Françoise Hardy’s English connections

The late French singer captured the hearts of multiple generations of England's rock fraternity.

The singer Francoise Hardy.
The singer Francoise Hardy. Credit: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

Françoise Hardy, who has died at the age of 80, was one of postwar France’s most celebrated singer-songwriters. Not only was she a peerless musician, whose career stretched from the early 1960s until 2018, but she acted, saw herself celebrated on both sides of the Channel (and beyond) as a fashion icon, and ensured that she was the living embodiment of a kind of Gallic chic that the more unsavoury likes of Serge Gainsbourg could only look at with envy, as they puffed their umpteenth Gauloises of the day. Hardy was a unique figure, and the sadness that has greeted her death from laryngeal cancer is testament to her influence on countless artists and writers.

So why, then, might she be best known in Britain for singing on a Blur B-side?

When Damon Albarn contacted Hardy in 1995, he was already on her radar. She subsequently described the Blur singer and songwriter in her 2008 memoir, The Despair of Monkeys and Other Trifles, as ‘a young man of striking charm and charisma’, but was still flattered and taken aback when she was approached by the band – as successful in France as they were in England – who said that they wanted to re-record the final song on their Parklife album, ‘To The End’, and to have her sing on it, in French. The new version of the track would be called ‘La comédie’, and Albarn – who she renamed ‘Demon’, to his amusement – told her that she was his only choice to perform it.

He also mentioned, casually, that he wanted a new string arrangement, and that his ideal arranger would be none other than the legendary John Barry. Hardy later wrote: ‘I am still kicking myself, per usual, for having lacked the most elementary presence of mind. John Barry was so famous and a priori so inaccessible that the members of the group did not think it could be done, whereas all it would have taken was for me to talk to Jane, his first wife and the mother of their daughter Kate, to at least make the initial contact possible.’

‘Jane’ was, of course, Jane Birkin, former wife of Serge Gainsbourg and an equally renowned musical and cinematic figure in her own right. Blur may have moved in the semi-glamorous circles of the Groucho Club and the Met Bar in 90s London, but – to his credit – ‘Demon’ knew that the likes of Keith Allen and Damien Hirst could not compare to the genuine legends Hardy had kept company with, ever since she released her debut song in 1962, ‘Tous les garcons et les filles’. It was, naturally, with this title in mind, that Blur released their own hit single, ‘Girls and Boys’, over three decades later; the synchronicity amused Hardy and Albarn alike.

The collaboration should have been a glorious and richly satisfying one for all participants, but while Blur – somewhat awestruck by being able to work with one of their great heroines – behaved themselves, Hardy was dissatisfied by the entire process. As she later recalled: ‘To my consternation, the strings were so over the top they made me think of a cake that was indigestible because of too much cream.’ The orchestra – not arranged by Barry – was recorded at Abbey Road, and she performed her part, without Albarn, in what she called ‘the worst possible conditions’ at Maison Rouge Studios in Paris. She subsequently reflected that ‘it was impossible to hear the rhythm and I had to sing with only the support of the cloying strings that Damon wanted. The opposite would have been a thousand times better!’ She concluded: ‘I have to say that the recording is not very good overall and that my participation brought absolutely nothing to the song – quite the contrary!’

Blur disagreed – ‘Damon and his acolytes were so proud of it and seemed to attach such importance to my appraisal that I never shared my reservations with them’ – and she shrugged off any disappointment, saying ‘I do not regret the splendid fountain of youth this adventure turned out to be’, and continued to speak fondly of ‘Demon’ throughout her life, saying that he bore a faint resemblance to both Hardy’s husband Jacques and son Thomas, and that he was ‘a gifted artist and brilliant lad who disarms everyone with his tenderness and charm’.

Hardy, of course, knew what she was speaking about when it came to dealing with English musicians. After she became one of the most talked-about artists in France, she decamped to Pye Records’ studios in London and worked with many of Britain’s best session musicians in order to record such English-language singles as 1965’s ‘All Over The World’, which made the top 20 and climbed no further. Although Hardy was too uncompromisingly French a talent to be a major success in her own right in England, she nevertheless took the English-speaking world by storm.

None other than Mick Jagger called her his ‘ideal woman’, and Bob Dylan wrote a mournful poem for her, which he featured on the sleeve of his fourth album, 1964’s Another Side of Bob Dylan. It began ‘for francoise hardy/at the seine’s edge/a giant shadow/of notre dame/seeks t’ grab my foot’ and then continued in similar vein. (When she finally met Dylan, she was unimpressed, saying he was ‘so thin, so pale, so strange. I honestly thought he did not have long to live’.) As so often, David Bowie put it best when he said of her that ‘I was passionately in love with her, [and] every male in the world, and a number of females, also were.’ She later repaid the compliment by recording the song ‘Tant de belles choses’ in 2004, which features a clear musical debt to ‘Space Oddity’.

Bowie and the other desperate would-be swains were ignored or gently let down by this latter-day Zuleika Dobson, who returned to France at the beginning of the 1970s to pursue a dual career as musician and astrologer: a subject that she was something of an expert on. There was a period in the 1960s when she could have had virtually anything that she wanted, including film stardom. She appeared opposite James Garner and Yves Montand in the 1966 racing drama Grand Prix, but found it a dissatisfying experience, returning to music save for fleeting appearances in French-language projects.

Françoise Hardy seldom performed live, suffering from insecurity and stage fright, and her considerable reputation rests not just on the music that she recorded, but the air of sophistication that she so effortlessly embodied in both her art and life. She said in a later interview: ‘Luckily for me, the most beautiful songs are not happy songs. The songs we remember are the sad, romantic songs.’ Those songs, so beautifully recorded by her, will live on as long as music exists.


Alexander Larman