Another summer with Johnny
It’s summer, which means that Johnny Hallyday is almost certainly playing some arena or other in the south of France. He’s 72 now, but after recovering from a serious health problem in 2009 he shows no signs of stopping. Rester vivant is the title of his recent album and of his current French tour, which takes him through to next February.
Back in the autumn of 2012 he came to London for the very first time, something not to be missed by a Francophile like me. To add to the authenticity of the event, the 5,000 seats of the Royal Albert Hall were almost entirely occupied by members of the French colonies of South Kensington and Kentish Town, currently numbering several hundreds of thousands. To sing the words of Michel Berger’s “Quelque chose de Tennessee” — possibly the best French pop song of the last 50 years — along with them and Johnny was a very stirring and precious experience.
The latest album was produced in California by none other than Don Was, former member of Was (Not Was) and current president of Blue Note Records. To be frank, it sounds pretty much like everything Johnny has released in the latter stages of his career: the slightly overwrought music of someone in love with the whole mythology of post-war American cultural imperialism, with just enough of a bitter-sweet hint of Gallic chanson to give it a dimension beyond the image of a man in black Levi’s, a motorcycle jacket and a single earring strumming a sunburst Strat with a Lucky Strike wedged in the tuning pegs, looking out over a Malibu sunset, with a chopped gunmetal ’55 Chevy idling in the background.
Don Was and his crew of Hollywood session men do a perfect job: the Hammond B3 is a security blanket, and the guitar and tenor saxophone solos are idiomatic but never overdone. Among those present are Greg Leisz, Dean Parks, Audley Freed and Matt Rollings. The drumming is by Charley Drayton, once a member of Keith Richards’s X-Pensive Winos. The bassist is Laurent Vernerey, a member of Hallyday’s road band.
The material is all new, from sources including the singer Yodelice and the lyricist Isabelle Bernat, whose collaborators include the English songwriters David Ford and Andy Hill. As usual with songs tailor-made for Johnny, they’re about love and life and hope. None of them has yet quite stuck with me in the way that “C’est pas une vie” from 2008’s Ça ne finira jamais did, although “On s’habitue à tout” makes good use of Leisz’s pedal steel and Gabe Witcher’s country fiddle. But I’m happy to give them time while I listen again and imagine I’m on holiday in Provence, drinking a cinquante-et-un and still smoking unfiltered Gitanes.