Yes, classic French songs are still hugely popular. So popular, in fact, that they’re still being covered by current artists in France and abroad.
But the question is: do you have a favourite cover version? Or is the original still the best?
Here are a few of my favourite cover versions…. 🎵
1. Dis, quand reviendras-tu? – Barbara
Cover version by: Vianney
This song, which can be roughly translated as ‘Tell me, when will you come back?’, is about a woman who is waiting for her lover to return. It was written in 1964 by Monique Serf, who took the stage name Barbara when she achieved success as a singer and pianist in France during the late 1950s. Barbara’s poignant lyrics and her delicate voice became her trademarks as a performer, as well as the winged eyeliner and black dress that she would often wear for her concerts.
If you liked this, why not listen to: L’Aigle Noir, another famous song by Barbara, which you can listen to here.
- Amsterdam – Jacques Brel
Cover version by: HK et les Saltimbanks
Two years before Jacques Brel shocked his fans in 1966 with his decision to retire from his singing career, he wrote Amsterdam at his house on the French Riviera.
Brel’s lyrics tell the story of a group of sailors on shore leave in Amsterdam, and he sings of the pride that they take in their work and their huge appetite for life, as they ‘show you teeth that crunch up fortune … and gobble up ship masts’. When he’d finished writing the song, he read the lyrics out to one of his friends, a local restaurant owner, who was apparently so moved that he started crying.
Despite this and the huge success that Brel received whenever he performed Amsterdam (such as the 3-minute ovation from his audience during a concert in Paris), he never liked the song. I wonder what he would have made then of this reggae-inspired cover from HK & Les Saltimbanks?
3. La Javanaise – Serge Gainsbourg
Cover version by: Patrick Bruel
Serge Gainsbourg wrote this at the beginning of the 1960s, when France was shunning his risqué and witty lyrics (the song title is a play on words of javanais, a type of old-fashioned French slang) in favour of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
Nevertheless, this song still holds a special place in the hearts of the French public. It was performed in 1990 at the Victoires de la Musique awards (France’s version of the Brit awards), with Gainsbourg watching – and it has to be said, looking ever so slightly grumpy.
Have a listen to this cover here (unfortunately not available on YouTube) by singer Patrick Bruel, who was so popular in France during the early 1990s that he inspired ‘Bruelmania’, and see which version you prefer.
4. Les amoureux des bancs publics – Georges Brassens
Cover version by: Renaud
Georges Brassens, along with Jacques Brel and Léo Ferré, was one of the most popular singers in post-war France. He is perhaps best remembered for his literate lyrics and for the satirical nature of his songs.
The title here translates roughly as ‘couples on public benches’, and Brassens gently mocks the overconfidence of teenage couples when they think about their future lives together.
At the end of the song, Brassens takes one last swipe at the couples’ youthful idealism, remarking that soon enough, they’ll realise that their love will never be as strong as when they sat together on the public benches all that time ago. Ouch.
How about listening to : Morgane de toi, which Renaud wrote for his daughter Lola when she was little.
Or if you’re looking for some more Brassens recommendations, have a listen to La Marche Nuptiale, a gloomy fictional recreation of his parents’ wedding day.
He imagines himself watching his parents get married, with rain spoiling the day and the bride and groom arriving at the ceremony in a cart pulled by their friends and pushed by their relatives.
5. Sous le ciel de Paris – Juliette Gréco
Cover version by: HK et les Déserteurs
Surely one of the best-known songs ever written about Paris, this was first recorded by Juliette Gréco in the 1950s before being performed by Édith Piaf and Yves Montand.
As Gréco sings of the couples, philosophers and musicians all united by their love ‘under the Paris sky’ for the City of Light, it’s hard to resist the urge to book a one-way ticket to Paris.
The cover version of Sous le ciel de Paris by HK et les Déserteurs, a music group founded by HK (who covered Amsterdam previously in this list), is inspired by chaabi music from North Africa.
Why not also check out: Si tu t’imagines or Jolie môme, also by Juliette Gréco.
6. Mistral Gagnant – Renaud
Cover version by: Cœur de Pirate
In this song, Renaud imagines a man talking with his daughter about his childhood. He tells her about the mistral gagnant, a sweet similar to sherbet. Some packets would have the word ‘gagnant’ (‘winner’) printed on them, and anyone who had one of these could then exchange the finished packet for a new one.
The narrator mentions how quickly time passes, remarking that time takes everything with it, from children’s laughter – as his daughter will soon grow up – to the mistral gagnant that he remembered so fondly from his childhood.
Apparently, when Renaud was recording the song in 1985, he sang it to his wife during a phone call. He wasn’t sure whether to release it, and she warned him that if he didn’t include it on his next album, she’d leave him. Luckily for his marriage and for his loyal fanbase, he did as he was told.
This cover version is by Cœur de Pirate, who I also write about here.
7. Les gens du nord – Enrico Macias
Cover version by: Patrick Bruel et Louane
I went to see Enrico Macias in concert earlier this month at the Olympia in Paris, and it was absolutely brilliant. Everyone in the audience seemed to know all of his songs by heart, and he had everyone dancing in the aisles by the end of the show.
One of his most famous songs is Les gens du nord (The People of the North), a tribute to those who have ‘the blue in their eyes that is lacking outside’ and ‘in their hearts the sun that they don’t have outside’.
And how about you? I’d love to hear what you think about the cover versions on this list! Have I missed out anyone you love? Who are your favourite French musicians? Let me know in the comments below! 🙂