The stories behind the songs

November 29, 2022 - 11:16 AM - 960 views

The stories behind the songs, by Gareth Jones

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Every week on this page, discover what's behind your favourite songs, with Gareth Jones. He is an avid record collector, occasional contributor to leading music monthly Shindig! and a passionate francophile. He lives in Hertfordshire in the UK, as quietly as a record collector can, with his partner and their two beloved cats. He has published the book 'French Pop: from Music Hall to Yé-Yé'. Follow this link to buy it now!

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Les roses blanches - Berthe Sylva (1926)

Born in 1885, Berthe Sylva was one of France’s greatest chanteuses réalistes of the twenties and thirties, a star of enormous proportions, in a sense, perhaps, the Édith Piaf of her day. Like Piaf, she was taken before her time, passing away in 1941 at the age of 56, but her memory long endured, in large part thanks to “Les roses blanches”, one of the archetypal chansons of her era. Composed by accordionist Léon Raiter with lyrics by Charles-Louis Pothier, the song was a melodrama in three minutes, telling the tale of a poor Parisian who every Sunday presented his mother, his only family member, with white roses, her favourite flowers. His mother was hospitalised and he was broke so he stole the flowers from a florist, who caught him. After explaining his plight, the florist gave them to him, he rushed to the hospital only to be told that his mother had died. He left them with her, so that she could take her favourite flowers with her to heaven. Sentimental it certainly was, and more than a little contrived, it was far and away the biggest hit she ever enjoyed, although oddly, she was not the first to sing it.

Sylva had been performing in the cabarets and music halls of France and Algeria for several years before her breakthrough but by the dawn of the twenties she had begun to build a following for her tear-drenched style. A chance meeting with Raiter led to her first recording contract, with the small Ideal label, although she swiftly transferred to the bigger Odéon label, but while record sales were important, it was the newly emerging medium of radio that made her a star. Over the course of a decade, she made countless appearances on the airwaves for Radio Tour Eiffel, her deeply emotional style making her an absolute idol to the young teenage girls who formed her core audience (who said that teenagers did not exist until the fifties?). A steady stream of hit songs followed – “Du gris”, “Fleur de musette”, “Monte-Carlo”, “La prière des petits gueux”, “On n’a pas tous les jours 20 ans", but it was in “Les roses blanches”, a song already in the repertoires of singers such as Mary Ketty, Antonin Priolet or Emma Liebel (all sadly forgotten today), she found her perfect match.

It is difficult today to appreciate just how enormous a star she was. A single appearance on Radio Toulouse resulted in the station receiving 15,000 fan letters, begging for her to make further broadcasts. By the thirties her live appearances were causing stampedes as fans surged forward to be closer to her, with the reports of damage to theatre seats eerily foreshadowing similar stories in the rock ‘n’ roll explosion of the fifties and sixties. Sylva’s fans though were there first. And yet for all that, she died in relative poverty, brought down, as Piaf would be, by a self-destructive lifestyle.

As for “Les roses blanches”, it simply kept on selling. Sylva recorded in more than once, with her 1937 version generally seen as definitive, and it remained in print for years. 78s gave way to EPs, EPs gave way to singles, and still it kept on selling, even if the actual sales figures have been overstated. it was revived in 1957 by both Georgette Plana and Tino Rossi; a decade later, it was picked up by Les Sunlights and was a hit all over again. On through the decades it continues to find new audiences, with versions by Mireille Mathieu, Michèle Torr, Céline Dion and many, many more. Indeed, as late as the nineties, it was still topping polls of France’s favourite songs! Take a listen and find out why.

