Lolita du Gaul
Love comes and goes; obsessions are forever...
-Vic Dillinger, The Black Orchid
I am not madly in love with the country of France, not after what they did to Jeanne d'Arc (I can hold a grudge for a mighty long time).
However, there are some French things I like: escargot, Brigitte Bardot, and Jerry Lewis, to name a few.
French literature and French art are almost unparalleled. In the realm of popular music, however, France hasn't given us much. They can't seem to put together a killer rock band, for example. I think the French language itself is the barrier – that nasal, choking-on-your-own-tongue ululation and whining that passes for speech makes life difficult for any rocker trying to have any street cred toward badassery.
I mean, can you imagine how lame Metallica's "Enter Sandman"
There is one area of pop music where the French have been successful, despite the "I-need-the-Heimlich-maneuver" vocal strangling of the lingua franca. This is in the area of the chanteuse, the nymphet vocalist, all wide-eyed innocence and allure. Among that group of teen queens, one reigns supreme. Her dominance of the girly, bubble-gummy French pop music genre of the early to mid 1960s is why I am madly in love with France Gall.
This bébé filles was born October 9, 1947, with a much longer handle: Isabelle Geneviève Marie Anne Gall. She was the only girl of three siblings. Music was in the family. Her grandfather had helped found a French national children's choir. Her father, a popular French music hall and jazz musician, was very successful. He was also a highly respected songwriter, and had written hits for some of France's better-known crooners (you wouldn't know any of 'em, so I won't waste your time naming them). Her mother, Cécile, was a singer. Isabelle learned piano and picked up a guitar as a child. In her early teens, she and her two brothers formed a vocal trio.
Not surprisingly, when the young Isabelle displayed early vocal talents, her father encouraged her singing. What is surprising, though, is he also later encouraged her to drop out of school to pursue a singing career (the French, perhaps, aren't well-known for their parenting skills). early 1960s' Anglo rock.
I don't parlay vous Frenchie (well, just enough to be dangerous: "meh", "merci bleu-bleh", "zizzle voswah", and "stinky cheese"). France Gall's first single's title translates into "Don't Be So Stupid/So Silly/Such a 'Tard" dependent upon context. Even though I barely comprende I get the tone. This tune was an instant hit, and sold an impressive 200,000 copies out of the gate in 1963. At 2:17 long, it is a short burst of fun, even though I understand almost nothing of what she sings.
France Gall was part of a pop music genre in France known as yé-yé ("yeah-yeah"). The yé-yé bunch were mostly teen girls who sang vacuous material aimed at a naïve European teen audience. The style incorporated elements of Anglo pop music with homegrown French twists. It is a strange combination, and it is also infectious.
The novice France Gall differed from this lot of prefab sprouts for a couple of reasons. One, she had talent as a vocalist. Secondly, she did not restrict herself to covers of American or British hit singles as most of her peers did. Instead, she recorded songs written specifically for her or songs that writers were shopping around. Thus, in an era of cover girls, France was building an oeuvre of originals.
France left school in the wake of her first hit. Her second outing in 1964 proved she was more than a typical yé-yé. The child-like quality of "Sacré Charlemagne", written by her old man Robert and another guy, was also a hit even though it qualifies more as a children's song and not merely "child-like". [Children's songs would be a format she would revisit over the course of her career]. This song went on to sell over 2 million copies.
Her big career break came almost immediately after "Sacré Charlemagne". A music insider introduced her to a songwriter/producer named Serge Gainsbourg. Gainsbourg was the stereotypical image most Americans have of Frenchmen: greasy, smarmy looking, of questionable hygeine (dumping cologne over the stank instead of taking a shower), almost predatory in his demeanor. Yet, he was a gifted songwriter, knew a good hook when he heard one, and the combination of his tunes and France's voice made her successful outside her homeland.
Gainsbourg wrote "N'écoute pas les idoles" ("Don't listen to the idols"). This was a hit for France Gall, and in March 1964 this tune topped the French pop charts and remained there for three weeks. The song is excellent; it is underpinned with a churning, noodling bass line, and her vocals keen and rise in places (although, again, I don't have a clue what she is saying, and I don't care).
In a true indicator of social norms (European blasé versus American puckered conservatism) the televised "performance" of this song occurs on a stage set featuring a bed. A male is reclining on the bed listening to records – France walks over and sits on the foot of the bed while he is on it!! That would've been just too awful and scarring to see on TV in America. Not in the Magic Land of Gaul, though, in 1964.
