Martin Simpson: folk music is dangerous
Tall tales

Robb Johnson: Johnny Hallyday, mon héros (1)


Robb Johnson, singer-songwriter par excellence, unquestionably belongs to Salut! Live. I was rather less sure about Johnny Hallyday, but knew Robb was a loyal fan - he even contacted me when I was living in Paris, anxious for help in booking months and months in advance for a concert. With an amended introduction, and different illustrations, this is an article Robb agreed to contribute to my French-related site Salut!. Check him out in the YouTube clip on the continuation page...... .

Halfway through the last century, it became manifest to most of the youth of the industrialised western world that being a grown-up was not a particularly desirable option.

Teenagers, like women a sociological phenomenon recently empowered out of historical and economic necessity, literally faced conscription into an adult world organised upon naked principles of institutionalised violence, legalised murder and mass destruction.

If you want a three minute thumbnail sketch of what life was like in the 20th century for the industrialised masses, listen no further than Jacques Brel’s bleak howl of anguish and impotence Au Suivant.

Not surprisingly teenagers were less than enamoured of such career opportunities.

During the Second World War, Europe under fascism (which after all is only capitalism taken to brutally domestic extremes) saw the emergence of youth sub-cultures of not so much resistance as disaffection.

However, it took the US and the mid-50s before international youth finally found a language that expressed their adolescent rebellion against the awfulness of the adult world.

In the US, with black culture, there was a ready made template already at odds with the ruling hegemony. So America got rock’n’roll and Elvis Presley, Britain got rock’n’roll and Cliff Richard, and France got Yé-yé and Johnny Hallyday.

And that says it all really. Anybody care to own up to having Cliff’s latest album? Fifty years later, and the only one of that classic triumvirate still rocking, with a capital R, is Hallyday.

He is all your rock’n’roll dreams come true.

Jacques Brel...Au Suivant

I can think of no other artist of similar intent and integrity, no other artist who can hold a stadium so closely in the palm of one hand.

The closest in stature and authority and sheer rock’n’rollability is Springsteen with the E Street Band in full spate behind him.

Johnny, however, has never felt the need to age gracefully with acoustic outings like Nebraska or The Ghost Of Tom Joad.

And be honest: who amongst us would prefer another of Bruce’s regurgitations of Pete Seeger‘s back catalogue (Froggie Went A’Courting - even in infants' school I thought this was embarrassing - over another go at producing an album like The River?

The worst you can say is that over the years, Hallyday has made a few undistinguished Lucky Towns (indeed, he poached Springsteen’s post E Street band guitarist Shane Fontayne when touring his mid 90s Lorada album), and that (again Mr Fontayne is an example) English language rock’n’roll , its trends and its mythologies have determined his art rather too often and too obviously over the years; for example, the 1968 Hallyday album Rock’n’Roll Attitude not only has that splendidly cliched title and song to go with it, but also the rather unlikely pairing of Chris Spedding on rhythm guitar and Peter Frampton on lead guitar!

But so what? Just how original can you be with three chords and a 4/4 beat anyway? Moreover, however, over the last 20 years, Johnny has been doing something rather special, and rather magnificent.

As well as assembling some seriously good bands (Spedding and Frampton actually work rather well together, and as for Norbert Krieff and Rejean Lachance - you won’t hear better electric guitar), he has been steadily shrugging off the Anglo shadows, so that as well as mediating English language rock’n’roll for the French speaking world, and doing it extremely well.

He has also been translating significant elements of the classic French tradition of literate song, the chanson tradition of Piaf and Brel et al, into the international genre of classic rock’n’roll.

to be continued, with Robb on how Johnny Hallyday adjusted to growing older/...........

* "Incisive, clever, witty", "creator of some of the most potent songs of the last decade", "England's finest songwriter since Richard Thompson". Take your pick. Each of the critics was talking about my guest columnist, Robb Johnson.



I too went to France thinking French music was rubbish (other than Air and Plastic Bertrand - I read somewhere that he wasn't French though). During my stay I ended up buying quite a few CD's by French artists and even bought one more on a recent return vist to Paris. Am afraid I never bought one by Johnny H though.

I did think the Seeger Sessions was excellent but agree that The River was better!

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