Cover Story (31): The Little Drummer Boy. Sorry Bing, it's got to be Joan Jett or The Rural Alberta Advantage
Johnny Hallyday: allumez le feu/ light the fire

Johnny Hallyday est mort: an essential essay on a French rock legend

Johnny - 1
Click this caption to buy this and other Johnny Hallyday publications at Salut! Live's Amazon link

The French Elvis? Not quite. A French Cliff? Surely not. But when I awoke to news of the death at 74 of Johnny Hallyday, I was instantly aware that another important figure of contemporary music was no more. Massively important to some, hardly worth a thought to others, a choice guided by nationality and/or place of residence, Johnny was adored in France and much of the wider francophone world where his passing is being treated more as Elvis or Lennon than, say Roy Orbison or Freddie Mercury.

L'idole des jeunes, for the French of a certain generation in search of their answer to Anglo-Saxon pop and rock dominance; "poor Johnny remains the most famous rock star most people have never heard of" as a sceptical journalistic consoeur put it. I cannot say I warmed especially to his music but acknowledge he had a terrific voice and some style, though I could cheerfully have strangled the builder we once had in France who not only played Johnny incessantly on his ghetto-blaster as he worked but sang along.

Ten years ago, Robb Johnson - a very leftwing British songwriter wrote at length about his own, superficially strange love affair with Johnny's music. Robb may well be adding his response to the news (not unexpected; Johnny had been suffering from lung cancer and, clearly knowing his time was up, discharged himself from hospital against medical advice to spend his last days at home). His immediate reaction? 'Merde.' I have pulled together the three-part essay Robb composed for these pages ...

Let's start with my introduction back in 2007:

Robb johnson - 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!... .

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.

* "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.

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.

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.


Bill Taylor

Not just a French rock 'n' roll icon but an under-rated actor, too. His performance opposite Jean Rochefort in the 2002 film L'homme du train was superb.

Bill Taylor

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