Le Roi de France: Johnny Hallyday 1966-1969
Part of the idea behind Rockfort was to help combat the reflex response that occurs when you mention French rock to Brits: “Oh, like Johnny Hallyday? Hahahhaha!” It’s not that we’ve neurotically avoided mentioning Johneeee – he’s come up once before, and once again
it’s our own Kieron Tyler we have to thank for his presence on the site. And this time, the moment has come to look the king of French rock (of course, it’s commonly known that his parents were Belgian but he was born, as Jean-Phillipe Smet, in Paris), square in that vulpine face of his.
Well, kind of. ‘Le Roi de France’, mercifully, isn’t a career retrospective. Tyler’s aim with this record is to continue the process (that has included a South Bank Show special in 2004 and Radio 2 documentary in 2008) of restoring some kind of balance to Hallyday’s image as a pantomime rocker, by focusing on the peak period, 1966-1969, when he was leaving the straight rock n’ roll behind and moving in new directions with his backing band The Blackburds. Here we get rocking psychedelic workouts, driving pop and soulful ballads, and musicians credited include session machines of the calibre of Jimmy Page (who was then in the Yardbirds), Spooner Oldham and Big Jim Sullivan, while The Small Faces also put in a shift on a trio of powerful rockers ‘Regarde Pour Moi’, ‘Amen’ and ‘Réclamation’. As that South Bank Show profile demonstrated (noting the singer’s early patronage of Hendrix in France) Hallyday’s ears were, at this stage, wide open to new possibilities.
Hallyday’s is almost always a full-throttle, full-throated approach – as with Tom Jones, even when he’s wounded the anguish is writ large. There’s very little space for irony and ambiguity in either musical or vocal delivery – he’s a world away from the droll, clipped presence of his pal Jacques Dutronc – so when he’s getting psychedelic, he’s a wanderer, an adventurer; when he’s hurt he cries out in the night (‘J’ai Crié La Nuit’). This is not necessarily a bad thing either. Tyler has wisely put the most scintillating cuts up front – the self-explanatory ‘Psychedelic’ and ‘A Tout Casser’, both featuring Page, are superb, and ‘Voyage Au Pays Des Vivants’ is even more delightfully rampant. Equally, particularly on the melodramatic ballads like ‘Je N’ai Pas Voulu Croire’, which point towards Hallyday’s future, the stridency can ultimately have quite a deadening impact (well at least on me, I think Kieron has quite a high tolerance for this kind of chest-beating!).
We also get Hallyday tackling swinging and stomping pop numbers like ‘Noir ‘C’est Noir’ (‘Black Is Black’) and ‘Cheval D’Acier’, and beating Deep Purple to covering Joe South’s Hush (as ‘Mal’). Completing the picture are the more discreet, minor-key ‘Son Amour Pour En Jeu’ and ‘Quand l’Aigle Est Blessé’, which demonstrate that Johnny was capable of a relative restraint, even tenderness.
'Le Roi de France' is a compelling document that, while pointing towards later follies, presents a valiant defence of Hallyday’s crown.