Johnny Hallyday died last week. He was beloved in France, selling millions of records there as their first homegrown rock and roll star, and eventually ascending to a weird inescapable fame; both tabloid fixture and national icon.
He was a worldwide figure of fascination, and possibly too easy an object of ridicule.
His fame in the rest of the world was a Catch 22: if you weren’t French and were worldly enough to have heard of Johnny Hallyday, you were probably too cool to listen to Johnny Hallyday. Although he had a great ear for a tune, unlike Serge Gainsbourg he never produced a song that was catchy enough to appeal to the rest of the world.
Like many European artists, he had hit songs in neighboring countries, but never had a strong parallel career in Germany or Italy like Francoise Hardy or his ex-wife Sylvie Vartan.
The French people’s love for Johnny Hallyday and of the rest of the world’s relative indifference says equal amounts about each party. Although Serge Gainsbourg presents a vision of Frenchness that the rest of the world finds perhaps more understandable (louche, disheveled, sophisticated), Johnny Hallyday’s theatrical warts-and-all emoting touched something deeper in the French national consciousness than Serge ever did.
As I mused in an earlier article, perhaps Hallyday’s lack of appeal to the rest of the world (and English speaking countries specifically) is that so much of his career was based on interpreting English and American music. He took American soul and folk, and British rock and made it thoroughly French. If you were American or British in the 60’s, chances are you never listened to Eddie Floyd or The Animals and thought BOY I REALLY WOULD PREFER TO HEAR THIS SONG IN A LANGUAGE I CAN’T UNDERSTAND…
The smooth singing Francois Hardy had a fair amount of global success, perhaps because it was possible to enjoy her original melodies (unlike Hallyday, she wrote a lot of her own material and did not rely on cover songs) without understanding the words, but Hallyday had a soul music influenced expressionist style that relied a lot on inflection.
Though Hallyday did try: in the early 60’s he appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, and he recorded in Nashville. A part of me thinks that was putting in an effort for appearance’s sake, almost to show his French fans that they were backing a winner, and a player on the global stage. Although Hallyday was besotted with America, maintaining a residence in Los Angeles for many years, perhaps he recognized that his skills and persona would never have a place in the pop culture there.
About 10 years ago, I went through a period of being obsessed with Hallyday and bought every record of his I could find. Going through them all, a few things became obvious. First, he was smart enough to surround himself with good backing musicians and able songwriters, like Long Chris and Mick Jones (the one who later played in Foreigner, not the one in the Clash, who spent a long period of time in Hallyday’s band, the Blackburds).
Second, like all good pop artists, he was a good trendspotter. In the mid 60’s, he recorded covers of British rock and American soul songs. After Jimi Hendrix opened a French tour for him in October 1966, Hallyday recorded his own French language version of Hendrix’s arrangement of “Hey Joe.” From the 60’s into the 70’s, Hallyday touched upon psychedelic rock, country tinged rock (a la Creedence Clearwater Revival), funky rock, and retro 50’s rock (a return to the sound that brought him fame in 1960). If not all of these stylistic leanings worked for him, it didn’t necessarily matter, as Hallyday cranked out 4 or 5 (or more) albums a year in his prime (he eventually released more than 100), so if not every single one was good, who cares, on to the next one…
Lastly, like all stars, he had some inexplicable X-factor in him. For him, each peak and valley of his life and career (drugs, car crashes, divorce, financial troubles) was a way for the average man on the street to relate to him. Whatever X-factor Hallyday posessed, it resonated with the French public like few before or after him.
Below is a mix I did of Hallyday’s music at the height of my interest in him, as well as the original article that accompanied it.
les bras en croix
c’est mon imagination (just my imagination)
le penticier (house of the rising sun)
le jeu que tu joues (with a girl like you)
je crois qu’il me rend fou (such a fool for you)
promenade dans la foret du brabant
les coups (uptight) (live)
je suis seul (what is soul) (live)
absolument hyde park (blackbirds only)
voyage au pas des vivants
je n’ai besoin de personne
a tout casser
riviere… ourve ton lit (live)
je te veux
a tout casser (live)
son amour pour un jeu (strange shadows)
l’amour d’ete (love me tender)