© Gareth Jones


Tous mes copains – Sylvie Vartan (1963)

In January 1963, French radio programme Salut Les Copains – the premier “youth” programme on popular independent station Europe No. 1 – began playing a new song – “Tous mes copains” - by one of the young singers who had emerged over the past eighteen months. Sylvie Vartan had first been heard giving the thin, weedy reply to rock ‘n’ roller Frankie Jordan on his big 1961 hit “Panne d’essence” (a cover of Floyd Robinson’s “Out Of Gas”), which sold well enough for RCA to offer her a deal of her own. Her early records had seen her marking out a position on the edge of the country’s rock ‘n’ roll boom, with covers of hits by Ray Charles and Elvis Presley rubbing shoulders with tunes drawn from the girl group sound then convulsing America. Sales had been reasonable, but nothing to write home about until late in 1962, when her version of Little Eva’s “The Loco-Motion” (“Le locomotion”) kicked things up a gear, establishing the young, blonde singer as something of a star. What kind of star was not yet clear – the word “ye-ye”, which would usefully describe her and her contemporaries, would not be coined for a further six months – but a star, nevertheless. This new record though, was rather different…

Issued at the end of 1962 on a four-track EP (the standard format in France until 1968), “Tous mes copains” was never intended to be a hit. Indeed, it was buried at the very end of the EP, with the first side being taken up with covers of Neil Sedaka’s “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” (“Moi je pense encore à toi”) and Chris Montez’ “Let’s Dance” (“Dansons”). The latter had picked up what airplay was going over the Christmas period and the record was selling well, although nowhere near as well as those that had catapulted Françoise Hardy to the top. If RCA wanted a record to take Vartan to the next level, this one was not going to be it. And yet…

Songwriter Jean-Jacques Debout had written the song for Vartan after reflecting on the young men who had been called up to fight in the recently concluded Algerian war, on those who would never return, on those who returned to find that their friends at home had moved on. Flipping the concept over, he then wrote about those who stayed at home, unable to pick up the pieces when their friends returned. The resulting lyric, a gentle lament for friendships curtailed by military service, was hardly a finger-pointing protest song, although it was still a breakthrough of sorts, the first French pop song (as opposed to politically charged chanson) to challenge the military service that was still the fate of every teenage boy. Richard Anthony had inadvertently opened up the market a few months earlier with “J’entends siffler le train” (adapted from the folksong “500 Miles”), with its whistling train motif representing the departure of those called away, but this was more explicit, expressly targeting the army as the source of the disruption that clouded the transition from adolescence to adulthood.

This was more serious territory than the frivolities (quality frivolities, but frivolities nonetheless) that Vartan had delivered on her earlier records and consciously or not, she responded to the material with a vocal delivery that dropped her usual teenage-friendly style toward a more mature approach. If her early records had got by on good arrangements and a bubbly personality, this one showcased something else – the fact that, whatever her critics may have thought, Vartan could really sing. The combination of her performance and the song’s simple but sincere message hit home in a way that none of her earlier material had done. Salut Les Copains presenter Daniel Filipacchi’s instincts were right – this was a song that needed to be played. Vartan’s teenage fans lapped it up, while the adult audience was also seduced. The result was Vartan’s biggest selling hit to date, a smash across the generations that established her as the queen of what would, within months, become the ye-ye generation. Many, many hits would follow, several of them very good indeed, but few would be as special as, or have the emotional pull of, this one, a record that both captures the time of its creation and yet remains apart from it, a classic for the ages. Take a listen.

© Gareth Jones


La Madrague - Brigitte Bardot (1963)

In the 1960’s, the world’s most famous living Frenchman was probably President Charles de Gaulle, but even he had to take a back seat to the most famous living French woman. Since rocketing to stardom with her sensual performance in Roger Vadim’s Et Dieu… créa la femme (1956), Brigitte Bardot had become the world’s leading sex symbol and one of France’s biggest box office attractions, even though, as she herself put it in later life, she “started out as a lousy actress and stayed that way”. To each their own opinion, Brigitte… I am sure that your fans disagree.

