For this post I have decided to write about an artist whose choice seems paradoxical. It could be argued that he was not really ‘an immigrant’, as despite his father being Algerian he never knew him; and Alain Bashung is certainly not amongst the names normally bandied about by that select band this side of the Channel who love French ‘chanson’. No; I have chosen him because I could not resist his unique claim to fame: that of having forged a union between two seemingly irreconcilable animals: rock’n’roll and chanson.
Branded ‘ce grand monsieur de la chanson’ by the editor of Chorus, the long-running journal regarded as an authority on the subject, Alain said of his work and that of his most prominent lyricist Boris Bergman, “Nous voulions faire rendre gorge aux mots, a la syntaxe Francaise, pour les accoupler au tempo” (We wanted to make words and French syntax throw up, in order to form a couple with rhythm).
It was to be a long journey.
Born in 1947 in Boulogne-Billancourt to a Breton mother and an Algerian father, baby Alain did not thrive, and was sent to live with his grandparents in Alsace-Lorraine. It was a stiflingly conservative existence, down to singing in the church choir, and helping out on the family farm. But with one redeeming factor. It was the dawn of rock’n’roll, and young Alain thrilled to the emerging sounds of Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Bill Haley. In 1959, this ‘Parigot d’Alsace’ (Alsatian Parisian) returned to his roots, and another transformation took place. In 1960, aged 13, he was taken by his godmother to two concerts which would mark him for life. In one, a small figure in a black dress gesticulated in front of a red curtain. In the other, another figure, also wearing black, contorted himself with a microphone. The first was Edith Piaf; the second, Gene Vincent.
Spellbound, Alain rounded up some mates; mastered three guitar chords; and , in 1965, formed ‘The Dunces’: a group which at first flourished only in the school holidays, and in church halls. However, they soon found their way into the US army bases which at that time dotted the country.
It was a revelation. Alain and his friends had front-row seats for the likes of Fats Domino, Gene Vincent, Bobby Darin, Pat Boone and Dolly Parton; not forgetting The Platters, The Coasters, Marvin Gaye and The Four Tops.
But there was another essential ingredient to come. One evening, sharing the same bill as The Dunces at the Renault factory in Mennecy, an awkward figure performed songs based on endless alliterations and plays on words (puns). He was called Boby Lapointe. Alain was gobsmacked.
In 1963 aged 16, at his grandmother’s insistence Alain started a work placement with an accountancy firm. But after a few weeks he had had enough. From now on it was music or nothing.
In 1966, after a round of louche bars and bistros, Bashung (who still spelled his name with a “c”) was spotted by Philips, and signed up for his first ‘EP’: Pourquoi revez-vous des Etats-Unis? (Why dream of America?).
In 1967, having by now attracted the attention and support of no less than Juliette Greco, he found himself sharing the bill (albeit in a low position) at the Palais des Sports with a fistful of British rock stars: The Trogs, The Pretty Things, The Who (who failed to turn up), The Walker Brothers and inventors of ‘hard rock’, Cream. It was the prelude to a flood of 45 rpm’s (as they were then called); most of which, despite being the work of people like Pierre Delanoe (the first person to translate Bob Dylan into French) and Georges Aber (Petula Clark’s arranger) and today collectors’ items, sank without trace.
Bashung’s career took a nose-dive. Bored with the banalities of the music industry, he longed to break new ground – to push the boundaries. “J’ai connu une periode abominable. Je me reveillais en rallumant le megot de la veille, je me faisais jeter de partout. Et puis, un jour, j’ai telephone a Boris Bergman.” (I hit an all-time low. I would wake up and re-light yesterday’s cigarette-end. I got thrown out wherever I went. And then, one day, I called Boris Bergman).
Boris Bergman had already written two songs for Bashung. A Russian Jew born in London in during the blitz, in 1967 this speaker of nine languages swapped the profession of translating and dubbing films for that of songwriter. Working for the likes of Dalida , Juliette Greco and Nana Mouskouri, he had a special flair for language; and had been introduced to Alain by a sound engineer, Andy Scott. The two hit it off immediately and decided to produce Alain’s first album, released under the name (now spelt without a “c”) of Alain Bashung: Roman-photo. The title track (‘Graphic Novel’) was a satire on domestic tranquillity (dog; baby; mortgage), while Bergman’s C’est la faute a Dylan (‘It’s all Dylan’s fault’), a salute to the American protest icon, presaged Bashung’s future cocking-a-snoot-at-authority style. Of Bergman Alain said: “Il reussit bien dans un genre que j’appellerai “sordide sentimentale.” Et ce genre me va comme un gant…” (I would describe his style as “sordid sentimental”. A style which fits me like a glove…).
