Johnny Hallyday ‘Tête à Tête plus Retiens la Nuit’ (Hoo-Doo) 4/5

The King is dead. Long live the King! The king in question is none other than Johnny Hallyday, the undisputed king of French rock ‘n’ roll who sadly passed away with the news filtering through this morning. Some likened Hallyday to a French equivalent of Cliff Richard, but that would be misleading other than in terms of longevity, both stood the test of time remarkably well. In fact, Johnny Hallyday is more akin to a composite of the macho side to Tom Jones coupled with the bad boy image that Rod Stewart liked to cultivate in the 1970’s and of course the predilection that both these singers have/had for ladies of the blond haired variety. Johnny’s numerous physical stylistic changes were only matched by the number of young women by his side, and this became something of a pastiche from the early 1980’s onwards with younger generations unkindly likening him to a piece of engineering that had been totally reconstructed from the inside. No matter, Hallyday had the last laugh on them, selling over one hundred million records, and in the francophone world at least rightly achieved legendary status. His supposed fan was a forty something farmer from Auxerre who worshiped the singer and it has to be stated that in his naturalised French home (he was born in Paris, but raised in Belgium, as Jean-Philippe Léo Smet), his status rivaled that of Elvis.

Hallyday built his reputation on carefully monitoring and, to begin with at least, mimicking the early English speaking rock and roll/pop songs of the 1960’s, which he then (with careful help from other songwriters) crafted into French language versions before he found his own distinctive throaty voice and this is where this pairing of two albums from 1961 and 1962 sets the scene. A first album, ‘Hello Johnny’, was recorded in 1960, but the albums contained within are in fact his second and third albums. One of the songs, ‘Salut les copains!'(‘Hi chums!’) was turned into a smash teenager magazine and his romance with fellow singer (and originally a native of Bulgaria who similarly became naturalised and the first of his blonde acquaintances), Sylvie Vartan, was the stuff of legend and ideal ammunition on which to sell the magazine. Hallyday fell in love with Vartan after seeing her live at the Olympia venue in Paris in December, 1961. Interestingly, his marriage to wife Laeticia in 1996 was arguably his longest relationship of all and lasted all the way up to his passing on 6 December.

Long-time devotees of rock n’ roll will spot the melodies to several originals from the English language world. Thus, ‘New Orleans’, becomes, ‘A la Nouvelle Orléans’, while others are less easy to distinguish, with ‘Baby I don’t care’, being transformed into, ‘Sentimental’. One of Johnny’s early big hits, and now a favourite in a remixed version by DJ’s, is ‘Hey Pony’, a cover of a gritty soul number b y Don Covay. A second album, ‘Retiens la nuit’, had a title track song written by no less than Charles Aznavour, and when it was released as a 45 in spring, 1962, it went to the top of the French pop charts. An extremely generous selection of twenty-seven songs includes some interesting bonus cuts, with ‘La faute au twist’, a nod to the twist dance craze, and a more gentle rendition of, ‘Ya Ya twist’. Petula Clark recorded what is generally regarded as the definitive French version of that particular song. As Johnny Hallyday progressed in his career, he mellowed slightly , with arguably one of his finest albums being a mid-1980’s Nashville recorded album of country songs, and even found his way to become a modest actor, of somewhat limited range, in films by directors such as Claude Chabrol and Patrice Leconte. Vive le roi! VIve Johnny! Long live Johnny! A French national musical institution.

Tim Stenhouse