❉ Andy Murray profiles the unconventional French pop superstar and his stellar body of work.
“Polnareff’s music covers a range of styles – contemporary pop, early rock ‘n’ roll, McCartneyesque show-tunes, French chanson – often within the space of a single song. It showcased marvellous arrangements from the ornately gothic to brassily Light Entertainment-esque. He often worked with lyricists, but the music, packed with melodies to die for, was always his, and his soaring, swooping voice was a key component of the sound.”
Lots of singers have a trademark. For instance, a mirrored top hat instantly makes you think of Noddy Holder. A white stripe painted across the face? Adam Ant. A surreally conical bra? Madonna. Now, for most folks in the UK, a pair of wide white-framed sunglasses wouldn’t put them in mind of anyone in particular. In France, though, they’d think immediately of Michel Polnareff. Footage of his 2007 French tour sees stadiums packed with thousands of punters in tearful raptures. So how can it be that he’s held in such high esteem when he’s virtually unknown on British shores?
“He’s been called ‘the French Bowie’, but that’s only useful up to a point. For one thing, Polnareff had become a huge star by the time Bowie’s career really kicked in… Mind you, Polnareff had a taste for androgyny too, causing quite the stir in October 1973 with a tour poster showing him dressed as a woman while turning to bare his uncovered arse.”
It’s certainly not down to any question of quality. Since he first emerged as a recording artist in 1966, Polnareff’s built up a stellar body of work: strange, catchy pop; colossal, affecting romantic ballads; and some pretty out-there experiments in style and form. He’s been called ‘the French Bowie’, but that’s only useful up to a point. For one thing, Polnareff had become a huge star by the time Bowie’s career really kicked in, and despite an impressive ability to evolve from 60s pop to 70 rock and on to disco and New Wave, he’s always been identifiably the same man. (Mind you, Polnareff had a taste for androgyny too, causing quite the stir in October 1973 with a tour poster showing him dressed as a woman while turning to bare his uncovered arse.) A more accurate comparison figure might be Scott Walker, who combined mass appeal with questing creativity. Walker, an ardent Francophile, never recorded any of the Frenchman’s songs, but in some alternate universe there must surely be a Scott Sings Polnareff album, and it would be worth crossing the howling Void to hear it.
Music runs in Polnareff’s blood. His Odessa-born father, who worked under the name Léo Poll, was a virtuoso pianist who played with Charles Trenet and wrote for Edith Piaf. Polnareff himself was a gifted, promising music student, but by his early twenties he was hanging out with the Parisian beatnik crowd and playing his guitar on the steps of the Sacré-Cœur. It’s said that’s where he wrote his first hit, La Poupée qui fait non, at the age of 21, before recording over in Swinging London with top sessions musicians including John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page. (Hendrix had a crack at an instrumental version, too, which survives as a studio out-take.)
At that point, the French pop scene was still awash with the yé-yé sound, leading proponents of which included France Gall, Sylvie Vartan and Françoise Hardy. Some iconic male artists like Serge Gainsbourg and Johnny Hallyday were involved in the fringes of yé-yé too, as songwriters or else as lovers. Jacques Dutronc emerged from behind the scenes of yé-yé to become a recording artist in his own right around the same time as Polnareff. Polnareff himself would appear on the cover of key scene magazine Salut les copains and wrote his fair share of love songs, but he could hardly be classed as yé-yé. To many observers the sophistication of his work and his contemporary sensibility signified French pop and rock coming of age.
Polnareff’s music covers a range of styles – contemporary pop, early rock ‘n’ roll, McCartneyesque show-tunes, French chanson – often within the space of a single song. It showcased marvellous arrangements from the ornately gothic to brassily Light Entertainment-esque. He often worked with lyricists, but the music, packed with melodies to die for, was always his, and his soaring, swooping voice was a key component of the sound.
Of course, there are some folks who just don’t fancy listening to someone singing in what is to them a foreign language, though really, that’s their loss. French pop is a whole world until itself and one which richly rewards a bit of exploration. One hurdle is that the LP didn’t become a key format over there until after the end of the 60s, and even then could be released in a slapdash sort of way. For instance, the first seven albums by Jacques Dutronc were all titled ‘Jacques Dutronc’.
