Johnny Hallyday is France's answer to Elvis, a rock 'n' roll crooner who began his career in the 1950s and continues to enjoy fame throughout Europe to this day. I was really only familiar with him by reputation, his name mentioned in various Nouvelle Vague films of the '60s amongst other pop culture references, some that I understood and some I didn't. Always eager to explore music that is new--at least to me--I picked up Johnny Hallyday: Live at Montreux 1988.
What I found was a Vegas-style performer doing his best to weather through some of the worst musical tastes of the 1980s. His gravelly voice and pompadoured swagger making him come across as a hybrid of Neil Diamond and Tom Jones, Hallyday puts on quite a show over this 17-song, 93-minute concert. He sings rocking up-tempo numbers, a couple of bluesy jams, and the occasional power ballad, and when he is front and center, Hallyday is a captivating performer. His voice isn't a knockout and he's certainly not got the charisma of either Diamond, Jones, or Presley, but it's clear to see why Johnny has sustained a career for 50 years. He may look a little Hasselhoff when he preens for the camera, but the man is able to work his pipes for everything they've got.
Unfortunately, since it's 1988, the gig has a few problems. For one, the Montreux Jazz Festival shows from the period, which I would often see broken up into individual clips on A&E back in the day, were shot on video and though likely of top standards in 1988, and though the DVD looks like it was taken from a pretty good master source, the look of the film leaves something to be desired. Though the cameramen get some great coverage from all over the concert hall, the overall image quality is rather flat and washed-out, as much video footage from the time is.
There is also a tendency to go too big with the production stylings. Hallyday's poodle-haired band, looking like extras from a Michael Bolton video, consists of two guitarists, a bass player, two keyboard plays, a saxophonist, a drummer, three back-up singers, and then Hallyday himself sometimes playing guitar. The result is an overabundance of arrangement, so that even when Hallyday begins a song like "Pendue a Mon Coup" on his own playing a Chuck Berry-style guitar lick, it's quickly buried under the sheer tonnage of back-up instrumentation. This lends a cheeseball factor to the music that detracts from the power of Hallyday as a belter and recalls how the Me Decade did its best to swallow other performers from Hallyday's era. David Bowie and the Who recovered, but Rod Stewart and the Rolling Stones apparently never will.
Still, Hallyday has a classic lounge sound that sticks true to his early rock roots, including a cover of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" (the one English song) and two Bob Seger covers, the most familiar being "Le Bon Temps Du Rock and Roll (Give Me that Old Time Rock and Roll)." One duet with back-up singer Shandi Sinnamon (who looks like Sandie Shaw) is reminiscent of early Meat Loaf and perhaps one of the best moments of the show is when Hallyday drops the bombast for a blues-inflected "La Musique Que J'aime."
Not a bad show, overall, and definitely not a bad performance from the French singer, but it makes me think I need to dig farther back if I want to get the real Johnny Hallyday deal.
The full tracklisting for the concert: 1) Rock N Roll Attitude 2) Dans Mes Nuits On Oublie 3) Pendue A Mon Cou 4) Mon Petit Loup 5) Laura 6) Que Je T'aime 7) Je Te Promets 8) Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On 9) Le Feu 10) Envie 11) Le Bon Temps Du Rock And Roll 12) J'oublierai Ton Nom 13) Gabrielle 14) Je T'attends 15) Musique Que J'aime 16) Aimer Vivre 17) Quelque Chose De Tennessee
I do wish that some form of English subtitles has been included. Even if they weren't going to translate the songs, it would have been nice to have a translation of Johnny's stage banter. Admittedly, he doesn't talk all that much, but still....
An 8-page interior booklet contains notes about the show, band credits, photos, and advertisements for other concert DVDs culled from the Montreux Jazz Festival series.