What was less well known, at least outside of France, was that Bardot was also an avid music lover, with a surprisingly broad appreciation for contemporary pop sounds. After the gentle “Sidonie” (from Louis Malle’s Vie privée) had given her a surprise hit record both in France and in Japan, the powers that be at the Philips label saw dollar signs (or franc signs, anyway) and offered her a record contract, with her first album surfacing at the start of 1963. Issued as both a 30 cm (12”) LP and in a shorter version on a 25 cm (10”) release, Brigitte was a mix of styles, from the jazzy “C’est rigolo” to the mock-Latin “Invitango”, with the yé-yé-styled “L’appareil à sous” (penned by Serge Gainsbourg) standing out from the pack. It was however the gently nostalgic “La Madrague” that was closest to Bardot’s heart.

The word “madrague” refers to a technique for catching tuna, although there is no hint of that in the song. Rather, the composers (Jean-Max Rivière wrote the words and Gérard Bourgeois the music) took their inspiration from the St. Tropez mansion of the same name, which had been Bardot’s home and her refuge from the world since 1958. Hounded by the press wherever she went, Bardot needed a bolthole where she could feel safe and La Madrague had turned out to be the perfect hiding place.

Although the house is not mentioned in the song itself, you can gauge how much the property meant to her by the emotion that she puts into delivering the downbeat, reflective lyrics. Bardot was not a great singer and would never become one, although as an actress she knew just how to put across the meaning of a song. Much of her material was written to play upon her public persona (“Je me donne à qui me plait”, “Nue au soleil”) but with “La Madrague” she opened up to the world, offering a rare glimpse of the woman behind the facade. The Bardot of “Harley Davidson” was an icon, a living embodiment of the swinging sixties but the Bardot who sang “La Madrague” was a real woman, with all the fragility and vulnerability that her superstar status always required her to conceal.

Bardot would have bigger hits – her biggest chart strike came in 1970 with “Tu veux ou tu veux pas” – but none of her recordings have quite the emotional resonance of this one – the real Bardot stepping in front of the curtain for a brief, tantalising moment before slipping away again. Perhaps as a result, the song has only grown in popularity in the sixty years since its release, even as Bardot’s screen career recedes further into history. Her more upbeat material has a certain kitsch value – it's enjoyable and fun to listen to today – but if you want to understand Bardot, and you only ever get to hear one Brigitte Bardot record in your life, then make it this one.

© Gareth Jones


For me… formidable - Charles Aznavour (1963)

In 1974, Charles Aznavour became only the second French singer (after Serge Gainsbourg) to hit number one on the UK pop charts, staying there for four weeks with the theme from the TV series Seven Faces Of Woman, an exquisite ballad called simply “She”. This remains the song for which he is best known in the UK, its huge success creating an indelible image of Aznavour as the ultimate Gallic crooner. The problem is, Aznavour was a far more multi-dimensional performer than his hit would suggest, and the success of “She” has left most UK listeners in ignorance of his real musical leanings. While he did record many melancholy love songs, to get to the real Aznavour, we need to look – and listen – elsewhere. And where better to start than this 1963 toe tapper?

Small of stature, not particularly distinguished looking and with a less than powerful voice (he was routinely referred to by UK comic legends Morecombe and Wise as “Charles Az-no-voice”), Aznavour had one thing going for him that few of his French contemporaries could match – he sang with genuine swing, like an American. While he was not the first to take the feel of jazz into the chanson – Charles Trenet was at least decade ahead of him – he was the first to sound completely at home singing jazz. Indeed, his approach is often compared to that of Frank Sinatra, a singer whom he respected greatly (Aznavour introduced Sinatra at the latter’s 1962 Paris concert) and the admiration was clearly mutual – check out their sparring on “You Make Me Feel So Young” on Sinatra’s 1993 Duets album - and it is this swinging approach that makes “For me… formidable” come alive.

