Thursday, 24 November, 2022 in Culture, Music

French Girl Pop – An Introduction

When 18th Century British explorers set foot in Australia for the first time it must have been quite bewildering to be confronted by a Kangaroo rather than the more familiar – and expected – horse or cows known from back at home. The naturist, John Gulick, termed the continental differences between animals ‘convergent evolution’, and for those brought up on UK and US Pop, hearing 1960s French Girl Pop for the first time is likewise an experience akin to the discombobulating sight of seeing your first Australasian marsupial. For the uninitiated, listening to a 60s French EP or a watching a Scopitone filmed performance presents the musical explorer with an alternative evolution of Western popular music. All the grounding musical hallmarks are still there: notes, scales, drums, guitar, voice and production, and in roughly the expected order. It’s just that they somehow feel as if they’ve been somewhat scrambled, tweaked or translated through a different development prism, which can be genuinely wonderful to hear in its sparkling poppiness. Make no mistake, it is some of the greatest pop of the 20th Century. This is an introduction to one of the most exotic of all Western musical genres: French Girl Pop.

Like probably almost everyone who has been captivated by this strange, alternate-universe music, my introduction was via Françoise Hardy and an off-chance purchase of her first album being displayed in an antique shop window. I had no idea who she was but was clearly captivated enough by how cool she appeared to immediately rush in and buy it. The cover photo wasn’t a charity shop staple Top of the Pops photo designed for dads; instead it gave off some sense of awkwardness and cool, not normally seen on album covers, certainly not intentionally and almost never featuring females. She looked like she might read a lot of obscure books, stay indoors rather than go to swinging parties but at the same time looking very hip, albeit glum while doing so.

The dawn of the internet finally allowed me to discover a little more about her and it also made me realise I was not alone in my adolescent allure of slightly dour looking yet incredibly stylish French singers. Knowing she appeared to be some ‘indie’ muse and icon’, it’s not a surprise to learn that it’s her image which appears on the cover of the first MK1 Primal Scream single, All Fall Down. Her debut album cover has seeped into huge aspects of commercialised alternative fashion, the dreaded ‘hipster’ term and probably most famously featuring in Wes Anderson’s movie, Moonrise Kingdom. I suppose one of the reasons for its lasting appeal to more modern audiences is that it likely made thousands of shy British teenagers (in retrospect, naively) think, ‘oh, maybe I could meet someone like that at the local student ‘indie disco’’ but, conversely, also provides an equal amount of mystique and fantasy. It’s this combination and contradiction which I think has enchanted audiences for decades, a balance of seeing someone who is seemingly not starlike at all but also clearly emanating that incredibly rare natural superstar aura. A poster-girl for shy people and a fantasy figure for them believing they can too be cool. The importance of her image and the difference between it and that of her contemporaries though is significant, as we’ll see.

An image is but only part of an artist’s appeal and, above all, she is a truly magnificent artist, interpreter and also, a fantastic songwriter – an incredibly rare feat for any performer in 1960s France. It’s difficult to convey how much of an endeavour it was for a woman to release her own compositions but astonishing that she not only did this as a teenager but also achieved a French No.1 with her first release, all before The Beatles released Love Me Do. In France, Françoise Hardy, far more than Johnny Hallyday, started ‘The 60s’ as we now know it and is almost certainly the most iconic French 60s pop singer known to international audiences. The popular 50s French icons seemed to be playing catch-up to the new generation that she was given the unwelcome task of spearheading. In terms of lasting impact I’d certainly argue her influence on modern fashion and style is far more lasting than say, Brigitte Bardot, the icon of the earlier New-Wave cinema. Both would dip their toe in each others’ circle – something very common among French stars – however Bardot’s was a very different type of star and one which seems to have dimmed over the last three decades. Françoise Hardy is the one who spawned a host of pop descendents at the core of this article and is the leading light for a unique genre of music little known in the UK or US.

The French Chanson of the 1950s was typified by the Edith Piaf and Belgian-born Jaques Brel template until Johnny Hallyday’s brand of Rock and Roll arrived via the influence of radio from US military bases stationed around post Second World War France. Despite his huge success in homespun Rock, much of the roots of his music, especially when dealing with darker themes, was uniquely French and would never become 100% embraced by the new American music explosion no matter how much he dressed himself to suit the part. This incorporation of tradition would become a defining characteristic of not just Johnny Hallyday but of all the artists here. The French are incredibly proud of their culture and the uniqueness of their music is down to a reluctance to lose le patrimoine culturel. No matter the amount of exotic instrumentation or foreign influence added, all of the songs and artists featured have French tradition at their heart and this is why it is so unique compared to anything from the UK or US.

