I studied in Rennes in north-western France in the early 80s and one evening my friends and I decided to check out a 60s night we’d seen advertised on a telegraph pole near the halls of residence. We pitched up at a small community hall in the middle of nowhere decked out in our finest mod gear and heard some very strange music indeed.
It sounded 60s enough with the usual drums and guitars but something about it sounded very odd. To my eternal regret, we turned around and went home instead of sticking around to listen to what would have been my first proper exposure to Yé Yé Music, that particular Gallic genre of pop music that flourished in the swinging decade of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof closes with an April March cover of France Gall’s Laisse Tomber Les Filles (here as Chick Habit), which stood as an introduction to Yé Yé music for most people. Fast forward a couple of years to AMC’s Mad Men and the second Mrs Draper purring a version of Gillian Hills’ Zou Bisou Bisou and the introduction is complete.
A Soupçon of French Flavour
Press agent and jazz critic Frank Ténot and writer/photographer Daniel Filipacchi launched radio show Salut les Copains (Hello Chums) in December 1959, an off shoot of the popular Europe 1 radio program. It featured a mix of US and UK songs from the rock and roll and British Beat era, but the definitive moment was the featured slot Le Chouchou de la Semaine (Sweetheart of the Week), which introduced a selection of 15 to 20-year-old girl singers.
A spot on Le Chouchou de la Semaine guaranteed a number one in the French hit parade. A magazine of the same name followed in 1962 and hit a circulation of 1 million at its peak with German, Spanish, and Italian editions before going bimonthly as Salut in January 1994 and then folding altogether in April 1996. After the magazine’s first anniversary concert at Place de la Nation, Paris in 1963, attended by 200,000 young fans, Le Monde newspaper dubbed them the Yé Yé Generation and the genre took off.
The 60s also saw copycat magazines in France like Âge Tendre, Bonjour les Amis, Best, Extra, and Nous les Garçons et les Filles. But it was the Yé Yé girls (and some Yé Yé boys) that captured the imagination and led to the boom.
Along with the also-rans like Christine Delaroche, Jocelyne, Zouzou, Evy, Cosette, Annie Philippe, and girl band Les Parisiennes, you also had Gallic girls on the periphery like Claudine Longet and Brigitte Bardot. But it was the big hitters who drew the most attention, and each one filled a specific niche in the World of Yé Yé.
France Gall: The Fallen Angel
Born in Paris on 9th October 1947, Gall debuted her first record Ne sois pas si bête on her 16th birthday and became a teen star. With her cute blonde bob and her girly voice she was the Yé Yé sweetheart who went on to win the Eurovision Song Contest in 1965 with Poupée de cire, poupée de son – and then fell from grace.
Her downfall was the songwriter and former jazz artist assigned to her by her record label – the notorious, the infamous, the one and only Serge Gainsbourg. On the plus side, she scored a huge number of chart hits with Gainsbourg’s songs, and the pair seemed to work well together.
On the minus side – he was Serge Gainsbourg.
The French may exude a somewhat more relaxed and liberal attitude to life in general, but even they take offense when someone goes that little bit too far. The blatant sexual innuendo of 1966’s Les sucettes was completely at odds with her sweet image and the beginning of the end.
When the candy stick/With anise flavour/Goes down Annie’s throat/She is in heaven
Suggestiveness and sauciness are one thing – but a barely out of school uniform teen girl singing about blow jobs is enough to make even the French scream ooh la la and shut off their TV sets.
Gall spent most of the next year disengaging from Gainsbourg whilst recording ever more dark and bizarre psychedelic records, including the magnificent LSD-fest Teenie Weenie Boppie. She never regained her staggering chart success.
A personally lucrative side step into musical theatre, film, humanitarian work, and motherhood took Gall from the 60s up to the present day. She retired from music in 1997 and spends her time as patron of Coeur de Femmes, a charitable organisation which helps women in 60 countries across the world.
