Here's a scene from a 1967 French film, Les Poneyttes, in which France's biggest pop star, Johnny Hallyday, performs 'Le Mauvais Rêve' ('Bad Dream'), dressed and painted as a golden statue. I'm not sure exactly why (not having found subtitles for this film), but I'd guess it's a commentary on the god-like status afforded the idoles. The lyrics describe a nightmare that starts in a desolate city, empty but for some zombie-like inhabitants, and ends in a loveless void, with Hallyday assuring himself "it's only a dream... a bad dream". So the idea here is probably to contrast the hollow trappings of stardom and fan worship with an inner fear of true loneliness. It's quite a spectacular, effective scene that suits the epic feel of the song, in what otherwise strikes me as a fairly silly, mediocre film.
I must admit, though I find Johnny Hallyday a likeable and interesting figure in French pop, there's not a huge amount of his music I've come across that I love. So my ears prick up when I hear something I do really enjoy, like this song. It comes during an era that wasn't kind to some of the male pop stars who had been around since the early 60s, after a fresh crop of charismatic singer-songwriters – Antoine, Jacques Dutronc, Michel Polnareff, Nino Ferrer – had reshaped the scene with innovative, intelligent pop music that shook off French pop's imitative beginnings. Some of the early rockers, including Hallyday, released stuff at this point that's particularly puzzling and unappealing, at least to these non-French ears fifty years later – an immiscible blend of studio-polished rock, cheesy variétés production, vocals that are a strange cross between rock belter and crooner, and tepid touches of contemporary trends like psychedelia.
Somehow though, 'Le Mauvais Rêve' hits on the right combination of European pop melodrama and psychedelic rock to create an emotive psych-pop power ballad which boasts some pretty great organ and guitar work. Though the fuzzy guitar is somewhat muted and relegated to the background, it still sounds satisfying and substantive enough to give the song some guts. The prominent organ is suitably dramatic, conveying a sense of both the religious worship the scene's aesthetics evoke, and the horror nightmare scenario Hallyday is singing about.
'Le Mauvais Rêve' was written by Micky Jones, later of Spooky Tooth and Foreigner, with words by Georges Aber, a lyricist who wrote prolifically for most of the yé-yé stars, including a large repertoire of songs for Hallyday. The song, along with the other Hallyday track that appears in the film, 'Hit-parade', was arranged by the team of Jones and Tommy Brown. The British expat duo were significant, but largely unsung, contributors to the sixties French pop scene, taking on roles as songwriters, arrangers and session musicians for many big names of the day like Françoise Hardy, Dick Rivers and Ronnie Bird. According to the liner notes for the Magic Records anthology State Of Micky and Tommy, the pair had been regularly writing for and backing Sylvie Vartan when Hallyday handpicked his wife's "two best musicians" to help reinvent his sound (Jean Marcou, 2008). Hallyday apparently hoped to stay fashionable by tapping into the sounds of the Beatles and the British Invasion, and you can hear some of that here with the Sgt. Pepper's-like brass in the instrumental break. Jones and Brown became staples of Hallyday's musical entourage, as part of his backing band (known sometimes as The Blackburds) and as regular composers and arrangers of his tunes. It's their work that stands up as the best of Hallyday's output in this period.
'Le Mauvais Rêve' was released in January 1968 on the L'histoire de Bonnie and Clyde EP, and later was included on the Jeune Homme album, released June the same year. But there remained no sign of the film for which it had been written the previous year. Les Poneyttes, directed by Joël Le Moigne, was screened just once at the Olympia, then subsequently shelved until a VHS release in the early 90s (Daniel Lesueur, 2010, p. 115). I'm not sure whether it failed to get a cinema release because it was considered a poor film and a likely flop, or due to some other quirk of the French film industry. It seems odd if it wasn't expected to have at least been a minor box office draw, with appearances by music stars like Hallyday, Danyel Gérard and Sylvie Vartan, and popular DJs like President Rosko and Hubert Wayaffe (in the lead role). Salut les copains anticipated its readers would love the film in the article below from January 1968, and it's curious that their promotion of the film wasn't enough to secure a release for this film. Perhaps it was an indicator of the magazine's waning influence by this time.
Les Poneyttes seems to have garnered, since its video release and television airings, a minor cult following as a guilty pleasure and as a snapshot of a particular era in French pop culture. It gives insight into some of the preoccupations of the period, however clumsily executed, and showcases some wonderful fashions, architecture and decor, and of course, music. The film was released on DVD last year by LCJ Éditions.