This Europe: Johnny Hallyday forgoes easy life for national tour to prove he's a rocker of all ages at 60

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The Independent Online

Johnny Hallyday, France's official rock star, reaches his country's official pension age this month but he shows no intention of joining the massed legions of the French retired.

While teachers, railwaymen and others are striking to preserve the right to cease work in their fifties, Johnny, 60 a week tomorrow, is swivelling his hips through a six-month nationwide tour of rock concerts in football stadiums.

After a preliminary concert in Nancy this week, Hallyday - born Jean-Philippe Smet - starts a gruelling four nights of "le rock-n'-roll" at the Parc des Princes in Paris on Tuesday. All 150,000 advance tickets were sold weeks ago.

The Sixties generation of rock stars is indestructible but Johnny Hallyday, although slightly younger than Sir Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger, can lay claim to have had a longer career in the spotlights and the headlines than any other pop musician. In 1959, at the age of 16, he rocketed to stardom (in France at least).

He has remained popular, copying - and some would say murdering - every passing fashion in pop music, from rock-in-blue-jeans, to guitar-smashing rock, to psychedelic, to hard-metal, to reggae, to disco, and now back to rock-in-blue-jeans again.

He was originally idolised by French teenagers as their home-grown version of Elvis and condemned by the stuffy, conservative France of the De Gaulle era as a wicked, unFrench influence on the young.

He is now regarded as ringard ( fuddy-duddy) by most French people under 20 but lionised by everyone else as a great French cultural icon, a knight of the Légion d'Honneur and a friend of President Jacques Chirac. The right-wing broadsheet newspaper Le Figaro cleared half its front page this week for a tribute to his longevity under the headline, "Johnny, une passion française".

The newspaper, with only slight exaggeration, said he was "venerated on the right and the left, by the people and the intelligentsia, and, above all, recognised for what he has always been, a sincere artist, a phenomenon on stage, whose every song sticks like [Marcel Proust's] madeleine in the memory of millions of French people".

What Johnny Hallyday has never managed to do is impress anyone outside the French-speaking world. He once released an album in English, which bombed.

He played Las Vegas in the Eighties but almost all the seats were sold to fans who flew from France, Belgium and Quebec.

Foreigners are wrong to mock. Two or three of Johnny's best songs - Que je t'aime (1969); Quelque chose de Tennessee (1985) - deserve to be international classics. He always seems at his best when singing in the French tradition, rather than trying to imitate American or British rockers.

But his son David, also a successful rock star, insists: "My father is a rocker at heart." Johnny Hallyday told a pre-tour press conference: "When I started, people said, 'He'll only last a year'. Every year, I've assumed that it might be my last. I've survived because I've changed with the times. Music moves on. I've always thought that musicians should move on, too."

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