France Gall – A Chic Habit Worth Picking Up

Third Man Records reissues three seminal mid-60s albums from the ye-ye pop legend

Third Man’s France Gall reissues (Art: Ron Hart)

French ye-ye pop remains an effervescent genre to grasp hold of. It can seem impenetrably vast, and mostly thrived on hard-to-find import singles from often fleeting also-ran artists and labels.

Barely a chart blip in America, the sound was extremely popular in France for most of the 1960s, moving beyond simply a Euro equivalent to Phil Spector’s girl groups, becoming the Euro pop soundtrack of sexual liberation, as if France needed that.

Mostly sung in coy, airy tones by impossibly pretty women barely out of their teens, ye-ye’s subtle swagger mixed with seductive production made a mockery of the increasingly serious Rock intentions of the time. You’re not telling me anything new, Jim Morrison. Hell, a 18-year old girl in Lyon knows hooking up after a few drinks is fun. 

That kind of very French, almost post-modern acceptance of the obvious – not to mention the giant songwriting hand of Serge Gainsbourg and/or the influence of his day-glo production style – made the nearly forgotten teen pop sound ripe for rediscovery in the mid-1990s, so drenched in alt-rock’s drab solipsism. Beck, Cornershop, Broadcast, Belle and Sebastian, the Make-Up, and countless trip-hop productions swiped the bubbly studio tricks; and the genre’s mod fashion sense has rivaled Carnaby Street for hep staying power.  

There is a winking, eyeroll sense inside ye-ye. The cool ice queens singing this stuff exude an innocent pep, but given the inherent depth of the French accent, and lyrics of romantic pursuit, dumping the jerk, going out late, and doing drugs, ye-ye girls pop with a feminism a few years before we called it that. Nonetheless, this genre might’ve not survived today’s cancel culture, since the usually much older male producers twisting the, uh, nobs were also inherently French. 

 

VIDEO: France Gall “Baby Pop”

Ye-ye is a wide and colorful sound spectrum, so Third Man is doing a noble service by reissuing the seminal second-through-fourth albums (on vinyl in the U.S. for the first time) of France Gall. Along with Francoise Hardy, Bridgette Bardot, and a few others, Gall is at the top of the Eiffel Tower of ye-ye, and hence this tra-la-troika is a great introduction. The three records span Gall’s development, from café-sprung demi-folk, to teen tart, to psychedelic tip-toe-er. With help from an array of producers, at least two or three amazing Gainsbourg compositions on each album, and her quintessential, reverb-brushed ye-ye singing, these albums perfectly frame their context and yet sound fresh as an Italian IKEA commercial. 

Now my French is as bad as my Spanish, or German, or Russian, or shit, English for that matter, so I’m not going to pretend I get every one of Gall’s come-ons. But I can assure you my ears are continental, and on Poupee De Cire, Poupee De Son (1965), she seems to be making a good case for wanting to jettison societal shackles. Her voice, while giggly and spry, already displays a strength and control not usually associated with what we think of as early ‘60s malt shop hop. 

France Gall (Collage: Ron Hart)

Post-WWII record distribution was getting a little better, and British Invasion and U.S. R&B records were being dropped off boats in Paris. Poupee De Cire… hints at that, while remaining somewhat in a tradition of French café romancing. Ye-ye itself already had a sort of condescending international reputation. Of course debating the relative “seriousness” of anyone doing ye-ye then is akin to debating Coke’s slight status over Pepsi, or, okay, a 1989 or 1990 Bordeaux. But it’s all here to build on – the go-go beats, quick horn blats, clanky feigned “rock ‘n’ roll” guitar, and those ever-airy vocals. 

Even within its sprightly state, ye-ye had a way, in its youthful irreverence, of eschewing a society still reeling a bit from WWII. Gall’s fun-timing must’ve seemed reckless to the elders walking past the discotheque. And in that sense, ye-ye has always reminded me more of rockabilly – a youth sound dressed for zooming into a new world, hollow-body guitar in tow.

 

VIDEO: France Gall “Laisse tomber les filles”

(American April March covered Poupee De Cire’s Gainsbourg-penned “Laisse Tomber Les Filles” as “Chick Habit,” scoring a college radio hit with it in 1995, and then being expertly dropped into Tarantino’s Death Proof in 2007.)    

Gall doubled down on Baby Pop (1966). Bathed in glorious mono, the somewhat faster beats hit a little harder, harmonicas sneak in, and Gall scats just a little looser, allowing the upbeat numbers more kick, and the torch tunes a sexier depth. There’s even a fun western stroll, “Lamerique,” which only adds to the way Baby Pop rolls along all flighty, but ends up curiously complex. Wrapped in a great Op-Art sleeve, it’s a pinnacle of beret-askew cool.

1968 (1967) is an expected post-Sgt. Peppers hip swing into candy psychedelia, featuring flutes, strings, sitars, and more rhythmic shiftiness. The previous odd touches of banjo and plucked guitar and of course that echoy voice remain. Among a bushel of quirk, Gainsbourg’s “Teenie Weenie Boppie” is especially ginchy, balanced by Gall pulling out a more tough staccato vocal interpretation; and “Avant La Bagarre” shows she still pops with the most day-glo of ‘em.

Pressed and packaged in the meticulous manner of Third Man, these three ye-ye classics are ripe for rediscovery yet again, as we enter our own age of conservatism that could use some suave sashaying outta squaresville.

 

VIDEO: France Gall “Teenie Weenie Boppie”

Eric Davidson

Eric Davidson is a freelance writer from Queens; singer of New Bomb Turks; author of We Never Learn: The Gunk Punk Undergut, 1988–2001, and former Managing Editor of CMJ. Follow him @lanceforth.

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