Alain Bashung: Revered singer and actor described as 'the gentleman rocker of French chanson'

Though little known outside Francophone countries, the singer Alain Bashung was a huge star in his native France as well as in Belgium, Switzerland and Canada. His death last Saturday made front pages and lead news bulletins and the France 2 television channel cleared its Sunday night schedule to air an in-concert special and a moving tribute. Politicians of every hue paid their respects to the singer-songwriter, the French prime minister, François Fillon, declaring: "Audiences will remember Bashung as the gentleman rocker of French chanson."

Bashung, a gifted songwriter, was also a mean and moody vocalist who sang and looked like Willy DeVille of Mink DeVille fame. Indeed Bashung's early hits, the strutting "'Gaby, Oh! Gaby" (1980) and the more languid "Le Vertige de l'Amour" (1981), sounded like lost French cousins of "Spanish Stroll", DeVille's signature song, and conveyed a similar streetwise attitude.

Bashung made rock music which worked in the French language, succeeding where many predecessors and contemporaries were content to offer pale imitations of Anglo-Saxon artists. He often did so while employing the best musicians from the UK and the US – for instance, he worked with the Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera and Wire's Colin Newman on Novice (1989), Adrian Utley of Portishead on Fantaisie Militaire (1998), and the Tom Waits collaborator Marc Ribot on Chatterton (1994), L'Imprudence (2002), and Bleu Pétrole (2008), the last of his 13 studio albums. In doing so, Bashung followed in the footsteps of Serge Gainsbourg, who often came to London and who used seasoned British artists to record Histoire de Melody Nelson (1971). Gainsbourg and Bashung teamed up for the latter's critically-acclaimed "cold wave" album, Play Blessures, in 1982.

Bashung acted in 20 films, most famously portraying a singer named Bo Craddock ("Beautiful Sleazy") in the comic thriller Nestor Burma, Détective de Choc (1982), opposite Michel Serrault and Jane Birkin. His prescient song "Ma Petite Entreprise" (1994) inspired the 1999 Pierre Jolivet comedy of the same name.

The son of an Algerian father he never knew and a mother from Brittany who worked in a factory and married a Paris baker named Baschung, who adopted him, Bashung spent most of his childhood on a farm in Wingersheim, in Alsace. He was raised by his step-grandmother. Given a harmonica at the age of five, he discovered US Forces Radio, which broadcast the likes of Elvis Presley, Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly to troops in neighbouring Germany.

"It felt like an atomic bomb had gone off," he said. "When I heard Gene Vincent I thought someone, possibly God, had something in mind for me."

In 1962, having been given an acoustic guitar, he formed his first group, the Dunces, singing in "yaourt'", an onomatopoeic mimicry of the sound of English rock 'n' roll. In 1966 he released his first EP, which included the generation-gap mocking "T'Es Vieux, T'Es Moche" ["You're Old, You're Ugly"] and the rather timely "Pourquoi Rêvez-Vous Des Etats-Unis?" ["Why do you dream of the US?"], on the Philips label. It sank without trace. The following year, he appeared at the Palais des Sports in Paris on a bill featuring the Pretty Things, the Troggs and the Walker Brothers and compéred by the DJ Emperor Rosko.

"The Who didn't show up, everything was running late so they shoved me on stage just before the headliners, Cream," he said. "Not an easy job. We did little else but test the sound system and the amps before they came on."

Two more EPs and eight singles followed between 1967 and 1973; all flopped. Dropping the "c" in his surname to become Bashung or using the aliases David Bergen and Hendrick Darmen made no difference.

In 1972, he finally got a couple of breaks. He wrote songs for the former yé-yé star Dick Rivers and played Robespierre in the Claude-Michel Schönberg rock musical La Révolution Française, both on stage and in the cast recording. Sadly, a restrictive contract with a nefarious manager stopped him in his tracks.

Bashung eventually signed with the Barclay label and released Roman Photos, his debut album, in 1977. He had found the perfect songwriting partner in the lyricist Boris Bergman, yet his second album, Roulette Russe (1979), was no more than a "succès d'estime" until the stand-alone single "Gaby, Oh Gaby" – which was recorded at Rockfield Studios in Wales – became a million-seller and was added to a repackaged version of the album.

"French can be so restrictive as a language. Imagine the words in the French dictionary as the walls of a prison. In order to escape, you have to change their meaning and even their spelling," said Bashung about his use of puns and slang, not only in "Gaby" but also "Le Vertige de l'Amour" and the album Pizza (1981).

Bashung followed his muse rather than any kind of formula, and his decision to continue performing after being diagnosed with lung cancer in 2007 endeared him to his fans.

"I had two choices: I could stay home and do nothing or take the more difficult approach, the one that needed an incredible amount of energy," he said. "The love I felt from audiences gave me the impression I could be cured of any disease. It was so strong, I was telling myself: I am immortal now."

Two weeks ago, he won three Victoires de la Musique at the French equivalent of the Brits, reaching a total of 11 awards, a record for any artist since the event was established in 1985. He looked tired but was visibly moved by the standing ovations which greeted his wins in the male artist, tour and album of the year categories, all for Bleu Pétrole. Wearing a fedora and dark glasses to hide the effects of chemotherapy, Bashung could still blow a mean harmonica on "Résidents de la République", the song he performed at the ceremony.

He received the Legion of Honour in January.

"I don't see myself getting old, watching TV in an armchair" he told Libération in 1999. "I'd like to go in the middle of something, an album, a show. But it would be frustrating not to be able to finish it. And rather rude of me."

Pierre Perrone

Alain Claude Baschung (Alain Bashung), singer, songwriter, actor: born Paris,1December 1947; married three times, (one son, one daughter); died Paris, 14 March 2009.

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