It is easy to see why. He shamelessly cribbed some of our best-loved songs and sang them in French, which made them sound silly. His voice could be ridiculously operatic. His brooding pose seemed a poor Gallic copy of James Dean.
He was an ersatz rocker, more showbiz than the genuine article.
All of that may be true. But it is also entirely irrelevant. Because – for all his Belgian father, his Swiss residence and his American obsession – Hallyday only really mattered in one place, and that was France.
So to mock Johnny is to mock France. But equally to understand the Hallyday phenomenon is perhaps to understand something of the modern country.
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In his career and his personal life, Johnny came to embody perfectly that dual focus which is the essence of post-war France: on the one hand an eagerness for all the novelty of the consumerist, hedonist American lifestyle; on the other, a thirst for values that go beyond that, which allow France to feel it is still France.
In his youth in 1950s Paris, Johnny was among the first to feel the thrill of the new sounds coming from across the Atlantic. He had a collection of rock’n’roll 45s that were the envy of his friends. So enamoured was he of all things stateside that he even told an early interviewer his father was American.
Success and its trappings arrived fast, as Johnny became the acknowledged leader of the 1960s “yé-yé” (from “yeah, yeah” in English) generation of singers. They were all at it – re-versioning classic English pop and blues songs into French – but Johnny was the best. He was the coolest, the most handsome, the one with the most convincing “rock attitude”.
This was when the bond was forged with the public. The baby boomers who danced to Johnny in the 1960s went on to become France’s great and good and they never let him go.
In France there is none of the derision that in other countries accompanies the displacement of past-it performers. They cling to what they know, and as the years rolled by – from the Algeria war to the age of Instagram – they always knew Johnny would be back for a new tour, with a new album.
But mutual loyalty came from more than just the music. Because beyond the celebrity and the fun, the French public detected values in Johnny which they liked to think of as their own: hard work, stoicism in the face of adversity, simplicity, plain-speaking and a love of country.
His childhood had been a tough one. His father left home and only came back to marry Johnny’s mother in order to allay gossip that he was the child of a German soldier. This was during the occupation. Later his father turned into a total wastrel, sponging off his son and dying in poverty.
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