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Nov 07

CHARLES AZNAVOUR – “She”

FT + Popular51 comments • 8,931 views

#352, 29th June 1974

Elle

People remembering the 1970s as a grim decade must surely be forgetting records like this, which prove that it was also a time of romance and sophistication. Romance of course meaning “French”. And sophistication meaning….”French”. And they don’t come much more romantic and sophisticated than Charles Aznavour.

“She”‘s lyrics take a somewhat easy road – womankind as an exotic, unknowable, endlessly mysterious other. Men are from France, women are from Venus. You don’t get much sense that “She” is a real human being, which is of course the point – this record is both all-purpose (who wouldn’t imagine they were flattering their lover by implying that she is She) and aspirational (but actually it’s probably Brigitte Bardot or someone). Under the heavily-accented corn there’s a song here somewhere but I can’t say I have the patience to uncover it.

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Comments

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  1. 1
    Tom on 1 Nov 2007 #

    OMG what was the TV series “SEVEN FACES OF WOMAN”!!! That explains a lot.

    (Note: Steve M has been acting as picture researcher for this stretch of Popular so I didn’t see the pic until I posted this. Thanks Steve!)

  2. 2
    Erithian on 1 Nov 2007 #

    It might seem a strange association of ideas, but this reminds me of the World Cup that was going on in West Germany at the time. In which, as Marcello would no doubt be quick to remind us, Scotland’s group hinged on which country scored the most goals against Zaire. Scotland had first go and scored two, Yugoslavia nine and Brazil three. With the other group games being drawn, Scotland went out of the tournament unbeaten, which was more than the eventual winners West Germany managed – they lost a group game to East Germany, a country whose existence they barely acknowledged.

    It’s a clear memory because it was about the first sporting event I saw in colour – we were a couple of years away from our first colour TV, but we were housesitting for my uncle who was Considerably Richer Than Yow – lived next to his golf course, had a personalised number plate and a couple of Lowrys on his walls. Because this was some distance from school, for a while I was on the school run in Dad’s car – and it was on the car radio that I first heard that “She” was number one. I can still remember Noel Edmonds’ comment, something like: “Aaahh, the incomparable Charles Aznavour. I never thought I’d get to play him on Radio 1, let alone announce that he’s the new number one”. A fan, clearly.

    It’s not really a song for 12-year-olds, but it certainly appeals now, primarily for its total conviction, indeed immersion, in the idea of that mysterious “other”. The accent you either find adds to the Gallic romantic flavour, or you find an annoyance – I must admit to finding Elvis Costello’s rendition altogether more soulful, whatever you make of “Notting Hill”.

    Bit of a spate of Gallic charm in the chart around that time – we’d just had a Brel song, albeit a hackneyed version, at number one, and the following year Gilbert Bécaud was in the top 20 (which was a real “WTF?” moment for me).

  3. 3
    Marcello Carlin on 1 Nov 2007 #

    Sad to see that some people are still throwing rotten tomatoes at Charles Aznavour six decades on from when he was starting out as a Piaf protege and spent most of the late forties and all of the fifties being routinely ridiculed and jeered by French critics and audiences. Like Gainsbourg he was nobody’s conventional idea of “handsome” and yet his patience paid off as the critical tide eventually turned in the early sixties and people finally realised what an explosive performer he was. Like Gainsbourg he developed an undeniable aura despite his physical status.

    And like Gainsbourg he seized the nettle of hitherto taboo lyrical subject matter; the death of libido in “You’ve Let Yourself Go,” the death of hope in “Venice,” and in “What Makes A Man?” a song with an openly gay protagonist at a time when doing so was considered worthy of death by stoning – the rather sentimental portrait of the misunderstood loner has long since been superseded of course, and rightly so, but in its age it was incendiary.

    Possibly my favourite song of his is the six-minute-plus “No, I Could Never Forget” which displays why Truffaut and Godard wanted him as an actor; he bumps into an old flame from which he was forced to part years before, they go to a restaurant, he is secretly trembling with expectations that she too is alone and abandoned, and the weight that he bears on the crucial “yes” of her response is enough to bring down a planet, he wants her so much it’s tearing him to shreds (and he more or less sings the final two verses in tears), but the timing, the shades and nuances which he brings to this performance, are sublime.

    Of course I am referring to the songs Aznavour sung in English – like Celine Dion, one really needs to hear him and them in the original French to “get” his art. His English lyrics were generally written by Herbert Kretzmer (whose paths unexpectedly crossed with mine back in the summer of 1990) and were not literal translations but written with Aznavour’s full input and consent; Aznavour’s strategy for stardom was to become popular one country at a time – i.e. learn the language, then set up a tour and sing in the audience’s language – and it proved an astute move.

