Saturday, November 3, 2012

Laisse Tomber Les Filles - Muses and Pygmalions...

Over the past few weeks two songs have literally been playing in my head, over and over again, one and then the other... It has been driving me mad!!! My incessant humming (very unmelodious apparently) of these tunes finally drove my daughter to demand the origins of the droning. I showed her the original songs in all their due glory and warned her that whatever she thought of them, she'd end up humming along too, because they're so infuriatingly catchy. And lo and behold, now there are two of us at it, humming along, partners in crime 'contaminating' each other again the minute the songs drift off!

So the first song in question was Laisse Tomber Les Filles which was a huge success in France in 1964 - I wasn't quite born then. It was sung by the teenage France Gall, as was the second song, Poupée de Cire, Poupée de Son. Although the young singer had already earned a name for herself singing a rather cheesy number, recorded in 1963 on her 16th birthday Ne Sois Pas Si Bête  it was the other two records that fully launched her career. Behind the pretty blonde, with her striking brown-eyed gaze and distinctive singing tone was the powerful singer/song-writer, Serge Gainsbourg. Their relatively short-lived musical union was to propel France Gall to the top of the hit parade, but later tarnished her golden name with the succès de scandale of a later song, Les Sucettes (1965)...

In 1963 France Gall was a favourite of Salut les Copains, a TV programme that could, at a push, be likened to Top of the Pops. She soon found a place for herself in the yéyé craze of 1960's France - a trendy musical cocktail of Anglo-Saxon Rock 'n' Roll with French variété. Not only that, the teenage was also romantically involved with the hugely popular French singer, Claude François. The lyrics of Laisse Tomber Les Filles, written by Gainsbourg, may have been an oblique reference to Claude François' philandering... Whatever their inspiration, the somewhat worldly-wise words to the song, delivered by the bright-eyed naïve teenager created an explosive mix. Laisse Tomber  offers advice, or veiled warnings to the boy in question to "leave the (other) girls alone" and to stop playing with "un coeur innocent" because he will soon get his just desserts if he doesn't. These words of wisdom, written by the adult song-writer and belted out by a teenager to an addictively catchy rhythm created an ironic touch. 

This same formula was applied to Poupée de Cire, Poupée de Son, where the apparently superficial teeny-bop lyrics revealed a deeper, more cynical reflection on the whole musical process. The same could not be said of the annoyingly hummable song Sacré Charlemagne  that appeared in 1964. This was written for France by her father, himself a notable musician whose career had led his daughter to encounter artists such as Edith Piaf, Guy Bécaud and Charles Aznavour. The teenager baulked at the stupidity of the inane lyrics of the children's song and initially refused to sing it, but Sacré Charlemagne  turned out to be an enormous hit. 

In 1965 France Gall entered the Eurovision Song Contest, singing Gainsbourg's Poupée de Cire, but ironically represented Luxemburg, not her native country. The programme was
broadcast live, and the teenage singer won the contest, despite critical remarks on her 'abandonment' of her homeland. Her startled face when she went to collect her award was not so much due to this criticism, as to the fact that her boyfriend, Claude François, had unceremoniously dumped her over the phone during the contest. His pride in his own musical career could not tolerate such an affront - a girlfriend more popular than himself! Their relationship floundered on nevertheless, but when France Gall finally ended it, Claude François went on to the pen the classic song Comme d'Habitude  later transformed into My Way by Frank Sinatra.  

 Poupée de Cire was typical of Gainsbourg's production - an apparently typical teenage track whose clever double-entendres, puns and word play belie this initial superficiality. The song appears to reproduce the hollow tones of teenage music, yet beneath the surface it is a reflection on a wax/rag doll, performed by a singing doll. The doll is both a floppy cloth creature (stuffed with sawdust = 'son', to be the play-thing of boys and/or the audience's whims, or a doll of sound = 'le son,' created by the song-writer (here Gainsbourg) to satisfy his artistic drive to create records = 'le cire'. The singer's heart is said to be "engraved" in her songs, just as a song is engraved in a recording, yet although she acts as a reassuring mirror to the masses, she herself is "shattered" into pieces, "everywhere at once". This image is then projected onto the listeners too, who themselves become mindless rag dolls, like their idol. Driven by the music, the singer's peers are ready to go along with anything or anyone, transfixed by a famous name, blinded by a singer with a "sun" of blond hair. The singing doll sings of love, yet admits herself that she dwells on this for no reason, since she knows nothing of boys, but sings to her equally naïve public regardless...