Of course, Sinatra was only an interpreter. Aznavour was also both a composer and a lyricist of considerable merit. On “For me… formidable”, the tune is his while he worked on the lyrics with Jacques Plante, but the results are pure Aznavour. Continually switching between French and English, the lyric makes fun of the idea that French is supposedly the “more romantic” language, with the singer singing in French to woo a supremely disinterested woman and then reverting to English as he tries to explain why. Using a mix of languages in the same song was not (and is still not) common (although Gainsbourg would occasionally lapse into Franglais) but Léo Ferré had just enjoyed a moderate hit with “La langue française”, in which he railed against the incursion of English words into French, so Aznavour’s choice to do so here was timely.

The lyric is full of delightful bi-lingual puns, as an English word mutates into a French one (very – veritable; Daisy – désirable) or the reverse (canaille – can I), while the nods to both Shakespeare and Molière make it clear that this song is as much about language as it is about love. While Aznavour could be a serious writer, he also enjoyed more lighter hearted moments and here he plays an amusing lyric off against what is actually a fairly unhappy scenario and comes up trumps – both the song and the delivery are superb.

The lyric here is very clever but it is Aznavour's performance that makes the song a classic. If you can imagine Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett sashaying around the Seine in Paris, then you are pretty close to what Aznavour is up to on this record. No French singer ever swung quite so effortlessly or sounded so relentlessly upbeat while delivering such a downbeat, desperate plea. Compare it with Annie Cordy’s jovial interpretation – Cordy, as always, plays it for laughs, and does so successfully, singing with an audible wink in her eye, but Aznavour takes it somewhere else again. Over a brassy, big band arrangement (shades of Nelson Riddle or Les Baxter), he injects just the right note of pleading into his delivery, swinging, certainly, but with a dash of pathos that grounds the song in reality.

Aznavour was at his best when he spoke for Everyman, using the everyday language of the street. Even though he plays with language here, the song is still about the unlucky in love, the down-trodden loser, the little man unable to achieve his dreams. Is it his best song? Perhaps, perhaps not. But it is certainly closer than “She” to the spirit that fires the best of his work, and anyone looking for understand why Time magazine’s online portal named him Entertainer of the Century in 1998 could do worse than to start here.

© Gareth Jones


Les feuilles mortes - Yves Montand (1946)

In 1955, American pianist Roger Williams took an instrumental titled “Autumn Leaves” to the top of the Billboard chart, one of the rare occasions when a song by a French composer topped the charts Stateside. Originally titled “Les feuilles mortes”, the song had been around for some time and was generally associated with Marseille-born singer and actor, Yves Montand. But was he the first to record it? Well, yes, he was… and then again, he wasn’t…

The tune, inspired by a Hungarian Gypsy air, was originally composed by Joseph Kosma shortly after the war and was destined for use in a Roland Petit ballet, Rendez-vous before being reworked as a song with lyrics by poet Jacques Prévert for the Marcel Carné film Les portes de la nuit, starring the newly emerged Yves Montand. It was not the key song of the film – that was Les enfants qui s’aiment – and was easily overlooked by cinema audiences, being sung briefly by Montand in a restaurant scene and then played, again briefly, in the background later in the film. The film flopped on release and might well have taken the song down the tubes with it had it not been for Montand, who liked it enough to add it to his repertoire for live performances. He tried it at various places during his recital but it never made much impact on audiences and so he didn’t bother to record it for record release.

Instead, it was picked up by Cora Vaucaire, who added it to her own repertoire, recording it for record release in early 1948. She promoted the song tirelessly through radio broadcasts and in the clubs of Saint-Germain, where it found a response among the Left Bank habitués of venues such as Le Tabou. This finally prompted Montand to record it himself in 1949, with the resultant 78 r.p.m. release finally finding the audience the song had really deserved from the start. The record was, as they say, a smash, and thereafter, the floodgates opened. It was recorded by Tino Rossi in 1950, Juliette Gréco in 1951 and Jean Sablon in 1952, and the covers have never stopped coming since.