    So “She” – I remember the TV series being on, Sundays at nine on ITV, but don’t remember too much about it – could serve as a more sophisticated “can’t live with/without ’em” variant. It doesn’t really matter to whom he’s addressing the song, but his delivery is I believe truthful and the emotion he pours into “’til the day I die,” “the why and wherefore I’m alive” and the whimpered “me?” is transcendent.

    The song has a deeper personal resonance for me, I must admit (not for discussion here), but even if it didn’t I would still recognise this as an imperious yet vulnerable piece of work. I’m giving it a 9.

  4. 4
    Tom on 1 Nov 2007 #

    You’re not shifting me on “She” Marcello but I will check out more Aznavour as I don’t want to do the man a disservice – thanks for a passionate response.

  5. 5
    Helen Highwater on 1 Nov 2007 #

    It is what it is, and it is a very good example of what it is. It’s not exactly Brel- or Piaf-esque chanson, it’s something to appeal ton an Anglo-Saxon (and therefore sentimental) idea of what a French song ought to sound like. Which isn’t the same as a French song.

    Though I am familiar with the song it has no particular associations for me, because it belongs to that black hole of a summer in Canada and I’m pretty sure I never heard it there. Nor did it figure much on the Sphinx Bar jukebox when I came home. I think it just seeped into my consciousness over a period, without me noticing very much.

    Its attitude to womanhood seems a bit laughable now, but it’s a hell of a lot better than the bitter misogyny of any number of dancehall and gangster rap artistes. After forty years of (second wave) feminism, why haven’t men got it yet?

    More than a 3 for me. Not quite a 7 either but it’s perfectly agreeable when it comes up in the mix.

  6. 6
    Erithian on 1 Nov 2007 #

    No rotten tomatoes from me MC! For fans of the chanson, there was a cracking BBC4 documentary on Brel the other night, with archive footage of him singing “Amsterdam” and many other songs, plus covers by Scott Walker, Dusty Springfield and – yes – Terry Jacks, and interviews with Petula Clark, Neil Hannon and Marc Almond. Worth looking out for the repeat.

    Now if only the great Georges Brassens had had a UK hit…

    Number 2 Watch – Aznavour held off the Drifters’ “Kissing In The Back Row” for a couple of weeks.

  7. 7
    Marcello Carlin on 1 Nov 2007 #

    Now that Drifters song gave me the creeps in a Gary Glitter sense; fifty-year-old men singing about picking girls up from school?

    Gilbert Becaud actually went top ten with “A Little Love And Understanding,” yet another thread in Wogan’s tapestry of strange songs sung in funny accents.

  8. 8
    katstevens on 1 Nov 2007 #

    Hooray! Reading the entry above I had a vague tune in my head that I thought this might be, and looking on youtube I was RIGHT! I think I’ve heard a different version though, did Elvis ever cover this?

  9. 9
    Marcello Carlin on 1 Nov 2007 #

    Yep – as mentioned above, EC covered it for the film Notting Hill.

  10. 10
    katstevens on 1 Nov 2007 #

    OH GOD you know where I’ve heard it? Elvis COSTELLO did a version for the Notting Hill soundtrack urrrrrrrrgh.

  11. 11
    katstevens on 1 Nov 2007 #

    Aha x-post! That’ll teach me not to read through the comments…

  12. 12
    mike on 1 Nov 2007 #

    Like Erithian, this held nothing for me as a 12-year old; I found it faintly risible (“Charles Az-no-voice, arf arf!”) and fairly boring, a victory for the “other side”, etc etc.

    The first challenge to my pre-conceptions came with Marc Almond’s spell-binding cover of “What Makes A Man A Man”, as performed in Nottingham at the lone warm-up show for the Royal Albert Hall Twelve Years of Tears orchestral extravaganza (it later came out as a single). What, Charles Azanovour wrote THIS? Does not compute!

    The second challenge came with Elvis Costello’s fine cover, from the Notting Hill soundtrack. What, Elvis Costello rates THIS? Does not compute!

    So, hmm, I guess I need to re-visit the Azanavour version.

    NB: Chanson fans may care to note the appearance of 80-year old accordion veteran (Brel, Piaf etc) Marcel Azzola on the track “Home” from Alison Moyet’s new album The Turn, sounding energetic and fully nimble of finger.

  13. 13
    mike on 1 Nov 2007 #

    (Damn those cross-posts!)

  14. 14
    mike on 1 Nov 2007 #

    Oh, and there’s another Almond Aznavour cover on 2007’s Stardom Road: the splendidly OTT “I Have Lived” (which Marc picked in preference to Aznavour’s “This Will Be My Day”). He has also covered “Yesterday When I Was Young” on Absinthe.

