Gareth Jones published one of the best and most comprehensive books on music history “French Pop”
An interview with author Gareth Jones
David Warren is editor and author for Pop Expresso reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org
The book “French Pop” by Gareth Jones, is a thorough investigation and documentation of the history of French Pop music, which is also the story of the modern music industry. In this interview, Gareth Jones discusses the writing and research process as well as the origin of his passion for French music. This interview is also proof that the author is a man who can best described as a scholar in the history of all modern music, not just French one.
How long did it take you to complete this impressive work?
Thank you for your kind description! Hopefully people will find it useful, and maybe entertaining too. How long did it take? About twenty years, on and off. I did the first large chunk of research back in 2001 when I was writing a different book that never came out – a kind of A-Z of yé-yé. I did complete a draft of that but I realised it didn’t make much sense to people without a narrative to hold it together. So I scrapped that and started work on this book instead, although a lot of the material from the first one went into this too, so nothing got wasted. Then life and work got in the way, as they do, and so I researched and wrote it in fits and starts, then had to rewrite it as I found more material, and on it went. The more I listened and read and looked around on the internet, the more I learned and the more I wanted to include. I have enough material to fill five books, if I have the time to write them.. Eventually I had to stop looking and get this one done – I finally finished it during the first Covid lockdown in 2020. Thankfully, I had a VERY patient publisher.
You mention in your book that you kept adding to it. Was it difficult to stop adding more when you had so much information coming at you every day?
YES! It was impossible. I kept finding new details right up until it went to press – even after it was at the printers, I read in Michel Legrand’s autobiography that his uncle was bandleader Jacques Hélian. Why did I not know that? But it was too late to include it – I’ll have to try to sneak that detail into a later book. In the end, you have to accept that a project like this can never be complete and just draw a line somewhere – but it was really hard deciding what to leave out. There are a few singers whom I probably haven’t really done justice to – Mick Micheyl and Marie-José are two who spring to mind – but there are only so many pages to play with. As it is, it’s quite a hefty book – counting the indices and the appendices, it comes in at over 500 pages. But it could easily have been twice as long…
How long did you spend researching to compile all of this information for the book?
Two decades, on and off. I read hundreds of magazines, taking notes and writing as I went, and I listened to – literally – thousands of records. I also had a good sounding board in Belgian journalist Christian Nauwelaers, who was very helpful at pointing me at certain things, or correcting me when I went off in the wrong direction. There were some great websites out there, some of which have sadly gone now, and plenty of books too. I had to relearn all the French I had forgotten since leaving school in order to understand it, but it was worth the effort. I’m still researching now – it never stops.
In the end, you have to accept that a project like this can never be complete and just draw a line somewhere (…) I’m still researching now – it never stops
Tell us a bit about your love of music, particularly French music, and how it all began.
I grew up with music – my dad was a huge fan of jazz and music hall, vaudeville and the crooners, so there was always music around. Being a young rock ‘n’ roll fan, I dismissed most of his stuff at the time, but it must have sunk in, because these days I love it all. I inherited his collection and have played my way through most of it – as it happens, he had a few French records in there: Jean Sablon, Charles Trenet, Django Reinhardt. But I came into French music from the other end. I heard a few bits growing up – Édith Piaf’s “Milord”, Soeur Sourire’s “Dominique”, Plastic Bertrand and a few of the French disco hits by people like Sheila or La Belle Époque. not that I knew either of those were French at the time; I can remember seeing Charles Aznavour, Sacha Distel and Gilbert Bécaud on TV as a kid too. None of it meant much though – I was listening to Abba or ELO, or a bit later, The Beatles and The Beach Boys. As a teenager, I read about Johnny Hallyday and Les Chats Sauvages in a magazine once, and wondered what they sounded like. I’d heard of Françoise Hardy too – I might even have heard one of her records (she’d had a couple of hits in my hometown in Australia during the sixties) but I can’t be sure. I finally heard Johnny Hallyday on a jukebox the first time I went to France, in 1989; a year or two later I heard some Françoise Hardy in a record shop in London and then I discovered Jacques Brel via the versions on Scott Walker’s first three LPs. So there was quite a bit already swirling around my head when I went back to France and decided to buy a few things. Those first few purchases – CDs by Johnny Hallyday and Dalida, LPs by Jacques Brel and France Gall – led to more things and then to even more and.. well, once I started subscribing to the collectors’ magazine “Jukebox”, I was hooked.
