Thursday, April 10, 2008

La Vie En Lis

Last week I watched La Vie En Rose, a biopic about the troubled life of legendary French singer Edith Piaf (left). Despite the relentlessly gloomy plot and a sometimes confusingly random timeline, I really enjoyed the film. Not least because of the musical element. Piaf was the original French popstar, and an unquestionably massive influence on the distinctive canon of artists that followed - right up to contemporary French starlets, and current favourites of mine, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Camille.

Seeing the film got me thinking again about the whole Chanson tradition, which I have touched on here before. Literally translated, 'Chanson' means simply 'song', but it has come to be associated with a certain style of singing, characterised by passionate performers such as Piaf. The songs tend to be lyric-driven, often recounting a story or a moment in time, rather than being just a general exclamation of emotion. They also tend to be rhythmically determined by the lilt of the language, rather than a prescribed time-signature.

There's little that can be compared with this style of singing in the English-language musical tradition, especially not these days. Let's face it, most of our songs - even the good ones - are repetitive, trite and shallow. Long before I became aware of Chanson, I'd always loved a song that tells a story, and have been compiling a mental list of them over the years, with the intention of eventually making a mixtape. So far the list includes 'Fancy' by Bobbie Gentry, 'Pinball Wizard' by The Who, 'Paperback Writer' by The Beatles, 'Parklife' by Blur and something, as yet to be decided, by Joni Mitchell (there are quite a few options in her case).

Another great example of storytelling songwriters are Squeeze frontmen Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford, whose cheeky slice-of-life pop songs nearly all had some kind of narrative hook. I happened to see Chris Difford live this week, as he was doing a joint set with Boo Hewerdine (pictured here) at Komedia . I never miss a chance to catch Boo if he's in town, and although I had no idea what to expect from Mr Difford's solo material, I've always enjoyed a bit of Squeeze. Difford's new album is co-written and produced by Boo, and it's an interesting pairing. As well as the new stuff, he played lots of old favourites, including 'Cool for Cats' and 'Up the Junction', both of which are contenders for the ever-evolving song-as-story playlist. Hearing these old classics again also made me realise how much Lily Allen (and other lesser wannabes) owes to Squeeze. Then I found this YouTube video of Allen covering 'Up the Junction', which seems to confirm my theory:

I think I prefer the original, but I'm not averse to Lily Allen in her own right. In fact I applaud her for bringing this type of anecdotal ditty back into fashion. Now, how on earth did I get from Edith Piaf to Lily Allen in five paragraphs? That's what happens when you embark on a musical rant without really knowing where you're going with it. Still, I'm nothing if not eclectic.


  1. if you do do a mixtape - you should upload it to

  2. Yeah, I've been playing around with that recently, but haven't got round to uploading anything yet. Love the idea though.

  3. why does it not surprise me that you already know about it...

  4. Because I'm a sad and hopeless geek??


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