As a teenager in late-’50s Paris, Françoise Hardy found herself carried away by the pop music of the time, much of it British and American. “It was extraordinary, because every week you had tremendous new songs,” she says. “I was very fond of The Shadows and Cliff Richard, and also Marty Wilde. In the States, Elvis Presley, Paul Anka, Neil Sedaka, all these young people. I was only interested in that.”
As intoxicating as this new music was, these pop stars also acted as something of an escape for Hardy, whose childhood was “humble”, as Jean-Marie Périer puts it: her parents were unmarried – scandalous at the time – and her father was mostly absent, “married to I-don’t-know-who”, as Hardy explains.
“She lived in a very small family circle,” recalls Périer. “Her grandmother was always telling her that she was nothing, not even beautiful. When we started seeing each other, she had never even been in a theatre to see a movie.”
Hardy was intelligent, though, and by the time she passed her Baccalaureate at a younger age than usual, her interest in music was absolute. Her mother asked her father to buy her a gift, but Hardy had trouble deciding between a small radio and a guitar.
“I finally made up my mind for the guitar,” Hardy laughs. “Why did I want a guitar? I didn’t know anything about music! But I got the guitar, and I found out that with three chords I could make up quite a lot of tunes which were bad copies of the songs I was listening to all the time on Radio Luxembourg – ‘your station of the stars’!”
That Hardy then began writing her own songs is impressive – this was an era when pop stars generally employed professional writers (such as a young Serge Gainsbourg) and The Beatles were yet to release their first single. That much of her work still sounds strangely modern, eschewing the gaucheness of many of her yé-yé counterparts, is even more striking.
“At this time, the new artists in France used to sing American lyrics badly translated,” says Périer. “Let’s face it, the translators were not Marcel Proust. So she had no choice but to write her own – plus, she had things to say.”
Hardy believes her desire to write came from French singer Barbara. “She was a great artist, who was writing all her own songs. I was a great fan of hers; I went to see her live, and I always brought a rose to her.”
After signing with Vogue in late 1961, her debut – like almost all her albums, self-titled, but known by its most famous song, in this case “Tous Les Garçons…” – appeared in 1962. Within three months, Hardy was a major name in France, with her fame spreading throughout Europe. Despite the hits, though, Hardy was unhappy.
“I heard The Shadows behind songs like ‘Tous Les Garçons…’, but I had such bad musicians, such a bad producer… I thought those recordings were terrible. But I was on tour with Richard Anthony, and he said to me, ‘You have to record in England!’ My first recordings had such a huge success that my recording company didn’t want to change it, but finally we went to London, and for the first time I had a musical production I was happy with.”
From 1964’s Mon Amie La Rose onwards, Hardy was a regular at Marble Arch’s Pye Studios, working with arrangers Charles Blackwell, Arthur Greenslade and John Paul Jones and musicians including Jimmy Page. Hardy is effusive in her praise for most of those she’s worked with, but Jones’ arrangements come in for some stick. “Terrible production, terrible! He wanted to do a French production, and I was expecting exactly the contrary.”
As the decade swung into the mid-’60s, Hardy’s music began to sound lusher and richer, from the 12-string jangle of “Ce Petit Coeur” and the glacial, orchestral glide of “Il Se Fait Tard” (both written by Hardy) to the maverick fuzz-tone blues of “Je N’Attends Plus Personne”, featuring Page.
“From when she was 18, she knew she was different,” says producer Erick Benzi, who has worked regularly with Hardy over the past 20 years. “She was capable of going in front of big artists like Charles Aznavour and saying, ‘Your song is crap, I don’t want to sing it.’ She never made compromises.”
Accessible, but never pandering to trends, her first five albums were enough for Hardy to be seen as a serious artist, but it was her refusal to play the showbusiness game that made her something of an icon. She modelled, sure, but only for the most modern designers such as Paco Rabanne or André Courrèges, and it’s a fair bet that she would have been welcome at almost any high-society party; but Hardy preferred to mix in quieter circles, or stay at home and read.
“My job as photographer used to bring me into contact with acts like The Beatles and the Stones very often,” says Jean-Marie Périer. “All the Anglo-Saxons used to ask me to introduce them to Brigitte Bardot and to Françoise! When I toured with Bob Dylan he was asking me questions about her all the time.”
While she was performing a residency at London’s Savoy in the mid-’60s, Périer organised a dinner with Paul McCartney and George Harrison. “I remember this day because Jean-Marie had no tie,” says Françoise, “and so we couldn’t get into the club, one The Beatles used to go to often. It was a huge stress! Finally, somebody found a tie and gave it to him.”
Another sartorial debacle stymied a meeting with Burt Bacharach during Hardy’s Savoy run in 1965 – it seems the UK wasn’t quite ready for the futurist fashion Hardy preferred.
“In the audience was Burt Bacharach,” Hardy recalls. “I was a huge fan of his beautiful songs, and he wanted to meet me. I was in my stage dress, which was magnificent – it had been made by André Courrèges, and it was trousers and a top, all white, so elegant and modern, even today. I went down to the audience to see Burt, but the people from the Savoy didn’t let me in – I had been singing for three-quarters of an hour, but I couldn’t have a drink with Burt Bacharach because I was in trousers! Things have changed!”
On May 24, 1966, Hardy met Bob Dylan for the first time when he played the Paris Olympia. Hardy was now a huge admirer of Dylan’s songs, but the American’s opening acoustic set was a disaster, with Dylan visibly unwell and struggling to tune his guitar. During the interval, Hardy was told that the singer would only return for the second half if she came to see him in the interval.
“So I went to meet him,” says Hardy. “[After the concert] we were with some other French artists, like Johnny Hallyday, in Bob Dylan’s suite at the Georges V Hotel. Usually I never do this, it’s very embarrassing! Bob Dylan was already in his room, he wanted me to come in, and he played me two songs from his last album, which wasn’t yet released in France [Blonde On Blonde’s ‘Just Like A Woman’ and ‘I Want You’]. And that was it! I never saw him again.”
Alongside the hippest artists of the day, Hardy attended the Isle Of Wight festival in 1969. “I wanted to go and congratulate Bob Dylan after his set, but it was so crowded, it was impossible. I’m very surprised myself that I made the trip to an island for it, in the worst conditions! Was I camping? No, I don’t think so!”
If her presence in the festival’s VIP enclosure was the pinnacle of her acceptance by the international rock scene, Hardy soon moved out of its circles altogether. By this point, she was in a relationship with the more rebellious Jacques Dutronc, singer and songwriter and, as the ’70s dawned, Hardy pursued a rarer, stranger sound.