Were there any other books that inspired you to write French Pop?
Yes for sure. As a writer, you always get inspired by other people. They’re on a completely different subject, but I always loved Joel Selvin’s “Summer Of Love” (about the San Francisco scene of the sixties) and Barney Hoskyns’ history of the LA music scene, “Waiting For The Sun”. I loved the way Selvin wove the stories of the different bands together into a single narrative – that was definitely a big influence on the way I wanted to write this story, and I loved the all encompassing sweep of Hoskyns’ work, covering all musical styles as it went along. I definitely wanted to do that too. In terms of French writers, there was a great book called “L’âge d’or du yé-yé” by Jacques Barsamian and Francis Jouffa – two wonderful writers – which gave me a narrative thread to work with, and encouraged me to dig into the also-rans as well as covering the big stars. Other writers who influenced me along the way? Alan Clayson, with his books on beat groups and Hamburg (oddly enough, Alan reviewed my book for “Ugly Things” magazine – things come full circle, don’t they? Thanks, Alan!); his books have incredible detail in them. Mike Jahn, whose 1972 history of rock music (“Rock”) was the first one I ever read – I still treasure it. Richie Unterberger’s two-volume history of folk-rock taught me a lot about narrative too. And for the socio-cultural stuff, I was definitely fired up by the writing of Arthur Marwick, whose book “The Sixties” got me thinking about cross-national currents and how inter-connected we are. It’s more than just music, for sure.
What was the most difficult or time-consuming aspect of the book to write or research?
Whew! Tough question. The research was not particularly difficult, but I would say the toughest task was trying to find the original versions of some of the songs covered by French singers and groups. When I started out, there was no “Second Hand Songs”, no “45 cat”. I needed to do a lot of lateral thinking, and listen to an awful lot of American and British records by various songwriters to track some of them down – and some still prove elusive. It’s easier today – Youtube is a great tool – but some of them are seriously obscure. It’s fun though – and you get to listen to the music as you go. I’ve discovered some great American rockers as a result. In terms of what was time-consuming though – the endless edits and rewrites to get the book to the right length were the toughest and longest – and the most heart-breaking, too, throwing out paragraphs that I really liked to try to save some space. I can write forever – learning to be concise – that’s hard!
Are the next two volumes already planned?
Yep. The second one is written and submitted, although it may still need a little editing. Whether it will get released depends on how this first one goes – the publisher will need to get his money back on this one before he commits to volume two. That one goes from 1963 up to about 1969-70 – more or less the period that we think of as “the sixties”, and runs from the first French responses to the Beatles on through the chaos of May 1968 to the dawn of the seventies – so in addition to continuing the tales of rock’n’roll, chanson and yé-yé, it’s got beat groups, folk music, R&B, soul music, folk-rock, pop, psychedelia and the birth of such seventies styles as prog rock, jazz-rock the singer-songwriter movement and a whole lot more. The third one (1969-76) is written in embryonic form but needs heavy editing and a full rewrite to make it publishable. I’ve mapped out the fourth one (1975-1980) on paper and done a bit of the research but not much of the actual writing. The final one – if I ever get around to thinking about it – will take the story to around 1984, and I’ll stop there. I’m not a fan of the music of the late eighties – from France or anywhere else.
Watch Édith Piaf performing one of the most popular French songs of all time “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien”
Do you believe that the quality of performers and music itself has decreased since the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s?
