He drank, he smoked, he loved and he took orgasmic moaning to the top of the UK singles charts. Yet Serge Gainsbourg’s aptitude for the sensual was more profound, and more subversive, than his enduringly lubricous reputation suggests. Peter Wix penetrates the myth behind the mean who gave the world ‘Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus’.
His lover, friends, bosom and by-the way colleagues all seem to concur in the view of Serge Gainsbourg as an uncommonly shy man; yet he is known as one of history’s great provocateurs. Indeed, the spectacle of him unsheathing for another thrust at a hidebound society fascinated even his victims- the pompous, prudish, and often the innocent. However, emboldened by booze he was, beyond his trembling hands and self-conscious pose, Gainsbourg was consistently exposing his soft centre, the soul of a true romantic. Yes, his drunken and adolescent antics were sometimes calculated to sell records and suck up more of the money he loved to spend- or, quite infamously, burn- while he drew more of the admiration he obsessively pursued.
But for a shy man who didn’t even know if he was beautiful or ugly, waking in hotel bedroom sin the arms of the planet’s most desirable women only to read in tabloids that he was a Neanderthal monster, using his sexuality to highlight his talent could not have been easy. On many occasions it certainly didn’t look that easy, and his stubborn refusal to retract was often painful to behold. He ran the gauntlet of right-wing ultras through his supposedly profane reggae of La Marseillaise, standing uncomfortably alone on stage to sing the official version amidst bomb threats and the intimidating stares from confused patriot meatheads only yards away. Although he tended to upset the Right more than the Left, his exaggerated tax protest incineration of a 500 franc note on live television was taken as an insult by workers all over France. His generally amusing regular-as- cockwork venery in videos and songs attracted constant vitriol. Gainsbourg was frequently like a very naughty little boy, behaving as if he believed reproach or punishment would never follow, not even from his chain-smoking or monuments alcohol intake which, no doubt, served to combat the shyness.
Yet, balancing up all his exhibitionist stunts, it is difficult to conclude that the sophistication he revealed when surrounded by ladies fair in droll videos was nothing but the mask work by an ill-at-ease innocent cursed by the need for love and renown. Resist his charms by all means- we all have the right to spurn seduction- but join his detractors in labelling him a pervert, a pederast, an exploiter, a misogynist, etc. and risk pettiness. You have missed the bigger show, faded around without locating the G-spot- G for Gainsbourg, as only the French know how.
Whatever its merits, the recent release in France of Joann Sfar’s movie, Gainsbourg (Vie Heroique), affords us an opportunity to study anew this beacon of melody and phenomenon of tease. It’ll be a welcome chance too for the many recent champions of his music to shout “I told you so|, a long list that already includes the likes of Beck, Mick Harvey, Jarvis Cocker, Michael Stipe, Portishead, Franz Ferdinand, and more.
Since the industrial revolution secured its chilly grip on reality, a pair of testicles has never been quite enough to guarantee success for a romantic. Talent is the first requirement, and Gainsbourg produced more than enough great work to warrant the constant tribute he has received since his death in March, 1991. His ability to promote himself by inciting outrage takes care of the second big requirement needed for success in pop, although far too often it consigned his adventurous and beauteous music to the background. With 40 soundtracks to his name, and four films as director (one hailed by no less than Francois Truffaut), we can safely locate him on the intelligent side of music. From the beginning, he infused his output with the attitude of an outside, a rebel, a chance-taker. Long before The Who, aeons before punk. here was an attitude that was exciting intellectuals and misfits. Having scribe and chansonnier Boris Vian- writer of the notorious bestseller I Spit On Your Graves- among his first protectors was undoubtedly solid support as Gainsbourg began to challenge the tweedy establishment of jazz listeners in the ritzy cabaret clubs; places he would soon flee, shaken, and with a stultifying fear of singing live. From his first albums on the Philips label- with Jacques Brel, George Brasses and Juliette Greco as labelmates- Gainsbourg broke with tradition, bending chanson and distilling jazz into bite-sized songs with cool musical hooks. Continuing in the Vian vein, he interested critics with his pungent, increasingly newsy and unpredictable lyrics, although his work was too intense to get much radio play. He was also being pretty avant-garde, for the late ’50s France by using the pop technique of bouncing words along the melody, very rhythmic melodies, instead of setting poetry to music in the formal style of the chansonniers. Now, he had more regular structures on which to sit his rhythm-based singing, even if his early, pouting cabaret club delivery was still within the prescribed canons; sounding, at times, like French Noel Coward.
