29 May 2020

By the way, what is yéyé?

Philippe Edouard, PopArchives correspondent in France, traces the origins and aftermath of yéyé. 
"French yéyé is the best music in the world."

This assessment by the Californian singer-songwriter April March is very flattering to French pop, but it may be exaggerated.

But by the way, what is yéyé?

The expression indicates a musical style that appeared in France at the beginning of the Sixties, influenced by the Anglo-Saxon pop successes of this period. Nowadays it is even applied to the whole decade of the Sixties, without distinction among musical genres.

Saturday June 22, 1963: Radio Europe1 organises what would be known as La Folle Nuit de la Nation (mad night at the Nation), a free outdoor concert of rock and twist at Place de la Nation in Paris, performed by the idols of the moment.
Europe1 hopes to bring together 20,000 young people, but there will be 150,000 teenagers. Some speak of 200,000 fans.

The next day, the government and the press are terrified. Journalists report the damage caused by the "Blousons Noirs" (hooligans, lit. "black jackets"). The organisation, the singers, and the fans all go down in flames. The event is so phenomenal that the press around the world begins to talk about it.

On July 6, 1963, the sociologist Edgar Morin publishes an article on this phenomenon, in the newspaper Le Monde. He intelligently describes the ongoing changes in youth.
For the first time the word yéyé appears in the press.

Edgar Morin is therefore seen to this day as the father of the word yéyé. Now 98 years old, he always takes pleasure in talking about his creation and nobody finds anything to complain about, except certain musicologists. Did he find it in a flash of genius? False! He visited the haunts of young people, including the famous music club Golf-Drouot in Paris.

The band Long Chris et Les Daltons are regulars at Golf. Their guitarist, Jean-Pierre Bordi, alias Peter, who spends his life there, does not stop to finish his sentences when he enthuses about it: "It's yeah, yeah..!”

(The group's rhythm guitarist Gérard François, aka “Wimpy”, says yer, yer for yeah, yeah, and so is nicknamed Yer Yer.)

In this way the interjection yé-yé was born, not spontaneously, but in the confines of Golf Drouot where the expression became part of everyday life. And the yeah! yeah! that we often hear in Anglo-Saxon rock songs is adopted by their French counterparts.

On disc, Georges Aber used it for the first time in early 1963 with ‘Des ya ya des yé yé’. However, up until mid-1963, the singers of the 60s were called simply rockers or twisters or even copains (buddies) and idoles (idols).

With the advent of the twist, the recording industry had organized itself and quickly recovered from the surge of rock.

In 1962 Claude François and Sheila, the prototype yéyé artists, appear. They sing of the twist, but also of the new trends like the hully-gully, mashed-potatoes, and Madison. It is a variété rythmée (pop music) that appeals to young people and reassures parents. Record labels promote many idols who, for one or more EPs, will discover glory in a more or less ephemeral way.

1963 marks the start of the British invasion. Rock singers and French British-beat groups have a hard time being heard, unlike during the first wave of rock and twist. Besides, the rockers are pure and hard, so there is no question of them going yéyé. It is marshmallow, a less virile form of their music, worked over by showbiz.

1966 comes around. The older generation was used to being more or less contemptuous or indifferent to yéyé.

Suddenly they are shaken by a newcomer. Antoine, with an air of folk-rock tinged with the jerk, throws everything out the window, finding his generation as old-fashioned as the old. His song Les élucubrations d'Antoine [YouTube] revolutionizes French music but also shakes up society. Talking about over-the-counter contraceptive pills in supermarkets was totally subversive at the time.

Jacques Dutronc and Michel Polnareff also disrupt the music with original lyrics that no longer speak only of love affairs but of a society of consumerism and sex. Girls are not to be outdone: Charlotte Leslie clearly says: "Girls, they are made for making love" [YouTube]

This moral revolution lands two years before the May 1968 student revolt which will lead to huge strikes and radical changes in society.

Strictly speaking, yéyé is of the period between 1963 and 1966. It could go back to mid-1962, but the name does not officially exist. And it could continue after 1966, but the term becomes more and more overused.

This musical phenomenon shines in the French-speaking world - Belgium, Switzerland, Luxembourg and Quebec - but also in Italy, Portugal, Lebanon, and even in Japan. Its influence is also felt in South America.

The other country of yéyé (as with the EP) is Spain, which will reproduce in its own way the French wave. [YouTube]

In 2013, in England, the music journalist, author, singer, and publisher Jean-Emmanuel Deluxe published compilation albums and a book of French pop singers from the 60s. He called this series 'Yé-Yé Girls'. Since then, the name has toured the world. He can be reproached for being a bit of a copycat, but thanks to him everything is finally official. Since then, other yéyé collections have appeared in Anglo-Saxon markets.

By the way, how is it written? Yé-yé or yéyé? Or yeyé as in Spain, or even yèyè as in Italy? Do you need a plural “s”?

Originally, yé-yé is a double interjection so we put in the hyphen. Interjections do not take a plural. Thereafter the attached form yéyé becomes plural, yéyés. But whatever the spelling, it remains an emblem of freedom for the youth of the 60s.


Further reading, viewing:

Christian Eudeline, Anti Yéyé (2006)
Remarkable work on singers and beat groups who had a difficult career because of yéyé and the British Invasion. (In French. The title is inspired by Pierre Vassiliu's 1963 song Twist Anti-Yé.)

YéYé Révolution 1962-1966
TV documentary (in French) at YouTube. A visual and musical treat, featuring many key figures of the period including Sheila, Claude François, Sylvie Vartan, Dick Rivers, Francoise Hardy, and Johnny Hallyday.

Update 2022:
Newly published and well-reviewed, this will be followed by a second volume up to the late 1960s. The author is a friend of PopArchives who is credited in several places for his contributions.

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