Most of Gainsbourg's cynical reflection was probably lost on the majority of the song's fans, and certainly maybe have been beyond France's comprehension too at that time. Gainsbourg went even further in this dynamic in France Gall's next huge hit, Les Sucettes (1966). Aged only 19 (probably not really comparable to being 19 years old today), France Gall unwittingly sang a song full of sexual innuendos that appear to have escaped the young singer's attention. The references to the predilections of a young girl called Annie for 'lollipops' were sung innocently by the naïve singer, unaware of the second sense highlighting oral sex! Again, the record was a huge success, but at a price. It cost France Gall her reputation for a certain time, ended the musical collaboration Gall/Gainsbourg, and marked the beginning of a difficult period artistically and commercially for the young singer. Most importantly she must have felt betrayed by the adults around her who appear to have profited from the whole affair, above all perhaps Gainsbourg.
However, the ending of this particular creative union led onto others, both for Gall and Gainsbourg. 

With or without France Gall, Gainsbourg's name and reputation were fully established by this stage. He was now with Jane Birkin, and their musical/sentimental relationship gave rise to numerous hits, all tainted with, and thriving from a succès de scandale with their overt eroticism
 Je t'aime, moi non plus even became known in England! Over the subsequent years Gainsbourg was involved with many other actresses/singers, creating iconic records with distinctively scandalous overtones, erotic tensions and that breathy half-spoken, half-sung delivery that he so admired. Petula Clark, Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Adjani, Françoise Hardy, Brigitte Bardot and Vanessa Paradis are just a few - he also produced records for his own daughter, Charlotte...
I think my favourite song here is Harley Davidson, with B.B...

However, I do also love Vanessa Paradis' song from Gainsbourg in 1990... 

As for France Gall, on leaving her teenage years she entered uncertain ground as she tried to find her adult performer persona. Without the svengali influence of Gainsbourg, the singer's career in the early 70's lost its direction, despite producing music in Germany. Around this period, she embarked on a relationship with another famous French chanteur, Julien Clerc, but it was her union with the musical giant Michel Berger which transformed every aspect of her career and personal life. In 1974, she sang La Déclaration  and later, in '78 Berger created the rock opera Starmania, with France Gall (by then his wife) in a leading role. From then on she had numerous hits, even singing with Elton John but her singing all but stopped on the death of Michel Berger in 1992. 

Looking at photos of all these people whose definitive years were almost 40-50 years ago (though not exclusively...), I felt the indelible mark of the muse and the artist. The Pygmalion artist fashions and forms his creation, loves his artistry and art, and then moves onto the next muse to spark his creative inspiration. I say 'his'  because it seems to be mostly men that occupy the Pymalion role, but that is far from absolute. At first I felt sad for the women 'left behind', but then realized that they had experienced the best of their partner during the relationship; the creativity and genius. Apparently Berger was on the verge of leaving France Gall for a younger singer when he died, but it almost seems irrelevant now, twenty years on. All that remains is their love expressed through music, for music and that can't be taken away.


  1. I left my work...and my english teacher to watch your marvelous blog.
    It is lighting up my life. I hope you can find the joy and the happiness which still stay in your generous heart , when the rainy cloud will have left your melancholic soul! But melancholy isn't without beauty too.
    with my respectful affection to you.
    a anonymous fan

  2. I'd never heard 'Laisser tomber les Filles' until you mentioned it, now it's been downloaded online! A great tune- thank you for the recommendation. A couple of weeks ago I even heard it being played on daytime BBC radio 6 music, so one of their DJs would seem to be a fan too...

  3. It's great, isn't it? In the past it only ever seemed to be the music of Françoise Hardy that made it over the Channel (and Plastic Bertrand!), so it's good things are changing. I love these old songs and the (usually) black and white views of Paris that often accompany them. I like this one because it's just so catchy and simple, though actually really hard to sing along to and follow the pace! I also like the video because it's mostly just her, and her unique voice, nothing flashy or fleshy.
    I wouldn't say that 'video killed the radio star', but it hasn't always done a whole lot for actual music over the past years, and you can really see that when you look at these old songs.


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