Johnny Hallyday: le rock'n'roll, c'est lui: France's answer to Presley, Dylan, Springsteen and Clapton is 50 today. Richard Williams looks back

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Indy Lifestyle Online
JOHNNY HALLYDAY celebrates his 50th birthday today, an anniversary that will draw sniggers from those who remember the efforts of the French to produce pop music in the Sixties. French teenagers may have known what good pop style was - they had the best clothes and the coolest dances, and the magazine and the nightly radio show which shared the name Salut les copains put their British equivalents to shame - but the actual execution of the stuff was way beyond them, and Johnny Hallyday embodied their enthusiastic incompetence.

That never held him back, though. Born Jean-Philippe Smet, of Belgian origin, he gave his first stage performance at the age of 11: a rendering of 'The Ballad of Davy Crockett' and a flamenco guitar instrumental. Such stylistic indecision was to become the beguiling hallmark of a career that stuck tenaciously to a riff just half a bar behind whatever was happening in America and England.

Johnny has done the lot. In the early Sixties he was a hip-swivelling young greaser in the idiom of Elvis and Gene Vincent, with a pout and a quiff. Then he put on a mohair suit and a tie and did the Twist. When the Beatles arrived, he became a disciple of ye-ye. The arrival of the Love Generation saw him decked out in beads and kaftans. When Dylan and the Byrds went to Nashville, he bought a bunch of cowboy shirts and hired a steel guitar. David Bowie and Bryan Ferry left their mark; there was a particularly ghastly glam phase in the Seventies. At the beginning of the Eighties, when Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger brought muscle-bound, blue-collar retro-rock to the world's stadiums, Johnny started working out and wearing denim shirts with the sleeves ripped off. Nowadays he finds kinship with the likes of Chris Rea and Eric Clapton, seen-it-all purveyors of gently bruised mid-life realism.

Somehow, miraculously, he has managed to get through it all without attracting even a momentary flicker of interest outside his home market. Even Cliff Richard had a couple of hits in America, but Anglophones have steadfastly rejected the enticements of Johnny's big, bare-chested delivery. Nice girls in the early Sixties usually had a copy of that Richard Anthony EP with 'J'entends siffler le train' somewhere near the Dansette, usually covered with candle wax, but otherwise the only time French pop ever imposed itself on an international audience was when it came with a nymphette attached: Francoise Hardy and 'Tous les garcons et les filles de mon age', Jane Birkin and 'Je t'aime - moi non plus', Vanessa Paradis and 'Joe le Taxi'.

But at three birthday concerts in the Parc des Princes stadium this week, appearing before 150,000 people, Johnny will consecrate his standing with his own people, to whom he represents the assimilation of post-war Anglo-American cultural imperialism into the continuum of French culture. Johnny took rock'n'roll into the fete foraine, and made it safe.

Unlike Cliff, in whom the essential mystery of stardom has taken a different form, Johnny was able to give his audience the fullest possible opportunity to share the vicissitudes of a life in the spotlight, abetted by the editors of Paris Match. Johnny and Sylvie (Vartan): perfect couple, perfect split, perfect multiple reconciliations, perfect divorce. Then Johnny and Nathalie Baye: an astonishing couple (try to imagine Tom Jones and Helen Mirren, or Neil Diamond and Kate Nelligan). They meet up every year to share a traditional Christmas with their daughter, Laura, after whom Johnny named his publishing company. Then Johnny and Babette. And Dadou, and Leah and (last week) Christelle.

Last year, Vogue Hommes asked a number of prominent Frenchmen and women to name their favourite Hallyday record. 'Cheveux longs, idees courtes' said Antoine de Caunes, wickedly. 'Que je t'aime', said Sylvie Vartan, fondly. 'Je ne suis pas un heros,' said Jack Lang, self-importantly. But Francoise Sagan, Jean Paul Gaultier, Christine Ockrent and Johnny himself were united in their choice: 'Quelque chose de Tennessee', a ballad written by Michel Berger for an album called Rock'n'roll Attitude. This was not another salute to Memphis, but a homage to Tennessee Williams, with a fine tune and strong, sensitive singing: 'On a tous quelque chose en nous de Tennessee / Cette volonte de prolonger la nuit / Ce desir fou de vivre une autre vie . . .' A Johnny Hallyday record you wouldn't want to be without; who'd have thought it, after all this time?

(Photographs omitted)