of the week

This request came in from Ken the same week that Steve Harley passed away and it made me immediately think of the similarities between this song and Harley’s biggest hit, Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me). Why? Because the one thing these two songs have in common is they both have a meaning that you probably wouldn’t expect. Harley’s song is upbeat and happy sounding mainly because of its producer’s decision to add the backing singers, three of them – Tina Charles, Yvonne Keeley and Linda Lewis but Harley’s thoughts were quite different. Their first two hits, Judy Teen and Mr Soft which had both been written by Harley, had been credited to Cockney Rebel but prior to their third, Make Me Smile, they confronted Harley and told them they wanted to do some of their songs going forward to which Harley replied, “Oh no, you don’t get it, that’s not what this group is about” and he said goodbye, so they left and he then had to find new band members. He was so upset that he wrote Make Me Smile about it and it was about his feeling for those band members who had left him. He called it a “finger-pointing piece of vengeful poetry”. Joe Le Taxi, is not quite so extreme, but on the face of it, it tells the story of a taxi driver in Paris called Joe who is care-free but knows every corner of the French capital, but not is all as it seems.

Miss Paradis was born in Saint-Maur-des-Fossés, just outside Paris in 1972 and as a child attended dance classes, learned the piano and enrolled in child model casting sessions. In 1979, she appeared on L’École des Fans which was a talent show for child singers. She subsequently went on to star in a number of films and televisions adverts. In 1991, she was approached by Calvin Klein to appear in their latest advertising campaign with Mark Wahlberg but she turned it down. That job went to Kate Moss.

She recorded her first song when she was just 11. She revealed to Bernadette Mcnulty in The Telegraph, “At home when I was four or five, I loved singing along to forties musicals and Serge Gainsbourg. I was really old-school.” She remembered her first visit to a studio, “A studio could be a boring place for a kid, but I just instantly fell in love. It was so magical to me how everything worked, how you stood in front of the microphone behind the glass with the headphones.”

In 1986, the French composer Franck Langolf and lyricist Etienne Roda-Gil collaborated on the song Joe Le Taxi and offered it to Vanessa who was only 14 at the time, she accepted it and recorded it. Langolf had worked with both Serge Gainsbourg, Alain Souchon and Johnny Hallyday who was a massively successful singer and the man who is generally credited as bringing rock ‘n’ roll to France. Etienne Roda-Gil became a songwriter in 1968 and had written material for Mort Shuman, Claude François and Hallyday too. Both passed away at relatively young ages, Langolf in 2006 aged 57 and Roda-Gil in 2004 aged 62.

So why was Joe Le Taxi so popular? Well, it’s catchy, a pretty lady sang it, but how many people, who didn’t speak much French, really understand it? The video almost certainly would have helped which shows a beautiful blonde Vanessa in a figure-hugging cropped top dancing quite provocatively in front of the dreadful Citroen 2CV with tyres thinner than a bicycle wheel. The teenagers certainly weren’t ogling the car! That car has a very out-of-place, but memorable role in the 1981 James Bond For Your Eyes Only. It baffled Vanessa too. In an interview with The Guardian in 2011, Vanessa said that her teenage fame happened by accident. “I was only a teenager when I started out in the music industry. I didn’t look my best”, she exclaimed. Of her debut hit she added, “If you listen to Joe le Taxi, it is a very simple rumba, it wasn’t meant to be a big pop song at all. I have no idea why it was so successful. It was just one of those moments.”

It’s sung in both English and French and the lyrics begin with ‘Joe le taxi, y va pas partout’ meaning ‘Joe the taxi driver don’t go anywhere’. Now that alone is a confusing opening line – does it mean someone is telling him not to go anywhere, or is it bad English and is meant to say Joe the taxi driver doesn’t go anywhere? He’s a taxi driver, he should go places. The next lines are, ‘Il marche pas au soda, Son saxo jaune, Connaît toutes les rues par cœur’ which translates as, ‘It doesn’t work on soda, his yellow sax knows all the streets by heart.’ Maybe he calls his taxi ‘Sax’ but as for the soda, he obviously not a lover of soft drinks and probably lives on rum. The next two lines are, ‘Tous les petits bars, Tous les coins noirs’ meaning ‘All the little bars, All the dark places’ followed by, ‘Et la Seine Et ses ponts qui brillent’ meaning, ‘and the Seine, and its bridges that shine’ are all known to his ‘Sax’. There is also a sense of adventure to Joe because we’re soon told, ‘Vas-y fonce, Dans la nuit vers l’amazone’ translating as, ‘go ahead in the night towards the Amazon’. Joe seems to be a free spirit.

Joe Le Taxi is now seemingly a symbol for searching for freedom and pursuing one’s dreams and passions. Joe is probably fed up circling the streets of Paris looking for passengers. It’s a mundane job and he longs to get away a discover something new and this seems to be the start of it.

The song was released in 1987 and went top 30 in Italy and the Netherlands, but top 10 in Belgium, Norway, Sweden and Ireland. In the UK it peaked at number three and in her native France it went all the way and stayed at the top for 11 weeks. In the UK, it was the first all-French language hit since Je T’Aime (Moi Non Plus) charted for Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin some 18 years previous.

Life wasn’t so easy for Vanessa as that time. In 2008, she revealed in an interview with Andy McSmith at the Independent, “I wish someone had advised me. I’ve seen quite recently some clips from when I was 14 and I’m not proud of it. I look at the way I was dressed and made up and the way I would dance and I just want to say: ‘Aarrgh. Stop it! I was going to school and I had the Joe le Taxi song out that was making me trouble all over the world,” she continued. “It’s not easy to grow up, but to grow up famous, it’s worse. In France it became a really big phenomenon and it was very casual, this torturing of a child. It was happening to me every day relentless.” The following year she was 18 and was invited to sing the song in front of the music industry’s top execs in Cannes and they were no better behaved than a loads of kids because as she came on stage there was a mixture of wolf whistles and boos. She was upset and said, “Tears were ready to pour, but no way was I going to give them that pleasure.”

As she matured the success of that first single led her to more modelling and acting too. Her first film appearance was in Noce Blanche in which she was well received and it won her a César Award, which is the equivalent of an Oscar, for most promising actress. A couple of years later, Chanel offered her a reported £300,000 contract to promote their latest Coco range of perfume and all she had to do was sit in a cage like a bird and swing. Nice work if you can get it.

Around the same time, she began working with Lenny Kravitz and the pair moved to the States and he wrote her a song called Be My Baby and it became her second hit, four years after her first. It peaked at number six in the UK and went one place better in France. He went on to write and produce her next album called Vanessa Paradis.

In 1998, she began dating the actor Johnny Depp and their pair had a daughter and a son born in 1999 and 2002 respectively, but they parted company in 2012. Six years later she married Samuel Benchetrit to whom she is still married.

Vanessa had two more minor UK hits with Sunday Mondays and Just A Long As You Are There both in 1993, but then decided to concentrate on acting. In a more recent interview, she reflected, “I was so young when I started that I had to work with other people, but, as I have got older, I have become less scared of being bad. It is like becoming an adult, becoming a mother. I have been given songs by some of the best people, but, at a certain point, you have to work for yourself and put in some sweat.”

She still performs her songs and prefers to perform to smaller crowds in more intimate venues explaining, “There are no feathers or sparkles, everything is quiet about the music. But I don’t think I have been so happy on stage. She obviously hasn’t ruled out singing again, but for now, “What matters most is the quality. If you get the success, too, then that is great, but I wouldn’t have it the other way around because that is misery. But we’ll see – maybe one day I will need to eat.”