The new song by super-cool Christine and the Queens came on the office radio the other day and sparked a conversation about why only songs written in English make it to the top of the UK charts.
The charts in, say, France or Germany have both their own national acts, singing in their own languages, alongside the more international acts, often British or American, singing in English. But you don’t see the same effect in either the UK or US charts where songs in any language other than English are a much rarer event.
The wonderful Christine (or Chris at the moment, it seems…it’s hard keeping up with what uber-cool people are up to) released a wonderful song called “Tilted” a couple of years ago. It’s just about the coolest song I’ve ever heard and the accompanying dance routine is amazing…both are here if you’d like a look… https://youtu.be/9RBzsjga73s
Christine sings and raps in both English and French and, if you haven’t heard her songs before, this is really worth a listen. Her album is brilliant too. I’d love to write about this song, but my French isn’t nearly good enough to interpret what she’s singing.
Thankfully, there are other songs which aren’t nearly as challenging for someone with my basic level of French…which is what led me to “Ça Plane Pour Moi”…
Before we get there, though, it’s only fair to point out that even the best bands in the world struggle with this foreign language stuff…
When The Beatles were trying to make one of their songs more mysterious and romantic, of course they chose a bit of French to make “Michelle” for the job…
Michelle, ma belle
Sont les mots qui vont tres bien ensemble
My French isn’t good enough to know if the French words in “Michelle” reflect the way a French person would speak in real life. But on the basis that I can broadly understand what they are saying, I have a suspicion Lennon and McCartney might have resorted to the 1960s equivalent of Google Translate to construct that lyric.
But even the Beatles only dared try out a handful of words in a language other than English.
If your definition of a foreign language record doing well in the UK charts means using a lot more non-English words than the Beatles attempted with “Michelle”, you might consider Sandpipers’ 1966 hit “Guantanamera”…a Top Ten hit in both the UK and the US.
That was sung mostly in Spanish, but with a helpful English translation halfway through to make sure non-Spanish speakers fully understood the song’s message. So even that isn’t a song sung exclusively in Spanish.
I thought I was on to something, though, with a song I remembered from my childhood…Plastic Bertrand’s “Ça Plane Pour Moi”.
However, when I checked up on the lyrics, despite what my memory of all those years ago was telling me, they are in fact a mixture of words in both French and English, rather than being entirely French.
At that point, I gave up trying to convince the office that the UK is especially welcoming to songs sung in languages other than English. (My daughter did remind me later, when I was telling her this story, that “Gangnam Style” did pretty well and that was in Korean, but I didn’t think of that in the middle of our office conversation…so now I’ve got to wait till the conversation comes up again before I can stroke my chin knowingly and say “well, there was that song in Korean as I recall…”)
However, there’s more to the story of “Ça Plane Pour Moi” than you might think…
Apparently, “Ça Plane Pour Moi” was intended as an artistic statement of some sort…of what sort, I’m not quite sure, but that’s the delightful mystery of Gallic creativity, I guess…however the lyrics sung in French seemingly make very little sense, even to a native French speaker.
Which is good news, in many ways, as the English lyrics don’t make very much sense to a native English speaker either.
One of the lines sung in English, for example, is…”I am the king of the divan”
Although a native English speaker can understand what each individual word means, when they’re all put together in the same sentence we’re not really any clearer about what Plastic Bertrand is trying to tell us.
And in a further delightful twist, thanks to information disclosed in a court case many years after “Ça Plane Pour Moi” got to the upper reaches of the UK charts, it seems that Bertrand himself didn’t actually sing on the record, or indeed any of the first four records released in his name. The original vocals were performed by the song’s writer/producer Lou Deprijck.
If you get as far as playing the video below…recognising that I’ve not really been talking the song up to this point…the only question in your mind should be why it took from the song’s release in 1978 to a court case in 2010 to realise that someone who’s definitely a contender for the award of least convincing miming of all time on a music video was not the original singer of the song.
The performer on this video (oui, c’est Bertrand) seems to have not much more than a passing familiarity with the words and timing of his own hit record.
Notwithstanding some pretty questionable lyrics in two entirely different languages, the record attributed to Plastic Bertrand (but not actually sung by him), reached the UK Top 10 in 1978.
I’ve got a lot of affection for “Ça Plane Pour Moi”, its imperfections notwithstanding, as it was an amusing diversion from the gloom of the UK music industry when it came out, even if that’s largely because none of us could understand the words Plastic Bertrand was singing.
And if, as I discovered years later, the song was really intended all along as a bit of a prank…a sort of deconstructed Gallic parody of the punk genre…then I’ve got even more affection for it. That would at least go some way to explain the utter madness that’s baked into every note and every word of this song…a delightful madness, but madness nonetheless.
In case you’ve forgotten it, or perhaps are too young to remember this nonsense first time round, here’s the wonderfully bonkers “Ça Plane Pour Moi” by…well, whoever…with words seemingly plucked at random from two entirely different languages.
Fair warning, though: you’ll need to put your shades on before watching this fast-moving fluorescent video from the 1970s…but I guarantee this Gallic romp through the punk genre, whether or not it really was intended as a parody all along…will leave you with a smile on your face…
The video is below, but if you prefer you can listen to the track on Spotify here… https://open.spotify.com/track/71yCMlsD6qbD7NmNUEoVNR
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