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Richard Milward On France Gall's 1968 & The Death Of Yé-Yé
Richard Milward , November 23rd, 2023 09:02

In this month's subscriber essay, novelist Richard Milward travels back 55 years to the cobblestone-strewn streets of Paris, the release of France Gall's album 1968, and discovers how a time of political upheaval had a profound impact on the happy-go-lucky genre of yé-yé

Three weeks before the first cobblestones were thrown in the explosive student revolt in Paris, May 1968, Télévision Suisse Romande broadcast the image of French yé-yé chanteuse France Gall's small unconscious body carried down the hatch of the Savoie, a paddle steamboat floating on a frosty, overcast Lake Geneva. A strange funeral procession followed her down: a top-hatted illusionist, two muscular dancers dressed in sparkly forest-green bodysuits and white furry gilets, a dour Napoleon lookalike, comic singer Henri Dès in a purple Nehru jacket and pantaloons, and five ballerinas in bejewelled go-go boots and pastel-coloured wigs. A minute later, Gall would be upright again, dancing in the film's grand psychedelic finale – but, with intense social and political upheaval looming, her mock death would unknowingly mark the symbolic death of yé-yé, the playful bubblegum pop movement that made Gall, Françoise Hardy, Sylvie Vartan, Chantal Goya, Annie Philippe and so many others famous between 1962 and 1968.

Gall's mock funeral appeared in Gallantly, a 33-minute nautical caper promoting her seventh LP, 1968. Released in the first weeks of that year, the LP's title and free-flowing flowery artwork seemed to promise 1968 would continue the carefree, loved-up hippy ideals of 1967 – and likewise the music within repeated many of the tropes of the Summer of Love sound: sitar-heavy exotica (‘Chanson Indienne'), chamber pop (‘Toi Que Je Veux'), North African slithering scales (‘Nefertiti'), hyperactive psych (‘Teenie Weenie Boppie'), cartoonish flute-led lounge jazz (‘Les Yeux Bleus'). Lyrically the LP is equally haphazard, taking in the perils of LSD, the pleasures of mini golf, Queen Nefertiti's fragrant bandages, an insatiable flesh-eating giant, Anglo-Gallic dispute over the Channel Tunnel, the vicious love of a baby shark. While not wholly cohesive, 1968 is held together by Gall's sweetly emphatic vocals: more than any other yé-yé singer, her sincerity and versatility enabled her to skip from genre to genre without ever tripping into parody or mawkishness. Throughout the mid 1960s, she was the embodiment of youthful optimism, consistently selling hundreds of thousands of records – but, by the time the stones and Molotov cocktails rained down on the Latin Quarter, she was no longer a fixture on French TV, her sales had slumped, her career seemingly irrelevant to this new, politicised youth.

Yé-yé was itself a potent youth-cultural revolution, exploding like a marshmallow cobblestone five years previously. The term ‘yé-yé' was coined by sociologist Edgar Morin in a July 1963 Le Monde article, inspired by the opening ‘yé-yé-yé-yé's of Françoise Hardy's 1962 ‘La Fille Avec toi', and singling out the movement's more innocent, "festive, playful hedonism" in contrast to the aggressive, leather-jacketed machismo of the blousons noirs that had come before it. Morin's article appeared shortly after 150,000 well-dressed youths had descended on Paris's Place de la Nation for a raucous concert organised by radio station Europe 1, featuring yé-yé power couple Johnny Hallyday and Sylvie Vartan among many other Mod-suited, polka-dotted teen idols. French president Charles de Gaulle's comments after the show – "These youngsters seem to have so much energy to spend. Let's have them build roads!" – marked him as being completely out of touch with the youth of France: an on-going theme that would eventually turn students, then striking workers and disaffected citizens nationwide against him and his government's stifling conservatism.

