Sunday, November 14, 2010


A few months ago I picked up a copy of Julian Barnes' book Something to Declare (fabulous as usual), which is essentially a nostalgic love letter to France.  The best essay by far was about chansonniers Boris Vian, Jacques Brel and Georges Brassens.  Here's an excerpt:

For about two-thirds of that year [1966] the top of the French hit-parade was squatted on by 'A Whiter Shade of Pale', that haunting confection from Procul Harum.  But the singers who roared from my squeaky French player with a stylus-weight of about two kilos were all local: Brassens and Brel, Vian and Reggiani; high-boho Léo Ferré, pointedly engagé Jean Ferrat, soufflée-voiced Ingénieur des Ponts et Chaussées Guy Béart, lugubrious Anne Vanderlove, bouncy Georges Chelon, yearning Barbara, chubbily smutty Pierre Perret, winsome Anne Sylvestre, and promising Rennes-born débutant Jacques Bertin.  I gave a polite nod to earlier generations (Piaf, Trenet, Rossi), a shrug to the international cabaret artists (Aznavour, Distel, the ear-cupping Bécaud), a pained smile to the Hayley Mills of chanson Françoise Hardy, and a sneer to the home-grown yéyé-mongers, Hallyday, Claude François and Eddy Mitchell. ('Clo-Clo' had at least kept his own name.  Mitchell began life as the priestly-sounding Claude Moine, Hallyday as the distinctly unrockerish Jean-Philippe Smet.  On the other hand, 'Clo-Clo' made up for this with a spectacularly unstylish death, involving the bath, electricity and, it was rumoured, a minority sexual practice.)
[...] The three who have accompanied me most down the years, their poppy, fizzing vinyl surfaces finally traded up to CD, are Boris Vian, Jacques Brel and Georges Brassens.  All three had emerged during the early Fifties, when they were first recorded by Jacques Canetti, brother of the Nobel-winning Elias.  Vian, wry and urbane, sang at the world with a cutting edge of sardonic disbelief.  Brel urgent and impassioned, sang at the world as if it could have sense shaken into it by music, could be saved from its follies and brutalities by his vocal embrace.  Brassens, intimate and formal, sang at the world as if it were an old lover whose ways are teasingly familiar and from whom not too much is expected. 


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