There was some great rock’n’roll in France in the rock’n’roll era (which I can’t call the 50s since French people always call the early rock’n’roll era les années soixantes ‘the sixties’ because the rock’n’roll only took off in that country in 1960-63 and faded as the Beatles appeared in 1964 and the sixties, as English-speakers understand it, began). Les années yé-yé ‘the yeah-yeah years’ of softy ballads cover 1963-66 but I don’t actually know what French people call the rest of the 1960s!
Some time ago I mentioned that there was some great rock’n’roll not generally known to British fans, some of which was original although much being covers just like in Britain at the time. However, a number of the covers were just as good as the originals and in some cases better! I’ve finally found time to try and prove this point: music being a matter of taste, this can only remain an opinion, but I thought it would be possible for you to judge for yourselves and the following songs that came to my mind. It may be that the fact that they are sung in French detract from your enjoyment of the songs, but despite the fact that we are not averse to poetry I would suppose that as rock’n’roll fans we listen first and foremost to the music and the beat, the beat, the beat … anyway, here goes with six cases for your inspection. It would be great to get forumers’ opinions on each cover and the original.
Hope you enjoy the experience!
- ‘a mess blues’ Elvis Presley 1960
= ‘c’est tout comme’ (‘it’s all as if’) Danny Boy et ses Pénitents 1961
Danny Boy and his Penitents have a better guitar with a less intrusive backing group. Even though I agree with someone that this was the period of Elvis’s second best album ‘Elvis is Back’ 1960 (the best album, ‘Elvis’ 1956, is obviously the best). The French lyrics are completely different from the original, they were composed by Pierre Saka and are fantastically evocative of the atmosphere of night life in those days – they are so good that it would really be worth translating …
There are, of course, Elvis unconditionals who as worshippers would be loathe to accept any criticism of Elvis, but here goes: it isn’t Elvis’s vocals that are at fault, what really makes his versions inferior to my mind is the overproduction in the studio arrangements and this is exactly how Ral Donner’s 1961 version of ‘the girl of my best friend’ is better than Elvis’s original of 1960 although it comes from Elvis’s second best album ‘Elvis is Back’ (‘Elvis’ from 1956 being the best, obviously).
‘the girl of my best friend’ Elvis Presley 1960
‘the girl of my best friend’ Ral Donner 1961
- ‘teenage idol’ Ricky Nelson 1962
= ‘l’idole des jeunes’ (‘the idol of the young’) Johnny Hallyday 1962
Hallyday’s version is less orchestral with better backing voices, and although Hallyday’s voice is far from being the best, especially for rocking tunes, it works in this song and trounces Ricky Nelson’s version – who, it must be admitted, had a weak voice (compare any of his covers with originals).
- ‘the jet’ Chubby Checker 1961
= ‘le jet’ Les Pirates with Dany Logan 1961
Checker’s version is too gimmicky whereas Les Pirates’s version is more no-nonsense rocky. Despite having the same title, the lyrics are also quite different, Checker’s song is about (yet another fad of) a dance whereas Les Pirates sing of the convenience of the new jet plane for visiting the girlfriend in Tennessee:
now that distances have shortened / I’ll get back to my Tennessee girlfriend / [in a jet] 1maintenant les distances sont racourcis / je retrouverais ma petite amie du Tennessee / en jet
- ‘ya ya’ Lee Dorsey 1961
= ‘ya ya’ Joël Denis 1964
Dorsey’s original choppier version with its soul-type trumpeting was covered by French rock’n’roll balladeer Richard Anthony 1962, but a more rocking French version retitled ‘ya-ya twist’ had already been issued by Les Vautours (‘The Vultures’) in 1961 (a version was covered by Johnny Hallyday in 1961 and by our own Petula Clark who was quite a star in France in 1962). The Canadian Quebecer, Joel Denis’s version followed Les Vautours’ but calmed down the tempo perfectly along with cool handclapping. He was a televison-savy balladeer and not a rocker, but his calmer approach with cool handclapping became a monster hit in Quebec. Check the video of Denis’s version along not so cool teenagers (bless ’em!):
- ‘500 miles from home’ The Journeymen 1961
‘100 miles from home’ The Kingston Trio (live) 1962
= ‘j’entends siffler le train’ (‘I hear the train whistle’) Richard Anthony 1962
The soft wimpy (sorry folky) version by the Journeymen of 1961 is nice enough but was interpreted better by Kingston Trio on their live album which came out in February 1962 (and definitely better than Bobby Bare’s country sentimental weepy from 1963). Anthony’s French version, inspired by the Kingston Trio’s version, however, tops them all. Perhaps what also makes this better – and this will be lost on anyone who doesn’t understand French – is that the story in the French lyrics is different: gone are the references to poverty and the great distance to the family home as Anthony paints a moving picture of the break-up between a nearby lover and his girlfriend on the platform who’s waiting to board the train all the while conflicted and unsure he’s doing the right thing in letting her go all the while punctuating the verses with a chorus which reminds the listener to the immediacy of the situation: “but I hear the train whistle / I hear the train whistle / how sad is a train whistling in the dark”.2mais j’entends siffler le train / mais, j’entends siffler le train / que c’est triste un train qui siffle dans le soir. The final chorus is crowned by the concluding line “I’ll hear that train whistle all my life” .3j’entendrai siffler ce train toute ma vie.
- ‘theme for a dream’ Cliff Richard 1961
= ‘c’est pas sérieux’ (‘it’s not serious’) Les Chats Sauvages 1961
Again simply overproduction, the original sung by Cliff is spoiled by twee feminine backing singers making it a pleasure to hear the song without this distraction.
POSTED June 2014.