Obituary: Michel Berger
Monday 10 August 1992
IF THE LATE Serge Gainsbourg, with his louche Bohemian persona, murmured delivery and Left Bank proclivities, represented one distinctive facet of French popular song, Michel Berger was the other side of the coin.
A sort of French Elton John, as the newspaper Liberation put it, 'without the flamboyance but with the same associations - piano, melody, vibrato, California . . .', Berger was responsible through the Seventies and Eighties for some of the most intelligent, craftsmanlike and successful work in incorporating Anglo- American middle-of-the-road rock into the French music scene.
Berger's childhood musical initiation came from his Parisian mother, a concert pianist. In his early teens he abandoned Chopin for Jerry Lee Lewis and embarked on a career as a pop prodigy. By 15 he had had his first song accepted by the elderly musical-hall artiste Andre Bourvil and was attracting attention as a youthful member of the yeye generation. He was featured on the covers of the quintessential document of the period, the teen magazine Salut Les Copains, along with stars he was subsequently to write for, Johnny Halliday and Francoise Hardy.
A dozen or more of Berger's own records were major hits, among them his first million-seller 'Jesus', recorded under a pseudonym while he was concluding his secondary education with a thesis on the early records of Jimi Hendrix. Primarily, it was not his slight voice and restrained stage presence which made his reputation, but his songwriting, arranging and, later, live show conceptualisation for other, often female, artistes. Rapidly refining a winning formula over a two-album partnership with Veronique Sanson, Berger achieved his first mature hit song in 1973 with 'Message Personnel' by Francoise Hardy. Three years later began his collaboration with his future wife France Gall, the demure Sixties teen idol whose hugely successful second career he masterminded. Gall became the country's biggest- selling female singer through the Seventies and Eighties - and became identified, like Jane Birkin with Serge Gainsbourg, as the interpretress par excellence of her husband's songs.
In 1986 it was the turn of the ageing rocker Johnny Halliday to have his career revived with a new young audience attracted by Berger's songs ('Quelquechose de Tennessee' and 'Que je t'aime'), arrangements and sense of showmanship, Berger directing Halliday's triumphant shows at the huge Bercy concert hall.
At the time of Berger's death, his work was attracting more attention from the Anglophone world than at any period since his collaboration with his friend and admirer Elton John 12 years before. Berger's 1978 rock opera Starmania, revived in 1990, was adapted by Tim Rice as Tycoon and an English-language single of one song, 'The World is Stone', is a hit in the hands of Cyndi Lauper. In spite of his declared disenchantment with songwriting - his ambitions latterly lay more in film - Michel Berger's musical career was at its zenith.
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