It’s probably fair to say that French music has, understandably, never had much of an impact on the collective British consciousness (you’ll note I’m assuming such a thing exists), and I would guess that songs such as Joe Le Taxi and Je t’aime… Moi non plus are still the flag-bearers.
Pushed a bit further, the nation might have half-heard of some guy called Johnny Hallyday (but none of his songs), probably along with the tag ‘the French Elvis’ (indeed no less a source than Wikipedia mentions this in its very first paragraph on him). For what it’s worth, I’ve always thought of Hallyday as the French Cliff Richard (still alive, just, and a national treasure, of sorts), but for one small yet important difference in their lives – whereas Cliff found God, Johnny found women and drugs.
A French singer I particularly like, and hence am sharing him with you, dear reader(s?), is Eddy Mitchell. Born Claude Moine (sorry to surprise you about him having changed his name) in 1940s Paris, his first steps into music were with Les Chausettes Noires (The Black Socks), before setting off on a hugely successful solo career, which began with his first album in 1963 and continues to this day (he has promised that 2010’s Come Back won’t be his last yet).
As with most of his contemporaries, Eddy was and still is hugely influenced by American blues and rock and roll – Les Chausettes Noires had hits with covers of Be-Bop-A-Lula and Johnny B. Goode (‘Eddie sois bon’), while his 2006 album, Jambalaya, was a declaration of love and sympathy for New Orleans, then recently hit by hurricane Katrina. He is well-regarded among his American idols, with Little Richard and Dr. John contributing to Jambalaya (Monsieur Hallyday also makes an appearance, and is a close friend of Eddy’s). His long-time (essentially, since forever) collaborator is Pierre Papadiamandis – in a kind of reverse Elton John/Bernie Taupin arrangement, Eddy writes the lyrics and takes the glory, while Pierre composes the music.
On a personal level, I first heard Eddy thanks to the TV being on in the background one day while I was living in France. One of his contemporary hits was playing (it was either J’aime pas les gens heureux (I Don’t Like Happy People) or Ton homme de paille (Your Straw Man – watch out for the ubiquitous Johnny Hallyday at the start of that clip), but I’ll be utterly damned if I can remember which), and it instantly drew my attention for its combination of airplay-friendly music, distinctively smooth-yet-gravelly vocals, and lyrics which over time came to reveal a beautiful melancholy. Soon after I was on a car journey with a colleague, who had just bought the new Eddy Mitchell album (1999’s Les nouvelles aventures d’Eddy Mitchell) and played it in full two or three times on the journey. I was hooked, and the album, on which the listener is taken on an aural journey through Memphis, Hollywood and New Orleans, finishing in Paris, is still a favourite of mine.
Eddy retains a special place in the heart of the French public – who refer to him as Mr Eddy or, less obviously, Schmoll – for his distinctive crooning voice (as in the all-time classic, heart-breaking Couleur menthe a l’eau), and his frequent anti-authority views. This latter was perhaps best evidenced with his hit Pas de boogie woogie, critical of the Catholic church’s attitude to pre-marital sex. In 1970s France, this was a bold stance to take and led to no little criticism.
Eddy, for me, is the epitome of effortless, classic French cool. One day, I will finally get round to exploring his successful film career.