Picked up and taken back to the States by visiting American jazz musicians, by 1950 it had acquired an English lyric courtesy of Johnny Mercer, being introduced to American audiences by Jo Stafford, then by Bing Crosby and, in 1951, in a rare English-language version by Édith Piaf. It was since been recorded by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Miles Davis, and while Roger Williams’ chart-topping piano instrumental hit was probably the best-selling version, most music lovers would agree that the definitive English-language version was the 1955 rendition laid down by Nat “King” Cole. It is however a song best appreciated with its original French lyric. Both Montand’s and Gréco’s versions have seen repeated reissues in the decades since it first graced cinema screens in France back in 1946, so try either version and hear for yourself.

© Gareth Jones


Comment te dire adieu - Françoise Hardy (1968)

In 1989, former Bronski Beat and Communards singer Jimmy Somerville made a surprise appearance in the UK top twenty with a typically dancefloor-friendly song. This one though was unusually for an English singer, sing in French. It helped that the song in question had been a hit two decades earlier for Françoise Hardy - one of the few French singers to enjoy "name recognition" in the UK, although her version had not been a British chart hit. Yet the song had a strange history...

In the beginning, it was an American song titled "It Hurts To Say Goodbye", penned by professional songwriters Jack Gold and Arnold Goland. It first appeared sung as a ballad in a version by American singer Margaret Whiting, swiftly followed by a cover by Vera Lynn. The latter was a favourite on easy listening radio in America in 1967, inspiring a cover in Canada by Ginette Reno (“Avant te dire adieu”) but this was not at all what the composers intended. Over the next eighteen months, the tune was picked up and recorded by any number of easy listening orchestras, including Gold’s own version, which picked up the tempo and gave it the rhythmic feel we all know today. It was this rendition that came to Hardy’s ears, prompting her to commission a French lyric for the tune. Enter Serge Gainsbourg…

Gainsbourg had not previously worked with Hardy, although he had worked with other yé-yé singers such as Michèle Torr, Stone and most famously, France Gall. The master lyricist pulled out all the stops for Hardy, turning in one of his best sets of verses, perfectly crafted to suit the singer’s languid style and downbeat public persona. It was also one of his cleverest efforts, with each line ending in either the sound “-ex” or the sound “-eu”, even if he occasionally had to break a word across two lines to make the rhyme. Indeed, anyone looking for an example of Gainsbourg’s genius way with words would be advised to start here.

Hardy was pleased with the result and recalled the song fondly in her autobiography. The resultant EP release was one of her bigger latter-day sellers, both at France and, to a lesser extent, abroad. Hardy subsequently recorded it in both Italian (“Il pretesto”) and German (“Was mach’ ich ohne dich”) but neither version had the charm of Gainsbourg’s lyrics to help them along (it was also recorded in Swedish, as "Så Synd Du Måste Gå") by Anni-Frid Lyngstad, three years before she joined Abba). Despite the song’s ongoing popularity, Hardy’s version seems to have been considered untouchable, as it was nearly twenty years before another French singer – Daniel Darc – saw fit to record a cover. Then came Jimmy Somerville’s hit rendition, after which the floodgates opened. It has since been recorded by two or three dozen singers, including both Jane Birkin and Amanda Lear, although none have quite delivered it with the same panache as Hardy did herself and it is her rendition that remains the definitive performance today.

© Gareth Jones


Petit Papa Noël - Tino Rossi (1946)

For anyone growing up in the English-speaking world, Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas”. One of the biggest selling records of all time – and certainly the biggest selling 78 – it was and is ubiquitous, eighty years on from its original release and pretty much every Christmas album released in the years since features one version or another. And yes, it has been translated into French (as “Noël blanc”) and has been widely recorded in that language, but in France, and in the French speaking world more generally, it does not have the same iconic status that it does in the US. That honour goes instead to a 1946 hit by Tino Rossi: “Petit Papa Noël”.

