Exploring the extraordinary Sixties French girl singers and their fluffy, disposable and brilliant music.
It’s common for the British to sneer at French pop music (even more than they sneer at the pop music of other countries – it’s a given that Brits think the popular music of any other country is vastly inferior to their own even when sung in English; if the songs have the audacity to be recorded in another language, then they will be routinely seen as worthless*), but the fact remains that there have been plenty of fantastic Gallic pop acts, from Francoise Hardy to the likes of Mylene Farmer and Alizee and beyond. The country’s output was arguably at its best in the 1960s when it epitomised a sort of light and fluffy Euro-chic, as effortlessly cool as anything you could imagine. French pop – French female-fronted pop, to be more precise – had a sound so universal and yet so specific that it could pull in singers from around the world to take part in what became known as Yé-Yé – named after the ‘yeah yeah’ standard of pop music as translated by French producers and performers. Within that world, a number of artists rose to prominence, all with an immediately recognisable sound that was nevertheless unique to each singer. Pop stars and movie stars mingled together, entering each other’s worlds as the Nouvelle Vague-driven French chic of the era spilled into the global mainstream.
To cover an entire nation’s pop output in one article is next to impossible, even if we are restricting it to certain specifics – female singers of the 1960s in this case. As a guide, we’ll be using Jean-Emmanuel Deluxe’s book Yé-Yé Girls of ’60s French Pop as an essential reference guide to the wider world of Sixties pop.
Françoise Hardy is arguably the best-known of the French pop stars of the era internationally – at least if we remove movie icons like Brigitte Bardot from the equation. For a while, she seemed to be the epitome of French cool during the days of the New Wave, when everything French seemed sophisticated and intellectual. She was loved by the Rolling Stones, by Bob Dylan and seen as the height of chic by a British and American music scene moving from pop frivolity to rock seriousness – even though Hardy was still very much a part of the pop scene by most standards. But her pop was cool, more adult than a lot of her rivals. Ton Meilleur Ami is a catchy little pop number, complete with Shadows guitar licks, a sound that is even more prominent on the more downbeat pop song L’eta Dell’amore, an Italian number one in 1963. Her songs were perhaps more international – less specifically French in feel than those of contemporaries like France Gall, who also had some measure of international fame thanks to the Eurovision winner Poupée De Cire, Poupée De Son and her connection with Serg Gainsbourg, who took the opportunity presented by her to move from writing for more mature chanteuses to creating an entire sound – the Gainsbourg pop cool is instantly recognisable, in Britain mostly for his uber-sexy track with Jane Birkin – the best-known of the British girls who looked across the Channel for success – Je T’aime Moi Non Plus, a song banned by British radio stations and so guaranteed success. Famously, Gall really was the teenage innocent that her image suggested, something that clashed with Gainsbourg’s double entendres – when she belatedly discovered that her hit Sucettes was not, in fact about sucking lollipops, she burst into tears, humiliated at the thought that everyone had been laughing at her naivety behind her back.
The more interesting material perhaps is that from artists who rarely, if ever, troubled the English-speaking world’s charts. Sylvie Vartan made her name with French language covers of British and American hits – 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 gives 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. Less worthwhile 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 one of the weakest of her songs – but frustratingly, it’s also annoyingly infectious.
But Vartan always seemed cooler than her contemporaries, at least in terms of image presentation – there’s a knowing sexiness about her cover shoots and press photos, a million miles from the wholesomeness of France Gall – or, indeed, Chantal Goya, whose pop songs were often lightweight to the point of being ephemeral and whose career eventually took her to the point of singing actual children’s songs. But then, we should contrast this apparent disposability with the fact that she starred in Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin-Feminin, the very height of French arthouse cool.
But this is the fascinating thing about the yé-yé girls and the culture that surrounded them. There was a fascinating blending of pop music and pop cinema, art and commerciality – Hardy made appearances in Grand Pix and What’s New Pussycat?, Vartan starred in Harry Kumel’s Malpertuis, while bona fide movie stars like Anna Karina and Brigitte Bardot would perform pop songs – albums worth in the case of the latter, who – like many in the scene – worked with Gainsbourg on songs that are at once throwaway and vital. Of course, the most interesting crossover artist in the French pop scene – flitting between cinema and music, the serious and the disposable – was Jane Birkin, who wasn’t French at all but English. Birkin’s extraordinary career is too long to go into here – her collaborations with Gainsbourg deserve their own article – but she was the leading figure in the intriguing world of international performers who became big in France, sometimes while remaining relatively unknown at home, at least as singers.
There was an interesting crossover between acting and singing for many a young female star during the Sixties, and the French audience seemed especially taken by these performers – especially if they were recording records in French. The joys of globalisation have effectively killed the art of the foreign-language version of hit songs by original artists – everything now is the same polished and autotuned recording, but back in the 1960s – and beyond – it wasn’t odd for artists to record localised versions of their own hits. Fans of odd versions of familiar recordings should seek out The Supremes’ Baby Baby Wo ist Unsere Liebe (Where Did Our Love Go?) or Petula Clark’s Geh in die Stadt (Downtown), two German versions of their big hits. These phonetic versions of hit records by the original artists have a certain thrill that foreign language covers of hit records, great as they are in their own way, can’t quite match. Clark, alongside Marianne Faithfull, Dusty Springfield, Sandy Shaw and others also released French versions of her hits and these tracks seemed to make these singers – who often already felt closer to French sensibilities than English ones – seem like honorary citizens to many listeners in France.
English actress Gillian Hills is probably the most interesting English yé-yé girl. Like Jane Birkin, she was an English girl who became a teenage singing star in France, performing French language songs without having any sort of contemporary career in her home country. To look at a smattering of tracks: Jean Lou is a pretty cool blues number (written by Charles Aznavour), 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 Millionairess. Les Jolis Coeurs is a swinging, easy-listening pop track, while Mon Coeur Est Pret is a classic girl group song of teenage frustration. Hills would have an equally fascinating film career – she starred in Beat Girl, Demons of the Mind and The Killer Wore Gloves, broke taboos with a nude scene in Blow Up and had a small but important part in A Clockwork Orange.
This is, of course, a mere toe in the yé-yé waters – there are numerous one-hit wonders, cross-pollinations and revivalists worthy of exploration (and luckily, there are numerous compilation albums to help you do so). The book is an intriguing, if sometimes almost baffling, entré to the scene – perhaps losing something in translation but also gaining a curious uniqueness that is oddly apt, given that it is an exploration of a French translation of the pop music of other countries. In the end, nothing feels simultaneously quite as 1960s and as timeless as this music and it still seems to be an unexplored country for many. If you are jaded in your search for something – anything – uncharted and worthwhile, this is a good place to focus your search and we very much suggest doing so – it’s a great musical rabbit hole to fall into.
* Yes, we can all name those odd performers who have had foreign-language hits in the UK, but these are rare outliers, often seen as novelty acts.
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