Graded on a Curve: Françoise Hardy,
The Disques Vogue Collection

French vocalist Françoise Hardy openly disdains being described as an icon, though of course her modesty plays a large role in why she continues to be revered by so many. Naturally, the most important component in her enduring reputation is the music; a superb singer and true artist from within the oft-unrelenting 1960s pop machine, her records have aged exceptionally well, retaining the allure of their era as they lack period gaffes. Hardy’s first five French language albums, all originally issued by Disques Vogue from ’62-’66, comprise a highly worthy run of productivity.

Françoise Hardy is a cornerstone of the ’60s Euro-pop phenomenon known as yé-yé. Akin to rock, girl groups, svelte male crooners, and the majority of the era’s teen-oriented sounds in general, yé-yé was widely considered to be of an ephemeral nature, and by extension was basically dominated by the collusion of producers and labels. The singers, amongst them France Gall, Sylvie Vartan, Clothilde, and Chantal Kelly, were the crucial ingredient in a very calculated recipe.

Hardy differed from the norm by writing a significant amount of her own stuff, all but two songs on her debut in fact, and as a result she evaded the sometimes embarrassing subject matter thrust upon other yé-yé girls. Furthermore, she was regularly photographed with guitar in hand, though it’s unclear to what extent she actually played on these recordings. To borrow a phrase relating to Studio-era Hollywood, Hardy transcended the “genius of the system” method of pop manufacture, instead excelling at a subdued auteur-driven approach.

In the tradition of the original filmic auteurs, few recognized Hardy as a major talent during her emergence on the scene. She definitely sparked interest in fellow musicians however, including The Beatles, Mick Jagger, and Bob Dylan, the last so struck by her skills he dedicated the poem “Some Other Kinds of Songs” to her; it’s on the back of Another Side of Bob Dylan’s sleeve.

And her popularity was sizable enough to secure a cameo appearance in Masculin Féminin, Jean-Luc Godard’s Nouvelle Vague masterpiece of ’64; that film starred her yé-yé counterpart Chantal Goya in place of the director’s usual female lead Anna Karina (singer of the Serge Gainsbourg-penned yé-yé staple “Roller Girl”). Hardy later scored minor roles in the English language films What’s New Pussycat and Grand Prix.

Over the years numerous filmmakers have utilized her music for the purposes of period ambiance and retro chic; a recent example is “Le temps de l’amour” in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. The song derives from her initial 1962 platter, the first of five eponymous discs (in the US Tous les garcons et les filles was issued as The “Yeh-Yeh” Girl from Paris!) preceding Peter Gabriel’s same self-titling tactic by a couple of decades; for clarity Hardy’s records are identified by popular entries on each.

A substantial portion of Tous les garcons et les filles’ lasting appeal relates directly to an atmosphere that’s essentially impossible to replicate today. Rather than masking deficiencies and flaws, Disques Vogue needed only to align her with a small group and let her artistry flourish, and that’s exactly what they did, offering a simple trio of guitar, upright bass, and trap set (surely a handful of individuals from different sessions) in support of Hardy’s confident vocalizing.

Tous les garcons et les filles frequently exudes an unfussy intimacy suggesting an informal session. Appreciable value is added by the blend of early rock ‘n’ roll and jazzy elements, but the album is undeniably Hardy’s show; even with a language barrier, there’s a tangible difference in the deliberate sass of her first single “Oh oh chéri” (a cover of Bobby Lee Trammell’s “Uh Oh”) and the more restrained climates of her own material.

Featuring music penned by her future husband (and one of the few legit yé-yé boys) Jacques Dutronc, “Le temps de l’amour” lands between the two poles. Dutronc also wrote the music for “Va pas prendre un tambour” from her ’63 follow-up Le Premier Bonheur du jour; wielding stronger production, non-obtrusive strings, backing vocalists and even a little hip organ, the LP is simultaneously bigger and lesser than its predecessor.

That’s not to imply a blunder; the record has plenty of positives, though with only half of the dozen tunes written by Hardy it registers as less personal. The adaptations of Paul Anka and Bacharach & David aren’t missteps, but the Gérald-Renard title track (later covered by Os Mutantes) and “On dit de lui,” a politely zonked interpretation of “It’s Gonna Take Me Some Time” as written by Christopher, Sterling & Temkin (first cut by Connie Francis) bookend the album with highlights. Her compositions, notably “Saurai-je,” “Nous Tous,” and “Le Sais-Tu” elevate the whole.

Third full-length Mon amie la rose sports the same division of originals and borrowings but feels more cohesive overall, alternating an orchestral pop vibe with less ornate constructions of Hardy’s girl group stomper “Et même’ and the considerably gentler “Pars” and “Dans le monde entier.” Elsewhere the tactic is switched; “Pas gentille” (sourced from Marty Wilde’s “Bad Boy”) benefits from a stripped-down and swaggering mode as Hardy’s “La nuit est sur la ville” gets boosted by its subtle symphonic treatment.

The structurally bursting “Je n’attends plus personne,” complete with wild-ass fuzz guitar, soaring strings and thunderous drumming might be Mon amie la rose’s best moment instrumentally; Hardy is in terrific voice throughout the disc. The amp fuzz returns on ’65’s L’Amitié; while a treat “Tout ce qu’on dit” isn’t as crazed. Once again backed by the Charles Blackwell Orchestra, her fourth long-player navigates a comfort zone to largely enjoyable result.

There are fleeting moments of excellence; the nifty baroque folk-pop of “Ce petit cœur” (its guitar reminiscent of a harpsichord), a killer version of Samantha Jones’ Northern soul monster “Don’t Come Any Closer” (its title translating to “Ce n’est pas un rêve”) and an inspired closing take of Bobby Skel’s “Say it Now” (likewise, “Dis-lui non”).

With the adaptations rising to meet the standard of her originals, L’Amitié foreshadows the further increase in quality found on the fifth and last record in this series of reissues, La maison où j’ai grandi. Containing seven of her own songs, the most since Tous les garcons et les filles, her focused, often melancholy writing and graceful intelligence in delivery combine with heightened accompaniment to produce a classic.

Hardy’s prior efforts consistently acknowledged ’60s norms without desperately grasping at trends, and while La maison où j’ai grandi delves deep into baroque pop territory (this time out the harpsichord is real) it avoids the poor decisions having marred various albums in the style, mainly because there’s an obvious disinterest in encroaching psychedelia.

Hardy’s strength at the microphone never gets misplaced, and her songs, especially the back-to-back “Je serai là pour toi” and “Peut-être que je t’aime,” are gems. The dips into rock ‘n’ roll, girl group, and soul action are absent but not really missed as La maison où j’ai grandi culminates a particularly fertile stretch of creativity.

Tous les garcons et les filles:

Le Premier Bonheur du jour:

Mon amie la rose:


La maison où j’ai grandi:

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