Les Yé-Yé: The French 60’s Pop Explosion Phenomenon

Exploring the fantastic French Pop music scene during the 60’s

Les Yé-Yé: The French 60’s Pop Explosion Phenomenon

The 1960’s were a golden era for Pop and Rock music a bit everywhere around the world, there were music scenes richer or more successful than others, such as the ones in England and the United States, partially due to the success of Anglo-Saxon bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones that delivered a boost to English and american artists when English became the most popular language for Pop and Rock songs, a trend that remains to this day. In France the music scene was as colorful and animated as the one in England for example, however the fact that was all sung in French prevented the projection of some artists and songs, due to the increasing promotion of French language in performing arts during the 1960’s France, though some were able to make a name for themselves outside French borders mainly Western Europe countries such as England, Germany, Italy and Portugal. Among the most successful names of the French Pop and Rock music scene of the 60’s were Françoise Hardy, Sylvie Vartan, Adamo, Claude François, Johnny Hallyday and France Gall.

Shaping the scene

The music scene gained the name “Yé-Yé”, spreading across Western Continental Europe to Italy,Spain and Portugal. The roots of the Yé-Yé are traced back to the radio show “Salut Les Copains” in the early 60’s (that later turned into a Pop Culture magazine with the same name), it was named that way due to the increasing popularity of English bands such as The Beatles using often “Yeah Yeah” in their catchy songs (“She Loves You Yeah Yeah Yeah”).

At first, the big majority of the songs were covers of popular anglo-saxon hits, a common practice of the Yé-Yé scene a little bit all over Europe back then. The best selling records were mostly released on the French label Disques Vogue, and though the LP/album format was becoming popular, and in demand, the EP , usually a 4 Track 45rpm was easier to sell and manufacture, in contrast to Anglo-Saxon countries. This allowed the artists to be able to produce more records and quality songs in a shorter period of time and hence sell and export more specially due to the Anglo-Saxon hit songs covers.

A cultural phenomenon

No only musical, but also a cultural phenomenon with movies and fashion going along with the scene, already notable artists such as Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot also adapted to the movement , the Yé-Yé was interpreted as a transition from the 1950’s more conservative culture into a more liberal one, allowing the younger generations having for the first time full control of what they wanted to listen, watch and follow, this also affected partially some European regions and countries that were under a fascist regime back then, it’s not stretched to go as far as saying that it helped put down some walls and had it’s role in the quick fall of fascist regimes during the 60’s and early 70’s. or even in the Paris May 68 protests.

Impact and influence

Bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones also contributed to the popularity of some of the names of the Yé-Yé  scene, Sylvie Vartan for example was a personal friend and sometimes not credited or rumored collaborator with the band (some say that the blue dress girl in the back cover of The Beatles “Abbey Road” it’s Vartan) , the inclusion of French verses in “Michelle”, and the John Lennon and Paul McCartney famous story on how they got their trendy Yé-Yé haircuts the first time they visited Paris in the early 60’s, Françoise Hardy was seen regularly with The Rolling Stones and played some concerts together in France back then. These type of facts help understanding the importance of aesthetic in the Yé-Yé movement, it was music and visuals together, there was a sense of style and fashion unique to it. By the mid 60’s it was a strong cultural expression, with the magazine Salut Les Copains promoting the Yé-Yé culture and artists through beautiful colorful photos and informative articles not just from France or French artists, but from all over the world. The movement cohabited side by side with other strong emerging styles in France back then such as Garage Rock, Surf Guitar Rock and more conventional styles such as Easy Listening “Chanson”. Usually Garage Rock or Surf Guitar Rock bands were tagged along the Yé-Yé label.

