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Little Sparrow

european popular music

While the troubadours may have been responsible for the first stirrings of popular song in Europe, their styles are more relevant to the development of classical traditions than of popular music. Also, the highly regionalised strands of European folk music have played only a marginal role in the development of popular song - particularly in France and Germany, where it developed from of their unique cafe and cabaret cultures.
With a few notable exceptions, the pop scene in continental Europe has had a relatively small impact on the wider world, due to some extent to the language problem. This has meant that only the very best artists and songs have found a mass audience in English-speaking countries.

FRENCH popular music has its roots in the "Belle Epoque" ( 1890 - 1914 ), when Paris became the cultural capital of Europe as all manner of artists, writers, musicians and thinkers made the Left Bank and Montmartre their home.
The city's main entertainments at that time were the "cafe-concerts" - relaxed, informal venues offering alcoholic and other refreshments along with comedy acts and light operatic arias, and frequented mostly by the bourgoisie - and the cabaret - a headier mix of poetry, music, comedy, clowns and acrobats where the young Bohemians tended to gather ( this differs markedly from in England, where the music hall was primarily entertainment for the working classes ). The first cabaret venue was "Le Chat Noir", built in 1881, but it's most famous is undoubtedly "Le Moulin Rouge" which opened in 1889 in the city's Pigalle district.
Gradually cafe-concert and cabaret singers, the so-called "chansonniers", began to write and sing songs which more closely reflected the heady atmosphere of the day, setting in train a tradition of satirical, erotic and often melodramatic French popular music, which also tends towards nostalgia, romantic longing and melancholy. This tradition is very evident in the songs of artists such as Maurice Chevalier, Charles Trenet, Georges Brassens, Gilbert Becaud, Jacques Brel, Juliette Greco and Charles Aznavour.
Far and away the most famous artist to emerge from the tradition, however, is Edith Piaf, a one-time street singer nicknamed "The Little Sparrow", whose enormous voice and passionate delivery emerging from her tiny frame captivated audiences from the 1930's until her death in 1963. Her best-loved songs are the achingly romantic "L'Hymne a l'Amour" which Marguerite Monnot wrote with Piaf in tribute to Piaf's lover Marcel Cerdan, who died tragically killed in a plane crash in 1949, "La Vie En Rose", which is usually attributed to Marcel Louiguy but was in fact Piaf's own creation ( she was apparently unable to register it in her own name due to lack of "qualifications" ) and "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien", which was written in 1960 by Charles Dumont and Michel Vaucaire.
France's chansonniers were still predominant following World War II, one of the most innovative being Belgian-born Jacques Brel, who began writing highly literate, theatrical songs in the late 1950's. But post-war France was beginning to absorb some of the complexity of American popular music, although it's influence was naturally limited by the language barrier. Johnny Hallyday took on the mantle of rock & roll superstar from the late 1950's onward, and the "Ye-Ye" girls, masterminded by Serge Gainsbourg, the self-styled "dirty mouth" of French pop, were France's equivalent of the early 1960's girl group craze in America.
Alan Stivell revitalised the Celtic tradition ( particularly Breton ) in the early 1970's, but by and large France's music scene since the 1960's has much more closely mirrored that of the Anglo-Saxon world, developing it's own equivalents of the various strands of modern rock, reflecting the pervasive nature of the international music industry. Some of it's more successful exports in this line include the experimental rock of Daevid Allen's Gong and the electronic dance music of Jean-Michel Jarre.

Apart from Jacques Brel, BELGIUM also produced a couple of one-off international successes, the first being The Singing Nun ( Soeur Sourire ), who wrote "Dominique" in 1963 with Noel Regney, and the second the inimitable Plastic Bertrand , who came up with the delightfully idiotic "Ca Plane Pour Moi" in 1978, courtesy of writers Louis Deprijck and Yves Lacomblez.

GERMAN popular song grew out of the decadent, erotic cabaret and night club scene of the Weimar Republic following the end of World War I. Marlene Dietrich is by far the best know artist of this period, her famous songs being "Falling In Love Again", written by Friedich Hollander and Sammy Lerner for the 1929 film "THE BLUE ANGEL", and "Lili Marlene", a song created when Norbert Schultze set a First World War poem by soldier Hans Leip to music in 1938. Other well-known "femmes fatales" from this period include Margo Lion and Lotte Lenya.
Since 1945 very few popular songs from Germany have made it onto the international scene, the exceptions being the 1960's ballads of Bert Kaempfert, those which producer Frank Farian wrote for Boney M during the 1970's, and Nena's 1983 hit "99 Red Balloons" which was written by J.Uwe Fahrenkrog-Peterson & Carlo Karges.
Far more important for the evolution of popular music was the experimental avant-garde scene that developed in the late 1960's out of the work of Karl-Heinz Stockhausen. Bands like Can and Neu! applied synthesisers, tape-splicing, droning noises etc. to throbbing rhythms, producing " krautrock ". Tangerine Dream produced minimalist, slowly shifting space music which anticipated the ambient music of Brian Eno, and Kraftwerk melded synthesisers with pop for their ground-breaking 1975 single "Autobahn".
Together these bands have had a profound influence on all subsequent developments in the genre known as electronica, which covers electronic dance music, industrial pop, post-punk, techno and others.

HOLLAND produced the popular mid-1960's band The Outsiders, and innovative 1970's rock bands Focus, Golden Earring and Shocking Blue.
In addition it has a thriving Dutch language " Nederpop " scene.

SWEDEN has become the home of Euro-pop since ABBA took Eurovision by storm in 1974. Their style, both visual and musical, has been being drawn upon heavily since by dance-pop groups such as Take That and The Spice Girls and later Swedish pop bands Ace Of Base, Roxette and The Cardigans.

ITALY's major contribution to song is of course the operatic aria, and it's use in popular song is clear in "O Sole Mio" ( a.k.a."It's Now Or Never" ), written by Eduardo Di Capua in 1898, to Giovanni Capurro 's famous lyrics.
The romantic ballad was the staple diet of Italian popular music prior to the coming of rock. Examples include "Volare" from Domenico Modugno and Francesco Migliacci in 1958, and "Arrivederci Roma", written for the film "THE SEVEN HILLS OF ROME", also in 1958.
Georgio Moroder was a major architect of the 1970's disco sound with producer Pete Bellotte.

GREECE's Manos Hadjidakis was responsible for the 1960 favourite "Never On A Sunday", the theme to a film of the same name starring Melina Mercouri. His countryman Mikis Theodorakis wrote well-known theme to 1965's "ZORBA THE GREEK" .
The style of both of these composers is known as "Entekhno", a westernising of Greece's first popular music "Rembetika", which arose from the country's urban slums.

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Prominent songwriters

Edith Piaf
Marguerite Monnot
Raymond Asso
Georges Moustaki
Marcel Louiguy
Charles Dumont
Michel Vaucaire
Pierre Delanoe
Gilbert Becaud
Charles Trenet
Joseph Kosma
Jacques Brel
Francoise Hardy
Jacques Dutronc
Serge Gainsbourg
Francis Lai
Michel Legrand
Maurice Jarre
Jean-Michel Jarre


Jacques Brel
Soeur Sourire
Louis Deprijck

Friedich Hollander
Sammy Lerner
Norbert Schultze
Bert Kaempfert
Frank Farian

Robbie Van Leeuwen
Thijs Van Leer
Jan Akkerman
George Kooymans

Benny & Bjorn

Domenico Modugno
Renato Ranucci
Georgio Moroder

Manos Hadjidakis
Mikis Theodorakis


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audio : European Pop

books : about European Popular Music