As far as albums are concerned, Polnareff’s most satisfying and rewarding works have been Le Bal de Laz (1968) and Polnareff’s (1971). The former – initially released as Michel Polnareff Volume 2, natch – turns fifty this year, and is something like French pop’s equivalent of Smile, boasting an entire cavalcade of instrumentation, arrangements, styles and tones bordering on the psychedelic (Mon Dieu! Que prenaient-ils?). It doesn’t all work, but when it does it’s exquisite, from the weird stomp of Le Roi des Fourmis to the gorgeous sweep of Âme Câline, an instrumental version of which, by the Raymond Lefèvre Orchestra, regularly cropped up as a background music ‘bed’ on Radios Caroline and Luxembourg. The wondrous Le Bal des Laze track itself is a sepulchral, organ-led tale of doomed love between a commoner and an aristo’s daughter. According to legend, it was recorded, at Polnareff’s insistance, with five thousand candles burning in the studio, though a quick consideration of even an old-school approach to Health & Safety, as well as basic reason, suggests this may well have been an exaggeration.
Polnareff’s is a warmer, rockier, less echo-drenched and more soulful proposition, written in reaction to the suicide of Polnareff’s friend and mentor Lucien Morisse. It’s another album that can’t be faulted for a lack of ambition or scope. Petite, petite is a delicate love song constructed from lyrical call-backs to his earlier hits, while Qui a tué grand-maman? is an aching reflection on mortality. Hey You Woman is lusty and swaggering, and Ne Dans Un Ice-Cream even makes a sniggering nod towards the Bonzos’ Intro and the Outro.
Polnareff has made just nine original studio albums in the space of over fifty years, but there’s a lot of gold hidden away in his early singles and EPs (then known in France as ‘Super 45s’). Personal highlights here include Holidays, Miss Blue Jeans, Dame Dame and the unalloyed pop of Tout, Tout Pour Ma Chérie and Ring-a-Ding. Also well worth digging out is the Morricone-goes-mental theme that he wrote for the 1971 film La Folie des Grandeurs.
Polnareff’s a singer/songwriter of the first water and the suspicion lingers that his life should now be one long carousel of international stadium tours, lifetime achievement awards and MOJO interview pieces. Given his garlanded status in France, he probably regrets nothing. He may never have become a star with English-speaking audiences, but that’s not to say he didn’t give it a shot. His breakout 1966 releases include several songs either wholly or partly in English.
That didn’t really pay off, though, and his next proper crack at the UK/US markets wasn’t until the 1975 album Fame à la mode. Recorded in the States during a period of tax exile, most of its songs are sung, if a little unsteadily, in English, complete with a less ornate, vaguely countrified sound. One highlight is the lovelorn ballad Holding On to Smoke. A jaunty single from the album, Jesus for Tonight, renamed If You Only Believe to take the sacriligeous edge off it, made it to #41 on the Billboard charts, but it was a career blip rather than a whole new beginning.
Later came 1999’s A Tribute to Polnareff album overseen by Bertrand Burgalat, comprised mostly of English translations of some of the great man’s best-loved songs. Some impressive names were involved – Pulp, Nick Cave, Marc Almond, Peter Hammill, St Etienne (whose Bob Stanley has been a long-time champion of Polnareff’s work) – but all told, while admirable in parts, it didn’t create a big enough splash to make a real difference. In truth, his songs are probably best suited to the mellifluous tones of the original French. It’s an inherent part of their character and charm.
Now 73, Polnareff lives in California and hasn’t released a new album for nearly thirty years, though he appears perpetually to be on the brink of re-emerging as a creative force. One of his hugest ballads, Lettre à France, has become a Hallelujah-style staple for contests on French TV talent shows such as X Factor and Star Academy. He continues to have a significant following in Japan, and curiously he’s been immortalised in two popular manga series, lending his surname to a French swordsman character in JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure and his appearance to a pirate warlord in One Piece. His 2016 memoir – called, brilliantly Sperme (and you don’t need to bother Google Translate with that one) – hasn’t been released in an English translation, but it sees him reflecting on his career, his fame and his eventful love life, taking in ‘70s dalliances with Sylvia Krystal and Lynda Wonder Woman Carter.
He’s now an active presence on Twitter and he never, but never, appears in public minus the big white shades. To his fans he’s become known simply as ‘l’Amiral’ – that is, ‘The Admiral’.
Polnareff? Il n’est pas un culte. Il est une vraie star.
❉ Andy Murray is Film Editor for Northern Soul and a regular contributor to Big Issue North. He’s also the author of the Nigel Kneale biography Into the Unknown and co-author (with Dr Mark Aldridge) of the Russell T Davies biography T is for Television. He’s not the tennis guy, obviously. But he did once receive a publicity photograph of him to sign by mistake.