The Yé-Yé scene in images

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Jacques Dutronc

He was one of the most popular artists emerging from the scene, due to his sense of fashion, his looks, style and original music compositions. He quickly became an Icon, filling pages of the magazine “Salut Les Copains” with stylish photographs. His debut album from 1966, self-titled “Jacques Dutronc” on Disques Vogue, filled with original compositions from Dutronc and Jacques Lanzmann, was a best seller and it’s one of the most relevant Yé-Yé references. His second and third album, also o Vogue, were also best sellers. Though his music style changed drastically after the 60’s, Dutronc remains one of the most important artists and Icons of the Yé-Yé, he married in 1981 with his longtime companion Françoise Hardy. Among his most well known songs were “Et Moi, Et Moi, Et Moi”, “J’Aime Les Filles”, “La Fille Du Père Noel”, “Les Cactus”, “Les Play Boys” , Il Est Cinq Heures, Paris S’éveille” “and the timeless and purposedly political “L’Opportuniste”.

Sylvie Vartan

Sylvie was one of the few artists from the scene that was able to earn some notoriety in Anglo-Saxon countries such as the U.S. Some of her most popular songs are “Comme Un Garçon”,”2.35 de Bonheur”, “Irrésistiblement “, the smashing “Si Je Chante”, a rare english language incursion by Yé-Yé french artists on “Watching You” and her first big hit, Little Eva’s cover of “Le Loco-Motion”. Sylvie’s friendship with The Beatles was one of the factors, besides singing sometimes in English, that opened up way for her overseas success, at a personal level she was married to Johnny Hallyday , other very popular Yé-Yé icon.

Françoise Hardy

Hardy was one of the first to emerge in the scene successfully when she signed in with Disques Vogues in 1962 producing her first record, the self-titled “Françoise Hardy”, that became an instant success with the songs “Oh oh Cherry” and “Tous Les Garçons Et Les Filles” one of 1960’s French music most popular songs. Due to her looks she became a successful model and fashion Icon, Françoise mellow vocals and sensual looks turned her into a Pop Culture reference and made her gain admirers and fans such as Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger and David Bowie. Other popular songs of Françoise are “Le Temps De L’amour”, “Je Suis D’Accord”, “J’ai Jeté Mon Coeur”, “Comment Te Dire Adieu”, “Les Feuilles Mortes”, “Le Temps De Souvenirs” and “Tu Verras”. At a personal level she married other Yé-Yé icon, Jacques Dutronc with whom she remains to this day.

Johnny Hallyday

Johnny Hallyday was the most commercially successfull of all the Yé-Yé artists in France, filling up concert halls and selling more records than any other artist in France back then. Hallyday started his career by producing non-stop French versions of American Rock N’ Roll and Anglo-Saxon hits such as “Hey Joe”, which in addition to his stage mannerisms and vocal style made him to be referred often as the French Elvis. Sometimes regarded less rebelious than some of the Yé-Yé figures and also a bit of an outsider of the scene due to his more ecletic choice of songs that ranged from Rock to Chanson, Hallyday was able to build an enduring career to this day. Some of Hallyday ‘s biggest hits back in the 60’s were “Noir C’est Noir” cover of the smash hit “Black Is Black” by the Spanish beat band Los Bravos, “Retiens La Nuit”, “Elle Est Terrible” a cover version of Eddie Cochran’s “Somethin’ Else”, “La Génération Perdue”, “Viens Danser Le Twist” a cover of “Let’s Twist Again”, “L’Idole des jeunes”, “Da dou ron ron” and “Que Je T’Aime”.

France Gall

The youngest of all the Yé-Yé French singers, and one of the most exploited by the music industry during that period due to her naïvité, she rose to fame at 16 when she won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1965 representing Luxembourg with the most memorable song of her career  “Poupée de cire, poupée de son.” penned by Serge Gainsbourg. Before that she already had scored some minor hits in France with “Ne sois pas si bête”,and “N’écoute pas les idoles”,  during that period Serge Gainsbourg accepted to continue writing for Gall, though with hidden second intentions of exploiting her innocence, just like he did with the scandalous song “Les Succettes” an obvious song about oral sex that tells the story of a girl named Annie who likes aniseed-flavored lollipop. The naive 18 year old Gall was unaware at the time she sung the song, what the real meaning behind it was and later she mentioned she felt betrayed by the adults around her and managing her career. Her music style ranged from children like themes to experimental Jazz, ending end up the 60’s doing Psychedelic songs composed by Gainsbourg. Some of Galls most well known Yé-Yé period songs are “Ne sois pas si bête”,”N’écoute pas les idoles”, the experimental “Jazz à gogo”, “Laisse tomber les filles”, the Eurovision winning song “Poupée de cire, poupée de son.” the Psychedelic “Teenie Weenie Boppie” and of course the scandalous “Les Sucettes”.