The song was actually a couple of years old before Rossi got hold of it, having been written (by composer Henri Martinet) during the Second World War with rather sad lyrics (taking the form of a child praying to Papa Noël, Santa Claus) to bring his father back from a prison camp in Germany. In this form, it made its debut in Marseilles as part of a theatrical revue Ça reviendra!, where it was sung by Xavier Lermercier. The revue was shut down by the German authorities and to all intents and purposes, that might well have been that, although fate (or Papa Noël) had other ideas.

Tino Rossi was the leading French singing star of the thirties and forties, the first to sell a million records, and a massive star of stage, screen and the recording studio. His operatic style of singing sounds dated to modern ears but there is no doubting that he was as popular in his day and Bing Crosby was across the Atlantic. In 1946, he was cast to appear in the film Destins and needed a Christmas song to sing as a lullaby to a child – at the suggestion of Emile Audiffred (producer of the earlier revue), he commissioned a new lyric from Raymond Vency for “Petit Papa Noël”, removing all references to the war and giving the song a universal appeal. Released on a 78 rpm record in time for Christmas, the song was, as they say, a smash, and as with Crosby’s ubiquitous festive favourite, it sold, and sold, and sold, doing good business every year, on 78, and then on EP, on 45, on LP, and eventually on CD and mp3. While exact sales are impossible to calculate (Wikipedia puts it at 5.7 million copies), it is far and away the biggest selling French recording ever.

As befits such an enduring favourite, it has been recorded widely across the spectrum of French performers. From superstars like Dalida, Mireile Mathieu and Nana Mouskouri through yé-yé singers (Claude François), old-fashioned crooners (Jack Lantier), purveyors of children’s songs (Chantal Goya, Dorothée), more recent favourites (Céline Dion, Roch Voisine), evergreen singers (Michèle Torr), opera singers (Roberto Alagna), American singers (Mary J. Blige), the list of singers tackling the song is endless and seems likely to grow and grow as the years tick down to the song’s centenary in 2046. And we can be sure that on 25 December, someone, somewhere, will be playing the recording, just as they did back in 1946…

© Gareth Jones


Un homme et une femme - Pierre Barouh et Nicole Croisille (1966)

"Sha ba da ba da, sha ba da bada..."

When you think of ubiquitous hit songs from the sixties, chances are that there won't be many French songs on the list but the theme song from Claude Lelouch's award-winning film Un homme et une femme should certainly be up near the top. It may not have done huge business on 45 but the soundtrack album just sold and sold and sold and there can't be many folk alive - at least in the Western world - who haven't hummed along to its infectious refrain...

Obviously, the success of the film played a huge part in catapulting the music to the top of the charts, but it helped that the theme was one of those tunes that sounded instantly timeless. Despite sitting totally outside of 1966's prevailing trends - there is no hint of the holy trinity of Beatles-Dylan-Stones anywhere to be heard - it nevertheless found its own audience, and in its own, understated way, transformed both the international easy listening market and the lives of its creators.

Of the three performers who between them created this remarkable sixties’ classic, accordionist Francis Lai had hitherto enjoyed a moderately successful career, writing songs with lyricist Bernard Dimey and working as an accompanist for a number of singers, most notably Édith Piaf, although he languished somewhat in the shadows of better-known contemporaries such as Franck Pourcel or Michel Legrand. Lyricist, singer and actor Pierre Barouh had enjoyed some minor success writing songs for yé-yé singers while indulging a love of bossa nova on some EP releases of his own, while Nicole Croisille had made a number of well-received jazz-soul records without quite landing anything that might be described as a hit. (Both Barouh's and Croisille's early recordings are well worth seeking out.) A chance meeting between Lai and Claude Lelouch led to the offer to compose the soundtrack; Lai brought in Barouh to assist and then the pair roped in Croisille to add her peerless vocals to the mix, a decision that would result in all three surging to the forefront of the French music industry.

