Murray Head: ‘Unsung at home, but a hero in France’

Image source, Getty ImagesImage caption, Head's 1975 single Say It Ain't So, Joe became a national staple in France

There is a small but interesting sub-category of British musicians – unsung at home, but heroes in another land.

High on the list is a 75-year-old singer-songwriter all but forgotten in the UK, but who, in his adopted home of France, ranks among the greats.

Murray Head has been feted in France since the mid-1970s, when his hit song Say It Ain't So, Joe became a national staple.

Generations have slow-danced at the end of discos to Head's plangent tenor, and the song still gets a regular airing on oldies radio shows.

And the odd thing is the French persist in thinking it's about broken hearts.

"I kept telling them it wasn't a love song – it's actually about politics and Richard Nixon," says Head. "But people were so disappointed that I stopped disabusing them. Now, I think, 'who cares?'"

Half-way through another nationwide French tour, he is ruminating on his long career and the odd twist that brought him minor rock-god status across the Channel.

"The thing about the French is, they are very, very faithful. When they like you, they stick with you," he says. "In the UK, everyone is chased out by the next media sensation."

Image source, Getty ImagesImage caption, Head pictured acting opposite Glenda Jackson in1971's Sunday Bloody Sunday

Head did have a brief time in the British limelight. Stuffed in somewhere between Hawkwind and Steve Hillage, his Say it Ain't So LP – the cover featuring a long-lens shot of Head's head in a crowd – was a record-shop regular in the '70s. But did anyone actually buy it?

"Musically, the album is a mini-jewel of folk-rock… The inter-meshing guitars give a certain post-hippy flavour – but with that British touch which tells us straightaway we are not in San Francisco," wrote the Textes, Blog & Rock'n'Roll website on the album's 45th anniversary last year.

Before its original release, Head had a moment of glory when he was chosen by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd-Webber to be their first Judas Iscariot, singing with Deep Purple's Ian Gillan in the pre-theatre, album version of Jesus Christ Superstar.

A very early and very silly music video shows Head lip-synching unconvincingly to the Superstar hit single in the rafters of a bombed-out church, while a group of Trinidadian backing-singers mimes the chorus down below.

"Somewhere I have a cassette recording of the meeting where Tim and Andrew pitched the idea to me," he says. "And there's this stunned silence after they explain that they're making a rock musical of the Christian story, and I say – 'you have got to be effin' joking!'"

Heroes in another landImage source, Getty ImagesImage caption, Jane Birkin, pictured earlier this year, is primarily known in the UK as the voice of Je T'aime

Vince Taylor – Leather-clad rock 'n' roller and writer of Brand New Cadillac, Taylor came to Paris in 1961. He built up a huge fanbase in France and other European countries but was virtually unknown in the UK. He died in Geneva in 1991.

Roger Hodgson – The ex-Supertramp frontman has kept touring in France, where in 2012 he was made a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters.

Jane Birkin – Partner and muse of French superstar Serge Gainsbourg, the British-born singer and actress is still immensely popular across the Channel. In the UK, she is known only for her heavy breathing on Je T'aime.

Charlie Winston – The Cornwall-born singer had a French number one with Like a Hobo and lives on the Cote d'Azur.

Sixto Diaz Rodriguez – And away from France – this singer-songwriter was a huge hit in South Africa in the 1970s but unknown in the US. His rediscovery was the subject of the film Searching for Sugar Man.

Head was born in 1946 in London into a theatrical family. His mother went on to play Madame Maigret in a BBC adaptation of the George Simenon novels, and his father made promotional films. His younger brother Anthony Head found fame as an actor playing Giles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Murray also acted – notably in the 1971 hit Sunday Bloody Sunday. But his main ambition was musical. He had an early start in 1964 when he won a competition run by Radio Luxembourg (alongside John Paul Jones, future bassist of Led Zeppelin) which led to a recording contract.

Jesus Christ Superstar could have been the breakthrough, but the album sold poorly in the UK and by the time the stage show became a hit, Head had moved on. Later there was a minor success with One Night in Bangkok, but for British intents and purposes that was more or less it.

Image caption, Head acted in UK TV dramas such as Casualty (pictured alongside Anita Dobson and Adjoa Andoh)

Head describes his parents as being "France mad". They came on annual camping trips to France and sent him to the French lycee in London. He hated it, but it meant he knew France, its language and history.

"Someone told me once that the truest sign of intelligence was the ability to adapt – and that is what I did," he says. "France was where I was popular, so France became where I earned my keep."

With so many years moving between the English and French world, Head has become an expert sans pareil on the differences between the two musical cultures.

"Because theirs is a literary nation, the French can't hear two words strung together in a song without comparing it to Rimbaud or Baudelaire," he says. "They're obsessed with lyrics, and too often the music gets pushed to the background.

"So for the actual music, they like the Anglo-Saxons. Frankly they don't understand a word of what we are singing, but that doesn't matter. They found emotional overtones in Say It Ain't So, Joe that I certainly had never intended. But I wasn't going to complain!"

"A fully-authenticated hit in France, Say It Ain't So, Joe seemed to promise a glowing career to the young Murray Head," recalled Le Monde earlier this year. "He had it – but only over here."

Head has just moved out of his Paris flat, and bought an old house in the Béarn region of the Pyrenees which he is renovating. France is where he intends to stay.

"There's never been the remotest interest in me in England. I never made up my mind to live in France. But France made up my mind for me. I've tried to owe something to England – but England's never wanted it. Never wanted it at all."

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