Review: Francoise Hardy and Her Contemporaries

El Records

You might be forgiven for grumbling in you pick this up without prior knowledge of the contents, because it’s a pretty misleadingly titled – or cover packaged, for that matter – release. The title suggests an album by Francoise Hardy, or possibly a series of duets. At best, you might imagine it to be a half and half recording – fifty per cent Hardy, 50 per cent other artists. You’d be wrong. There are, in fact, only two Francoise Hardy numbers on the CD – less that several other acts featured here. It’s a curious sort of deception, because as popular as she was in the 1960s, I can’t imagine that Hardy is really guaranteed money in the bank for record labels in 2014. If anything, I can see this causing potential buyers to overlook a CD that they would otherwise be keen to snap up.

This odd marketing choice is my only complaint about the record though. Because this turns out to be a fantastic compilation of late 1950s and early 1960s French pop – or at least pop in the French ye ye style of the era.

It’s common for the British to sneer at French pop music (even more than they sneer at the pop music of other countries), but the fact remains that there have been plenty of fantastic Gallic pop acts, from Hardy to the likes of Mylene Farmer and Alizee. The country’s output was arguably at its best in the era represented here, and this is a fine collection of cheerfully disposable, catchy, delicious music that is forever tied to the golden age of French – and Italian – cinema.

Sylvie Vartan

It opens with a couple of numbers by Hardy. Ton Meilleur Ami is a catchy little pop number, complete with Shadows guitar licks. The Shadows guitar sound is even more prominent on L’eta Dell’amore, which is a more downbeat pop number, which gave Hardy an Italian number one in 1963. Both these tracks are pretty good, and probably closer to the sound you might associate with early Sixties (pre-Beatles) pop – if you are British – than most of the album.

Sylvie Vartan made her name with French language covers of British and American hits, and a smattering of them are here – Sols Pas Cruel (Don’t be Cruel), Le Loco-Motion (The Locomotion), Baby C’est Vous (Baby It’s You) and Bye Bye Love. These are mostly swinging, bouncy, lightweight and fun – Vartan’s vocal performance giving a new life to otherwise familiar tunes. It’s fun to hear The Locomotion sung in French, even if Vartan doesn’t have the pipes of Little Eva, while the slower Baby C’est Vous is suitably seductive and moody. Also included here is Panne d’Essence, a kitsch little duet with Frankie Jordan, where Vartan’s voice is made to sound particularly like a little girl (bordering on chipmunk) – it’s more a novelty record than anything, and certainly the weakest of her songs in this collection, but frustratingly, annoyingly infectious.

Following this, we have a couple of songs by Lolita star Sue Lyon, the first of which is Lolita Ya Ya, as fantastic a slice of subversively sexy music as you are ever likely to hear. Turn Off the Moon is a more traditional early Sixties girl group pop number – a charming, utterly cute number.

Brigitte Bardot

Next up are four tracks by Christiane Legrand. A la Colette is a bouncy and very French bit of fluff, while Les Citrons de Tel-Aviv is more of a swinging number that sounds like it belongs on the soundtrack of cool French movie of the era. Un Canard also feels like it belongs on a film soundtrack – showing just how interwoven our ideas of Sixties French pop and Sixties French cinema are – though in this case, it would be a sophisticated sex comedy, as this playful little number oozes with a sense of camp and naughtiness. Elle et Il is the most unmemorable of her numbers here – still a decent jazz-flavoured pop song, but not an exceptional one.

It wouldn’t be a collection of Sixties French pop without Brigitte Bardot, who gets one track here – Sidone is not one of her more memorable songs, a sugary but rather stripped back ballad. Anna Karina also gets a single song, the loungetastic Chanson d’Angela, taken from Jean Luc Godard’s brilliant Une Femme est Une Femme. With Karina’s breathy vocal performance and the Sixties swinging music, this is an album highlight.

Another famed French actress, Jeanne Moreau gets a couple of songs – L’Amour s’en Vient, L’Amour s’en Va and J’ai Choisi de Rire are less pop numbers and more in the tradition of French chansons – interesting, but perhaps a little out of place here.

No compilation of sophisticated Euro pop from the Sixties would be complete without a spot of jazz, and here it’s provided by Les Double Six, a vocal group who engage in extravagant voice acrobatics that wear thin very quickly. Yes, the amount of notes they can wrangle is impressive, but frankly, less is more in this case and Scrapple from the Apple is too close to the likes of the Swingles Singers for my liking. Naima (originally recorded by John Coltrane) is a slower, more downbeat and atmospheric number that is a lot better.

The album gets back to the pop, with four numbers by Mina, “The Queen of Screamers”, apparently and an Italian icon. Well, that might be an exaggeration, but there’s no faulting her voice as she belts out rock ‘n’ roll number Tintarella di Luna. Nessuno is a swinging mix of blues and euro pop, Mai is a suitably histrionic torch song while L’Ecclisse Twist is a grooving surf pop tune that would wind up on the soundtrack of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Eclipse.

Gillian Hills

English actress Gillian Hills, who’s career ranged from Beat Girl and Blow Up to Demons of the Mind, gets the next six tracks. Like Jane Birkin, she was an English girl who became a teenage singing star in France, performing French language songs. Jean Lou is a pretty cool blues number (written by Charles Aznavour), while Un Petit Baiser is a ridiculously cute pop song, and Tu Peux is so astonishingly fluffy and sugary that you imagine this would be what candy floss would sound like if it developed the ability to sing. Zou Bisou Bisou is similarly lightweight, with an odd spoken word bit in the middle. This is the best known version of the song, though it was first recorded by Sophia Loren for the film The MillionairessLes Jolis Coeurs is a swinging, easy listening pop track, while Mon Coeur Est Pret is a classic girl group song of teenage frustration.

The album closes with a couple of numbers by French vocal quartet Les Gam’s, who come suspiciously close to oompah music on Cheveux Fous et Levres Roses, which you could almost imagine Heidi yodelling in alps, while Bon vent Ma Jolie is rather more French in style, a chanson number that is very middle of the road.

While a mixed bag of styles, this is nevertheless a fantastic, arguably essential collection of early Sixties Euro pop. As a sampler, it does its job perfectly – I want to head off and explore the back catalogues of all these acts further. With its odd combination of effortless style and ultra kitsch, it’s the perfect soundtrack to play between Godard movie viewings.