As a songwriter for others whose careers would turn or ride on his talent, Gainsbourg was, from the outset, a first-rate supplier of hits, Brigitte Bardot, Juliette Greco, Regine, Petula Clark, Francoise Hardy, France gall (Eurovision Song Contest winner with his ‘Poupee De Cire’), Catherine Deneuve, Jacques Dutronc and Vanessa Paradis all benefited from his compositional genius. And that’s not to mention his Number One muse, lover and song interpreter, Jane Birkin.
A turning point came with his Afro-Latin-calypso-jazz experiment, Gainsbourg Percussions, in 1964, Soungs like ‘Joanna’, ‘New York USA’, ‘Couleur Cafe’ and ‘Marabout’ were so forward-looking the their reverberations still haven’t fully come back to us. Though some of these were so directly influenced by Babatunde Olatunji’s Drums of Passion LP as to be virtual plagiarisms, it was clear that these uncluttered arrangements meant the jazz musician was looking for a daring breakthrough. The aforementioned tracks used only percussive instruments and sounds, a female choir, and his own now more relaxed and modern voice, which had not yet broken down to the talk-over speed he is best known for. His music was already considered spare, but the was a taste of things to come as he adeptly brought in the ’60s ye-ye dynamic as part of unique pop style that, with the two Gainsbourg/Bardot duet albums- Bonnie and Clyde and Initials BB- had audaciously elegant arrangements married to raunchy, candy-striped, high camp. These songs still dazzle and, for many tastes, in a deeper, more lasting way than most of the Anglo-Saxon pop Gainsbourg admired and assimilated. So many Beatles recordings, for instance, sit like wax fruit alongside Gainsbourg’s ripe and sexy produce. But George Martin’s Beatles productions share with Gainsbourg’s recordings an absolute respect for the simple approach. The Frenchman’s rhythmic elements sat on an altar of tidiness, the element which really was next to godliness for Gainsbourg but, in spite of which, he always managed to deliver a rough, cutting edge to his studio product. Most sensibly, after penning something- invariably during all-night writing sessions fuelled by coffee and Gitanes- he would have orchestral arrangers shape the songs and record them with top session musicians, as often as not in England. In case of the Initials BB pop gems, he worked with Arthur Greenslade (arrange of Shirley Bassey’s ‘Goldfinger’ Bond theme), although the brilliant Alain Gorger and Philippe Lerichomme were invariably beside him as artistic directors.
It was a methodology that left Gainsbourg free to write, smoke and oversee, while his delegated studio experts made sure the product was quickly and elegantly executed. The blossoming sexiness of Gainsbourg’s songs would not have been achieved had he not moved from jazz, a cool seduction that leads to behind-closed-doors intimacy, to pop, which demands that those doors are left open. It was what goes on in that room that de decided to reveal in ‘that dirty song; which him and Jane Birkin their most remembered UK success; ‘Je T’Aime… Moi Non Plus’. The song sold six million 45s around the world despite being banned from the air by the BBC, and prohibited in all forms in many Catholic countries. The big nobs at the Vatican got hot under the cassock and someone in Italy head to clean up the mess. ‘Je T’Aime…’ was a Number One hit for a single week in Britain, but only after a re-release, hastily arranged by Gainsbourg, with an independent label (Major Minor) refiled the spaces left by the withdrawn Fontana issue. Despite the BBC’s censoriousness, nothing could stop word on the song’s naughtiness spending virulently, propelling it to the top of the hit parade in October of the annex erotique, 1969. Considering its divine, dizzying melodies, psalmodic, undulating organ, gorgeous string arrangement, and sublime, daring vocals, it’s bit of a choker to concede that its success in Britain was ultimately down to Birkin’s thrilling representations of orgasmic excitement. Still, without the heavy breathing, the song spawned many instrumental covers, including an opportunistic one concurrent with the reign of the original. There was even a bagpipe version by a police band.
Not a contradiction… an evolution.