Incredible as it seem today, no record company was interested in the soundtrack, so Barouh and Lai formed their own company to finance it and then licensed the results to various labels around the world. It was an inspired decision. As the film made its way around the globe, the soundtrack trailed along behind it, and despite being sung entirely in French, it quickly became a staple of easy listening radio stations. It wasn't jazz, although it was jazzy; it wasn't bossa nova, although it undeniably had a Brazilian feel (and other tracks on the album definitely WERE bossa novas); it wasn't quite a chanson, yet at the same time, it clearly was one, and a good one at that. Hitting American radio about the same time as the first hits by Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66, it ushered in a new, subtle yet breezy style of easy listening which would, by the end of the decade, become ubiquitous.

As with most big hit songs of the era, this one was widely covered. Mireille Mathieu put a good version on her debut album, while English-language versions soon surfaced by Bobbi Martin, The Anita Kerr Singers and The Mike Sammes Singers. It got the piano treatment at the hands of Ferrante & Teicher, was jazzed up a little by Tamiko Jones and Herbie Mann and was recorded by a host of performers across Europe and South America.

The songwriting and publishing rights alone netted a fortune for Barouh and Lai, while their ownership of the soundtrack rights generated even bigger sums. Barouh ploughed his earnings into his newly established Saravah label, a creative environment that allowed maverick talents like Jacques Higelin and Brigitte Fontaine to flower, while Lai went on to become one of the world's leading film composers (Vivre pour vivre, Bilitis), generating another global smash with the theme from Love Story ("Where Do I Begin") along the way. Shut out of the royalty stream, Croisille nevertheless went on to a long string of hit singles and albums that ran into the eighties, a fitting return for one of France's most versatile singers.

Incidentally, for all that the world loves to sing "sha ba da ba da" along with the song, Barouh and Croisille never actually sang that on the record. If you don't believe me, take a close listen yourself!

© Gareth Jones


Ne me quitte pas - Jacques Brel (1959)

Canadian singer Terry Jacks has a lot to answer for. Not content with transforming (with more than a little help from Rod McKuen) Jacques Brel’s sarcastic “Le moribond” into the cornball, contrived singalong “Seasons In The Sun”, by the summer of 1974 he was riding high in the charts with a bland and underwhelming cover of one of the most bleak love songs ever written, Brel’s “Ne me quitte pas”.

As reworked into English, “If You Go Away” has been sung by some mighty fine singers, both before and after Jacks’ aberration, from Frank Sinatra, Shirley Bassey and Dusty Springfield to Neil Diamond and (in a majestic interpretation) Scott Walker, but while the English lyrics (again by McKuen) are a significant improvement from those in “Seasons In The Sun”, they still don’t quite capture the mood of Brel’s despairing worldview. Perhaps Nina Simone was wise to sing her version with the original French lyrics.

Take the titles. “If You Go Away” implies that the couple’s breakup might or might not happen and that the subject might be open to persuasion; by contrast, “Ne me quitte pas” is a desperate plea for the singer’s partner to stay, knowing that, to all intents and purposes, (s)he has already gone.

McKuen’s English lyrics do a reasonable job of conveying the sentiment of Brel’s original text, but the tone is markedly different. McKuen’s lines alternate between what might happen if the subject leaves and what might happen if (s)he stays, whereas Brel, who knows full well that the relationship is over, humiliates himself in ever more desperate pleas for his lover to return (“Don’t leave me!”).

McKuen conveys hope, however slight; Brel conveys abject hopelessness, willing to stoop lower and demean himself ever further in a doomed attempt to persuade the object of his affections to come back to him. There are love songs and there are songs of devotion, but this is a song of such pain, anguish and dread that it has no equal – at least in its French incarnation.

In part, Brel’s desperation was real. The song was written after his mistress, singer Suzanne Gabriello, had thrown him out of their apartment (and her life) and the pain of separation bleeds from every line – witness the utter degradation of lines like “I would be the shadow of your shadow, the shadow of your hand, the shadow of your dog” (lines that went missing in action in the McKuen version).