De Gaulle's leadership was arguably both the enabler and destroyer of yé-yé. Following the Second World War, the trente glorieuses of 1945 to 75 saw rapid economic growth in France that, coupled with one of the most potent baby booms in Europe, gave teenagers in the 1960s (then making up a whole third of the population) significant spending power. While the old grande dames of chanson traditionally cut their teeth in the cabarets of Paris before being offered recording contracts, the demand for rapid-fire pop in the 1960s meant that otherwise ordinary, inexperienced girls could be snapped up by record producers on the hunt for the next Françoise Hardy, or anti-Françoise Hardy. Plenty of these teens didn't have the finest voices, but their unostentatious, anything-goes delivery belted out over some remarkable jazz session musicians made for a cascade of dazzling one-off singles and EPs from such wildly differing voices as the detached absurdism of Clothilde; the sardonic, combative beat-pop of Stella; or the Middle Eastern go-go of Jewish-Tunisian Jacqueline Taïeb. The Comte de Lautréamont's 1870 declaration "poetry must be made by all, not by one" was taken up by the Situationist International and subsequently the soixante-huitards as a clarion call for full creative liberty – and essentially yé-yé feels like ‘music for all': even pre-teen schoolgirls like Isabelle could star on a song like ‘Amstramgram' that, nearly sixty years on, still sounds utterly outlandish and alive.

What, then, caused this high-energy youth movement to fizzle out just as another, more venomous, youth movement spilled its guts in the spring of 1968? Did yé-yé's sugary commercialism turn the stomachs of these anti-capitalist enrages? Did the seemingly never-ending stream of new singers reek of inauthenticity because they were mostly regurgitating other people's words?

Though there were plenty of male yé-yé stars, the sheer proliferation of female singers in the 1960s provided a fizzing tonic to de Gaulle's patriarchy – and yet, like so many of these young chanteuses, from the very start France Gall's career was controlled by men, some more domineering than others. Her bohemian father Robert managed all her affairs, and wrote many of her lyrics. Hairdresser Jacques Dessange created a new look – the ‘College Girl' – especially for France: long straight bottle-blonde, parted in the middle. In 1963, after hearing her carefree response to an interviewer's question about her future – "In five years, I'll stop!" – her producer Denis Bourgeois slapped her and called her crazy. Even the French rugby team were responsible for her stage name: convinced an English-speaking audience wouldn't be able to pronounce Isabelle correctly, Robert Gall suggested his daughter change her name to France, inspired by the France-Wales Five Nations match that was all over the radio that week (incidentally some Anglophones would mispronounce it anyway, bungling ‘France Gall' as ‘French Girl'). But by far the most dominant male presence looming over Gall's career in the 1960s was Serge Gainsbourg.

In Sylvie Simmons' biography of Gainsbourg, A Fistful of Gitanes, Jane Birkin says: "[Serge] always stayed childlike, that's what the mischievous attempt to always shock people was all about." His flick-knife lyrics added a radical edge to Gall's LPs that would occasionally careen into outright deviousness – most famously on ‘Les Sucettes', a song he wrote after discovering she had a taste for barley sugar lollipops, concerning a girl named Annie who had a similar penchant for sucking. Later Gall would say she sang the million-selling paean to fellatio "with an innocence of which I'm proud" but, when she discovered the meaning of the double entendre at a TV shoot during which the set was unusually littered with leering, laughing males, she felt humiliated and was depressed for months afterwards. Fully aware she was "a prisoner of the repertoire that was offered to me" because she didn't write her own songs, Gall (and so many other lolycéenes: Gainsbourg's sly portmanteau of ‘Lolita', ‘lycéene' and ‘lollipop') was also imprisoned by her pigeonholing as a young, pretty, supposedly mindless dolly.

As Jean-Emmanuel Deluxe suggests in his Yé-Yé Girls of 60s French Pop, the militant, politically awakened soixante-huitards would subsequently "[reject] many a yé-yé star, mainly because of their apparent shallowness and refusal to take part in feverish political debates." Two years before May 1968, Jean-Luc Godard highlighted the vacuity of the yé-yés in his film Masculin-Feminin, starring Jean-Pierre Léaud and pop star Chantal Goya as teenagers torn between political activism, love and money. In a section titled ‘Dialogue With A Consumer Product', Léaud interviews Elsa Leroy, real-life winner of teen bible Mademoiselle Âge Tendre's ‘Miss Tender-Age of the Year' competition in 1965, an accolade which led to her singing on a one-off EP (featuring ‘Comment Fais-tu', a stomping cover of Ian Whitcomb's ‘You Turn Me On' replete with overexcited Hammond organ and provocative panting). Using Léaud as his interrogative mouthpiece, Godard puts Leroy on the spot, questioning her on the future of socialism ("I don't really know enough about it"), the Front Populaire, birth control (which she admits she's embarrassed to speak frankly about) and the war in Vietnam.
At one point Godard/Léaud asks: "Does the word reactionary mean anything to you?"
"Yes. It's difficult to explain what it means. To be reactionary is to be in opposition, to react against things, not to accept just anything."
"Is it a good or a bad thing?"
"Good. I don't like yes people."

