Rock Rock Rock: French Rock 'n' Roll 1956-1959


It’s a parlour game played endlessly around the world – what is the first rock ’n’ roll record? Presumably it’s also a perennial question in France.
Elvis’ debut record hit the shops in 1955, and he first charted nationally in the States in 1956. Bill Haley’s ‘Shake Rattle and Roll’ charted in 1954. Jackie Brenston’s ‘Rocket 88’ – with Ike Turner – was released in 1951 and is generally considered the first rock ‘n’ roll record. Over here, Cliff hit big in 1958, Tommy Steele charted in 1956 but was pipped earlier that year by Tony Crombie, the jazzer whose band recorded Britain’s first rock ‘n’ roll record.
In France, les adolescents could check out the new sounds by tuning in to AFN, the American Armed Forces Network. American singles were available at the NATO bases that littered France and home-grown bands grew up in response/reaction to this new sound. The pioneer of French rock ‘n’ roll was Richard Anthony who, after having been inspired by Paul Anka, entered the arena during 1958 with his first EP ‘Rock ‘n’ Richard’. Anthony didn’t achieve his greatest level of success until a couple of years later though.
But the first French rock ‘n’ roll record was ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Mops’, released in 1956 by Henri Salvador. Penned by Boris Vian and Michel Legrand it was hardly serious: back then rock ‘n’ roll was a novelty ripe for mocking. Another of the Salvador/Vian/Legrand songs was ‘Va t’faire cuire un oeuf, man’ (“Go cook an egg man”).
Things took off in 1959 when the programme director of the radio station Europe 1, Lucien Morrise, commissioned Daniel Fillipachi and Frank Tenot to formulate a new, teenage oriented show, the first regular home-based programming of the US rock ‘n’ roll.. This was dubbed Salut Les Copains (Hi Guys) after the Gilbert Becaud song. Virtually immediately there was a groundswell of willing French interpreters, including Johnny Hallyday whose first record ‘T’aimer follement’ (a version of Floyd Robinson’s US hit ‘Makin’ Love’) was issued in early 1960. The two most popular rock ‘n’ roll bands which sprung up in the early 60s were the first homes of future stars Eddy Mitchell (Les Chausettes Noires) and Dick Rivers (Les Chats Sauvages).
So, pre-Hallyday – what else was there?
Although the ‘Rock Rock Rock’ CD neatly captures the 1956-1959 era by compiling the deeply obscure, there’s an integral problem and it’s not musical. The original release dates of the 16 tracks appear nowhere on the package. It’d be nice to chart the development of a sound, but without that information – well…
Anyway, what’s compiled pretty much parallels the British experience: jazzers trying rock ‘n’ roll on for size. Chuck in some accordion here and there and you’ve got a peculiarly French take.
A version of ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Mops’ appears as covered by Ferry “Rock” Barendse, who was apparently a jazz trumpeter. When not parping he was echoing that other trumpeter Louis Armstrong with some free-from, deep, growly scatting – which gives his jump-jive take on rock ‘n’ roll an absurd feel in line with the novelty origin of the song. Other jazzers include Dick Rasurell et ses Berlurons (a fake band including clarinettist Hubert Rostaing) and Swiss vibes player Hazy Osterwald – trad rock ‘n’ roll instrumentation didn’t seem to matter this early on. Indeed, Andre Fandrel’s politely swinging ‘Mademoiselle Rock and Roll’ and Charles Verstraëte’s instrumental ‘Rock Rock’ feature copious accordioning. ‘Rock Rock’ also sports some tootling clarinet, as does Les Six Trognes cover of Guy Mitchell’s ‘Rockabilly’.
This anything-will-do take on rock ‘n’ roll is fetching. Entertaining too. But the best tracks on ‘Rock Rock Rock’ are the few which attempt rock ‘n’ roll while sticking to something close to the accepted instrumental template. Caterine Caps’ ‘C’est D’accord OK Tu Gagnes’ has the ever-present jazz swing, but the big-band brass stabs and rolling piano do at least make for a toe tapper. Taps Millers’ ‘Ferme La Bouche’ is more like Big Joe Turner than rock ‘n’ roll and features more scat singing, but it does hint at – an albeit restrained – abandon. The liner notes say he was American.
Against any normal measure, ‘Rock Rock Rock’ would be considered amusing. When looked at with context, it’s fascinating – fun even, and silly. But it’s hard to imagine anyone getting fired up enough to slash cinema seats after hearing any of these 16 tracks.
© Kieron Tyler 2009