Until the success in recent years of dance acts like daft Punk and Air, few French artists had ever graced the UK charts, particularly the Top 30 Singles. A look back over the past 25 years shows Mireille Mathieu at No. 26 in 1967 with ‘La Derniere Valse’, Sacha Distel’s No. 10 hit ‘Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head’ and Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg, who scored a No. 1 single with the controversial ‘Je T’Aime…Moi Non Plus’. And there’s always Jean Michel Jarre…
To this exclusive list can be added Vanessa Paradis who, at the tender age of 14 reached number 4 with ‘Joe Le Taxi’, the first Top 5 French single in nearly 20 years. Interestingly it wasn’t an overly ambitious mother who steered her in a musical direction but her uncle, producer Didier Pain, who would also became her manager.
Born on 22 December 1972 in the Paris suburb of St. Maur-des-Fossés, by the age of seven she had made her first public appearance on French TV on the amateur talent show L’école des fans singing ‘Chanson d’Emilie et du grand oiseau’ from the French musical Emilie Jolie. It was Didier Pain who entered her in the contest and then, six years later recorded her singing ‘La Magie Des Surprises Parties’ which, although never released as a single at the time, led to a meeting with Franck Langolff and Etienne Roda-Gil.
The duo promised to write a song for Vanessa and eventually came up with ‘Joe Le Taxi’, about a Parisian taxi driver with a penchant for rum and Latin music, who knows where all the bars are. The song had to be re-written slightly to be more appropriate for her tender age.
Pain took a demo of the song to both Virgin and Pathe with no success and finally received a positive response from Polydor. They were interested, provided they could first meet Vanessa and be sure she wasn’t being pushed into showbusiness by her parents. It only took her five minutes to convince them and in February 1987, just a couple of months after her fourteenth birthday, she signed with the label and went into the studio to record the song.
Released in April, the song reached No. 1 on the French charts and not even Madonna could dislodge the single. Available in several formats, the UK issue with a poster picture sleeve is valued at £25, while the French four-track CD/Video single, that included a Spanish language version of the song and video performance, is highly sought after and commands a £35 price tag.
The song immediately became a hit throughout Europe, staying at No. 1 in France for 12 weeks and a Top 5 hit in the UK, and pushed Vanessa firmly into the spotlight. “Finally, success gave me the freedom to say what I liked - and what I didn’t like.”
She followed this with a string of successful records including ‘Manolo Manolette’, ‘Marilyn Et John’, a song about the rumoured romance between Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy, ‘Maxou’, about her idol James Dean, and ‘Mosquito’ all penned by the winning combination of Langolff and Roda-Gil.
Following the success of ‘Joe Le Taxi’, and not wanting to miss a marketing opportunity, the record label AB released her recording of ‘La Magie Des Surprises Parties’, although copies were scarce and the single now fetches anything up to £120 for a mint issue.
Fame had a price, though. Despite her success, the French public refused to accept this precocious schoolgirl and she found herself at the receiving end of hatred and jealousy, and was often spat at in the street or called a ‘slut’ and a ‘whore’. During her time at school she had to suffer regular insults from other girls and in an interview in 1988 she recalled that “I no longer wanted to see anyone. I was crying every five minutes.”
A few years later, during an appearance at the Cannes Film Festival where she performed ‘Joe Le Taxi’, she was jeered at. Even recent glossy magazines have run headlines like “Why Do Woman Hate Vanessa?” Stating that she is “vain, pampered, dissolute and precociously sexy”. Her Lolita schoolgirl image, while being a major selling point, was also prooving to be a downside to her fame.
The success of the single, not only in France, but throughout Europe necessitated an album. The result, M & J, released in 1988, was a collection of Langolff/Roda-Gil compositions that demonstrated that she was far from a one-hit wonder. Despite pop music never being taken seriously in France the album was widely acclaimed as a French masterpiece, qualified for a platinum disc and was voted one of the five best domestic albums by the daily paper Liberation.
In the UK the album stalled at No. 45 and she was unable to capitalize on the success of ‘Joe Le Taxi’. It would be another four years before she would have another hit on this side of the Channel. Vanessa was happy with most of the album but did feel that tracks like ‘Chat Annas’, which features her serenading a kitten, was too childish. Even at the early age of 15 she wanted to record material with a harder edge.