15 June 1943 – 5 December 2017
French pop has lost its long-reigning king. It feels inconceivable – both because the young, beautiful Johnny of fifty years ago lives perpetually in iconic images and sounds, seeming forever 'L'idole des jeunes', and because today's Johnny seemed indefatiguable, still full of a zest for music and life. I really have no words for now that would do an even adequate job of capturing who Johnny was or the immensity of this loss. So I thought I'd just share a collection of few favourite things: photos from those gorgeous, seemingly endless pictorials in the pages of Salut les copains and Mademoiselle Age Tendre (I sometimes wonder how much of their lives the idoles spent in front of the camera!), some of his best songs, and a few videos that showcase what a charismatic performer he was.
Click on any of the photos for a larger version.
Famed photographer Jean-Marie Périer documented yé-yé's golden couple on their first trip to New York in 1963 for Salut les copains. Sylvie Vartan's reaction to the news about her first love, "Like all of France, my heart is broken".
While there are many far more glamorous shots of Sylvie and Johnny, I like this tender, candid moment Périer captured of the young newlyweds. It's a rare glimpse of the couple not being 'on' for the cameras, as Sylvie consoles a sad Johnny, who struggled with depression and the intense pressures of stardom.
Despite what you may read in the English-language press, there really are some very good Johnny songs and albums worth seeking out. My advice is to not only keep an ear out for those real gems, but to keep an open mind. Sure, there are many translated, diluted covers of songs which understandably don't appeal enormously to an Anglophone audience, readily familiar with the originals. These were the bread-and-butter of not just the early French pop industry, but of the music scenes in many other countries that were absorbing and trying on American and British influences, which represented freedom and a global language of youth. It would be nice if there was more intellectual curiosity about this phenomenon, rather than just derision. And sometimes, covers offer fresh takes on well-known songs, like 'Le Pénitencier', a version of 'House Of The Rising Sun' that became a signature song for Johnny. The combination of original, carefully-crafted lyrics by folk songwriters Hugues Aufray and Vline Buggy, and Johnny's absolute conviction in performing the song make it a classic in its own right. There are also some excellent originals that get ignored by those who've already made up their mind that Johnny was a mere imitator.
Personally, I like Johnny's sixties music on either side of the yé-yé era best, though there are some superb songs in those middle years. Early Johnny was a rocker, and there is something a little more raw and pleasing there – you hear a taming start to happen as you get to the yé-yé years (roughly 1963-66), Later in the decade, amid less appealing patches of material that I find a confusing blend of variétés and middle-of-the-road rock, Johnny released some great pop-rock numbers that saw him ably take on influences of psychedelia, soul and hard rock. He fared best when sticking close to his roots as he navigated the ever-changing musical trends of the sixties, and his quest to stay true to the spirit of rock that originally moved him culminated in an excellent 1969 album, Rivière… ouvre ton lit, where the Small Faces served as his backing band.
I've put together some personal highlights in the Spotify playlist below. I've stuck to the 1960s here because that's the era I know best. I'm happy to hear any reader recommendations for his later work :).
- Souvenirs, souvenirs (1960)
- J'étais fou (1960)
- Le P'tit Clown de ton cœur (1960)
- Oui, mon cher (1961)
- L'idole des jeunes (1962)
- Les Bras en croix (1963)
- Tes tendres années (1963)
- Le Pénitencier (1964)
- Pleurer auprès de toi (1965)
- Pour nos joies, pour nos peines (1965)
- Je me suis lavé les mains dans une eau sale (1966)
- La Génération Perdue (1966)
- La Petite Fille de l'hiver (1967)
- À tout casser (1968)
- Le Mauvais Rêve (1968)
- Quand l'aigle est blessé (1968)
- Je n'ai besoin de personne (1969)
- Les Anges de la nuit (1969)
Not only are we left with the many songs of Johnny's prolific recording career, there are some wonderful videos to go with them. The French music industry was unusual in successfully tying a audiovisual component to pop music from its early days, in the form of scopitone players found in the cafés populated by youngsters, and regular television broadcasts of musical variety shows.
This cover of Spanish band Los Bravos' 'Black Is Black' was a big comeback song for Johnny. Released opportunistically by his record label shortly after his attempted suicide, the public salaciously lapped up a perceived connection between the dark lyrics and Johnny's troubled state of mind. In reality, the lyrics were not written specifically for him and it was not a song he was particularly enthused about recording. But ultimately, Johnny showed what a skilled intepréter he was by really making the song his own. And despite the questionable voyeuristic interest the song generated, his fans also genuinely wanted to see him triumph and appreciated his courage and resilience.
This clip for Johnny's 1962 song 'Elle est terrible' (a cover of Eddie Cochran's 1959 song, 'Somethin' Else') comes from a brilliant television special, Johnny et Sylvie, broadcast on December 29, 1965. It was directed by Jean-Christophe Averty, an incredible, pioneering video artist responsible for the most innovative French variety shows. You can see a level of creativity and technical wizardry here that is rather astounding for the era, as well as how beautifully Averty captures Johnny's charisma and his chemistry with Sylvie.
This is an excerpt from a TV documentary entitled 24 Heures pour 3 Idoles, which aired December 17, 1967 – exactly 50 years ago today. A live performance of Johnny's 'Amour d'été' (a cover of Elvis Presley's 'Love Me Tender') serves as a dreamy soundtrack to footage of a romantic boat ride shared by Johnny and Sylvie, with occasional glimpses of a sweat-drenched Johnny performing the song onstage.
I was going to share this for Christmas anyway, but didn't know it would be as a tribute :(. Here, Johnny performs his 1973 song 'Noël interdit' ('Forbidden Christmas') to an intimate group that includes Jane Birkin, sitting by his side, and Alain Delon. It's a lovely, stripped-back rendition that shows how powerful a performer Johnny could be with simply his voice and an acoustic guitar.