La Belle Birkin aside, more musical hits have arisen as a result of Anglo/American and French collaborations than most of us suspect. Expatica editor Hannah Westley rounds up the highs and lows of a multi-lingual musical tradition.
Much of the English-speaking world can be pretty scornful of the attempts made by our French hosts at pop music. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that while the mods and the rockers were debating the pros and cons of the Beatles versus the Stones, the best music coming out of France was still the chanson à texte championed by Brassens, Brel and co.
But playground sneers aside (and it has to be said that Eddy Mitchell’s quiff or bananemay not have had the sophistication of Elvis’ but it certainly had attitude), France has produced some undeniably talented melody makers. And this talent has not gone unnoticed by their British and American peers – often giving rise to some interesting partnerships.
In April, a Franco-American musical collaboration hit the charts in the form of a single, L’Eclipse, by Sean Lennon and M (or Mathieu Chédid, to give him his full name). Despite Lennon’s spoken proficiency in French, he restrained himself to composing the music while M wrote the words.
But this successful fusion of musical talent is far from being the first of its kind. Who will ever forget the sultry tones or the succès de scandale of 69 Année Erotique or Les Sucettes?
Of course, we’ve all heard of the most notorious Franco-British partnership: Gainsbourg and Birkin, the couple who came to epitomise the swinging 60s. They met in 68 when Gainsbourg was 40 and his reputation as a louche ladies’ man was already well established, having notched up – not just for the record – sex kitten Brigitte Bardot. Birkin was just 20 and fresh from starring in Antonioni’s arthouse movie Blow Up, which would, it turned out, be rather more memorable than the first film she and Gainsbourg made together: Pierre Grimblat’s Slogan.
They separated eight years before Gainsbourg died in 1991 but he continued to write songs for her and they kept rooms in each other’s houses. And their particular cross-channel musical legacy lives on – not least in the music of their daughter Charlotte.
Actress and singer Charlotte Birkin made her recording debut at the precociously early age of 13 with Charlotte Forever, a collection of songs written by her father. Her most recent music projects have included the spoken intro to Madonna's 2001 hit, What It Feels Like For A Girl, and backing vocals on Badly Drawn Boy’s album, Have you fed the Fish?
She recently resumed her musical career with 5:55, an album released in April that was recorded in Paris but produced by Grammy-winning Englishman Nigel Godrich. The French duo Air, Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoit Dunckel, wrote and played the music on the album, with Jarvis Cocker and The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon contributing lyrics. Canadian composer and father of Beck, David Campbell, was responsible for the string arrangements, while completing the line-up was Nigerian drummer Tony Allen.
You couldn’t have more of a multinational mix but this didn’t stop the album shooting to the top of the charts in France and it was certainly appreciated elsewhere. London’s Observer Music Monthly’s review noted, “Charlotte Gainsbourg has returned to music with an album that is every bit as daring and sophisticated as the best of her father’s work. More to the point, 5:55 reveals Charlotte... as a stunning interpreter of songs and situations... sharp and literate.”
Of Gainsbourg’s generation, Italian-born and French-raised Carla Bruni’s latest album No Promisesdepends for its charm on its classic Anglophone texts. A collaboration with guitarist Louis Bertignac of the French group Téléphone, Bruni has set to music the poems of writers such as William Butler Yeats, W. H. Auden, Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti, Walter de la Mare and Dorothy Parker.
Collaborations and interpretations aside, there are other artists who have been more appreciated in France than in their native countries of Britain or the States.
Ten years before Birkin sang her way into the French psyche, British-born Petula Clark made her acclaimed debut at the Olympia theatre in Paris. The following day she was summoned to the offices of Vogue Records to discuss a contract and it was there she met publicist Claude Wolff, whom she later married. Her early French recordings were huge successes and, in 1960, she embarked on a concert tour of France and Belgium with French star Sacha Distel. Later recording songs in German, French, Italian and Spanish, Clark firmly established herself as a multi-lingual performer.
Fewer people have heard of American Mort Schuman although everybody recognises the classic hits he wrote for Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin and the Small Faces, including amongst others, Surrender, Save the Last Dance for Me and Teenager in Love. Born in New York in 1936, he later moved to London where a meeting with Jacques Brel in 1966 convinced him to leave England for Paris. He started by translating Brel’s songs into English but was soon composing his own in French. Many of them were hits, including Le Lac Majeur – which, with a playtime of five minutes, upset many radio stations who were initially reluctant to play it.
Who remembers the songs of actor Eddie Constantine? Californian-born in 1917, Constantine spent his career working in Europe and became a star in France in the 1950s, most notably playing the part of the hard-boiled detective Lemmy Caution (from Peter Cheyney’s novels) in a series of French B-pictures, including Cet homme est dangereux (1953), Lemmy pour les dames (1961) and À toi de faire ... mignonne (1963). Constantine, who eventually became a French citizen, also recorded several successful songs, including Un enfant de la Balle, Ah les Femmes and a duet with Juliette Gréco, entitled Je prends les choses du bon côté.
Then there’s Graeme Allwright, who may have disappeared from view in his native New Zealand but whose success in France has been prodigious. Via London and a variety of jobs, Allwright started singing in Parisian cabarets in 1965. His protest songs were an immediate hit with the 68 generation – so successful in fact that Allwright felt obliged to beat a retreat from the his public in the early 70s when he withdrew first to the Himalayas and then to Ile de la Réunion. He was also largely responsible for introducing the music of Leonard Cohen to a French public through his own translations.
Looking back over the past sixty years, it would appear that even if French pop stars have been slow to burst upon the Anglo-American stage, there is a rich and diverse tradition of musical entente between our different nations.
Photo credit: Pfly (music).
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