema as a kid.
But when Hallyday sings Presley songs, in the acoustic bit in the middle of his concerts, I can start to appreciate just what an impact this music must have had 50 years ago. And half a century later, how many other artists are still managing to balance their celebrity & their creativity so effectively? The last album, Ma Vérité, a little fragmented and unfocused in some ways, nonetheless contains a touching song, (featured in the YouTube clip), about his adopted Vietnamese daughter (Mon Plus Beau Noel - trying and largely succeeding to balance the fine line between sentiment and sentimentality, another atypical French culture characteristic), and a track that mixes Johnny’s vocals with a posse of cutting edge black French language rappers, Le Temps Passé.
On stage, his presence gathers authority with every year. Johnny prowls and paces his performance space like a barely caged old lion, his face a mask of existential ferocity. But when he breaks into a smile, it's the genuine smile of a teenager with his first guitar, and it has a sincerity that can light up stadiums.
Johnny's shows are frequently studded with duets with French rock's younger contenders, and his demeanour is always generous and indicative, again, of a real delight in what he does, the craft of singing and the music he is making.
And it must be said, Johnny is the apex of a very substantial iceberg. As I type this we are listening to Francis Cabrel’s triple live album of a few years back. Cabrel’s another artist I regularly cross the channel for. And that’s another great thing about French rock; it’s so well organised from a fan’s point of view. You get the new album every couple of years, the live tour, and then the very-nicely packaged and produced live album and DVD.
No need for throwing huge amounts of money at some dodgy geezer flogging dodgy bootlegs under the Westway at Portobello Road Market. I wonder perhaps if the reason the French relate so well to rock’n’roll is because, when all the initial post-war fuss about American Cultural imperialism subsided, it became apparent that France, as a nation, is something of an eternal teenager in the way it relates to the rest of the world.
It has the teenager’s enthusiasm for style and (sub)cultures, an almost overwhelming biologically-imperative fondness for independence and for falling in love, it generally doesn’t like war that much (Johnny’s songs have an innate dislike of militarism, most obviously in the promo-film that accompanied the love song Marie which had Johnny getting shot in a ruined post-Sarajevo suburb), and in French, like teenagers the world over, it has its own secret language with which to mediate the influence of the grown-up Anglo-American world.
Or maybe not.
Whatever… check out the Hallyday website, wait for the next album, and see you at the next gig. It will be all your rock’n’roll dreams come true, and then some…..