La Chanson Française: Love and loss, darkness and disgrace

❉ Poet and novelist Ange Chan takes us on a tour of the history of  La Chanson Française, from Piaf, Brel, Trenet and Gainsbourg to Walker, Bowie, Almond and Daho.

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French Chanson (or La Chanson Française as it is known in the country of its origin) was founded in the 1920 – 1930s; however the golden age of the genre was long after World War II when it regained popularity, peaking in the 1960s and continuing its rise right through to the modern day.

Its origins go back as far as 1893, when Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec produced the now famous poster for the nightclub, Le Chat Noir, located in the bohemian Montmartre district of Paris. It was an infamous caberet bar where prostitutes, sailors and intellectuals met and mixed freely. The poets who regularly performed there sang songs which its clientele could relate to. They were known as a ‘chanson realiste’ who consequently demystified the somewhat tawdry life of a Parisian lady of the night, bringing the profession in the mainstream, through their performances.

In the post-war period, Edith Piaf is probably one of the best known mistresses of the genre and her most famous songs, La Vie en Rose and Je Ne Regrette Rien epitomised the very essence of chanson. She performed the song with her whole being rather than just singing it, almost spitting out the exaggerated words as they were ejected from her very being. The subject matter of chanson is always consistent; sex, life, love and hate, betrayal and death. Emotive subjects which required a ‘whole body performance’ in order to convey the raw emotion of the songs’ subject matter. During that time, a liberated Paris was rediscovering itself as a city, where artists and creatives such as Simone de Beauvoir and her lifelong companion Jean Paul Satre, Pablo Picasso, Orson Welles, Andre Gide and Jean Cocteau would congregate at Saint-Germaine-des-Pres in many of its non-conformist cafes and bars.

French Armenian, Charles Aznavour, has been a troubadour of the genre through the 20th Century, and beyond. At the age of 92 he is still performing internationally and has no plans to stop doing so. His particular flavour of chanson presents romantic songs with a dark edge and a certain sense of the miserable about them. “Chanson songs represent all of our lives”, he has been quoted as saying. It’s the relatable content of chanson which makes it a highly accessible genre for every man, woman and child.

Aznavour believes that no subject is off limits and this is testament to the array of subjects in his catalogue of 1,200 songs, recorded in 7 languages, with 180M record sales worldwide throughout the course of his prestigious recording career.

The most popular singers of chanson were often ‘interprets’ ie singers of other people’s songs, often from a loser’s perspective. There is nothing cheery about chanson. It’s gritty and raw, reflecting life in all its baseness and often referred to as ‘the music of the people’. Unlike traditional song-writing techniques however, chanson is based in the language of the composition rather than the inflection of the melodies which is merely incidental to the words. It is prose first, then music, in perfect harmony, but the way in which it’s performed is an equally important ingredient to the chanson formula.

Chanson continued to flourish in the mainstream with popular songs as La Mer, penned by Charles Trenet and later further popularised by Bobby Darin, known as Beyond the Sea.

Trenet was a chanson star who broke the mould as a performer of the genre, because he not only wrote the songs but performed them himself too. The concept of the role of the ‘interpret’ in chanson was changing.

In the 1950s such luminaries as Georges Brassens, Leo Ferre and Jacques Brel would continue with the singer/songwriter tradition. They were responsible for elevating chanson to its golden age, delivering the raw truth in its lyrical content, influenced by bohemians such as Victor Hugo, Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. Their songs had a more political stance and they were known as the first protest singers. Their songs were often a public attack on respectability but their subversiveness and blatant pops at authority made them mainstream in their appeal. Despite their radical and bawdy nature, the lyrics were never crude and were always delivered with a generous sense of humour.

Belgian Jacques Brel was perhaps the brightest star of the genre and certainly had the largest influence on the chanson of today, outside of France, including David Bowie, Marc Almond, Neil Hannon of Divine Comedy, Jarvis Cocker and Scott Walker.

