Album Shuffle 004: Claude François, COMME D'HABITUDE

Philips · 1967

I might as well say before this goes any further that I have a lot of old French and Brazilian and Italian pop records and I know that in the 60s it was fashionable for every non-Anglophone pop album to merely bear the name of its singer on the spine, but I'm going to be following the long-established convention of calling these records by the title of their first track. Led Zeppelin can get away with that cutesy self-titled shit; Claude François cannot.

Which: Claude who? This is the first record I've come to in these shuffles that hasn't appeared on any List Of The Greatest Albums According To Whomever that I've seen, and while Claude François isn't nobody, he's not one of the four or five 60s French pop stars that young relatively hip twenty-first century Anglophones know. (That is, he's not Serge Gainsbourg, Françoise Hardy, France Gall, Brigitte Bardot, or Anna Karina, and people only know the latter two for their movies.) The dawning light of comprehension may appear in your eyes (as it did in mine) when informed that "Comme d'habitude" is the original song off of which Paul Anka based "My Way." You know, the Sinatra thing.

I've always hated "My Way," and hearing François' original gives me a clue to why: it's a chanson, not a Tin Pan Alley song, which means it has a different structure from the kind of songs that Sinatra was the Best Ever Singer of. Tin Pan Alley songs — the good ones, the kind that get into history books and retrospectives and Sinatra albums — are structured like jazz compositions, with introductions and heads and bridges and space for instrumental breaks. French chanson, on the other hand, is structurally closer to folk song, with tight circular melodies and repetitive verses; emotional shifts in chanson are tied to emphasis and rhythm, not harmonics. Sinatra is a singer who relies on harmonic shifts to guide his subtle narrative power; given a repetitive blow-after-blow-after-blow song like "My Way," all he can do is up the arrangement and pour on the juice, and it's a smug, self-satisfied asshole of a lyric to begin with; by the last verse, he sounds exactly like the two-bit tin-pot hood-made-good he once was and now is only, the Voice that had once crooned so eloquently of heartbreak and wisdom lost forever in an alcoholic roar.

Compare this to "Comme d'habitude." François gives it a rock arrangement, which is exactly right: not only does rock share the affinity to folk song (this wouldn't sound out of place on Blonde On Blonde), but rock instrumentation, especially those galloping drums, can add intensity to the later verses without the brassy bombast of Don Costa's gloating orchestration. I don't have much French, so I can't speak to how much better or worse the original lyrics are than Anka's whole-cloth substitute, but knowing that "comme d'habitude" means "as usual" hints at a somewhat less egocentric epic.

But that's just the first track, and still my least favorite thing on the record. It's also one of only a handful of original songs (well, "original" as in written for him by lyricist Gilles Thibaut with various French pop composers) on the album; six of the rest are reimaginings of current American and British pop songs, and the closer "Ce soir je vais boire" is adapted from the Italian dance song "Stasera mi butto" by Rocky Roberts.

Those American and English songs, though, are interesting in their own right, if only in the way that putting them all next to each other tells us something interesting about what François wanted to signal. They are, in the order heard: the Foundations' "Baby, Now That I've Found You" ("Pourquoi"), the Move's "Flowers In The Rain" ("Le Martien"), the Bee Gees' "Massachussetts" ("La plus belle chose du monde"), the Hollies' "Carrie Ann" ("L'homme au traineu"), Stevie Wonder's "I Was Made To Love Her" ("Rien, rien, rien"), and Mary Wells' "My Guy" ("Ma fille"). It's all sharp, bright pop, with driving beats and massive hooks and joyous riffs; the lyrics François sings may or may not have anything to do with the original (his version of "Flowers In the Rain" is the third 60s French pop song I know called "The Martian," with appropriately daffy sound effects), but if he's casting himself as a peer to these folks, he's not aiming low.

But it's the other three originals that really interest me; they fit perfectly naturally in with Motown and the Swinging London, with sitar accents, punchy horn charts, and drums bashing a solid if never quite funky beat. The bright, poster-like Pop Art cover of the album is served well by the contents inside: François is a limited but effective pop/rock singer, belting out these tunes with a brio that calls to mind Neil Diamond or Tom Jones (and that's a compliment), and unlike many French pop singers of the era, he's not afraid of a little rhythm.

On the evidence of this album, he's not a flat-out rock & roller (which, the guy who co-wrote "My Way" couldn't be), but he's a sharp, effective 60s pop singer, and it's not just the James Bond cast to the album sleeve that makes me think of of Nancy Sinatra, Shirley Bassey, and Johnny Rivers — that sharp-dressed, good-looking, and solidly-showbiz tier of 60s pop that felt like it would go on forever if only those stupid punk kids with their long hair and free love hadn't gotten in the way.

No comments:

Post a Comment