Forever subtitled the French Elvis, Johnny Hallyday’s contributions to rock ‘n’ roll have always been undervalued. Though virtually unknown in America, partially because of the language barrier and partially because of cultural myopia, his effect on Europe’s appreciation of the music’s joie de vivre impacted an entire continent. A superstar “over there” for half a century, he early on became a symbol of rock’s unruly spirit and sensuality, and a cruise through his early catalogue, as gathered here, shows why.
Hallyday was in his mid teens when he caught wind of Elvis. He was already an entertainer through his family, and began incorporating Presley’s hip-shake into his cabaret act. In early 1960 he was signed by the French company Vogue, and scored a breakthrough with “Souvenirs Souvenirs,” a bright piece of pop with a bouncy guitar solo. Perhaps a better analogy than Presley would be the idols cresting in his wake, a Ricky Nelson or a Bobby Rydell. Hallyday covered American hits — “Itsy Bitsy Petite Bikini,” “Let’s Twist Again” — and songs that sounded like American hits — “Toi Qui Regrettes” could be a transplanted Brill Building romancer, while “Si Tu Restes Avec Moi” is rockabilly at full epiglottal roar. But if he didn’t return the hits from whence they came, his rebellious image and role model made him an icon in his homeland. There is something appealing about the soft vowels and inflections of French set to a beat, and in paving the way for the Ye-Ye movement of coyly innocent pop double-entendre-ing, Hallyday’s place as provocateur is unassailable. These early songs would ring in a career that followed the timeline of rock’s worldliness, his persona roughening as the ’60s progressed into the ’70s, along with a tabloid life that would be the envy of any Behind the Music.