No, not necessarily. There are still good musicians and singers around, and good songs being written. That doesn’t change. What has changed is the production – I dislike the sound of many records from the eighties onwards – I find them too clinical, often over-produced and lacking in the human touch. It has got a bit better in the last twenty years, but I still find that the mastering hurts my ears. I think though what has really changed is what music means to people. Being young in the fifties, sixties or seventies, the music you listened to was like a call to arms – you defined your existence by the bands you followed and the records you bought and so the music from those years helps to define the eras in which they were made. I’m not sure that happens anymore. Or maybe I’m just getting old….
Records should reflect the people who make them – and records from the 1920s to the 1970s do that very well
What is lacking mostly in today’s music?
Soul. Auto-tune and 32-track / digital recording have killed it. So many great records work because of the imperfections. Like Paul very noticeably messing up the words on “Please Please Me”, or Denny Doherty coming in too early on “I Saw Her Again (Last Night)”, or the band falling down and Ringo’s drum break dragging them back on track in the middle of “Get Back” – it works because you can feel the energy and love that they all put into those recordings. None of that would happen today. Multi-track recording means that the errorvwould be snipped out and a correction would be punched in, overdubbed and polished. It’s like the difference between the first Dire Straits album and “Brothers In Arms”. The first sounds organic and alive, warts and all, while the second sounds technically perfect – but life isn’t perfect and to me that album sounds sterile. I know millions love it but it’s not for me. Records should reflect the people who make them – and records from the 1920s to the 1970s do that very well. Somewhere over the last forty years, we forgot how to do that. I’ll take “Pet Sounds” or “Hound Dog” or “In The Mood” or “Songs For Swinging Lovers” over today’s output any day, but as I said before, maybe I’m just getting old.
We tend to remember the stuff from rock ‘n’ roll onwards, but that’s because we still listen to music that takes its inspiration from that
Will today’s pop and rock music will be remembered in the same way that the 20th century one was?
How well do we really remember the music of the 20th century? Who remembers Al Jolson? Or Sophie Tucker? Or George Formby? Gracie Fileds? Byron T. Harlan? Bing Crosby even? We tend to remember the stuff from rock ‘n’ roll onwards, but that’s because we still listen to music that takes its inspiration from that (or some of us do, anyway). But maybe not. I was recently asked by a colleague if I had met anyone famous and I replied that I had met Tom Jones (which I have, twice – nice bloke). She looked at me blankly and asked, “Who’s Tom Jones?”. Nothing lasts forever, does it?
Which of the artists you mention in your book would you choose to spend a day with, and why?
Oh Lord! What a question! It would depend on my mood, I suppose. Jacques Brel would have been interesting, but I’d never have coped with the cigarette smoke. I’d quite like to talk rock ‘n’ roll with Eddy Mitchell – he knows and loves his music and he likes the old chansons too. When I was younger, I might have been cheeky and suggested Brigitte Bardot, who quite apart from the attributes that made her famous actually really liked and knew a lot about music. Sacha Distel would probably have been worth chatting with too, especially if we could talk about jazz – people forget he was a great guitarist before he became a singer. But I’ll opt for Petula Clark, as she made my all time favorite record – “Downtown”. Then again, they say you should never meet your heroes…
And who would you invite to dinner if you could invite three of them?
That would be interesting, wouldn’t it? Who would even get on with who? I guess Juliette Gréco would have been one – she was always very interesting. And maybe Henri Salvador, to keep us laughing – he had one of the most distinctive laughs ever, and so infectious (have you heard that record he made – a 78 – which is just him laughing . But who would you get to sit down with those two? I guess it has to be one of the yé-yé singers, really, but I’m not sure I could pick just one. Maybe Gillian Hills – she was the first real yé-yé girl, after all.
Gareth Jones pictured above with his beloved cat who “helped” during the writing of “French Pop”
Watch Gilbert Bécaud performing “Et Maintenant” in 1962
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