Vive le roi du rock ’n’ roll

It has been calculated that a third of the French population has seen Johnny Hallyday perform. Or perhaps it’s a quarter: accounts differ. At any rate “le roi du rock” has played to more French people than any other singer in history – but until now not a single Briton, at least not on British soil.

This week Hallyday, with more than 110m record sales to his name, belatedly addressed the imbalance. On Monday, he played the first of two nights at the Royal Albert Hall in London, his debut British shows. The atmosphere was fervent. Chants of “Jo-hnny, Jo-hnny!” rang out. Imploring hands reached for the idol as he promenaded the stage. Next to me a Hallyday clone in a rockabilly outfit bellowed along to the lyrics.

Almost everyone present was French; Hallyday’s British fan club could comfortably fit in a handful of Citroën 2CVs. But to smug rosbifs who have always dismissed the “French Elvis” as a joke, crowning proof of the chronic Gallic inability to rock, the night was a revelation. Hallyday, 69, commanded the stage with a huge dramatic vibrato and held the audience in the palm of his leather-gloved hand. The final song, from his forthcoming album L’Attente, alluded to his emergency spell in hospital this summer with bronchitis. “J’ai joué la montre,” Hallyday roared with outrageous vigour: I played for time. The Rolling Stones, his old Saint-Tropez drinking pals, would have been impressed.

Afterwards I am ushered into Hallyday’s dressing room for an audience. He doesn’t seem drained after two hours of extravagant vocalising and glad-handing fans. He sits at a sofa dressed in black, heavily tattooed, jewellery jangling when he speaks, hair teased in a quiff. Survivor of a lifestyle dedicated to the unholy trinity of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, he looks remarkable. His face is a compelling battleground in which the rejuvenating efforts of cosmetic enhancement vie for supremacy with the destructive after-effects of dissipation.

I begin by asking why it has taken him more than 50 years to perform in London. “I don’t know,” he says, talking easily in English: he lives part of the year in Los Angeles. “I did a lot of recording here but I never had the opportunity to play. Nobody proposed me to play here. I’m singing in French, and it’s not so easy. Next time I will have more songs in English.”

Hallyday epitomises the amorous side of France’s love-hate relationship with Anglo-American popular culture. Born Jean-Philippe Smet in occupied Paris in 1943, he grew up with his aunt and her American husband, who provided Hallyday with his stage name. “Actually, he raised me. I have no father,” he says. (His birth father was a Belgian who abandoned him as a baby.)

The adoptive family were performers, travelling around Europe doing song-and-dance routines. “My hero as a kid was Elvis, of course,” he says. His first hits, in the early 1960s, were French translations of US rock songs, changing Chubby Checker’s “Let’s Twist Again” into “Viens Danser le Twist”. The act was derivative but he projected a genuine aura of danger. After a 1961 gig ended with a riot, the French authorities banned rock shows for a time. Charles de Gaulle, France’s then president, suggested Hallyday might like to expend his excess energy breaking rocks in prison.

With trademark adaptability Hallyday reinvented himself for the psychedelic era by forging links with swinging London, employing Jimmy Page and the Small Faces as backing musicians and befriending Jimi Hendrix, who opened for Hallyday at a French gig in 1966. His current set includes a tribute to “mon ami Jimi”, Hallyday’s francophone version of Hendrix’s “Hey Joe”.

“When Jimi did the song, he called me, I was in Paris, and he said, ‘I just finished ‘Hey Joe’, you have to come and do it in French.’ So I came to London and we did ‘Hey Joe’ in French, it went out the same day as Jimi had his record out here in England. And he was number one here the same day as I was number one in France. Good memories.”

He describes playing the Royal Albert Hall, with its venerable rock history, as “magic”. “For me rock ’n’ roll comes from England more than America. At least for the French it did because we were closer to England. The language doesn’t matter. Music is music. There is no frontier.”

But, of course, language does matter. Hallyday has never cracked the monoglot British or American charts. In the French-speaking world his popularity remains immense, however, surviving duds such as 1976’s rock opera Hamlet – sample song: “Je Suis Fou” – and a tax avoidance controversy when he moved to Switzerland in 2006. Even friendship with Nicolas Sarkozy couldn’t dent his status as national icon.

The four-times-married singer is feted as one of France’s great characters, a lover of the virile pleasures of fast cars, motorbikes, women, wine, Gitanes and cocaine. The decadent lifestyle that kept tabloids enthralled for decades appears to be over – he has been married to current wife Laeticia for 16 years – but he remains a unique presence in French culture, a singular Gallic composite of Keith Richards, Frank Sinatra and Bruce Springsteen.

The tour that has brought him to London is his comeback: he retired from the stage in 2009. “I thought I was going to do the last tour, and then I had some problems, and then I went to the hospital for quite a long time, and when I came out I stayed like six months without working, doing nothing,” he says. “And then I started to think, ‘What am I f***ing doing here?’ My life’s going to be boring and terrible without doing what I love best to do, which is to go on stage and do music. So that’s when I decided to start again.”

The “problems” were serious episodes of ill health. In 2009 he was diagnosed with colon cancer; later that year a hernia operation went wrong and he was put in a medically induced coma. This August an attack of severe bronchitis in the Caribbean led to his being airlifted to a Guadeloupe hospital.

“I’m quite strong, you know. I had problems and I don’t have problems any more. I think when you have problems you see the life different, you know. When you are in good health and everything is fine, you have success and everything, you don’t – how do you say in English? – you don’t appreciate the life that much. It’s normal. But when you were going to die and you don’t die – then when you wake up in the morning and you see the sun and the people, you say, ‘Life is wonderful.’ ”

His new album L’Attente, out in France next month, returns to traditional French balladry after last year’s blues-rock-themed Jamais Seul. He talks of coming back to London to record an album, “like we used to do in the good times”.

“I think I will die on stage. I don’t want to die in a hospital,” Hallyday announces. A crucifix dangles from his neck. The Jesus figure isn’t nailed to the cross but has his hands free: he is playing the electric guitar. As it says in the gospel according to Johnny, vive le rock ’n’ roll.

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