31 August 2020-
This is the story of the most famous French song nobody knows is French. Some call it "My way", some call it "Comme d'habitude". Either way, it stands as an absolute masterpiece with a rather remarkable story...
February 1967, Megève, France — French composer Jacques Revaux is peacefully vacationing in the Alps when he realizes one morning that he forgot to send out several songs he’d promised a music producer, songs he has yet to write. He takes care of that that same morning — some people sure are talented — and forgets about it. One of those songs, originally entitled “For me” (in English) is passed out by a series of prominent French pop singers, including rising superstar Claude François (who, incidentally, first made a name for himself by covering Motown hits in the early 1960’s).One artist eventually picks up the track, as a B side, which prompts Revaux to rework the piece, that he increasingly believes in, and present it to François again. This time, the singer agrees to record it, provided some changes are made, most notably the lyrics of the piece, which end up being about the daily life of an ailing couple (inspiring by François’ real life relationship with fellow French pop star France Gall). That song is finally released in November 1967: it is now called “Comme d’habitude” and quickly becomes a cult hit in François’ home country.
Canadian singer and musician Paul Anka hears the song over the radio on a trip to Paris and immediately decides to adapt it to a larger, English-speaking audience. He crafts new lyrics, which now allude to a more contemplative state in one’s life, when the time comes to take stock of what has happened and evaluate its overall meaning and outcome. He records it, then figures it would make great material for a bigger star: he offers the song to none other than Frank Sinatra, a.k.a. “The Voice”, who readily takes it on. “My way” is released in 1969 and makes the song a global phenomenon, which lives on to this day — who hasn’t tried, and failed, to sing it once at a karaoke bar?
There’s a sub-plot to that already great story: Anka was actually the second artist to produce an English adaptation of “Comme d’habitude”. The first one was a then-up-and-coming musician called David Robert Jones, otherwise known as David Bowie. Bowie, who had been commissioned for this work, came up with “Even a fool learns to love”, containing lyrics even he — later — recognized were very much sub-par. Luckily, that work never got released, which nevertheless annoyed Bowie… and prompted him to write “Life on Mars?”, based on the same melodic structure, as a parody of sorts to Sinatra’s “My way”.
What started out as an unassuming vacation composition in the French Alps eventually fostered two classic versions — and a genius “parody” to boot. Talk about a butterfly effect…