If the English-speaking world thinks of her at all, France Gall is best known for winning the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest with a Serge Gainsbourg song ‘Poupée De Cire, Poupée De Son‘. The French sixties Ye-Ye singers have had odd moments of being fashionable, and at least some people will have come across Françoise Hardy, but the world of French music gets largely ignored here. This is a shame because there are some great singers, that step beyond any limitations in the listener’s understanding of the words.
It’s our loss, and the person we most miss out on is France Gall. I came across her listening to the radio on holiday in France in 1992. Her songwriter and husband Michel Berger had just died, and her music was being played everywhere. I bought their most recent album ‘Double Jeu’ and found myself a fan. One of the most interesting things about Gall is that her career reflects the ups and downs of French music in general from the sixties through to the nineties and beyond. Her father Robert Gall wrote for Édith Piaf and Charles Aznavour. He encouraged his daughter to audition for the record company Phillips. Consequently, her early years were a series of controlling relationships where her only input was to sing and smile. By the end of the sixties her fortunes had faded, and despite a brief period of success in Germany she looked to be washed up.
Meeting Michel Berger, already a successful singer and writer for Françoise Hardy and Véronique Sanson, transformed her career and she sang only his songs for the rest of her career. ‘La Déclaration d’amour’ was her first big hit with a Berger song, and she recorded seven albums over the next twelve years.
What’s so good about France Gall? On her early music in the sixties, she was already well ahead of a lot of her contemporaries in how she interpreted a song. One of the things that make listening to her enjoyable even without much understanding of French. But there was always something slightly hesitant about her performances as if she wasn’t entirely convinced by the songs. Unsurprising with some of the stunts Gainsbourg pulled on her with songs about LSD and ‘lollipops’. On Berger’s songs she sang as if she believed them. Her voice had matured and if some of her albums like ‘Dancing Disco’ had a fair bit of the corny about them, they also had beautifully written and sung tunes like ‘Si Maman Si’ and ‘Musique’ as well. Remembering what was in the British charts in 1975 we shouldn’t be getting too superior about the syrupy stuff.
In contrast to Hardy, France Gall excelled live. Her first live album in 1978 has an all-female band. Her best live album is 1982’s Palais des Sports, the songs had matured in performance and her voice was stronger. The ballads work well in this setting, especially ‘Ce Soir Je Ne Dors Pas‘ and she has a great band. That band was led for many years by bass player Jannick Top of French prog band Magma, and the excellent guitarist Kamil Rustam. Her live albums later in the decade did tend to the self-indulgent extended instrumental passages but are still worth seeking out. She was always an enthusiastic performer throwing herself into the music and having as good a time as the audience
Following Berger’s death, she performed occasional concerts recorded for video and album release, of which the best is the ‘Pleyel’ album from 1994. She included songs that Berger had recorded himself and written for Hardy notably ‘Message Personnel‘.
Her career faltered and after a final album mostly revisiting old triumphs and recorded at Prince’s Paisley Park, which is best glossed over, there was only a final TV special and live album with a mostly new American band. Fortunately, the resulting ‘Concert Privé / Concert Public’ is a great live setting and one of the best places to start with Gall’s music. Only Rustam remains from the previous band which features Michael Bland drummer for the New Power Generation and David Sancious. The acoustic disc has brilliant interpretations of several of the best songs ‘Tout Pour La Musique’ and ‘Ella, Elle L’a’ and the full concert disc showcasing ‘Débranche’, ‘Résiste,’ and ‘La Minute De Silence’.
So, if you fancy something different then put aside the ‘it’s not in English’ worry and have a listen to France Gall. By the time she died in 2018 she was a national treasure, despite the Mamma-Mia style stage show, ‘Resiste’ that was her last project with her long-time companion Bruck Drawit. Watch any live video from the Berger years and after and she clearly loves her job, she was a singer for whom in the words of one of her best songs it really was ‘Tout pour la musique’; all about the music.
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