Listen to ‘Je T’Aime…’ now. Carry it away to your swankiest speakers or harness it to your iPod. Ooh that is a big organ, missus; and a big bass and well hung-tambourine, too. But do you best to forget the walking and the wham-bam associated with what most people tend to remember as prototype ‘audio porn’. Gainsbourg called it a love song. And if you listen to it right, and your socio-sexual development has not been disorientated, you can hear that Gainsbourg’s tongue was in neither of his cheeks, even if it was well between his lover’s. This is physical love with a capital L, and listening to it is cathartic. Birkin’s response is passionate and well acted, as convincing a love callas you could hope to find represented in a song. At that time, in Britain, any expression of the sexual act was titillating for a public staved of sexual imagery. In today’s world of freely downloadable, and almost entirely non-romantic, carnality, Birkin’s steamy sighing would leave you disappoint if you were looking for even soft-core porn. Gainsbourg’s detachment, expressed in his reply to Birkin’s declaration that she loves him, “me neither”, is wise-ass and cynical, but it adds yet another dimension to the song. It goes beyond Gainsbourg’s usual twisted humour by relating the narrator to his own infamous reputation. If we know his name, we know his game (unfortunately not in the UK). Many of the people who loved this record and made it such a hit must have warmed up on its musical values, but the barest few knew who Gainsbourg was… just some eccentric foreigner, the guy who did that record. Although he followed this up with an album that is now acclaimed as a concept masterpiece- The Ballad of Melody Nelson– no radio show in England was interested in playing it. No one dug up his former work and no one cared to open the door to his future releases. The ridiculous foreigner who had exploded a superannuated taboo and rumbled the hypocrisy of Britain’s ‘swinging ’60s’, could now sod off back to the other side of la Manche.
The reasons behind indifference to Gainsbourg are probably circumstantial. Beyond the inherent xenophobia of UK music marketers, a reflex normally justified by the claim that songs in foreign languages would not sell, popular music in Britain had made an evolutionary break with its music hall pass. In France, however, the tradition of chanson continues even today in an almost unwavering line from centuries back. No one in Britain wanted poetic narrative complicating the dance or nice tunes, and certainly not sung in French (apart from Paul McCartney and his tres bien ensemble, peut-etre).
The nearest Britain ever had to a true chansonnier was a Georges Brasses fan from Yorkshire called Jack Thackeray. His brilliant oeuvre was dismayingly overlooked, even though he was given the chance to air his (often saucy) songs during the light entertainment segments of consumer watchdog programmes Braden’s Week and That’s Life. Poor Jack was then left to tour small venues and drink very bitter ale until he died, uncelebrated and disaffected with the industry, in 2003. Against the lack of background in the channsonier tradition. Gainsbourg’s progressive French music had little chance of being understood back then in the UK, even if knowledge of the lingo was not so necessary to appreciate his exotic sounds.
Another possible lost foothold was the lack of love for surrealism in Britain (beyond its superb avant-garde humour and among a certain creative elite). Without realising it, the British had swallowed a fair helping of Gainsbourg-type surrealism in the sauce for ‘Je T’Aime…Moi Non Plus’. The trick of coaxing instinctive and subconscious perceptions through unlikely juxtapositions was inherent in his creative process, but that was going to cut no ice in a market which, it is fair to say, did well enough exporting its product without importing the complication of art in the singles market. Through his art school days and first wife and loved it. He and his Russian aristocrat spouse-to-be had access to Salvador Dali’s karakul covered flat in Paris, an open door for the young art student Lucian Ginsberg (as he was, then) to what was a particularly pertinent movement for outsiders and non-conformists. For a young man whose very face seemed an irrational composition of the tender and the grotesque, the Surrealist ethos must have been a comforting find, and one that explains his fearless imagination in combining elements within songs. In fact, Gainsbourg’s life and career constantly puzzled. When he turned to writing ye-ye pop tunes after early criticising throwaway youth product, one interviewer suggested that he was “trapped in a contradiction”. “Not a contradiction,” he retorted, “an evolution”.
Evolution it was, then, but in a Gainsbourgian whirl of permutations that are as hard to fathom as the wave and particle conundrum in physics. It was beau laid– ugly, yet beautiful. He considered songwriting inferior to painting, having abandoned the latter because he felt he could never be truly brilliant at it, and yet his musical work completely justified Boris Vian’s comparison of Gainsbourg with Cole Porter. Serge took immense pride in carrying out his musical work like a professional; delivering songs on time and getting on stage even when his alcoholism should have stopped him in his tracks. He was a reserved sentimentalist in private, but a jumping jack in public. Jealous and guarded in relationships- can we really believe the claim that he let none of his lovers see him fully naked?
He had no such qualms when it came to exposing his lovers’ bodies and even his daughter, Charlotte, to the cameras, famously risking accusations of incestuous paedophilia when he rode the theme of filial love so close to the line in the provocative father-daunter duet, Lemon Incest. Hilarious! He seemed to be his own man and to nearly always make the music he wanted to make and, though a fervent anti-communist, he kept politics at a distance. During military service, he was jailed for running away ( to make love to his wife, so he said) yet, as has recently been revealed, he committed his dirtiest deed by getting into bed with the military when he responded to a commission to write a marching song for Israel during the Six Day War.
