How Charles Aznavour changed music forever

Charles Aznavour reinvented popular music one cold December night in Paris in 1960.

How Charles Aznavour changed music forever
French-Armenian singer Charles Aznavour poses during a photo session in Paris on November 16, 2017. PHOTO: JOEL SAGET / AFP
“He just blew my brains out,” said Bob Dylan of the first time he witnessed the French singer's style of delivery a little over two years later.
That concert has since gone down as one of the greatest ever at New York's Carnegie Hall.
Yet that night in Paris when a nervy Aznavour — who died Monday aged 94 — stepped out on stage to change the way songs were sung forever, his career was on the skids. Unloved at home and utterly unknown abroad, he was at the end of his tether. 
He had pulled out all the stops to fill the Alhambra concert hall in one final bid to win over the public. But the critics had come to bury not to praise him.
The little Armenian who had written songs for Edith Piaf, and spent years as her bag carrier, was going nowhere, stuck as the “ugly duckling” of the cabaret circuit without any kind of hit for four years. Yet it was — irony of ironies — a song he wrote about a desperate provincial crooner dreaming of fame, “Je m'voyais deja” (It Will Be My Day), that finally launched Aznavour to stardom.
Yves Montand, the actor and singer, had earlier turned it down, saying “songs about show business never work”. But that night at the Alhambra, Aznavour did not just sing the song, he turned it into “a one-act play” about the poor crooner's life, acting out him dressing to go on stage.
'He was revolutionary'
And with the song's last prophetic line, “But a day will come/ When I will show them I have the talent”, Aznavour brought the house down. The man who begun performing at five finally found his mojo at 36.
His biographer Bertrand Dicale said “Aznavour was a revolutionary. He changed everything: the way songs were written, the themes a song could tackle, the way they could be performed.”
Never good-looking — Piaf badgered him to get a nose job, then told him it was horrible — he was by then balding and prematurely aged.
But even as doors closed in his face, he was rebuilding himself from the best of his heroes. “My four points of reference were “Edith Piaf, Charles Trenet, (the Russian acting guru) Konstantin Stanislavski and Maurice Chevalier,” he told AFP last year, adding that Bing Crosby, Mel Torme and Frank Sinatra were also in the mix.
“He stole his famous bar stool routine from Sinatra,” said Dicale. “And that way he had of telling stories between songs was inspired by Sinatra's Las Vegas shows.” 
“I had done classical dance, variety and theatre, and I wanted to get all that into my performances,” Aznavour told AFP.
'He put his guts into it'
“I said to myself that if I put them all in I would find my own style. And I did, it became 'Aznavour',” said the singer born Shahnour Varinag Aznavourian to parents fleeing the massacres of Armenians as the Ottoman empire collapsed.
Aznavour, the little man who became an entertainment world giant, was honoured with a national homage in Paris Friday, a ceremony reserved for France's greatest heroes.
He will be buried next to his parents and his son Patrick, who died aged 25 in 1976, in a cemetery near the French capital on Saturday after a mass at the city's Armenian cathedral.
“He broke all the rules of his era when singers had to be really good looking,” said the French songwriter Calogero. “But he had this incredible personality.”
For the rapper MC Solaar “you can see the feeling with Aznavour. He wanted to move people, we are far beyond just singing with him,” he added. 
Dicale added that Aznavour really became the characters in the songs, “really putting his guts into it”. 
That is what impressed his peers, the writer said, and what won him the hearts of audiences across the world. 
“Just seeing what he did on stage at his age gives me the courage to continue,” said the rapper Soprano, one of several hip-hop stars including Dr Dre and Sean Paul who have covered or sampled Aznavour.
“Lots of singers have a bit of Aznavour in them,” said Dicale, from “Brazilians like Caetano Veloso and Chico Buarque to… Elton John and Sting who at 19 or 20 discovered Aznavour” and have never ceased to be fans.
By AFP's Nicolas Pratviel and Fiachra Gibbons


8 of French duo Daft Punk’s most memorable moments

One of the era's defining dancefloor acts hung up their helmets on Monday, as French electronic music stars Daft Punk announced their retirement in a typically enigmatic fashion with a video showing one of them exploding in a desert.

8 of French duo Daft Punk's most memorable moments
Photo: AFP

From Da Funk in 1995 to Get Lucky in 2013, Daft Punk became the torch-bearers for French house music across the globe, winning six Grammy awards and pioneering the monumental sound-and-light shows that came to characterise the electronic dance movement (EDM) of recent years.

They did so while almost never revealing their faces — the ubiquitous helmets became another much-copied trope of EDM stars, but also afforded Thomas Bangalter, 46, and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, 47, a freedom from the fame that quickly encircled them.

“We have daily lives that are a lot more normal than the lives of artists who have the same level of fame as us, but who might be attached to being physically recognised,” Bangalter said in a rare authorised documentary by the BBC in 2015.

Here are some of the highlights of their career – although for our money nothing will beat the French army band’s performance of a Daft Punk medley at the Bastille Day celebrations in 2017, in front of president Emmanuel Macron and a plainly bemused Donald Trump.

1. “Daft punky thrash”

Bangalter and Homem-Christo met at school in Paris before an inauspicious start in music with the rock band Darlin’, which also featured a future member of the French indie band Phoenix.

One review in the British music press dismissed the band as “daft punky thrash” — which struck a chord with them.

Reemerging as an electronic outfit, they met with instant success.

This interview from 1995 is one of the few images of their faces:

2. Their signature look in “Around the World”

Early singles “Da Funk” and “Around the World” became club fixtures, and led to massive sales for their debut album “Homework” in 1997.

It was in the video for “Around the World” that they first donned the helmets that would become their signature look. It mirrored the tight control they exercised over every part of their career, which included ownership of their master recordings.

3. “One More Time”

They followed up with the even more successful “Discovery” in 2001, which spawned the hits “One More Time” and “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”.

There were some distinctively left-field choices in the years that followed, including producing the 2003 film “Interstella 5555” by Japanese anime master Leiji Matsumoto, which featured music from “Discovery”.

4. Human After All

While their next album in 2005, a more sombre “Human After All”, received mixed reviews, these were quickly forgotten amid the euphoria of their live shows over the next two years.

This included a headline appearance at US festival Coachella in 2006, performed inside a giant LED pyramid. EDM fans still speak about it with an almost religious reverence.

5. Tron soundtrack

In 2010, they released a soundtrack to the Disney reboot of Tron, which picked up a Grammy nomination.

6. “Random Access Memories”

But no one predicted the massive success of their last album, 2013’s “Random Access Memories”, for which they gave up their usual makeshift home rig for a full commercial studio– and used entirely live instruments.

The resulting work dominated album-of-the-year lists and helped lift their total worldwide sales to 12 million. It won four Grammies the following year including record of the year for “Get Lucky”, the millions-selling lead single featuring Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers.

Their appearance at the Grammy Awards show was their last public appearance for three years.

7. “I Feel It Coming”

They showed up one more time for the Grammy ceremony in 2017, alongside The Weeknd, after collaborating on the Canadian artist’s most recent album.

Despite the Twittersphere erupting in excitement last month amid rumours they would rejoin The Weeknd for the Super Bowl half-time show, that did not in the end materialise. 

8. “Epilogue”

The video titled “Epilogue” announcing their split used footage from their cult 2006 film “Electroma” in which one of the robots sets the auto-destruct of the other.

A cutaway then reads “1993-2021” with two robot hands making a circle around a sunset.

Their publicist, Kathryn Frazier, confirmed the news to AFP by email, without giving a reason for the split.