Miles Kington: Johnny Hallyday - Legendary for being legendary?

Thursday 10 January 2008 01:00

You can't help feeling sorry for the French, and admiring too. For nearly 50 years they have been waiting for a French international singing star to emerge, so that the rest of the world can bow down and worship. It used to happen in the old days. Maurice Chevalier was a big, big star. So was Jean Sablon. Charles Trenet. And Tino Rossi. All those big French suave stars of the 1930s. They all put France on the map, didn't they?

Well, no, not really. It was only Maurice Chevalier who really made it big. The others, let's be honest, weren't internationally famous either. Apart from Maurice. Only Chevalier really broke out of the French ghetto. All right, and Edith Piaf, and Jacques Brel, who was actually Belgian. And then, just as a few people were thinking of putting a few cautious bob on Yves Montand to get moody, magnificent and a major star, or not, as the case may be, Elvis Presley came along, and the French were back to square one, because rock 'n' roll was now the name of the new game, and the French couldn't do rock 'n' roll.

Their only hope was a guy called Johnny Hallyday, who was a charismatic kid who made sort of the right noises and jumped around in sort of the right way, and who yet was such a failure that even now, 48 years after his emergence, he hasn't built on his teenage launch. Not internationally. Not even across the Channel. There is going out on Radio 2 at the moment a documentary series on Johnny Hallyday called Johnny!, and you might think that nearly 50 years after Hallyday appeared on the scene they would have the courage by now to present it as a portrait of an established star.

Far from it.

The current Radio Times billing says: "This presents what for many will be an introduction to legendary rock 'n' roll icon Johnny Hallyday (born Jean-Philippe Smet) who in 1960 emerged as France's answer to Elvis Presley..."

An introduction, to a 64-year-old singer! In other words, not only is old Johnny not really accepted yet as a major star, he will – at retiring age – be a total unknown to a lot of people in Britain. Does that make you legendary? And if so, legendary as what? Legendary for being legendary? For being married to Sylvie Vartan, who was also famous for being unknown outside France? For being the French Cliff Richard? For having developed a leathery complexion over half a century and having got old in the sun, like W H Auden, or an unthreatening iguana...?

Or, if for nothing else, for being a candidate for that eternal parlour game: "Can You Name Ten Famous Belgians?".

At least, I always used to assume from his name (the Smet one, not Hallyday) that he was Belgian. But it seems I may well be wrong. I have unearthed an odd news story about him which came out a year ago and which said that he was fed up with paying the crippling wealth tax which Francois Mitterand slammed on the rich, and which has driven more than 100,000 French people to live abroad to escape it. Hallyday himself said he very much wanted to become Swiss or Belgian in order to avoid it.

He would have preferred to be Belgian, because his original father (perhaps the man who signed him away so often) was Belgian. But Hallyday's birth was illegitimate, and there is some law in Belgium which debars illegitimate people from claiming automatic Belgian nationality, and so he has to stay French, unless some other country will have him.

Bit of a quandary for old Johnny, really.

If he does ever succeed in becoming Belgian, he will have to give up his claim, albeit rather dodgy, to be the leading French rock musician.

If he stays French, he can never legitimately join any list of ten famous Belgians.

I wonder if he has ever thought about becoming English?

Of course, first he would have to be introduced to us properly. Maybe get given a series all of his own on Radio 2 or something...

No, it's impossible!

Isn't it?

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