At the time (1977) the music scene was dominated by British punk rock and Bashung, too, fell under the spell of the Clash and the Sex Pistols. But he was consciously groping his way towards something different. A distinctively French version of rock’n’roll: something which would be both explosive and elegant . . .
He and Boris knuckled down to the task; sometimes going so far as to go away together (much to the amusement of landlords, who took them for a gay couple) in order to hone what would become the definitive Bashung style. It was not a conventional writer/singer relationship. Often they would exchange roles. “Je ne me considere pas comme un parolier, mais comme un instrument supplementaire”, said Boris. “Alain participe a l’ecriture des textes et on se marre comme des fous“. (I don’t think of myself as a lyricist but as a kind of extra musical instrument. Alain helps with the words and we fall about laughing”). An egregious mixture of Serge Gainsbourg (cynical irreverence), Buddy Holly (classic rock), Boby Lapointe (puns) and the Almanach Vermot (a popular periodical), the famous Bashung style began to emerge. But the resulting album, Roulette Russe, (Russian Roulette) fell on more or less deaf ears.
However, Alain’s next record, a 45 rpm plagiarism of a Buddy Holly single called Reminiscing, did not. Released a few months after Roulette Russe, Gaby, Oh! Gaby went ballistic, with the whole of France humming its humorous take on Charles Trenet’s La Mer:
“Tu veux qu’j’te chante la mer, le long, le long, le long des golfes pas tres clairs!”
With a million copies sold, it seemed, at last, like the break-through for which Bashung so longed.
Except that no-one took him seriously. Least of all Philips, who lowered the budget for his next album, Pizza. Undismayed, the duo set to work, producing eleven songs with the Bashung/ Bergman trademark: disquieting, disturbing rock, full of cheeky puns and musical borrowings. One track, Vertige d’Amour, (The giddiness of love), a thinly-veiled reference to masturbation, stood out, earning Bashung universal acclaim, topping the charts throughout autumn 1981, and contributing to the 300,000 sales of Pizza; an album which consolidated his reputation with both public and critics, and which many still consider his best.
But Bashung was still uneasy. Suddenly the darling of the media, (his manager claimed he spent more time turning down interviews than giving them), he was torn between the pleasures of fame and the ever-present passion to experiment. June 3rd 1981 saw his maiden appearance at L’Olympia, Paris’s high temple of chanson. Dressed from head to foot in black leather crisscrossed with zips and wearing dark glasses, he performed to a house packed to overflowing, with people being turned away and sitting in the aisles; just as they had done for Edith Piaf and The Beatles.
By 1982 he had had enough. The constant pressure of interviews, touring and showbiz generally began to tell on Bashung, and he decided, once again, to break loose – even from Boris, his alter ego, who had, in any case, decided to devote himself to cinema.
He decided to call on Serge Gainsbourg, whom he had long admired and wanted to work with. As with Boris, the relationship gelled, and they embarked on an alcohol-fuelled friendship punctuated with hilarity, as their roles became interchangeable and Alain supplied ideas for lyrics which Serge was only too happy to elaborate. The result was Play Blessures (The Wound Game). As the title implies, it was a hymn to pain, delivered in various musical modes, in a voice verging on hysteria – his darkest album yet. Paradoxically, it is still regarded as a masterpiece. “Jouer avec des plaies, ca aide a exorciser le mal. Qu’importe si plus tard c’est plus long a cicatriser?” (Playing with wounds helps exorcise pain. So what if it takes longer to heal?) For Bashung the album ticked an important box: a complete break with the world of pop. “Ca representait pour moi une evolution de dix ans par rapport a Gaby . . J’aime a la fois les choses tres sentimentales et tres cassees et ca representait bien les deux” (For me it symbolised having moved on ten years from Gaby . . I love very sentimental things and very broken things, and this combines the two.”)
