Vive la France – looking at the life of a Luxembourg legend
Today is 23 June, or the Grand Duke’s Birthday, the national day of Luxembourg.
Unlike our own Queen’s Birthday, this date has never marked the birthday of any monarch of Luxembourg – in actuality, it was chosen because it was more likely than not to be a nice summer’s day.
To celebrate this day of all things Luxembourgish, we’re going to take a deeper look at the life of one of the nation’s beloved entrants, Eurovision legend France Gall – and how, through the wonders of l’effet papillon, she managed to inspire two of Western music’s most enduring classics.
Gall was, of course, French, rather than Luxembourgish, and born Isabelle of parents already deeply ensconced in the music world: her father Robert, was a lyricist for the likes of Edith Piaf, and her mother Cécile was also a chanteuse. As a result, Gall started learning the piano at five years old and the guitar by age 10.
She became a recording artist under the stage name France Gall by her mid-teens, with her first single ‘Ne sois pas si bête’ (Don’t Be So Stupid) gaining radio airplay on her 16th birthday and becoming a hit.
Soon after, Gall joined forces with lyricist Maurice Tézé and composer Alain Goraguer to create a suite of original numbers broadly ranging in genre from jazz to children’s music, allowing her to distinguish herself from other French singers of her generation by singing original numbers rather than covering translated English originals.
She also collaborated with French musical polymath Serge Gainsbourg, who later gained international fame (or notoriety, depending on your outlook) for his sultry single ‘Je t’aime… moi non plus’ with English actress Jane Birkin. Gainsbourg was renowned for songs laden with sexual subtext, as well as double entendres and unsavoury puns.
Gainsbourg wrote a number of hit songs for Gall, including “Laisse tomber les filles” (Stop Messing Around with the Girls), all while building her trademark yé-yé style, a style which presented an innocent-eyed, youthful romanticism mixed with more mature lines of self-questioning lyrics – perfect for the baby-faced teeny-bopper Gall. Elements of this style can be seen in later teenage musical success stories such as Kate Bush and Eurovision’s own Lena.
In 1965, at age 17, Gall was selected to represent Luxembourg at the 10th Eurovision Song Contest in Naples. Gainsbourg wrote ten songs for Gall, from which she selected the now-iconic ‘Poupée de cire, poupée de son’.
In Naples, the song was booed in rehearsal – given the Contest was, at the time, a haven for traditional music, and ‘Poupée de cire, poupée de son’ was a stark dose of modernism to the quite staid Eurovision audience.
It’s quite evident, upon rewatching, that the live show itself is not Gall’s finest vocal performance, either. Gall’s then-boyfriend, musician Claude François, is reported to have shouted over the phone, “You sang off key! You were terrible!”
However, as history often demonstrates, Gall needn’t have fretted – the juries took the song to heart and awarded her the victory. Subsequently, the song shot into the top 10 all over Europe, and Gall later recorded covers in German, Italian, and, rather surprisingly, Japanese, due to her significant fan-base in Japan.
Gall continued to record Gainsbourg’s songs throughout the 1960s, delving into more mature themes such as capital punishment with ‘Qui se souvient de Caryl Chessman?’ as well as the anti-LSD song ‘Teenie Weenie Boppie’, a curious psychedelic tune about a bad drug trip with Mick Jagger.
Gall also recorded a number entitled ‘Bébé requin’, which, humorously enough to modern readers, translates to ‘Baby Shark’.
Later that decade, Gall creatively separated with Gainsbourg after realised the depth of songs he had filled with double entendres, and subsequently refused to perform any of the songs he penned, including ‘Poupée’. Speaking later about the exploitation, Gall said that she had performed “with an innocence of which I am proud” and that she felt “betrayed by the adults around me.”
Gall also separated from her Eurovision sledger-slash-boyfriend Claude François, who, it is reported, was tired of his girlfriend being more famous than him. He later incorporated themes of their dramatic break-up into his song ‘Comme d’habitude’.
If this song sounds familiar, it’s because it is! The song was heard by American singer Paul Anka, who bought the rights to the song and translated it into English for Frank Sinatra, who performed it under the name… ‘My Way’.
Another iconic artist had a crack at an English version – proto glam rocker and music legend David Bowie. He was displeased with his version, ‘Even a Fool Learns to Love’, and the song never released. However, Bowie later used his composition notes to compose his seminal hit ‘Life on Mars?’, whose introduction contains some of the same chords as ‘Comme d’habitude’.
France Gall never again reached the heights of her music career in the 1960s – however, she revived her career with success in Germany in the early 1970s and later achieved another number one in 1987 with ‘Ella, elle l’a’.
Following her retirement in 1999, Gall died in 2018, aged 70 – leaving a legacy of bringing Eurovision into the 1960s, standing up to exploitation, and both performing AND inspiring pop classics.