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Many of these artists have become famous for their interpretations of an array of Brels songs, despite also being accomplished singer/songwriters themselves. Some of these artists have produced whole albums of their interpretative work including Marc Almond’s ‘Jacques’ and Scott Walker’s ‘Scott Sings Brel’.

In fact, Marc Almond has been publicly credited by Brel’s estate as the foremost interpreter of his work outside of France. Ne Me Quitte Pas, perhaps Brel’s most famous composition was translated into English by Rod McKuen in 1966 to If You Go Away, and has been performed in both French and English not only by Almond, but also Frank Sinatra, Shirley Bassey, Scott Walker, Dusty Springfield, Neil Diamond and Nina Simone amongst a litany of prestigious artists of the most popular cover version of the 20th Century.

David Bowie was also a big fan of Jacques Brel and was hugely influenced by him. He famously interpreted the songs Amsterdam and My Death (‘La Mort’) recording and performing them many times over his lengthy and illustrious career. Amsterdam is a richly graphic and poetic account of the exploits of sailors on shore leave in the original ‘sin city’. It was originally translated into English in 1964 by Mort Schuman and recorded by Bowie in 1973 as the B-side of his single Sorrow. The song continued to feature on a number of subsequent Bowie releases over the ensuing decades, while My Death was revived during the 1995/1996 ‘1.Outside’ tour.

Many female singers of La Chanson Francaise are attributed to the genre and brought a fresh perspective to songs, such as Jolie Mome written by Leo Ferre and originally given to Juliette Greco as a gift. The song is essentially about a prostitute, but Greco’s playful interpretation removes all suggestion of sordidness and turns the piece into a coy rendition, toying with the concepts of the song and giving it a fresh perspective.

Similarly, Barbara, Francoise Hardy, Anna Karena and Petula Clark are all equally famous for their own interpretations of the genre delivering songs from the female perspective with a certain tenderness and je ne sais quoi. Their performances can offer a jeux de mots (double meaning), giving an innocence which can sometimes be lost when performed by a male artist.

Throughout the 1960s, chanson continued to increase in its popularity, featuring in the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest with such compositions as Poupee de Cire, Poupee de Son (Wax Doll, Singing Doll) by France Gall. Such popular songs and those like them, continued to propel chanson into the public consciousness and it was subsequently given a new subversive twist by artists such as Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin. These performers plus other like Vanessa Paradis, Francoise Hardy and Petula Clark were the protégées of Serge Gainsbourg. He loved women and wanted to be loved by them.

What better way than to write songs for the women he admired? However, the general public didn’t like his overt references to sex, drugs and alcohol which seemed to removed the traditional subtleties of chanson and hence removed some of its essence. This resulted in the banning of records such as Je T’Aime (Moi Non Plus), which was originally performed by Bardot, and subsequently and most famously with Jane Birkin. The song was universally banned for its heavy breathing content and not, surprising, for its explicit sexual language. It was actually written by Gainsbourg referencing a conversion between Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali in which Picasso stated “I’m a Communist” to which Dali replied, “Me neither”.

In the latter part of the 1970s however, chanson seemed to grow out of its temporary petulant era. This was largely credited to the songwriting duo Alain Souchant and Laurent Voulzey who were known as the ‘Lennon and McCartney’ of chanson, penning a vast number of the more accomplished chanson compositions of the decade.

Through the 1980s and beyond, French artists such as Etienne Daho, Phillipe Katerine and Belgian Strommae have continued the trend of popularised chanson in its varying forms in the modern day music charts. Pop chanson continues to be highly influenced by its forefathers Jacques Brel, Leo Ferre and a gamut of singers and songwriters of the genre over the decades, and will no doubt continue to do so into the 21st Century.

Chanson, was and is the music of the people and its concept has therefore become part of the fabric of society, not only in France, but internationally and it is therefore a timeless and important genre in the history of music.


Ange Chan is a poet and novelist. Her fourth poetry collection, ‘FAME; What’s Your Name?’ was published in paperback and on Kindle earlier this year, and her second novel, ‘Baby Can You Hear Me?’ was published this August in paperback and on Kindle. 

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