For those not in tune with what the rest of the world does musically, there is an annual contest for pop music that is decades old (started in the 1950s) called Eurovision. It is a showcase for artists of different countries to submit material and then get a chance to do it before an international panel of judges (sort of like a relevant version of American Idol). Some past winners of this contest are ABBA (of Sweden), Sir Cliff Richard (of Britain), Lulu (of "To Sir, With Love" fame), Celine Dion (in 1988), and Katrina and the Waves (in 1997). In any event, this competition can be a major springboard for a budding artist.
Serge Gainsbourg gave her ten songs from which to choose one to sing at the competition. She selected a song of his called "Poupée de cire, poupée de son". [I called this "The Poopie Song" until I learned "poupée" meant "puppet" and not "feces". So, I'll call it "The Puppet Song".]
This tune has a galloping, spaghetti-Western feel to it, sort of like some of Ennio Morricone's instrumentals. It's a soaring up-tempo piece, well orchestrated, and France sang it on March 20, 1965, for Eurovision's judges. She won the competition with that song. She later recorded this tune in German, Italian, and Japanese!
After her win at Eurovision she spent the summer of 1965 touring her country with "Le Grand Cirque de France" ("The Great Circus of France"). This road show was a great public relations vehicle for her, and was a combination radio broadcast and live circus. She continued to hit the charts with Gainsbourg's songs. She also took a campy stab at American-style Country & Western in a non-Gainsbourg song called "L'Amérique" ("America"). About halfway through the song she does a bit of hillbilly twanging over light banjo work. In her native language it is charming and unintentionally funny.
Gainsbourg, though, was France Gall's Svengali, and he put words in her mouth through his songs she would not have willingly sung if she had understood their subtext.
Eurovision's "Puppet Song" was a good example. She sang about being a puppet in the sense of having no control of her emotions sometimes; Gainsbourg's take on it is she was his puppet to do with as he pleases.
France Gall, while not the first, was one of the first French
Most of these pieces are straightforward performance films. Some interpret the songs with narratives. Others are just pastiches to something or another unknown to Americans. For her video of "The Sucker Song" the legal-aged Lolita is dolled up in her mod mini-dress and pea coat, her blond hair parted on the side held back with a barrette, and she is wearing black patent leather shoes. She is adorable, and although she is 18, she looks about 14.
For her part, she couldn't have been either cuter or more naïve. She emotes as if licking lollipops was the most earnest topic ever. She smiles prettily throughout, she rolls her eyes adoringly, and on a cuteness scale of one to ten, she is an eleven (only baby polar bears are cuter than this).
There was an uproar over this tune when it was released. Although France Gall didn't get the innuendo the rest of her listening public pretty much did. She only found out much later (after several more collaborations with Gainsbourg) what the song's lyrics really meant.
When she did learn of the controversy, she felt betrayed by him. It severed their partnership, and she refused to sing the song for years to come. [She later reported that during a Japanese TV appearance in 1966 she hadn't understood why there were so many men hanging around on the set – it was unusual. But after she found out what the song was about, she realized they were all there for the titillation factor, and she was rightfully embarrassed.]
"The Sucker Song" was a huge hit, though, but it did make a stink for France and Gainsbourg both. He was lambasted for putting such filth in her mouth, and she was of course guilty by association. She cut all ties with Gainsbourg and recorded in Germany and other parts of Europe for a time while the controversy cooled down.
Her career never really recovered. She charted with a Gainsbourg tune "Bébé requin" ("Baby Shark") in 1967. Later, when she no longer had any association with Gainsbourg she still suffered. Her other LPs and singles in the late 1960s failed to chart. One of these songs was "Bonsoir John John", an homage to slain US President John F. Kennedy. It's a solid tune, every bit as sincere as Dion's "Abraham, Martin & John" from the same period, and it is treated well as a ballad by France.
Although co-written by Gilles Thibaut (one of the writers of the French song that Paul Anka would turn into the iconic "My Way") she couldn't get away from the sting of public aspersions left over from "The Sucker Song". The public actually began suspiciously going back into her catalog and looking for similar innuendoes in her children's recordings from the same year as "The Sucker Song" (there aren't any).
She was chum to the shark press by then, so she moved along to record in other countries.
France performed and recorded mostly in Germany from 1966 through 1972. She was successful among the German people, and scored with many hit singles. By 1968 when her contract with the French Philips Records expired, she moved on completely to a different record company and dropped her management as well. She recorded several unnoticed singles for her new label before it went bankrupt in 1969.
France was floundering musically when she met popular French jazz musician Michel Berger. She was making money from her live performances and from royalties on her earlier recordings but by her early 20s she was at an impasse. She had become enchanted by a song in 1973 written and performed by Berger.
