Gillian Hills: Beat Girl Pt 2

In the second and concluding part of Rockfort's Gillian Hills feature (you can read the first part here), Kieron Tyler recounts how the young starlet struck out as a songwriter, found herself in London when it was swinging, and appeared in some supremely cult films and TV series along the way.

It was really only in 1962 that Gillian was able to consolidate, putting the Bardot hype behind her. The year saw massive changes in France’s pop landscape. Sylvie Vartan scored her first big hit with ‘Tout Mes Copains’ and the cutesy Sheila’s debut EP was issued in October. Françoise Hardy had caught on immediately in February with her debut ‘Tous Les Garçons Et Les Filles’. 

Competition was in the air, but Gillian didn’t meet it head on. She had a brief part in the film Les Parisiennes and sang on the soundtrack EP, backed by rock ‘n’ rollers Les Chausettes Noires (Barclay 70433). The beginning of the year also saw the release of an EP (Barclay 70428) that found her tackling two covers of songs by Britain’s teenage star Helen Shapiro and a version of The Shirelles’ ‘Mama Said’. But taking on the identity of Helen Shapiro wasn’t going to get Gillian anywhere. Each release had been stylistically different from the previous and it didn’t seem as though her record label knew what Gillian should be – as Gillian acknowledges: “Nearly every one of the EPs I did was different, there’s no continuity.”
Although most of the year was spent away from the recording studio, Gillian appeared on a series of television variety and pop shows. The most significant was Age Tendre Et Tête De Bois (Young and Stubborn), an offshoot of the important radio show Salut Les Copains and the magazine of the same name. France was evolving media aimed directly at teenagers and Gillian was right in the middle of this new wave. She also appeared with presenter Daniel Filipacchi on his Salut Les Copains radio show. Filipacchi suggested she record a song with Frankie Jordan, a singer he represented. The song was ‘Panne D’Essence’. “I listened and it was incredibly high and I thought I don’t know if I can do this. I never heard a thing about it after that.” Instead, the song was recorded by Jordan with arranger Eddie Vartan’s sister Sylvie. It was Sylvie Vartan’s first record, the beginning of her long career.
Coincidentally, the rise of Sylvie Vartan pushed Gillian into something unprecedented. As 1962 went on, despite being well known, she didn’t record any more records. The EP with the Helen Shapiro covers was recorded in January 1962 – her next release was completed in June 1963. No one was suggesting what she could record and Gillian says that every time she came up with songs that she liked, she was told that Sylvie Vartan had recorded the song. “I loved the same songs as Sylvie, maybe I was a rival?” muses Gillian.
Whatever the politics, the hiatus forced Gillian into realising that she would have to write songs for herself. “After a while my A&R man said the publishing companies don’t want to give you any songs,” she explains. “The penny dropped that the only way I could record was if I wrote.” Although Françoise Hardy began her career with self-penned songs, this was still extremely unusual for a female singer.
When Gillian went into the studio to record her next EP in June 1963 (Barclay 70552), it was entirely self written. ‘Tu Mens’ was an upbeat swinger with a Ray Charles feel; ‘Avec Toi’ yearningly builds in the vein of ‘Baby It’s You’; while ‘N T’En Fais Pas’ also had a bluesy swing. But the killer was ‘Maintenent Il Telephone-, an incredible organ and guitar-driven staccato rocker with an inverted (pre) Gloria riff that has no precedent in French pop – it’s the sort of ür-garage rocker you’d hoped that Liverpool beat boomer Beryl Marsden might have made (but didn’t).
Her next release, recorded in November 1963, was just as assured and also all self written (Barclay 70595). With ex-pat American arranger Micky Baker, Gillian captured a middle ground between The Shirelles and the Uptown Brill Building sound. ‘Oublie’ and ‘C’est Le Garçon’ were beaty nuggets that remain striking. Circumstances had forced Gillian, at age 19, to mature into a songwriter that was taking on and perfecting international styles. But as far as France and her record label were concerned, it didn’t matter.
The most attention-grabbing highlight of 1963 was an appearance with Serge Gainsbourg on the TV show Teuf Teuf. They sang his song “Une Petite Tasse D’Anxiété” while sat together in a car having a mock argument. “I was told that Gainsbourg’s a very peculiar man, that he was incredibly shy and doesn’t like being looked at. I was told that when you go and see him, never look at him, don’t talk to him. He will tell you what he wants, he’s a little bit crazy. You’ll see in the show that I never look at him [the performance has been issued on the Gainsbourg A Gainsbarre DVD box set]”
By 1964 it was obvious that Gillian’s record label had no idea what to do with her and let her go. “For all my years with Barclay I never received a penny,” reflects Gillian, “I was frightened to go to the accountant. I just felt so lucky I was actually doing things.” More happily, Gillian’s acting career was picking up, and 1964 saw her occupied with the German-produced south-American jungle adventures Die Goldene Göttin Vom Rio Beni (The Golden Goddess of the Rio Beni) and Lana, Königin Der Amazonen (Lana, Queen of the Amazon), as well as the hugely obscure Abraham In Paris, an Iranian production filmed in the French capital.
The next year would prove as pivotal to Gillian as 1960. In 1965 she turned 21 and made one EP for the AZ label (AZ EP972), an outfit run by the radio station Europe 1. Issued early in the year, the covers were for the first time sympathetic – Gillian’s take on The Zombies’ ‘Leave Me Be’ is dynamite – and her self-penned, folkish ‘Rien N’Est Change’ revealed where she was travelling musically. “I was starting to write in English in France,” she explains. “Marianne Faithful was coming to France. I was also very interested in Donovan, I loved ‘Colours’.” Inevitably, she started looking towards England. “‘Colours’ was part of the reason I had to record in England. I recognised that it was very important for me to record in England and arrangements were made. I was given two weeks to come up with the songs.”
