I look at the world in ways that are not exactly conventional, and this includes categorizing music. My latest fascination is with songs that have lyrics in more than one language – specifically, English and French. Since Canada is a country with two official languages, it’s not uncommon for Canadian songwriters to include both English and French in their lyrics – anything from a single phrase, to entire verses. However, multilingual lyrics aren’t restricted to Canadian artists. Here are some examples:
- April Wine – Just Between You and Me: Myles Goodwin throws in “seulment entre toi et moi” near the end of the song. I attended an April Wine concert in Toronto a number of years ago, and I remember Myles Goodwin saying “merci beaucoup” to the audience after finishing a song.
- Patti Labelle – Lady Marmalade: A classic tune known for its famous and (by mid-1970s standards) provocative line “voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir?” has been covered by a number of artists since its 1974 release. Yes, only Patti Labelle (and perhaps Donna Summer) can take a song about a prostitute, and turn it into a chart-topping hit.
- The Beatles – Michelle: Everyone over 40 knows this line: “Michelle, my belle, sont des mots qui vont très bien ensemble“.
- Billy Joel – Don’t Ask Me Why: In the final verse of this song, he sings “You can kill them in the classic style, now you parlez vous français“. Grammatically, it’s a little clunky, but I appreciate the effort.
- Rick Springfield – Don’t Talk To Strangers: After the second verse, the backup vocalist sing “Fais l’amour avec moi, viens dormir mon amour, Je t’aime donne moi ton coeur ce soir“. As pick-up lines go, it’s a little cheesy, but I suppose it may have worked back in the 1980s.
- The Pet Shop Boys – In The Night: This snippet one is just three words, so it’s easy to miss. In the first verse, they sing “Zazou, comment allez-vous? A knock on the door in the night”. As a Canadian who’s used to hearing French, it took me a while before it even registered as a different language.
- Styx – Never Say Never: The opening line of this song is bilingual: “Never say never. Ne dit jamais jamais.“
- Toulouse – It Always Happens This Way: This French song, which contained a few English phrases, received a fair bit of airplay on (Toronto radio station) 1050 CHUM during the 1970s.
- Max Webster – Toronto Tontos: The bizarre, baffling song opens with “bonjour aux amis de malheur, nous sommes fous“, and also includes the following French lines “bonjour aux amis de malheur, nous sommes fous. T’etait plus fort que moi, pas de chat, pas de deux, nous sommes fous” sung twice (at 0:51 and 1:34).
- Took The Last Train: David Gates sings the chorus in French “Viens, chez moi, ce soir, va jamais terminer, on va rester toujours ensemble“, and then repeats it in English “Come, with me, tonight will last forever, we will stay together always”. The meter is the same in both languages, and the French translation is also quite good.
- Electric Light Orchestra – Hold On Tight: The entire second verse is in French “Accroche-toi à ton rêve. Accroche-toi à ton rêve. Quand tu vois ton bateau partir. Quand tu sens ton coeur se briser. Accroche-toi à ton rêve“.
- Talking Heads – Psycho Killer: In addition to the “qu’est-ce que c’est?” throughout the song, there’s also the following French bridge “Ce que j’ai fait ce soir-là , Ce qu’elle a dit ce soir-là, Réalisant mon espoir, Je me lance vers la gloire.”
- The Police – Hungry For You: Most of this song is sung in French, with an English version of the chorus at the end. Personally, I think this is a catchy tune, and I don’t know why this song wasn’t more popular. Of course, it might be because of the creepy lyrics “Tu as ravagée mon cœur. Et moi, j’ai bu ton sang“. If you’re like me and find Sting’s French a little hard to understand, you can read the complete lyrics here.
- En Amour, by the Quebec group Boule Noire, is an especially good example of a song that’s almost completely bilingual. The verses are in French and the chorus is in English.
I’m saving the coolest sub-category for last: these are English songs with French backing vocals. The French is not always obvious and it may take repeated listenings before you figure out what is actually being sung. I’ll admit that I finally deciphered the Billy Idol background lyrics only a couple of years ago, and then felt really dumb for not realizing this sooner.
- Peter Gabriel – Games Without Frontiers: After the introduction, the song opens with Kate Bush singing “jeux sans frontieres“. Interestingly, the French lyrics are also preserved in the German version of this song.
- The Beatles – Paperback Writer: When Paul McCartney starts singing “It’s a thousand pages, give or take a few”, and “if you really like it, you can have the rights”, the other band members are repeating “Frère Jacques” in the right channel.
- Billy Idol – Eyes Without A Face: While Billy is singing the chorus, listen to the background vocals “les yeux sans visage“.