Françoise Hardy: The Cool Bohemian
Hardy, born 17th January 1944 in Paris, is legitimate French pop royalty. From her debut single Oh Oh Cheri in 1962, through her relationship to fellow artist Jacques Dutronc, to her film career and enduring status as fashion muse to current IT girls like Alexis Chung, Hardy was the cool avant-garde brunette in an era of blonde pop girls.
She left the Sorbonne at 17 and went straight into a pop career – and like France Gall, she represented Monaco in the Eurovision Song Contest, placing fifth with L’amour s’en va.
She sang in French, English, Italian, German, Spanish and Portuguese, but crippling shyness meant that she was never comfortable with her fame.
In spite of this, her allure endures, with collaborations with Blur, and Malcolm McLaren, and studio albums into the early part of the 2010s. Aside from her own films, her songs have appeared in such movies as 8 Femmes and Moonrise Kingdom, and on TV in shows like Gilmore Girls, La Femme Nikita, and Skins.
Sylvie Vartan: The Twisting Schoolgirl
Sylvie Vartan, born 15th August 1944 in Bulgaria, manages to check all the Legend boxes in her career of 50+ years
- Part of France’s most celebrated pop Golden Couple with Johnny Hallyday
- Performed with The Beatles
- Recorded with the Jordanaires in Nashville
- Survived two car accidents
- Inspired full on rock riots at her concerts
- Has an entire toy factory named after her
After a rocky start in the political and social chaos of Bulgaria and the Eastern Bloc, Sylvie and her family managed to settle in Paris in 1952, where she dealt with a difficult transition to school, French life, and learning the language through her growing love of both jazz and the new rock and roll music.
Encouraged by her brother Eddie, a music producer, she provided uncredited vocals for Panne d’essence (1961) whilst still at school, and her subsequent appearance on French TV rocketed her to instant stardom, and dubbed her The Twisting Schoolgirl.
She was literally everywhere in the 60s.
A slew of TV specials, movies, recordings, and sell-out concerts kept her in the public eye, with Françoise Hardy her only rival in the golden girl stakes. Even her rapid transformation into sexy rock chick in the mid-60s – complete with the audience riots – didn’t diminish the public’s adoration for her.
Those two car accidents, one in the mid-60s and one in the early 70s didn’t slow her down for long, and she continued to record and perform right up to the millennium, when she took an extended break (including divorce from Hallyday), and re-emerged as a jazz artist.
Jacqueline Taieb: Ms. Lightning
Jacqueline Taieb (9th September 1948) achieved the quickest rise to Yé Yé fame and enjoyed one of the shortest careers of all the girls.
Born in Tunisia, she emigrated to France with her parents at the age of 8, started composing music aged only 12, and was discovered at age 18 playing guitar.
A move to Paris followed and within months she recorded her biggest hit, 7 Heures du Matin – a punchy little ditty about a teen obsessed with Beatle Paul McCartney.
Her white hot career lasted a mere four or so years, but she came out of retirement in the late 80s to score a half million plus seller with the composition Ready to Follow You for singer Dana Dawson.
Taieb’s surly styling and harder pop edge set her apart from her softer and girlier counterparts, and hers is an enduring image of the genre.
Gillian Hills: The Beat Girl
Most modern audiences got an introduction both to Gillian Hills and to Yé Yé music on account of the episode of Mad Men where Megan Draper purrs a cover of Zoo Bisou Bisou.
Discovered by Roger Vadim in 1959, because presumably Serge Gainsbourg was busy that day, Hills had a successful pop career which included my personal favourite, the moody stomper Tut tut tut tut.
But in terms of Yé Yé poster girls, Gillian Hills:
- wasn’t French (born on 5th June 1944, she was British)
- didn’t have the longest of the Yé Yé girl careers (a mere 1960 to 1966 slice in comparison to her pop sisters’ decades)
- was probably more famous for her movies
Hills was the gyrating beat girl in the X-rated Beat Girl (1960), the romping and naked dolly bird (along with Jane Birkin) in the X-rated Blowup (1966), and one of Alex’s milk bar hook-ups in the X-rated A Clockwork Orange (1971).
Can you see a pattern here?
Her film career lasted a fraction longer than her pop one, and she retired from acting in 1975 to become an illustrator.
