Leo from Kaiguan Culture has taken some time and came up with an article to present a sort of time line of Rock in France. At first it was supposed to be a short article and it became a sort of a trilogy due the crazy amount of stuffs, artists, intellectual and social background details that needed to be depicted to get a vision of this genre and its adaptation to the french context.
Compared to UK and the States, France has taken some time to be recognized on the great map of rock and pop music, but one can say that in a few decades , France has been capable of a lot of creation ranging from vernacular chanson, Yeye pop rock, psychedelic rock, sexually explicit pop, punk, cold wave and wired electronics.
2 POST WORLD WAR INTELECTUALISM
It took a long time for rock’n’roll to rise as a popular culture in France. I guess it has to do with the strenght and in a way, the stubborness of french culture which main substrat is the french language itself, it somehow created a gap that was somehow impossible to bridge between Paris and swinging London for example…
After the second world war and the beginning of the 50’s Rock’n roll was associated to jazz and only rich teens had access to it. It was played in chic cellars in St Germain des Pres, and it also became a new playground for intellectuals like Boris Vian (the old friend of Jean Paul Sartre). This intellectual connotation has actually handicaped French Rockers who felt forced them to treat rock’n’roll with irony and sing deliberate campy lyrics, as opposed to beltin’ out straight-forward Rock’n’roll. Because of the French street “chansons'” tradition of always putting more emphasis on texts rather than on the music itself (meaning it has to be intelligent and “thinked upon”) this custom has prevented music in general from coming straight from the heart as an impulse. This is directly opposed to what R’n’R is all about in the first place! We all know that R’n’R is more of a mixture of energy and feeling . . . a kind of brut expression of the heart, right?!
3 THE YEYE
At the end of the 50’s social climber Johnny Halliday occupied the place of French king of Rock (king of French Rednecks is more like it! ) and launched the “rock-twist” movement of bands, the local equivalent of the skiffle craze in Britain six years prior, before fronting the “YéYé” phenomenon in France (YéYé is the French contraction of the word “Yeah!”). When French teenagers began listening to American rock records, “Yeah!” is probably the only word they could identify with besides “Baby.” (The language they sing while imitating the American dialect is called “Yaourt (Yoghurt!)” here).
Johnny Halliday is/was a strange mix of James Dean and Elvis’ aping. He is the first teen idol in France (… looked a lot like Eddie Cochran, actually! ).
Unfortunately, most of Halliday’s songs were French adaptations of American and British hits with no originality . This was actually the generic problem which rock’n’roll was suffering from in France: it was too much associated with an anglo saxon perception which France didn’t identify with, at least not yet…
Despite France had some genuine r’n’roll bands in the 60’s ,the spotlights were definitely on Yeye and bubble gum teen pop which was flourishing on mainstream radios with female icone such as France Gall (Laisse tomber les filles) and Francoise Hardy.
French society at the time was still very conventional and even if these girls all seemed to be singing naïve cute songs , their lyrics were actually depicting the cruel reality of youth at the time. Many youngsters of that time would very soon embrace the sadness of adult life and leave the lights of the Bus Palladium (the club in the mid-sixties) behind for good. We’re talking pre-May ’68 here, and despite the steps (albeit small) women had achieved toward equality, most female teenagers knew what they were expected to do: conform, as their own mothers did, to the views of a (still) very patriarchal society indeed.
4 1968 , AND THE EMERGENCE OF NEW PROTEST SONGS AND FRENCH PROG ROCK
It is the events of May 68 in France which triggered off the emergence of the French rock scene, the collective reaction of the young generation towards the system and the government was similar for the USA by the hippie movement.
The tradition of protest songs evolved with ,anarchist singers started to mix elements of chanson and folk with the new pop and rock music. Collette Magny was one of the first who took up political themes in her songs when she protested against the Vietnam war in 1967. By 1968 rockmusic turned out to be the soundtrack for young demonstraters and they wanted French lyrics.
A young Renaud wrote ‘Crève salope’which would become the soundtrack for the French May demonstrations. Chansonnier Leo Férre, already no stranger to communist ideals, teamed up with progrock band Zoo and wrote ‘L’Été 68’, ‘Paris, je ne t’aime plus’ and ‘Amour Anarchie’. Bernard Lavilliers, Mama Bea, Gerard Manset but also Serge Gainsbourg laid the basis for what would become ‘la chanson rock’. Experimental jazz/folk-rock developed in the hands of Brigitte Fontaine and Jacques Higelin or Catherine Ribeiro & Alpes .Even internationally the events in Paris turned to be inspirational for the Rolling Stones’ song ‘Street Fighting Man’.
5 GAINSBOURG AND HIS WIND OF SCANDAL
1968 was also the year where the dirty old man of popular music Serge Gainsbourg, notorious for his voracious appetite for alcohol, cigarettes, and women, released his taboo shattering hit “Je t’aime…Moi Non plus”.
He formerly wrote it for his Muse and national sex symbol ,Brigitte Bardot ,with whom he had a short but passionate relationship. She felt that the explicitly sexual lyrics and heavy breathings were too daring and prevented Gainsbourg from releasing it. The two then splitted up permanently and Gainsbourg found a new muse and forever companion in young british girl Jane Birkin who was not at all put off by «Je t’aime…Moi Non plus». Of course the tune made a scandal and when straight to the french charts.
This song was definitely announcing an era of sexual freedom.
(Written By：Leo de B ， To be Continued)