In 1978 Berger convinced France to act in an all-female revue (orchestra, choir, dance troupe) called Made in France (there was only one non-female performer, a guy in drag). Berger co-wrote a rock opera called Starmania in 1979 that featured France as the star. It ran for a month with France starring, then took off on its own with different casts and toured popularly afterward.
France Gall had her own fashion sense. In the Sixties her preferred look centered around the mod's style of dress. Fortunately, she never adopted the goofy, crappy,
Family life, of course, would interfere with recording. In November 1978, France gave birth to a daughter named Pauline. She gave birth to a boy, Raphaël, in April 1981. Still, France toured and recorded around these domestic interruptions.
The Berger-Gall family wealth allowed them to travel extensively and to buy homes and properties in other countries. France regularly visited Senegal, and she became active in global humanitarian charities and causes. One of her biggest had to do with the famine situation in Africa. In response to Britain's "Band-Aid" and America's "USA for Africa" charities, the French music community created a similar philanthropic group to cut and promote a single for African relief. France and her husband Michel were instrumental in this project.
She toured her native France extensively in the late 1980s, and on the heels of that tour released a successful, live double-LP in 1988. In 1990, she and her husband bought a retreat on an island near Dakar.
France made many comebacks (she was never really "gone", just spotty in her activities musically), and once recovered from her bout with breast cancer she returned to live performing and recording. In 1996, she recorded a new full-length disc called France. From this she culled a "true" music video directed by Jean-Luc Godard (the French "New Wave" director of 1960's Breathless fame). The video was recorded near his Swiss home.
Her artistic life seemed to be filled with fits and starts and, seemingly, when she was building momentum something always went wrong to quell it. Sadly, this time it was more death. Her first-born, the daughter named Pauline, suffered from cystic fibrosis. In December 1997, Pauline (age 19) died of complications from the disease. France had "retired" from music by that time after completing an "unplugged" show for French television earlier in the year. She went into seclusion in Senegal. Since then her public appearances have been rare, although she did emerge in 2001 to contribute to a documentary about her. She also appeared on stage for the first time in years in 2007 to perform live on a tribute show commemorating the 15th anniversary of her husband's death.
France spends more time on her charitable works than anything else. She spearheads many projects, but her patronage is solidly behind a group called Coeurs de Femmes that sponsors and supports homeless and abused women.
France Gall left a major cult figure behind in France Gall. Her songs from her earliest days are interesting little moments of what the French thought of as a type of rock 'n' roll. It is a fascinating music in many ways, and although France Gall is not the only successful yé-yé she perhaps is held in greater esteem than most.
This girl-woman/woman-girl is fascinating visually. When she did the video for her first single (the one about being stupid) she looks as if she is 25 years old, very mature looking in her dress and subdued make-up. Later, as she got older, she seemed to revert – pictures of her up until her early thirties show a woman much younger in appearance than her age.
Her music has a sort of timeless quality to it, and these retro tunes are listenable today without sounding so hokey or dated that you just can't stand it. April March, the American singer who in 1995 released the great single "Chick Habit", owes a debt to France Gall, and she will admit it. April discovered France Gall when she was an exchange student in France in her youth. She then became hooked on the yé-yé music. [Which, unfortunately, is too easily done – I'm serious. These tunes attach themselves to your brainstem like a parasitic extraterrestrial, leaving you bewitched, bothered, and totally stupefied as to "Why? Why?"]
The song "Chick Habit" as recorded in English by April is a musically faithful version of France Gall's "Laisse tomber les filles" ("Never Mind the Girls" or something along those lines). In English, April had written new lyrics. She does cover the French version of the lyrics as sung by Gall, and here's where it gets kind of cool.
Digging around on YouTube (and I sincerely recommend this) you can find both of April March's versions of this outstanding song (April's English-lyric version plays over the end credits of the killer movie Grindhouse).
However, you can also find a video clip from 1964 of France Gall doing her version as written by Gainsbourg in 1963. This video is astounding: she is very charismatic, sing-songy in her delivery, smiling, pretty, and just singing her song without being a skeezer about it (the way Britney Spears and her ilk would have done).
And whatta doll she is! She has a natural look with a wonderful little beauty mark beneath her right eye that in later photos I'm afraid she either had removed or airbrushed out.
France's material is being rediscovered, and newer audiences are catching up with her early singles. Compilations exist as inexpensive primers of yé-yé, but France actually sang in many idioms, including jazz. One of her earliest songs has her scatting on a jazzy tune in her French twang, and it is a moment of greatness.
Why am I madly in love with France Gall? Easy: I love the gems, the undiscovered. But, once recovered, they bring something extra to your life. This woman-girl does it for me.
[the basis for April March's "Chick Habit"]
the Sucker song (w/ Gainsbourg)
a good primer
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