As might have been imagined, the critics raved about Play Blessures, but the public ignored it. Why get worked-up about an album with no stand-out hit and songs about lavatories? Feeling even more violently torn between being ‘stranded’ in the hit-parade and the need to explore further afield, Bashung embarked on a disastrous promotional tour for the album characterised by icy halls and tiny audiences. As so often with him, it was but a blip. A series of smash-hit concerts at the Casino de Paris (26 January-4 February 1983) sent the press into raptures. “Bashung vient une nouvelle fois de re-inventer le rock” (Bashung has once again reinvented rock) (Liberation); “Une voix troublante, multiple et diablement seductive” (A disturbing, many-sided and fiendishly seductive voice) (France-Soir). But Bashung shrugged it off. “Le rock, je le vois comme un moyen de transport . . mais ca ne doit pas m’emprisonner” (I see rock as a means to an end; but I do not want it to imprison me).
Always uneasy, Bashung’s relationship with record companies, in this case Phonogram, exploded when, in the wake of a hugely successful series of concerts he decided to release an album, Live Tour 85. As he said in an interview in Chorus (July 1998), “Les concerts sont les seuls moments quand je me sens chanteur. En studio j’ai l’impression de lire un livre” (Concerts are the only time I feel like a singer. In the recording studio I feel as though I am reading a book.) To his horror, instead of the expected double album, which, he felt, could alone capture the ambiance of such a tour, and which the fans expected, Phonogram released a single album of a measly 8 tracks. Incensed, Bashung took up the threads of his relationship with his original record company, Barclay; but also, somewhat surprisingly, with Boris Bergman, his original sparring partner and the author of some of his greatest hits. Together they embarked on a new album, designed to hit the public where it hurt. A kind of return to Bashung’s roots, Passe le Rio Grande (Leave the Rio Grande behind) was a mix of classic rock and an extraordinary display of Boris’s trademark verbal gymnastics. Lines like “Lundi je passe l’oral sans Hardy”(On Monday Ill pass the oral without Hardy) and“Si tu me quittes, est-ce que je peux venir aussi?”(If you leave me, can I come too?) rocketed it into the charts, and, more importantly, into the award for Best Rock Disc at the 1986 Victoires de la Musique – Frances most prestigious popular music festival. It was just the start of a pattern which was to make Bashung one of the most decorated musicians in France.
In June 1989, TV pay channel Canal Plus sponsored a concert at the Palais de Sports featuring the Big Beasts of French rock. Alain Bashung took his place alongside Johnny Halliday, Eddy Mitchell, Telephone et Les Negresses Vertes, as, arms linked, the gang rounded off the evening with River Deep, Mountain High, by Ike and Tina Turner. Ever anxious not to be pigeon-holed, he followed this up with a radio portrait on France Culture, including Et maintenant (What now, my love?) by Gilbert Becaud
But, once again, trouble was brewing. There were rumours of a second break-up with Bergman. “With Boris it took three years to write six songs. I can’t keep travelling the world with him just to produce two lines. Once we were on the same wavelength, but Im afraid he has not moved on. . . Having said that, I don’t want to make a drama out of it, I’ve seen enough of those. The important thing is, that the songs that we wrote together are more beautiful than I can say.”(Liberation, March 1990).
But who could take up the baton? In 1975 Bashung had met a writer in a café whose work he liked but seldom actually used. Fifteen years later, he and Jean Fauque found themselves neighbours; and a true Bashung-esque partnership began, with the pair exchanging ideas by fax. They set to work on a new album, the keynote of which was to be revivals of ‘chansons francaises’: Gainsbourg, Becaud, Piaf etc. Except that he couldnt do it. ”Pour moi les Shadows avaient plus d’importance que Frehel. J’ai decouvert Les Chaussettes Noires avant Aznavour et Trenet.” (For me, The Shadows were more important than Frehel. I discovered Les Chaussettes Noirs before Aznavour and Trenet).
For the result, Osez Josephine (Dare, Josephine), a curious cocktail of Anglo-Saxon standards and traditional chansons, Bashung recruited a bevy of the best accoustic guitarists in the business: “J’en avais marre des machines, des heures passes a triturer des boutons pour chercher un son (I’d had my fill of machines, of hours fiddling with buttons to get the right sound).
