In the UK at least, Charles Aznavour, who has died aged 94, is largely embedded in the popular imagination as a light entertainment phenomenon. It’s the context in which he appeared on British TV in the late 60s and 70s: BBC specials called things like Love from A to Z, or spots on variety shows. His two big British hits, the syrupy The Old Fashioned Way and the impassioned She, seemed reactionary and wilfully old-fashioned: like Perry Como’s And I Love You So, or Peters and Lee’s Welcome Home, they were part of a wave of grandma-friendly MOR that crashed awkwardly around the glam and Philly soul records in the early 70s charts, a reminder that a lot of Britain’s record buyers were old enough to remember a halcyon world where rock’n’roll didn’t exist.
The latter was his solitary UK No 1, reigning incongruously over a Top 40 that contained Slade, Sweet and This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us by Sparks. He cut a very unlikely figure indeed on Top of the Pops, a diminutive, middle-aged man (“so worn by experience he’s got bags under his head”, as Clive James memorably put it), belting it out amid the glitter and lights.
His path would sometimes cross with anglophone pop music in the subsequent years. Bob Dylan was a fan, covering Aznavour’s Les Bons Moments as The Times We’ve Known live and naming a 1963 Aznavour show at Carnegie Hall one of the greatest performances he’d ever seen. A reporter from the Guardian was more baffled by said performance, replete with Aznavour’s trademark dramatic gestures, describing the “painful process” of the singer-songwriter “thrusting his anxious and sad, five-foot-and-a-bit, eight-stone frame in front of an audience … and trying to hypnotise them with chanted, throbbing complaints of love.”
Elton John, Sting, Carole King and Bryan Ferry all appeared on Aznavour’s 2008 album Duos; Elvis Costello recorded She for the soundtrack of Notting Hill. But these crossover moments didn’t happen often: a man whose showbiz career had begun before the second world war and flourished as a result of the post-war patronage of Edith Piaf, he belonged to different world entirely.
But, counter to the popular imagination, it was not the world of light entertainment. Among the pantheon of great chansonniers, Aznavour was a born rule-breaker. “Before Aznavour, despair was unpopular,” joked director Jean Cocteau, who cast him in 1960’s Le Testament d’Orphée, and certainly, the songs he wrote about everyday life were filled with downcast tenor of their lyrical content.
He could write about post-coital bliss – so racily that the song in question, Apres L’Amour, was banned – but he really excelled at the dark stuff: grief and remorse, relationships in crisis. You can see why Tu T’laisses Aller was controversial – the title translates as You’ve Let Yourself Go, the lyric offers a pretty unsparing depiction of a husband’s bitterness over his wife’s appearance, but it’s an uncomfortably truthful song about a marriage that’s curdled from stasis to acrimony. 1963’s Bon Anniversaire, a song about a ruined birthday, is more uncomfortable still in its drawing of icy silences and dangerously swinging moods.
Aznavour wrote about ****, depression and, in 1972’s Comme Ils Disent, he conjured up a sympathetic portrait of a drag queen in an era when French music discretely avoided the topic of homosexuality. 1987’s Je Bois, meanwhile, was a spectacularly bleak portrayal of a inveterate boozer in middle age, suffering an existential crisis and trouble with his prostate. “It’s a kind of sickness I have, talking about things you’re not supposed to talk about. I started with homosexuality and I wanted to break every taboo,” he said in an interview three years ago. Whatever label you wanted to put on it, the one thing you could never have called his music was easy listening.