SONG: La mer
ARTIST: Charles Trenet
Listen to it here:
Charles Trenet claims that he wrote an early version of La mer’s lyrics as a 16 year old in a poem, years before he came up with a melody. The melody came to him while on a train travelling between Montpellier and Perpignan in the south of France, staring at a lagoon out a window. He immediately jotted it down, and that afternoon, worked out the details with his pianist. They performed the song that night in front of an audience, without much impact. The song remained unrecorded for years, until 1946 when Trenet recorded the version we are currently listening to.
Over the years, the song has become popular worldwide, and is considered a chanson classic and a jazz standard. The English version, which you are maybe more familiar with is called Beyond the Sea and was made popular by Bobby Darin. By 1966, there were over 100 different recordings of La mer and it was tied for France’s best selling song together with Edith Piaf’s La vie en rose.
Louis Charles Augustin Georges Trenet was born in 1913 and was one of France’s most popular singer/songwriters. In his lifetime he wrote almost 1000 songs, most of which deal with conventional topics like love, nostalgia, and Paris.
Trenet had a tough upbringing. His parents got divorced when he was 7 and so he was sent to a boarding school. However, months later he came home suffering from typhoid fever. This time of convalescence is when he developed his love for music. In 1936, while living in Paris as a painter, sculptor, poet, and musician, Trenet was called up for national service. It was then that he got his lifelong nickname, “le fou chantant” (The Singing Madman). Throughout World War II, Trenet performed for German officers and soldiers in some of Paris’ most well known cabarets. There was suspicion that Trenet’s real last name was Netter (an anagram of Trenet), which is a Jewish name. Trenet had to show his family tree to prove to the German authorities that he had no Jewish origins.
Trenet’s career eventually moved him to the USA where he became lifelong friends with Charlie Chaplin, and then back to Paris. In 1975 he made a surprise announcement declaring that he was retiring from the music world. A few years later, after the death of his mother, Trenet shut himself away from the world for two years.
Like many musicians, he decided to do a comeback album and tour filled with sentimental songs and reminiscences of his childhood. He then gave a farewell concert and retired. A year later, he gave another farewell concert, and then retired. Three years later he gave a farewell tour, and then retired. Ten years after that he released a farewell album, then went on a farewell tour. Then he retired. A year later, he suffered a stroke and spent several weeks in hospital, and then decided to give one final concert. In February, 2001, Trenet died peacefully at home.
- Some of Trenet’s other incredibly French hits include a song about walking with the Eiffel Tower, how good bread is, and a celebration of having paid vacation days
Oh I love this song! Of course I’m more familiar with the Bobby Darin version, but I like how super French this version is! Charles’ voice is light and smooth and beautiful, and paired with the melody and alllll those damn strings, it sounds nostalgic. I could have done without that heavy handed choir towards the end, I let out an audible “OH” when they kicked in the door.. Thinking of the words to the Bobby Darin version, ‘somewhere beyond the sea, my lover stands on golden sands and watches the ships as they go sailing’ reminds me that there’s always something to look forward to, of optimism in the future, something we could all use right now, I’m sure.
Oh, another song I know but by a different name! This Charles Trenet guy has a super smooth, creamy voice, and he rolls his ‘r’s so perfectly. The song itself is pretty dated, and a bit harp heavy. As you listen to it you think “oh, this is pleasant! Maybe a little on the cheesy side, but I can deal with it”. Then you get smacked over the head by the background choir. Whoa, they just kicked the cheese into high gear! Still, a pleasant song to listen to.
Average mark out of 10:
*A mark of 8/10 or higher means this is definitely worth buying!
Other notable versions of this song (include youtube links when possible)
Django Reinhart’s version:
And of course, Bobby Darin’s version:
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Link to 1,001 Songs to Hear Before You Die spotify playlist: