Songs you know and love, that you can sing along with, by artists you've probably never heard of, in a foreign language. Monsieur Tom is the tour guide on this excursion through one of pop music's least known regions.
In the Fifties, French popular music was Piaf, Aznavour and Charles Trenet, and songs in the French chanson tradition that told stories, with plots usually wrapped around amour, written for grownups.
When rock and roll caught on, French teenagers, like kids everywhere, wanted a style of music that was their own. A few rock groups tried original material. But French is the language of poetry and novels, elegant and flowing. Rock songs are to the point, with punchy lyrics; short on sublety and loaded with action, better suited to English. English thus became the language of rock and roll, and its first hits were American.
To fill the demand for rock music, and to counter the flood of import albums destined for French record shops, the French record biz fell back on translated versions of songs from the American hit parade. French words were stuffed into melodies written for English, with varying results.
Of the artists who defined ye-ye, or American rock French style, Johnny Hallyday and Sylvie Vartan became the king and queen of the cover song.
He combined Elvis’ stage presence with James Dean’s aura of smoldering rebellion, and was France’s first rock-era pop star. He’s sold more records than any singer whose native language is French, but he’s virtually unknown in North America.
When "Hound Dog" changed everything, Johnny Hallyday was thirteen and wanted to be a movie star. He drifted between cinema and pop until a one-off record made in 1961 became moderately successful, and a performance at Paris’ Palais des Sports, as part of a Woodstock-like offering of new talent, introduced French teenagers to the collective concert mayhem previously seen only at Elvis shows.
At first he took on the easy ones: C’est fini Miss Molly. Itsi bitsi petit bikini. Dadou ron ron (the "Louie Louie" of France, a song everyone could whip out). When pop music matured in the mid-Sixties, he grew with it and recorded covers that are as compelling as their originals: Le penitencier ("House Of The Rising Sun," in English "the prisoner"), Si j’etais un charpentier ("If I Were A Carpenter"), and John Phillips’ "San Francisco" complete with "hippies avec fleurs dans ses cheveaux."
Like Elvis, Johnny Hallyday played Vegas, to rooms filled with busloads of French vacationers and tourists from Illinois who wandered in to see what was happening. Like Elvis, he appeared in movies. Unlike Elvis, he proved himself an actor who could also sing, as opposed to a singer who thought he’d try acting. Americans who seek out foreign movies were introduced to France’s king of pop minus his guitar in the critically-acclaimed 2003 film Man On The Train.