Yet even without knowing the facts of its creation, the song hits home in a way that few others can manage.

It has been recorded many, many times – Johnny Hallyday delivered a sincere, if slightly overblown version at his 1984 shows at Le Zénith in Paris and, indeed, Brel himself revived it in a West Coast-styled version in 1972 – but few performances quite get under the skin of it as Brel did on his 1959 recording.

It seems incredible that a song as strong as this was originally placed on the second side of an EP, lingering in the shadow of “La valse à mille temps” until a cover by Simone Langlois brought it out of the shadows, prompting a rapid reissue with the song promoted to pole position.

Today, we rightly recognise it as a classic and while Terry Jacks’ version has rightly been condemned to the knacker’s yard for pop songs that have outlived their utility, Brel’s magistral performance continues to reach out across the generations. Take a listen and hear for yourself.

© Gareth Jones


Hymne à l’amour - Edith Piaf (1950)

Has there ever been a more heart-breaking – and heart-broken – song than Édith Piaf’s “Hymne à l’amour”?

The tune is well known – the song travelled the world in English versions as “If You Love Me” but, no disrepect to the likes of Vera Lynn or Kay Starr, it didn’t really hit home the way it did in French. Jackie Trent gave it a suitable amount of punch in a version gifted a near-Spectorian arrangement by Tony Hatch, but while audibly impressive, it still doesn’t cut home the way Piaf’s rendition does. I have heard some good versions over the years – jazz singer Ruthie Culver does a decent job and Shirley Bassey comes close to Piaf’s mastery (but then again, you wouldn’t expect anything less from the grande dame of Tiger Bay) – but still, not quite there. All these singers inhabit the song in their own way but only Piaf, who wrote it in the aftermath of her doomed relationship with boxer Marcel Cerdan, really lived it. And that, at the end of the day, makes the difference.



In anyone else’s hands, the song is a love song, and a devoted one at that. Nothing wrong with that, and it’s a particularly fine example of that type of thing – let the world end, as long as you love me, that’s all I need. One can imagine any number of scenarios that fit that particular emotion and any singer worth her salt (and let’s face it, it’s a woman’s song, isn’t it?) can do a job with that kind of material. It’s not hard to imagine it sung by someone like Billie Holiday (who sadly, doesn’t seem to have recorded it) and it would have come out perfectly well. The difference is that these singers all treat it as a song of – well, not hope exactly but certainly an expression that there might be a future for the couple, somewhere over the horizon. Piaf knew that there wasn’t one.

Piaf’s relationship with Cerdan is worth a story in itself; it was the pivotal relationship of her life and Cerdan’s abrupt and unexpected death in a plane crash effectively destroyed Piaf’s world. Whether she wrote the song before or after his death is unclear but she certainly recorded it afterward, and the pathos and heartbreak she poured into her delivery is perhaps the supreme example of the chanteuse réaliste’s art. Piaf doesn’t just wear her heart on her sleeve – she passes it around her listeners, inviting them to witness the pain and suffering for themselves. Piaf knows that the future is past, that her dreams of tomorrow have turned to ashes and yet still she calls out to her fallen lover, begging for a sign that love can and has endured when she knows, deep down, that is all over. At least, that’s what I hear when I listen to this song, and it moves me in a way that no other Piaf song can do.

So yes, we remember Édith Piaf for “Mon legionnaire”, for “La vie en rose”, for “Milord” and for “Non, je ne regrette rien” (a song so defiant that it makes “My Way” sound like an apology) but to really get to the essence of what makes Piaf a giant of twentieth century popular music, the queen of the chanteuses réalistes and the first (and perhaps best) European blues singer (despite never singing anything recognisable as the blues!), take a listen to “Hymne à l’amour”. It really can change your life.

© Gareth Jones

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