The next major step forward for the French Girl Pop development was the arrival of Les Beatles which directly led to the ‘Yé-Yé’ movement at the centre of everyone subsequently mentioned here. Yé-Yé, being named after the ‘Yeh-Yeh-Yeh’s’ in The Beatles’ She Loves You. Although Françoise Hardy was later billed internationally as ‘The Yé-Yé Girl From Paris’ she did have major hits prior to the arrival of The Beatles and can’t really be said to have been majorly influenced by them directly. She has always claimed to have been more influenced by Elvis and the Brill Building. It was however her striking image, success with French youth and songwriting prowess that when mixed with The Beatles sheer worldwide blitzkrieg, led to the subsequent French Girl Pop explosion – but with a difference. Unlike much of the rest of the pop world, France did not allow itself to fall completely under the spell of ‘beat music’ but instead amalgamated it into their earlier combination of Chanson, Rock and Folk, with an added element of Tin-Pan Bubblegum. On paper, this mix, much like notion of the Kangaroo, sounds quite horrific. In reality there is a huge amount of Euro un-coolness about it but as the French being a natively super cool bunch they can uniquely pull it off, unlike the difficult to reappraise Schlager that was contemporaneous in Germany.

Whilst women were at the public forefront of this new youth pop movement, it was unfortunately very much still run by men– more accurately mostly old French men. Male promoters and label owners would often present their stars as an elderly French man’s idea of what a female Pop Star should look like, which understandably led occasionally to quite uncomfortable moments in some promotional stills and films. But there were also younger males employed to give the scene the much needed youth appeal that the older generation were just unable to provide. Some would even become huge stars in their own right. Starting his career as a Vogue Records songwriter, Jaques Dutronc was possibly the premier example of super-cool, Modern French Pop and it’s no surprise that he and Françoise Hardy would become the golden couple of French 60s fashion.

Of course, it’s impossible to write about this music without mentioning the most pivotal and notorious enfant terrible in the entire story, Serge Gainsbourg, who had already had a successful career as a songwriter in Jazz and Soundtracks. Being something of an industry player, the dual possibilities of a new pop phenomenon to tap into and malleable, groovy but impressionable young females would be too much for him to resist. It’s a story that has led to some of the freshest and long-lasting music ever recorded but also to tragic abuses of power that can never be justified. Serge was a first class songwriter, impressario and pop star in his own right, but he also manipulated often naïve young women for his own benefit.

Conversely to this, and despite recoding some of Serge’s songs, Françoise Hardy would write the majority of her own material and become fully in charge of her own image and career with her production label Asparagus a few months before the formation of Apple. While she is still often associated with that Ye-Ye movement, to me that feels more like describing the Beatles as merely a ‘MerseyBeat’ band. She really only had 2 years of being associated with that style in its initial form and quickly advanced to incorporate far more adventurous US and UK folk influences to become a bit more of a misery-guts, albeit one with impeccable style and taste, weight and depth. Her catalogue from 1963-73 is an incredible run of near faultless albums, that is the equal to many far more celebrated male songwriters. It is all the more incredible that the majority of those releases never made it as far as UK or US shores during that period.

France Gall really is the epitome of Yé-Yé: young, fresh, popular and completely controlled 100% by her production team – which included her father. She would become one of the most famous and successful artists to arrive in the wake of Hardy, culminating in winning the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest with a characteristically Gainsbourg track which was uncharacteristically Eurovision. While much of her early career is on the surface far lighter than Françoise Hardy’s, the songwriting, production and playing on her records is incredibly rich, with a huge amount of fabulous tracks waiting to be discovered.

Her mid to late 60s career is really her pinnacle for me but was sadly cut short after a series of unforgivable deceptions by those tasked to look after her career and herself. In 1966 she was duped into singing a double entendre Gainsbourg track that he described as ‘”the most daring song of the century” but by Gall herself as being “betrayed by the adults around me.”. Sadly, this was not the only abuse she endured with subsequent releases following a similar path, culminating in public outrage directed towards her. It’s an absolutely heartbreaking and tragic story that effectively destroyed her career. While her musical output dramatically lessened she still would release much remarkable music, ‘1968’ being a highlight for me. It would sadly be decades before she was embraced again by the public.