Godard's blatant desire to trip up Miss Tender-Age 1965 comes across as churlish, if not outright cruel. France Gall similarly struggled to speak about politics in her interviews. Having been in the spotlight since the age of sixteen – and having dropped out of school after the immediate success of her first single – Gall's life had been an exhausting flurry of international touring, frequent photo shoots and recording sessions. When asked about what she did during the upheaval of May 1968, she said: "I did not live the life of an adolescent, but of an adult… I was not aware of the problems of students. I had enough to do with my life. So in May I went to Malta with my boyfriend. We didn't have a TV, so we didn't really know what was going on, whereas in Paris was a revolution… I looked at this movement with fear and agitation."

In return, the movement looked at Gall with contempt when, in spring 1968, she recorded a jaunty jingle promoting Granji wine, proving she was entirely out of step with the march towards an anti-capitalist, anti-materialist future. So many other yé-yés failed or refused to follow the political tide, not least Sylvie Vartan, whose September 1968 LP La Maritza featured the cloyingly twinkly ‘On a Toutes Besoin D'un Homme': "Washing up, ironing, cooking, working/Us girls know how to love you/Washing up, ironing, cooking, working/Us girls know how to keep you." Though Vartan's ignorance of women's lib may have been unforgivable to France's second wave feminists, her lack of thirst for radical leftist politics may well have stemmed from the fact she was born in Bulgaria and had lived through the hardships of post-war Communism, her family emigrating to Paris when she was eight. Gainsbourg too did not vociferously support the gauchistes, his Russian Jewish parents having fled the Bolsheviks following the Russian Revolution. As his biographer Edwige Saint-Eloi states, he observed the happenings of May 1968 "as a vaguely supportive but perplexed spectator… [fearing] the rise in power of the French communists."

The same day Gallantly aired on Swiss television – Saturday 20th April 1968 – Tom Jones entered the French chart at number seventeen with ‘Delilah' (having turned yé-yé singer Sheila's heartbreak-consoling ‘Dalila' into a murder ballad), and the song would spend four weeks at number one during the riots. Rather than the charts and streets being flooded with new anarchic agitprop pop, French musical taste seemed to go backwards during and after les événements: back to the social realism of working-class chanson and, in the case of the marching students and strikers, all the way back to ‘L'Internationale', the anthem of the Paris Commune in 1871.

As music historian Eric Drott states: "Without a repertoire of contemporary political songs that they could draw upon, without a defined sub- or counterculture by means of which they could signify their resistance to dominant culture, French youth had to reach back to a century-old mainstay of the workers' movement to voice their opposition." The commercial success of yé-yé tarred it as part of that "dominant culture" to be destroyed, the seeming lack of seriousness of the music itself (all parping brass, bouncy fuzztone and handclaps) jarring with the severity of the times. In her 1964 essay Notes on ‘Camp', Susan Sontag identified yé-yé as being the musical embodiment of Camp, defining the concept as: "Camp is art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is ‘too much'… Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve." Yé-yé, then, was both "too much" and not enough: too innocently buoyant with not enough intellectual clout.

