First Night: Johnny Hallyday, Royal Albert Hall, London

France's Elvis is the perfect gentleman on his first British date

Andy Gill
Tuesday 16 October 2012 01:42
On his new tour, Johnny Hallyday is trying to translate his massive popularity at home to success abroad
On his new tour, Johnny Hallyday is trying to translate his massive popularity at home to success abroad

Known since the '60s as the "French Elvis", Johnny Hallyday has until now shared at least one characteristic with the American King, in never having performed in Britain. Unlike Elvis, however, Hallyday has allowed British influences to colour his music, not least in his late-'60s heyday when the likes of Jimmy Page, Big Jim Sullivan, Peter Frampton and The Small Faces were hired as session men on albums such as Jeune Homme and Vie.

Yet although Hallyday has sold in excess of 110 million records across Europe, few if any of those sales occurred in Britain, a reflection of rock'n'roll's extreme Anglophone tradition. Even when the World Music boom enabled French-speaking African acts like Youssou N'Dour and Amadou & Mariam to make inroads into the UK music scene, the door remained firmly closed for Johnny.

His popularity at home, however, never faltered: indeed, in France, Hallyday is undergoing the kind of career revival experienced by veterans such as Leonard Cohen and Robert Plant. Over there, he's an elder statesman regarded fondly enough for rumours about his death to have become a national pastime. In recent years the joke has become a touch too close for comfort, with Hallyday having treatment for colon cancer and spinal surgery. Which may be why, after all these years, he is finally playing the Albert Hall.

And he certainly doesn't struggle to fill the place, with charisma at least, boasting the easy assurance that comes with a lifetime of commanding stages. He sticks closely to the trusted rock'*'roll verities: tight black leather, cuban heels and legs that seem permanently astride in classic rock-god style – except for the bit in "Deux Etrangers" when he drops to his knees for a spot of mid-song testification.

His band come from central casting – likewise black-clad, throwing the shapes passed down from Keith'*'Ronnie, while the rear-screen imagery follows the Guy Peellaert Rock Dreams brand of rebel iconography, all motorbikes and fire and Brando.

There's no doubting the influences on Hallyday's oeuvre – one track borrows that Lenny Kravitz riff; a bluesier number, "Excuse Moi Partenaire", recalls "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby"; and "Tennessee" has the elegant manner of the second, epic, half of "Layla".

But Johnny's delivery adapts smoothly to the demands of each, brandishing the dramatic staccato punch to match his physical moves on rockier numbers, acquiring baritone nobility on ballads. And for all the show's obvious schtick, it's hard not to be charmed by Hallyday himself – not least for the way, when he walks amongst the fans, he bestows his favours not on the youngest ladies, but upon those whose dedication is more deeply founded. A gentleman and a rocker.

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