Queen Elizabeth Hall
Tonight, Maxime Le Forestier, an engaging 49 year-old making his British debut at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, will be reviving memories of the great French singer and songwriter, Georges Brassens. It's an hommage which fits the whole enterprise of the chanson francaise, whose appeal is a weird mixture of the traditional and the radical. Anyway, it is enduringly hep.
"I learned to play guitar when I was 14, playing Brassens songs," says Le Forestier. In 1972, he opened for Brassens at the Bobino music hall in Paris. After Brassens' death, Le Forestier was given the right to perform posthumous Brassens material, and now has a repertoire of 80-odd songs from the Provencal master.
As heard on Douze Nouvelles de Brassens (French Polydor, distributed by Discovery Records, 01672 563931), Le Forestier's voice is lighter and brisker than his mentor's. It is a little like that of another famous singer of "French" songs, Jacques Brel (who was actually Belgian and sometimes sang in Flemish). But in upholding the simple, guitar-and-poem tradition, Le Forestier's work is instantly recognisable, whether he's singing his own stuff or borrowing another's.
It's a tradition which has always wrung the whithers of English people. Brel could fill the Albert Hall in the 1960s, even though half of us were crazy at that time for Cream and the Beach Boys, too. It can't just have been a question of reliving holiday memories and romances (which brought plenty of people then to Manos Hadjidakis' bouzouki music).
The appeal is as old, and very like, the British predilection for French films. People here like the French ability to be wry and pointed about the smallest personal issues. Charles ("La Mer") Trenet, Brel, Brassens, Piaf and the rest don't just write love songs, they write about friendship and self-doubt and a whole rag-bag of stuff which would embarrass the non-Gallic. It is a world recognisable in the edgy charm of the film, Ma Vie En Rose, or the Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Both also point the way to an important, and sometimes unintentionally comic, element in the genre.
In so far as there is a single strand in the French song in the last two-thirds of this century, it is, according to Ralph Harvey, "a resentment of the bourgeois world. Mind you, the performers were mostly much more bourgeois than they liked to admit." We don't have a bourgeoisie in this country, but we are well-used to the uneasy leftiness of the brainy nearly- rich. Mr Harvey, by the way, helps run Bastow's Classics, a specialist record shop in Chichester (01243 533264), and will happily track down that illusive song, that half-remembered ditty, for absent-minded fans.
It's tempting to think that the French song is unchanging, but in the hands of Etienne Daho, billed as "the most gorgeous Frenchman alive", Piaf gets sung against a drum and bass thump. At the ICA last month, he brought a smiling modesty to his posing. The miracle is that, like his own material, as heard on his new album Eden, about a young man's quest for self-esteem in a garden of temptations, it all remains pretty, and trips along in the required coquettish way.
Uniquely garlicky and Gitane-ish as the French song is, its practitioners have an entente cordiale with our sausage and chips musicians. Daho wrote the disco hit, "He's On the Phone" for the English group, Saint Etienne. And he recorded Eden in England, using 67-year-old David Sinclair Whitaker as his arranger. Mr Sinclair Whitaker says, "I worked on Claude Francois' "Comme D'Habitude" in 1967". Transmogrified, this classically French number (which had been recorded in London) became the classically American number, "My Way".
The same sort of cross-Channel cross-over happened a lot, as one is reminded on a new series of 100 CDs, L'Original (from French Polygram, also distributed by Discovery Records). Along with Mr Sinclair Whitaker's work, there's Jane Birkin, breathily giving us Serge Gainsbourg's lament for the dead of the rock world. And in case one supposes that the American song would always sound American, there's Claude Nougaro singing "Girl Talk" under the title "Dansez Sur Moi".
Chagrined to have missed tonight's concert, or fired up by L'Original, one might hold out for this year's ORIS London Jazz Festival (6-13 November, 0171- 405 5974): it'll have a French focus.
Richard D NorthReuse content