Still, it's all too easy to be blindsided by the cartoonish exuberance of the music and – especially for a non-French-speaking audience – miss some of its startlingly radical moments. While the àpres-mai years offered up a few notable anti-establishment grenades – like the cutting feminist carnival Brigitte Fontaine Est… Folle! in 1973 – there were countless yé-yé singles released in the lead-up to the revolt that smash the idea that the movement was not politically engaged. Pussy Cat's 1966 ‘Les Temps Ont Changé' derided men who felt women should obey them. Christel Ruby's ‘Le Soleil Du Vietnam' highlighted the futility of distant protest songs ("Sell the UN, relocate these naked people/The sun in Vietnam can't hear Bob Dylan"). Dani's 1967 ‘La Machine' is a proto-punk declamation of our overreliance on "[machines] that kill boredom". Cléo's 1966 ‘Les Fauves' critiques the "inhuman glaze" of brainwashed consumers in a department store. And, standing above them all, France Gall's 1966 ‘Baby Pop' is a masterpiece of anti-establishment subversion. Bouncing along with all the classic, playful hallmarks of yé-yé – the bubbling brass, the catchy chorus, the backing girls' Americanised ‘yé-yé-yé's – Gainsbourg's alarming lyrics add a litre of gasoline to the milkshake, cataloguing the domestic strains and international horror of modern life (toiling in a dead-end job for pennies, surrendering yourself to an unhappy marriage, the threat of the Cold War escalating to instant nuclear holocaust), before demanding we throw ourselves into end-of-days hedonism: "Sing, dance, baby pop/As if tomorrow, baby pop/In the early morning, baby pop/You're going to die."

France Gall's 1968, in contrast, acted as a fitting death knell to the movement largely because, for all its variety, it lacked the rebellious bite of her previous records. Even the track dedicated to LSD – ‘Teenie Weenie Boppie' – found Gainsbourg as the antithesis of his namesake Allen Ginsberg, scaremongering with its tale of a teenybopper being driven "to the edge of insanity" after swallowing a sugar cube impregnated with LSD, and dying "in agony" as a result.

Less alarmist, but more alarming is 1968's closing track, ‘La Petite', a duet between Gall and the actor Maurice Biraud, singing the role of a "crafty" friend of her father's, infatuated with the "little one" of the title. Aged forty-six, Biraud was more than twice Gall's age at the time of the recording. The chorus, sung together, goes: "One day baby birds take flight/The little ones become big/There are no more children." It's as if Biraud – and, by extension, conservative France – was upset to see the youth of la Republique grow up, to think for themselves, to question the status quo. It's like one of the posters pasted by students on the streets of Paris during May: a shadowy caricature of de Gaulle holding his hand over a youth's mouth, with the slogan SOIS JEUNE ET TAIS TOI (STAY YOUNG AND SHUT UP).

France Gall, for her part, spoke out against the domineering older-man influence on her career, parting company with her father, Gainsbourg and producer Denis Bourgeois soon after 1968 flopped. She was especially unhappy with ‘La Petite' (which her own father had written) as well as Gainsbourg's recent lyrics, which proved "[he] didn't have anything more to say about me – or, rather, never had. He didn't know me, in fact, only projected his own fantasies through me." Though Gall may have initially wished to terminate her pop career after five years, in 1971 she landed – without her father's help – a contract with Atlantic Records in the US: the first French artist to do so.

Towards the end of Godard's Masculin-Feminin, three title cards flash on the screen: ‘THIS FILM COULD BE CALLED/THE CHILDREN OF MARX AND COCA-COLA/MAKE OF IT WHAT YOU WILL.' By the time May 1968 erupted, as far as the enrages were concerned, you had to choose between Marx or Coca-Cola – but yé-yé straddled both lyrical progressivism and saccharine commercialism equally, and perhaps it therefore better represented the true desires of French youth than any of the po-faced folk, Americanised rock and old-world chanson that filled the charts afterwards. France Gall – who in the 1980s would join Chanteurs sans frontières, helping raise awareness and funds for African countries struck by drought and famine – said of herself: "I am not an intellectual person, nor a materialist. I am connected to the earth." She also prided herself on being a Libran, and it is that balance of elements in her yé-yé period – the humour and the candour, the pyrotechnics and the pathos, the subversive lyrics delivered with full sincerity, the slapstick Marx and the fizzing, overflowing Coca-Cola – that sets her apart from so many other, less lasting yé-yé stars.

Merci beaucoup: Gregoire Colard & Alain Morel France Gall: Le Destin D'Un Star Courage, Jean-Emmanuel Deluxe Yé-Yé Girls of 60s French Pop, Eric Drott Music And The Elusive Revolution, Pierre Pernez France Gall: Comme Une Histoire d'amour, Edwige Saint-Eloi Serge Gainsbourg. Ombres Et Lumiéres, Sylvie Simmons Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful Of Gitanes.