By this time Gillian’s profile had risen considerably and there was a good chance that her records could sell well. The French magazine Mademoiselle Age Tendre – a Salut Les Copains spin-off aimed at teenage girls – featured Gillian in virtually every issue between March and July 1965. Readers could discover her thoughts on marriage and see pictures of her modelling dresses. She was so well known that she featured in ads for Vespa motor scooters and gloves.
Even so, Gillian’s sole UK single wasn’t issued in France. It had been released by the British arm of Vogue, the French imprint that Françoise Hardy was signed to. Sung in English, ‘Tomorrow Is Another Day’/’Look At Them’ (VRS7005) was an incredible folk rock pairing, issued late 1965. Subtle orchestration colours the chiming acoustic guitar and Gillian’s voice had taken on a harder, Dylan-influenced edge. It failed to sell.
For Gillian though, the recording of her only non-French record became a full stop. “The guy who did the arrangement [Bob Leaper] didn’t understand that I had a particular way of writing, the guitar and the music needed to be together – a continuity between them. But he only wrote an arrangement for what I was singing. The song was dead. It wasn’t what I’d written. I showed the guy who played the guitar saying ‘this is what I’d written,’ and he said there’s nothing we can do. So I did what was told, what I was brought up to do.”
“When I was recording it, I knew that was the end. I was never going to record again. I’d given up everything.” And that was the end of Gillian’s recording career: 1960 to 1965.
Following the British single, Gillian stayed in England. Times were changing. After Time magazine screamed “London: The Swinging City” in April 1966, the message was clear –London was the centre of all that was happening and Gillian was right there. The British pop mag Fabulous had featured her in January 1966. But after turning her back on music, Gillian concentrated on film.
Gillian says that she fell back into acting: “My mother went to see the agent who looked after me for Beat Girl and said I was in England and needed something. They came up with an appointment with [Italian director] Antonioni. That’s how I went back into acting. But I wasn’t into anything then.”
Michelangelo Antonioni was amongst those entranced by Swinging London. His first English-language film, Blow Up, was filmed there in autumn 1966. The film would subvert London on its journey towards the Summer Of Love. Lead actor David Hemmings – modelled on David Bailey – photographs some top models, including Verushka and Peggy Moffit. Yet earlier he’s leaving a doss house. The park he haunts is in Charlton, at the gritty end of south-east London. It’s the flipside of the psychedelic fantasia. This dislocated world is opened to the dollies and groovers when two likely models turn up at Hemmings’ studio – Gillian and Jane Birkin. During his romp with them, Hemmings pulls off Gillian’s tights, revealing her pubic hair. Amazingly, Blow Up was passed uncut with an X certificate by British Board of Film Censors in January 1967. That’s art.
After Blow Up, Gillian scored a part in the film version of the John Osborne play Inadmissible Evidence and then appeared in the mystery romance Three. Notably, she played Alison in the TV adaptation of Alan Garner’s The Owl Service. Broadcast in late 1969 and early 1970, this was one of British TV’s spookiest and most atmospheric productions. Gillian played the daughter of a recently remarried woman spending time with her new stepfather and his son on the Welsh valleys (shades of Beat Girl in the family situation). Local legends affect everyone’s behaviour, heightening intensity and creating friction. Recently issued on DVD by Network DVD, the series is unmissable. For Gillian, “The Owl Service really was part of me.” She also acknowledges the sexual tension at its heart: “Alison goes through puberty and is growing up.”.
More film appearance followed – Clockwork Orange and Georges Franju’s La Faite De L’Abbe Mouroet were balanced against schlockier fare like Hammer horror of Demons of the Mind and the 1974 Italian stalk and murder fest, The Killer Wore Gloves.
Talking about her films, Gillian says “When you do one like Blow Up you very much get typecast. People pigeonholed me as a sexy bimbo. So with Clockwork Orange, that’s Blow Up again – really, it’s a rewind of Blow Up. But what I liked about Clockwork Orange was that I could be silent. Malcolm McDowell says ‘oh, she doesn’t speak.’” Gillian was disengaging from being in front of an audience.
“I wanted be an illustrator and close the door,” explains Gillian. I wanted to do something else. I was living in England and I gave myself a year, I put a portfolio together around 1973. I went to see Novamagazine and worked on an article and it went into the illustrator’s annual. It was wonderful, I was independent, people didn’t have to see me.” She put film behind her in 1975. Her illustrations are seen on the covers of many books –the most mass market was probably the UK edition of Peter Benchley’s The Deep. She also worked for magazines.
Nowadays, she lives in the Home Counties and has few ties to the worlds of her past. Occasionally things come along, like the DVD release of The Owl Service or the 2002 double CD release of her complete French recordings (Twistin’ the Rock). Given Gillian’s feelings about how powerlessness and tension figured in her past, it’s hardly surprising that there’s a sense she does not look back. Commenting on her journey through the film industry, she says “I found the whole thing completely surreal.”

But she set templates. It’s doubtful whether Brigitte Bardot would have begun making records in 1963 if Gillian hadn’t provided the lead. The similarities between Gillian’s and Jane Birkin’s careers in music and film are obvious. Yet with Gillian, it seems that the lack of control – the lack of guidance – had set her on an almost random path. And it’s that which gives rise to the free spiritedness and absolute charm captured by what she acheived. 

© Kieron Tyler 2010

This article originally appeared in Ugly Things magazine (www.ugly-things.com)