In praise of Michel Polnareff

A superstar in his native land for nearly sixty years, a colossal star in Japan, but despite living for many years in the United States, Michel Polnareff is disappointingly little-known in the English-speaking world.

In praise of Michel Polnareff

Q: What do barefoot chanteuse Sandie Shaw, folk-rocker Scott McKenzie, country-pop singer Jimmie Rodgers, underground hero Nick Cave, indie outfit St. Étienne, French legend Johnny Hallyday, Shakespearean actor Keith Michell, orchestra leader Tony Hatch and diminutive teenage star Peggy March have in common? A: They have all recorded songs first brought to life by French singer, songwriter, non-conformist and living legend, Michel Polnareff. Find out more with Jean-Emmanuel Deluxe and Racheal Leigh Carter’s new magnum opus, “Polnaroïds”.

A superstar in his native land for nearly sixty years, a colossal star in Japan, but despite living for many years in the United States, Michel Polnareff is disappointingly little-known in the English-speaking world. Yet his songs, from 1966 folk-rock debut “La poupée qui fait non” (covered by Scott McKenzie as “No, No, No, No, No”) to 1989’s big ballad “Goodbye Marilou” are solid gold classics – and the occasional new songs released since then aren’t bad either! And with his entire œuvre remastered and now available via streaming and download services, there has never been a better time to explore his work.

An androgynous beatnik who exploded to fame in 1966 via folk rock, as early as his second E.P. Polnareff took a sharp left turn, switching to piano for the sublime, yearning ballad “Love Me Please Love Me” (picked by both Sandie and Jimmie), and coupling it with the keyboard-fuelled folk-rocker “L’amour avec toi”, its taboo-busting lyric (translating as “I want to make love with you”) mocking hypocritical attitudes toward sex and being banned from the airwaves six months before the Stones pulled off the same trick. And for the next six years, the hits kept coming: the reflective “Sous quelle étoile suis-je né”, the infectious Gypsy-rocker “Ta ta ta ta”, the jaw-dropping piano melody of “Âme câline” (Tony Hatch grabbed that one as “Soul Coaxing”; Peggy March sang it in both English and German). 1968’s spectral, eerie “Le bal des Laze” is generally considered his best, although it was his poorest seller (how often do we see that…?) but 1969’s double-whammy of “Tous les bateaux, tous les oiseaux” (a big ballad snapped up by Keith Michell as “I’ll Give You The World” and the superb bubble-pop “Tout pour ma chérie” returned him to the top and blew open the doors to the Japanese market. The explosive “Dans la maison vide” was a masterpiece of orchestral pop and the early seventies saw him at the top of his game.

The 1971 set “Polnareff’s” was his first fully-conceived album, recorded (as were most of his early records) in London with a stellar session crew and chock full of blockbusting new songs boasting enough hooks to catch a whole school of fish. The hits continued – the easy-rolling “Un train ce soir”, the anthemic “Gloria”, the defiant, two-fingers to the establishment “Je suis un homme”, the anthemic “Holidays” – but by now, the singer’s constant challenges to morality, society and the powers that be (flamboyant costumes, long hair, erotic lyrics, a wilful upending of traditional roles) were provoking a backlash. A summer 1970 concert saw the singer assaulted onstage by a violent detractor, and worse would follow. Baring his backside on a series of posters advertising his 1972 Paris concerts, he was charged with indecency and fined. A year later, his manager having embezzled his fortune, he was hit with a massive tax bill and fled to Los Angeles. The golden days were over.

Polnareff would continue making music for the next two decades, some of it – 1975’s self-titled English-language debut, 1981’s commercial high point, the “Bulles” LP, 1990’s near swan song “Kama sutra” – very good indeed but he eventually fell silent, returning only for the occasional single, or for live performances, until the appropriately-titled “Enfin” album broke the drought a few years ago. But the legend persisted…

And now, you can easily find out why, thanks to a superb new coffee-table styled book, “Polnaroïds” by Jean-Emmanuel Deluxe and Racheal Leigh Carter, Polnareff-experts from either side of the Channel. Before the good folks at “Rock & Folk” stepped in with an offer, the authors had planned to release the book in English, which would have been long overdue recognition for the #1 genius in French pop (sorry, Serge!). But even if your French isn’t up to much, this coffee-table tome is still worth your euros.

Along with an insightful account of the man’s life and work, you get an in-depth look at six classic Polnadiscs (I’d favour the debut over the ‘82 TV special but hey!) and a ton of interviews with various Polnacolytes that get to the heart of the Polnarévolution. More than that though, the book is stuffed with photographs (Polnaroïds?) of the man at work and play, record sleeves, memorabilia, and much, much more. There’s no input from the man himself but the authors have done a stellar job of bringing the phenomenon of Polnamania to life, joining the dots to place the singer in his rightful place in pop history and (like all the best music books do) sending you back to the records. If you’ve ever wondered why fans place Polnareff on a par with Brian Wilson, Todd Rundgren and other, undisputed pop geniuses, then this is the place to find the answer. Get yourself a copy, download the man’s collected works (2017’s “Pop, rock en stock”, available dirt cheap) and discover for yourself.

Watch Michel Polnareff performing “Love Me Please Love Me”

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Jean-Emmanuel and Raechel's new book

 



 



 

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Gareth Jones

Gareth Jones is a music connoisseur and the author of the book "French Pop: from Music Hall to Yé-Yé"

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