Claude François

François, aka CloClo was very popular due to his Yé-Yé dance moves and his original compositions, which turned him into one of the top artists during the 60’s French music scene. He was the hardest working artist in the scene, always seeking innovation to his live shows, after a trip to Las Vegas he created his own group of Go-Go female dancers that he named “The Clodettes”. During his energetic live concerts, The Clodettes would dance in the background on a choreography created by him. Like most of the Yé-Yé artists, François started his career by doing versions of Anglo-saxon hits, but he start working on his own compositions from an early stage in his career, in 1967 he wrote “Comme D’Habitude” (first gaven to him by Jacques Revaux and titled “For Me”, Claude re-wrote the song, that later became “My Way” in the English version, popularized by Frank Sinatra. Promoting an angelical boy image, he was in fact a bad-tempered, over perfectionist man who detested his main rival in the French music scene, also eclectic Johnny Hallyday (opposite to Claude, Johnny cultivate the “bad boy” image but personally was a mild down to earth person) Claude died prematurely with 39 years old in 1978, electrocuted in the shower just before embarking on an U.S tour. In the end, maybe his own perfectionism paranoia killed him, as the cause of the accident was a flickering light bulb on the top of the shower that he tried to fix. Some of Claude’s most popular songs during the 60’s were “Comme D’Habitude”, “Si J’Avais Un Marteau” (French version of “If I Had A Hammer”), “Belles Belles Belles”, “Ce Soir Je Vais Boire”, “Donna Donna” and “J’Attendrai” (“I’ll Be There”).



Although labeled and packaged in the Yé-Yé scene, Antoine music style was more reminiscent of bands like The Animals, Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones, he scored a hit with “Les Élucubrations d’Antoine” released on Disques Vogue.


Starting her career in the early 1960’s, she didn’t reached the same recognition as Sylvie Vartan and Françoise Hardy, she scored her first hit “”Papa t’es plus dans l’coup” (“Daddy, you are not in on it anymore”)” on the label Philips.


Born in Italy, Adamo moved to Belgium at an early age and became very popular in French speaking countries during the 60’s, alltough he only dabbed into the Yé-Yé music style (primarily he sung easy listening ballads), he was often featured along with the artists from the scene and sung in several languages such as Spanish, Portuguese, English and Italian so he could more easily export his songs. His signature song remains “Tombe La Neige”

Brigitte Bardot

An established name by the 60’s, Bardot reinvented herself as a Yé-Yé sex symbol during that período. She adopted the looks and fashion of the scene, spicing it up with her sexual charisma. Also a singer, Brigitte scored some Yé-Yé hits such as “Moi Je Joue” and “Harley Davidson”.

Serge Gainsbourg

Singer and songwriter, Serge was already an acclaimed artist by the time the Yé-Yé explosion happened. Always critical of fads and trends, Serge played along with it by composing songs for some of the artists, and in some cases with mocking intentions, just like he did with naíve France Gall. Some of his most memorable 60’s songs were those where he duet with lover Brigitte Bardot, “Bonnie and Clyde” and with wife Jane Birkin “Je T’Aime (Moi Non Plus).

Jane Birkin

The British skinny and boyish like model, singer and actress, was able to crack into the Yé-Yé scene due to her looks and mellow voice. She married the much older Serge Gainsbourg that wrote some of her songs. When the release of one of his songs, that he wrote for and sung with former lover Brigitte Bardot, was rejected by her, Serge re-made it with Birkin and became her most memorable hit, the scandalous “Je T’Aime (Moi Non Plus)”

Listen to the Pop Expresso Yé-Yé best of playlist on Spotify

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