The third singer in the Yé-Yé top-league is Sylvie Vartan who actually started her recording career before Hardy as a female Rock ‘n’ Roller before embracing Yé-Yé in 1964. Her success was spectacular, performing with The Beatles themselves and making an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Although she is regarded as a French superstar and a major part of French Girl Pop, she does not have the long-lasting unique appeal of France Gall or Françoise Hardy, for me anyway.

Below the Hardy/Gall/Vartan tripartite lies a whole multitude of unknown pleasures featuring a host of disparate singers and actors of various experience and manipulations all vying for (or being sold for) pop superstardom with various levels of success. Between these extremes can be found some of the most joyous, strange, beautiful, noisy, pop-tastic and experimental music committed to tape.

Sadly, much of this music is difficult to obtain, even within France. Françoise Hardy’s catalogue is frustratingly still a confusing mess with disparate releases stretching into other continents and more frustratingly, with around ten albums even featuring the same title. That the most collectable and popular figure from this period has such a scattershot discography means the less popular artists have even less of a chance of modern commercial availability. One of the wider reasons for this disarray is the emergence in the mid 60’s of the ‘album’/ LP being recognised outside of France as the preferred form for musical artistic expression. Obviously the French love to do things differently, and promoted the EP as their dominant format for artist development and sales, even early into the 1970s. The result of that EP dominance, other than the odd curated compilation, is that it has far less commercial appeal to classic album collectors and those willing to reissue this music. ACE Records, however, do have two excellently compiled volumes featuring many of the acts in this guide outside of some borderline-bootleg releases. For non-native French speakers one of the few opportunities to read about this music in any depth is through the excellent Yé-Yé Girls by Jean-Emmanuel Deluxe. Luckily, we also have other ways to enjoy and experience it.

Unlike the BBC famously wiping huge parts of their 60s and 70s archive, the French have left us with a near flawless portal into this world: the Scopitone. It’s another unique evolution specific to France and it is this invention which allows us a glimpse at this world beyond merely playing an EP. The Scopitone is essentially a video jukebox. Rather than playing records, it would play short 16mm ‘music videos’. Unlike television archives with perhaps only a few masters, the mass produced nature of the video jukeboxes has left us with hundreds of ‘Scopitones’, most filmed in colour. Due to being shot on film, they also have the luxury of being able to be re-scanned to higher resolutions for modern audiences. Almost all of the major pop-stars between our period of interest 1962 and 1972, have their own Scopitone videos, giving us a far more compelling window into this era. Amazingly, many have also been uploaded to YouTube. While not everything is available on Scopitone there has been such a growing interest in the music over the last few decades that huge amounts of fans have uploaded their favourites for your pleasure. Here are ten of my picks…

Françoise Hardy – Ce Petit Coeur 1965

And this alternative 1967 video recorded for a TV special.

A slightly atypical jaunty pop-gem that steers away from the string heavy gloom or rudimentary backing band she was lumped with for her early Vogue years. Verging into territory that feels a lot closer to the then popular Folk-Rock sound, complete with 12 string acoustic plus added harpsichord suggests she was listening to Rubber Soul. This is an awesome track that is full of contradictions. Without a doubt, Morrissey would have been noting this down.

Anna Karina – Roller Girl – 1967
Of course, Anna Karina is the superstar of the French New Wave cinema and one of Jean-Luc Godard’s primary collaborators. This track appears in a a rare non-Godard film role written by Serge Gainsbourg. Typically, it uses one of his most well used motifs – the Louie Louie (or more aptly, Louis Louis here) riff that he would repeatedly use again and again and again . While Video may have killed the radio star the full impact of the song is only achieved when seen in conjunction with the incredibly dynamic performance and cinematography within the film.

ZouZou – Petit Garcon – 1967

Acolytes of Brian Jones era Rolling Stones will of course know, ZouZou, a former flame of Jones.. Like many on our list, ZouZou was also a singer, model and 60s fashion icon. A great ‘67’ track that typifies late 60s Yé-Yé, featuring elements of baroque and whimsical psychedelia.