Although not the cornerstone of the genre there were still three major players amongst the Yé Yé boys.
Jacques Dutronc: The Rocker
Born 28th April 1943 in Paris, Dutronc was the rock star of the genre and combined Gallic good looks with a songwriter’s ear for syntax and sound.
He is credited with redefining French music in a pop and rock context – a move away from the more traditional chanson and into an actual idiom.
Embracing psychedelia, pop, and rock, his notable songs include Et moi, et moi, et moi (later covered as Alright, Alright, Alright by Mungo Jerry in the 70s), Il est cinq heures, Paris s’éveille (considered to be his equivalent of The Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset), Le Responsable, and Les Cactus.
He is part of one of Yé Yé music’s power couples as he started a relationship with Francoise Hardy in 1967 – they married in 1981, had a son, and are now separated.
Immortalised by Cornershop in Brimful of Asha:
Jacques Dutronc and the Bolan Boogie, the Heavy Hitters and the Chichi music
Claude François: The Showman
Born in Egypt on 1st February 1939, François lived a life marred by tragedy and trauma, from his family’s flight from Egypt during the Suez crisis, subsequent years of poverty, his estrangement from his father, failed relationships, and his early death aged only 39 on 11th March 1978.
Infamous for his two failed marriages and string of playboy romances, most notably with fellow Yé Yé singer France Gall, he primarily covered English songs while dressed to the nines in sequins and putting on a full show, and selling in excess of 70 million records.
But his legacy is his original compositions: Comme d’habitude which became the worldwide Frank Sinatra anthem My Way, and Parce que je t’aime mon enfant, which was later covered by both Paul Anka and Elvis Presley as My Boy, again to worldwide fame.
22 years after he was electrocuted while changing a light fitting in his shower the French government dedicated Place Claude-François to him in Paris.
Michel Polnareff: The Elusive Rebel
In spite of near blindness, personal tragedy and controversy, and a career hiatus of nearly three decades Polnareff, born 3rd July 1944 retains a devoted following throughout his native France and the rest of Europe.
Polnareff was an unlikely Yé Yé hero with his counterculture leanings, part sensitive artiste part sexual persona, and his occasional but career battering forays into scandal – the image of his naked buttocks on a 1972 promotional poster caused legal battles and outright bans on his work.
His debut single La poupée qui fait non in 1965 – Polnareff was a relative late-comer to the genre – established him on the scene, and his collaborations with artists such as Mike Oldfield on the album Kama Sutra solidified his reputation as a musician’s musician and not someone bound to pop’s vagaries.
He is the subject of numerous documentaries debating both his current whereabouts – although he does occasionally tour – and the release of a much-promised, highly anticipated, but permanently elusive comeback album.
In a word: sex. There’s a knowing wink and a certain sultriness and voluptuousness about French singers of the period in comparison with their British and American brothers and sisters. If France Gall sings about a walk in a garden it implies that you won’t be looking at flowers. And a teenage George Harrison singing about whispering in your ear is a Channel Tunnel away from Jacques Dutronc doing the same: one makes you go “aww” and the other makes you blush.
Pop music will always have its girls and boys either as solo artists or in groups and bands. From The Monkees to The Backstreet Boys, from The Shangri-Las to The Spice Girls, from J-Pop to K-Pop and Lulu to Britney Spears, teenagers will sing about teenage things. But a French accent and a certain bohemian élan add that extra exotic spice to the proceedings and make for a smash hit phenomenon.
In an interesting twist, Marianne Faithfull bridges the divide between British and French pop and almost stands as an honorary Yé Yé girl. Half-European in lineage (her mother hailed from Berlin), she married sweet little pop ditties about towers and longing with a decidedly husky voice and a ripe body that spoke far louder than she could sing. She also starred in 1968’s Girl on a Motorcycle with Alain Délon clad in nothing more than leather.
And long after Yé Yé ceased, artists like Vanessa Paradis gave a saucy French wink to teenage pop with songs like Joe le Taxi in 1987. Plus ça change et vive la France!