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Thursday, 20 December, 2001, 15:01 GMT
The return of French pop music
Gilbert Becaud
Becaud: Known for his electrifying stage performances
By BBC News Online's Alex Webb

French singing star Gilbert Becaud, who died on Wednesday at 74, lived long enough to see something which might have surprised him - the resurgence of French popular music in the UK.

France's rich musical culture has never made much impression on this side of the channel - and the music which has, has tended to be romantic chanson or the occasional piece of saucy exotica, such as Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg's Je T'Aime Moi Non Plus, a number one hit in 1969.

Gainsbourg and Birkin
Gainsbourg and Birkin's hit was banned from radio
But in recent years a host of artists - including dance acts Daft Punk, Air and Modjo, and jazzers St. Germain and Erik Truffaz - have been building a following in the UK with their own particular je ne sais quoi.

The establishment of a French Music Bureau in London in 1999 has given Gallic acts a helping hand.

"We help bands financially if they want to tour the UK," the Bureau's Vanessa Cordeiro told BBC News Online.

'New sound'

"We promote the music - we invite journalists to hear French music live and we send records and newsletters out to the media here."

But Ms Cordeiro was in no doubt as to the main reason why the new wave of French acts had succeeded where so many have failed before.

Charles Aznavour
Aznavour: Rare distinction of a UK number one
"It's partly the new sound, a new mixture of different sounds - but it's important that they also sing in English," she said.

The British have always been resistant to music not sung in English, and many French songs which have made it in the UK have done so in translation.

It is not widely known that Seasons In The Sun, a 1974 hit for Terry Jacks and again for Westlife, started life as Jacques Brel's acerbic Le Moribund (The Suicide).

Brel - actually Belgian by birth - also supplied Jacks' next hit that year, If You Go Away, a translation of Brel's Ne Me Quitte Pas.

Gilbert Becaud himself wrote a number of songs which became Anglo-American hits when fitted out with English lyrics - 1958's The Day The Rains Came, 1960's Let It Be Me and 1962's What Now My Love among them.


It was still possible in the early 1960s to have a UK hit in French.

The great Edith Piaf did it with Milord in 1960, and Francoise Hardy had a couple of hits in 1964 and 1965.

Johnny Hallyday
Hallyday, in his late 50s, still a huge star in France
But when Becaud eventually had a UK hit under his own name he sang in English - A Little Love And Understanding reaching number 10 in 1975.

The 1970s were something of a high-water mark for French crooners in Britain: Charles Aznavour hit number one in 1974 with She and Claude François reached number 35 two years later with Tears On The Telephone.


But, with the advent of punk and disco, British audiences seemed to have little time for French romance - and the home of the Beatles and Rolling Stones never rated French rockers too highly.

French rock megastar Johnny Hallyday has never made the faintest impression on the UK charts, despite a legendary 40-year career in his home country.

Daft Punk
Daft Punk: Regular visitors to the UK charts
Vanessa Paradis' brief chart success with Joe Le Taxi in 1988 only seemed to highlight the gap between the two musical cultures.

But in 1997 Daft Punk - even the name didn't seem Gallic - hit number seven with Da Funk and were followed into the breach by Laurent Garnier, Air, Cassius and Bob Sinclair.

Musical identity

And in September 2000 Modjo regained the UK top spot for France for the first time since 1974 - with their dance floor smash Lady (Hear Me Tonight).

But if French acts can now compete in the dance scene with the British and the Americans, has it been at the cost of their own language and musical identity?

Fortunately there are plenty of contemporary French acts who still work in the French language and use indigenous musical influences - Noir Désir, rapper MC Solaar and the intriguing Gotan Project among them.

Certainly the Paris-based Gotan Project, who are reinventing tango with reference to chanson and contemporary dance rhythms, show that there is still a rich vein of exoticism in French music for ears which are tired of shiny pop. Vive la differènce.

See also:

10 Apr 01 | Music
Aznavour leaves on high note
19 Feb 01 | Entertainment
French singer Trenet dies
17 Jan 01 | Sci/Tech
A tax on music tracks
29 Apr 00 | Entertainment
Johnny Hallyday: Le roi du rock
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