An Interview With Stella
Trouble In Yé-Yé
"My uncle and I poked fun at the French yé-yé songs- we thought they were more funny than serious. So we started writing songs to capture that irony. He said, "You sing because it looks like singing comes easy to you." So I sang and he played guitar. We made a demo and sent it to the record company closest to where we were living. We didn't search for the biggest or best record company, just the nearest one."
It was in those simple, matter-of-fact terms that Stella explained the start of her pop music career. She was a vocal critic of the pop music establishment- France's defiant tomboy who, together with her uncle Maurice, wrote dozens of songs that went against the grain of the nouvelle vague- the new wave of '60s French singers. I interviewed Stella in the fall of 2003 in the basement studio of her suburban house, located just north of Paris.
She was flattered that an American filmmaker wanted to interview her. Unlike French bigwigs' Johnny Hallyday and Sylvie Vartan, Stella was little more than a footnote in the French sixties music scene. During our meeting, she recalled a surprising incident at a prog-rock festival in San Francisco in the late '90s. Stella was on tour with Magma, her former husband Christian Vander's "strength rock" group that she joined at the interchange of the '60s and '70s. After the gig, a few American fans approached her. They weren't interested in Magma. They wanted to talk about Stella's sixties pop career.
Stella's records were fairly obscure, but French label Magic Records compiled a double CD in 2000 that includes her entire Vogue and RCA catalogue (although it is missing some excellent psych tracks that she recorded for CBS). Her songs have also appeared on the Ultra Chicks series and the Austin Powers-inspired Pop á Paris compilation. Although Stella was one of many young female singers tapped to fulfill the unquenchable purchasing desires of France's teen population, she was different from the others- the provocateur of the bunch. Her lyrics were cynical, and she was very critical of the scene. Nevertheless, she has been unfairly (but understandably) lumped in with the "yé-yé" scene, a designation that allows her to be obscured by the likes of Johnny, Sylvie, and Sheila. 95% of the French population has never heard of her. I have come to expect the blank stare and corrections- "Ahh, you mean Sheila"- when I mention one of my favorite artists from that period.
French Pop In A Nutshell
American rock n' roll arrived in France in 1955 via Elvis Presley and "Rock Around The Clock," though it would be several years before French teens attempted their own interpretations of rock n' roll. In 1959, Vogue Records' artistic director Jacques Wolfsohn signed a 17-year-old named Jean-Philippe Smet who released the label's first French rock n' roll record.
It was clear that Jean-Philippe Smet was not the name of a rock n' roll star, and so he adopted the more suitable (more American) Johnny Hallyday for a stage name. Johnny would change French pop music forever, but not everyone was singing the young star's praises. After Europe 1 radio station DJ Lucien Morisse spun Johnny's debut single "T'aimer follement," he audibly broke the record on-air claiming, "That's the first and last time we'll hear from this artist."
Morisse was grossly mistaken. Johnny Hallyday became a permanent fixture on the French pop scene. His myriad fans called Johnny their own Elvis- France's "king of rock n' roll" who went on to marry his female equivalent, Sylvie Vartan in 1965. Sylvie had previously dated Daniel Filipacchi, founder of radio show Salut Les Copains!, the primary broadcast outlet for this new music. By the early '60s, French pop claimed its own magazine (Salut Les Copains!- a spin-off of the radio show), a nightclub (Le Golf Drouot), and a cavalcade of copains - Danyel Gerard, Frank Alamo, Françoise Hardy, Sheila, Clo-Clo, Les Chats, Les Chaussettes, Long Chris, Lucky Blondo, Danny Boy, Les Champions, Sophie, and Les Surfs. In the summer of 1963 Paris hosted Nuit De La Nation, the first major outdoor concert to mark the one-year anniversary of Salut Les Copains! the magazine. The festival expected to draw ten thousand people. Over 100,000 showed up.