Osez, Josephine turned out to be one of the greatest hits of Bashung’s career, selling 350,000 copies and netting him five nominations at Victoires de la Musique 1992 for best male singer (beating Jacques Dutronc) and best single (Osez Josephine). It was the start of a trajectory which would turn him into one of Frances most feted performers – “le recordman des Victoires de la Musique”, as Fred Hidalgo, editor of Chorus, would call him.
In 1994, Bashung/Fauque turned out Alain’s 11th album, Chatterton. Described by his biographer, Philippe Barbot, (long-time journalist at Telerama, the French equivalent of the Radio Times) as ‘noir, anxieux, douloureux’ (dark, worrying and painful), it paid homage to, among others, Fleetwood Mac and Leo Ferre. As Bashung said, “J’aimerais qu’un jour Ferre me telephone de la-haut en me disant:”Ca va, p’tit gars? Tu sais, j’aime bien ta derniere chanson”(I’d love it if one day Ferre telephoned me from the beyond and said, Hows it going, kid? You know what, I love your latest song). It led to a year-long tour culminating in Paris’s most hallowed venues: the Bataclan , the Zenith, and the Olympia. “Un sphinx en cuir noir; un Vince Taylor cerebral; un Leo Ferre new wave,” carolled Le Monde. (A sphinx in black leather; a cerebral Vince Taylor; a new wave Leo Ferre). Bashung had arrived.
Whilst unfortunately coinciding with his divorce (Barbot describes him as, “ Homeless, and living alone in a tiny flat in a high-rise block in Belleville”), Bashung’s 13th album, Fantaisie Militaire, (1998) (a title which could not be more inappropriate, taken as it was from the sheet music for a military display), with its themes of broken relationships, dreary housing developments, and death, reached what Barbot calls “the summit of his art”; netting three awards at Victoires de la Musique 1999: Artist of the Year; Best Pop/Rock Album, and Best Single Track (La nuit je mens) (At night, I lie).
“Au depart, j’essayais d’ecrire des melodies et puis j’entendais Burt Bacharach ou les Beatles, et je me disais que jamais je ne pourrais egaler des trucs aussi forts. Alors j’ai essaye de trouver un melange, un univers a moi” (To begin with, I tried to write tunes and then I heard Burt Bacharach and the Beatles, and knew that I would never be able to equal such fantastic stuff. So I decided to look for a mixture – a universe of my own making”). In a country where even the most revered French rockers (Johnny Hallyday, Eddy Mitchell) feel a tinge of inferiority with regard to their mighty transatlantic and cross-channel cousins, Bashung will have none of it. Apart from incredible tenacity and utter contempt for convention, his strength lies in his Frenchness: whether he likes it or not, his love of the language makes him a true son of Maurice Chevalier, Edith Piaf, Georges Brassens, Jacques Brel and Charles Trenet and their refusal to discriminate between entertainment and poetry.
After 2005, when Fantaisie Militaire was voted Best Album of the Last 20 Years at Victoires de la Musique, his success continued unabated until, in autumn 2007, he developed lung cancer. Several cancelled concerts later, on 28th February 2009 he performed, looking extremely frail, to a standing ovation at the 24th Victoires de la Musique – the most awarded artist in its history.
Two weeks later, on 14th March, Agence France Presse announced the sad news: Alain Bashung was dead. He was 61.
« J’ai une tronche bizarre et une façon de chanter pas ordinaire, reconnaissait-il. Pourquoi mes défauts ne deviendraient-ils pas des qualités ? » (‘I’ve an ugly mug and an unusual way of singing’, he admitted. ‘Why shouldn’t my faults become assets?’) (Quoted by Fred Hidalgo, ex-editor of Chorus, in his blog Si Ca Vous Chante at the time of Bashung’s death)
“Bashung pratique le non-dit, se dissimule avec ses jeux avec les mots, les tordant, les malaxant en tout sens pour exprimer le jus, ce qui constitue sans doute, avec sa voix caverneuse, le secret de son style définitif et absolument unique” (Bashung is a master of the unsaid, hiding behind plays on words, kneading and twisting them in every direction in order to extract the juice; a practice which, together with his dark, cavernous voice, is the secret of a style both definitive and absolutely unique). (Gilles Verlant, L’Odyssee de la Chanson Francaise).
‘The gentleman rocker of French chanson‘. (Francois Fillon, candidate for the French presidency).