  15. 15
    Steve on 1 Nov 2007 #

    The early 90s Terry Hall (with Dave Stewart as Vegas) cover was my intro to this one – probably from a Chart Show episode. I recall it as a faithful port of the original with no twists but am unaware of their reasons for choosing to record it.

  16. 16
    LondonLee on 1 Nov 2007 #

    Always reminds me of my mum, she loved ‘Seven Faces of Woman’ (which is what made this a hit) which as I recall was like a cross between ‘Play For Today’ and ‘Woman In A Dressing Gown’

  17. 17
    Brian on 1 Nov 2007 #

    Without saying too much , I have a warm place in my heart for this song as done by Elvis Costello. It reminds me of someone I met in Malta when I was there for a month that I wished had never ended.
    She, amoungst the streets , cafes, and golden fortifications of Valetta, is ” She”.

    And I really liked ” Notting Hill ” , fine piece of ensemble comedy. And all the Brits should know that this how the world perceives you, until, of course, you land at Heathrow.

  18. 18
    Erithian on 1 Nov 2007 #

    At least it was miles better than Four Weddings IMHO.

  19. 19
    Marcello Carlin on 1 Nov 2007 #

    They cut out the scene where Hugh goes to the Rough Trade shop to buy Julia the new Boyzone single.

  20. 20
    Lena on 1 Nov 2007 #

    …and Jack Black is behind the counter and refuses to sell it to him…

  21. 21
    Brian on 1 Nov 2007 #

    LOL…

    While we are in French mode…I just came back from a week in northeren Quebec ( Ville Saguenay ) and a friend of mine bought me 2 CD’s that are really A-1. So the plug is for The Cowboys Fringants (www.cowboysfringants.com) & Mes Aieux (www.mesaieux.qc.ca)

    I don’t speak French but it won’t impede anyone’s enjoyment of these bands.

  22. 22
    GeorgeB on 1 Nov 2007 #

    Bravo Marcello. For me, this is wonderful – much nearer a 10 than a 3

  23. 23
    mike on 2 Nov 2007 #

    Just listened to it. Glorious, sublime, a 9.

  24. 24
    intothefireuk on 2 Nov 2007 #

    I was too young to appreciate either the TV prog or the single & hearing it on the radio used to induce huge guffaws at Aznavour’s tortured English and wobbly vocals. I seem to recall that comedians/impressionists of the day would grab the skin on their neck and shake it violently to create the Aznavour vibrato – I don’t know why I remember that. He seemed to hang around for some time after this – I recall ‘Dance In The Old Fashioned Way’ being a hit as well. The problem for me was that I could not hope to relate to what he was doing – it didn’t fit into my vision of pop & it was obv aimed at an older age group (prob the age I am now & above, in fact) so I discarded it. So having lived a bit how does it sound now ? Well, always trust your instincts, it may not induce guffaws anymore but it’s still an uneasy listen. Even EC’s version, which is better, still sounds strained and unwieldy. I can only think that it is the melody which irks me & the fact that the word she seems to be interminably repeated throughout the song. I no longer have a vision of pop that it doesn’t fit into but I can only really muster a paltry 2 on this one.

  25. 25
    Marcello Carlin on 2 Nov 2007 #

    “The Old Fashioned Way” is another one of those songs whose point you only really grasp when you get to, erm, my age. Now his remark “The world changes – love stays” makes perfect sense.

  26. 26
    mike on 2 Nov 2007 #

    Back to “She”: does anyone else hear premonitions of “Fairytale of New York” in its opening moments?

  27. 27
    crag on 2 Nov 2007 #

    Beautiful melody, lovely arrangement, and that voice giving it the hook to make it stand out from the pack – yet another number 1 like Waterloo and even perhaps Seasons in the Sun(with its unusually perky musical arrangement) that seems to combine optimism w/ a meloncholy sigh of regret. Must have been something in the water at the time.
    3 is way out- would have probably hated it at the time but this is a def 8 now.

  28. 28
    Marcello Carlin on 2 Nov 2007 #

    Mike xpost: I prefer to blot such traumas out.

  29. 29
    Marcus Floater on 2 Nov 2007 #

    An overripe slice of French cheese, is my feeling. Aznavour did much better things than this, but nonetheless he remains a second-rank chansonnier, compared with the likes of Brel, Brassens, Ferré, etc. A good actor, though. He’s excellent in Chabrol’s Fantômes du chapelier.

    I seem to remember reading that this single was a huge flop in France!

  30. 30

    (it is WRONG that “cheese” become a word of disapproval! in a sane world “french cheese” would be a massive thumbs-up)

    (i am going to add it to my list of WORDS IT IS V.LAME TO USE AS a DISS alongside dinosaur and fat cat)

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