After suffering his first heart attack in 1973, the cracks began to show. You can see his face take on a decadent look. He lost a certain king of mobility, and that cool “I told you” nod he used when singing began turning into a tragic geriatric tic. He dealt with the contradiction by inventing a public alter-ego, the diseased-looking ‘Gainsbarre’, a bizarre Mr Hyde who would appear in public when the tenderer Serge Jerkyll didn’t care to. The lovely Jane Birkin had by now left him, and while many of the songs he still wrote for her reflected self pity, time and again before his death, aged 62, he created lucid pop, accomplished reggae (and disco!) surprises that not everyone will dismiss ’80s kitsch. In between heart attacks, liver failure, and the death of his parents, the constant scandalous public performances continued as he won hearts and minds in France, particularly amongst young noncomfortists fed up with the bourgeois pomp running French television and culture. This made him very happy. When his death was announced, President Francois Mitterrand declared that Gainsbourg had: “elevated the song to the level of art.” In its bars, Paris stopped and wept. The tears fell for Gainsbourg and for Gainsbarre, the monstres sacres who had made them laugh and in which so many had seen their own pathetic selves struggling to speak their mind. These included the many taxi drivers and gendarmerie that drank with Serge and who would have loved to sit next to Whitney Houston on live television and say, as he notoriously had, “I want to fuck her.” At the same time, many tears would have undoubtedly been shed for the loss of the poet and composer whose surrealist pop was profoundly good to listen to.
Whether as purveyor of ‘dirty’ hits or as the author of cult albums like Histoire de Melody Nelson, Serge Gainsbourg remains a figure of exotic allure to the British. On the other side of la Manche, however, Serge was an often contentious part of the cultural wallpaper. French musician Angele David-Guillou provides some Gallic perspective.
I was 12 when Serge Gainsbourg died. The news was all over the media and I remember being uncomfortable with the thought that I could not feel sad about his passing away. Perhaps I was even relieved. I vaguely knew that he had been a kind of poet and had written some good songs at an earlier stage. I had also seen my father proudly dancing to ‘Aux Armes et Caetera’, Gainsbourg’s controversial 1979 reggae rendition of the French national anthem. But to the child that I was then, Gainsbourg was simply a dirty old pervert singing depressing sexual songs. I found him quite scary.
All through the ’80s, Gainsbourg was an omnipresent figure in French music and culture. A favourite guest on television talk shows, he could spice up the stalest Saturday night family programme, arriving dunk on the set, smoking his Gitanes and swearing in every other sentence.
Gainsbourg was responsible for the success of many other artists, including Isabelle Adjani, who sang his ‘Pull Marine’ in 1983, his daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg, who recorded ‘Charlotte for Ever’, in 1986, and Vanessa Paradis, for whom he wrote the album Variations sur le Meme T’aime in 1990. The songs he interpreted himself were even more famous and their video were broadcast continuously.
But these songs were not those with which British people are most familiar, today. Those would be ‘Sorry Angel’, ‘Lemon Incest’, ‘Love on the Beat’, ‘No Comment’, ‘Mon Legionnaire’, ‘Aux Enfants de la Chance’ and so on; pieces united by their bleak undertone which speak of sex, drugs, or both. Of course, sexual innuendo was nothing new for Gainsbourg, but the amused tone of ‘Couleur Cafe’, ‘Les Sucettes’, and ’69 Annee Erotique’ had, by the mid ’80s given way to something rather more sinister.
By then, Gainsbourg had lost his charming ’60s voce and mostly spoke his lyrics in a smoky, broken tone, often stuttering over his words (thanks to the debilitating effects of alcohol!) Bad erotic film saxophone poured all over his arrangements, as did banal disco backing vocals. All this created a very gloomy and sad atmosphere; it made me feel very uneasy. To be fair, a lot of French music was like this at the time. Listen, if you can, to the very Gainsbourgian hit singles ‘Cargo de Nuit’ by Axel Bauer, from 1983, ‘Etienne’ by Guesch Patti, from 1987 or Mylene Farmer’s ‘Libertine’ from, 1986.
It was only in my late teens that I rediscovered Gainsbourg and realised how wonderful and rich his repertoire was. I also came to value many of the ’80s songs which I’d previously loathed so much. At the very least, they are testimony to what he chose his life to be. Gainsbourg was a free man who did whatever he please, regardless. I think this is why French people still admired and respected him so much in the last decade of his life. This is also why these songs should not be erased from is musical history.