France Gall – Teenie Weenie Boppie – 1968

After winning the 1965 Eurovision she quickly became the true figurehead of the Yé-Yé movement.
Covered by Sonic Youth off-shoot, Free Kitten, Teenie Weenie Boppie appears on her 1968 album, her last for a number of years due to the earlier scandals brought upon her.

Elsa – Ecoutez

The Stones and Kinks had a huge impact on French Pop and there’s no shortage of fuzzy Mod Stompers to be found. The fuzz guitar is pretty much a staple of the genre from around 1965-68 and the blistering Blitzkrieg attack here is a without a doubt a match for any UK Freakbeat released at the time. Françoise, Serge and Johnny Hallyday all pioneered the use of London based recording studios and session musicians due to the perceived poor quality of what was then available in Paris. The result of this was UK session musician staples such as Big Jim Sullivan, Joe Moretti and of course, Jimmy Page playing on all manner of French hits. I’ve no idea who played on this track but I would not be surprised if the guitar was one of those three. As for Elsa herself, I don’t know too much beyond what is available online and from the sleeve-notes of Ace Records Girl Pop compilation. I’ve a copy of the original French EP with picture sleeve and it provides little to no information. She also recorded as Nicole Darde, her real name and made quite an interesting departure from the mod/freakbeat sound of her earlier singles. She was enlisted to appear on the 1970 concept album from Michel Colombier and song the phenominal La Robe De Papier in 1970.

Clothilde – Saperlipopette

The influence of Sgt Pepper had certainly reached France by 1968, though it could be argued that exotic and sometimes experimental production of earlier French hits had reached The Beatles, at the very least though Marianne Faithfull. Much like France Gall’s ‘1968’ album, Clothilde’s tiny discography also has the kitchen sink thrown into the production via Christian Fechner (who would produce Jaques Dutronc’s nemesis, Antoine). This is full of bubbly harpsichord, trippy psych strings topped with a sugar-sweet melody. Luckily, Bad Born Records would release a wonderful compilation in 2013 that finally revealed what was in the archives: an essential purchase.

Chantal Goya – Jai Le Couer, Jae Le Coeur En Peine

Like many of the stars of these selections, Chantal Goya was also an accomplished actress, featured in Godard’s Masculine, Feminine. This lovely piece of baroque-pop appears on the B-side of her 1967 EP – ‘Pense Pas Trop’ and fits in very well with the sad Françoise Hardy songs of the period. Her career took an unexpected turn by becoming a children’s television singer.

Chantal Kelly – Le Vieux Pin

Another baroque tinged piece of sad whimsy featuring exotic instrumentation and unusual arrangements. Very little appears to be known about her outside of France beyond another small handful of EPs.

Brigitte Fontaine – La Vache Enragée – 1966

When the French Avante-Garde and Jazz met pop. One of the ultimate musical explorers in this story, ranging from this extremely unusual take on Yé-Yé to later pioneering excursions into acid-folk, field recordings, electronics, musique-concrệte and moving far beyond the pop song. Areski, which followed a couple of years after this is a truly remarkable work that should be in everyones collection.

Brigitte Bardot and Serge Gainsbourg – Comic Strip – 1968

Their relationship began as an attempt to revive Bardot’s flagging career and reintroduce her into the music world. Who better to help with this than Serge? One of their most infamous songs recorded together was the original version of Je t’aime which he wrote especially for her and can be heard here –

Both versions are fantastic, the original with its woozy strings and the Birkin remake with its evergreen pop effervescence (Gainsbourg’s favourite chord structure being a central component). While not completely convincing as a 60s pop star ,her sheer superstar charisma, flamboyance and of course, recording career with Gainsbourg mean she can’t be omitted here.

Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg – L’anamour – 1969

Serge’s recording career with Jane Birkin started at almost precisely at the same moment it finished with Bardot’s and acts as a perfect continuation. This was a track originally recorded by Hardy a year earlier but was too good for him not to do his own version.

Françoise Hardy – Le Crab

The last selection goes back to where it started and shows part of Hardy’s remarkable development over just a few short years. From 1962’s Tous Les Garçons with its basic backbeat to this, featuring Mellotron and subtly complex arrangements without sounding like Yes.

Grant McPhee

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