Intoxicated Man - A portrait of Serge Gainsbourg
To the English speaking world Gainsbourg is at best a cult figure: A genius to the initiated and a pervert to the rest. He presented himself as a mixture of the two; a literate cynic whose primary interests were “eroticism and money, in that order.” In 1969 he had a UK no.1 hit, Je t’aime… Moi non plus (I love you… Neither do I), featuring his then lover Jane Birkin. Although its sleazy bass line and percussive groaning seem rather tame now it kicked up a storm at the time of its release; being blacklisted in just about every country it could be and condemned by the Vatican, Gainsbourg claiming the “pope was our greatest PR man”, it became the first banned no.1 single in UK history. Unfortunately the songs humorous lyrical touches were understandably lost on an English speaking audience and Gainsbourg was written off as a trashy one hit wonder. During the late 60s and early 70s Gainsbourg crafted a hugely influential sonic template as well as public person so striking that it became the subject of an askmen.com article on its use as a pick up method. Many artists have been influenced both though his own recordings, outside France, go mostly unheard.
Gainsbourg’s commonly acknowledged masterpiece is Histoire de Melody Nelson (example track), a Lolita-esque concept album featuring a brooding Gainsbourg at the height of his creative powers. His own records having declined in sales, Gainsbourg was making money as a song-writer for other artists. This gave him a degree of freedom over his own projects which commercial expectations had previously hampered. Regardless of its high lyrical merits, Melody Nelson remains his most musically distinctive work; featuring a tight and atmospherically focused funk-rock rhythm section and a hugely innovative use of orchestration which fades in and out as the album progresses. Gainsbourg has a massive oeuvre and predates David Bowie on being an aesthetic chameleon; playfully hop scotching from genre to genre, blending into and then contorting popular trends as well as re-inventing himself as a reflection of his time. If you only try one Gainsbourg album, and you would be foolish to try only one, make sure it is Melody Nelson. If you try another, make sure it is Initials B.B.
Prior to Birkin, Serge had an intense but brief affair with France’s favourite sex kitten, the then very married, Brigitte Bardot. During their time together they collaborated on a few singles and Gainsbourg wrote a few songs celebrating her. This information may simply enforce his reputation as a womaniser, but the music contained within the album named after her is more than mere flattery: 1968’s Bonnie and Clyde embraced the sound of swinging London but with a complex rhythm section wholly unlike any records predating it and still sounds incredibly modern. It was these jazz inspired Groove’s which helped craft the cult of Gainsbourg among Britain’s Trip Hop scene and it was the persona the recordings demonstrated which made him a subtle influence on Britpop. One need merely compare the dress sense, the uncomfortably sensual whisper and the lyrical subject matter of one Jarvis Cocker to Monsieur Gainsbourg so see how a band like Pulp were channelling the spirit of the playful provocateur, albeit in a very English way. Although the UK has by no means taken to Gainsbourg with open arms he has certainly found more acceptance here than in America where Melody Nelson was pressed for the first time in 2009, a full 38 years after its initial French release.
Although not recognised as such until nearing the end of his life, in France Gainsbourg is now a national icon. At his funeral in 1991, which brought Paris to a standstill, the then French President François Mitterrand said of him “He was our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire… He elevated the song to the level of art.” The comparisons here are not with other composers or popular musicians, but with poets and for an artist whose crowning achievements are often seen as his lyrics, his appeal can become somewhat elusive to the non-french speaker. Gainsbourg has several famous fans; Jarvis Cocker, REM’s Michael Stipe, Portishead, Tricky, Placebo and Cat Power to name a few, and several English language cover albums have been released in a variety of styles including performances from some of the aforementioned artists. The translations are, almost in their entirety, redundant; they either cling so violently to a literal representation that they butcher the lyrical and phonetic poetry of the original French, or in an attempt to retain the French rhythms the content deviates so far from the original song that it can scarcely be called a translation at all. Thankfully his interesting choice of subject matter does survive translation; 1958’s Le Poinçonneur des Lilas , musically a jazz tinged Chanson, describes a suicidal metro ticket puncher whose job is so monotonous that he longs for a little hole in his head and to be put into a bigger hole simply so not to hear of holes anymore. Although 1958 was a year full of fantastic rock n’ roll records, this level of dark lyrical wit was something entirely fresh. During the aforementioned decline in his own record sales he wrote numerous songs for popular teenage singers, often criticising or commenting on the singers themselves and their audience. 1965’s Eurovision winning, and Gainsbourg penned, ‘Poupee de cire, Poupee de son’ (Doll of wax, doll of bran/sound) is littered with untranslatable word play which summons up the distortions pop music has made on the outlook of teenagers as well as comparing its singer, France Gall, to a child’s dress up doll as fragile as the vinyl records she produces and who is always under the control of her composer; Gainsbourg. This would be further demonstrated on another Gainsbourg/Gall collaboration; Les Sucettes, musically a rather unremarkable children’s song about a girl who likes lollipops but full of allusions to oral sex. France Gall was unaware of the songs implications, and promptly stopped performing it when she was informed, but the song signalled the controversy which would surround much of Gainsbourg’s later work, culminating perhaps in his infamous reggae version of the French national anthem Aux Armes Etcetera. The album named after the track was also the first French reggae record.
Brigitte Bardot described Gainsbourg as “the best and the worst, a young Russian prince who turned, when confronted with the tragic realities of life, into Quasimodo: moving or disgusting, depending on his, or our, frame of mind.” As a child, Lucien Ginsburg as he was then known, was the son of two Russian immigrants and was born in Paris 11 years before World War II broke out. He spent most of his teens being forced, as a Jew, to wear the yellow star, an experience which, alongside the numerous indignities Jews would suffer, had a profound effect upon him. His family managed to escape, via false papers, to Vichy France in the south where the Nazis had less influence. During his schooling there Lucien was often forced to hide in the woods to avoid identity checks because if discovered it could have cost him and his family their lives. Lucien would later, as Serge Gainsbourg, attempt to come to terms with those experiences through his comic Nazi themed concept album Rock Around the Bunker, a rock n’ roll odyssey which, considering France’s mixed wartime reputation, was viewed as tasteless provocation but simultaneously acted as a kind of personal exorcism. Rock around the Bunker is by no means his best work, but this habit of presenting painful personal subject matter in a grotesquely comic, and often offensive, fashion helps to demonstrate the bizarre conflicts and duality that constituted Gainsbourg’s character.
The recent release of biopic Gainsbourg Vie Heroique cements his legendary status in France and its UK cinema release proves that there is an audience worldwide. Even if the tagline for its English release was ‘the untold story of a musical legend’, at least it was being told. Gainsbourg’s international reputation is finally starting to grow. His earlier records are full of fascinating lyric work but will be of most interest to French speakers and Francophiles and his later albums may indulge perhaps too liberally into his eccentricities for some, but during a period spanning five years (1967 – 1972) Gainsbourg produced a truly original musical vision which has been overlooked for too long.
Top 5 Albums:
1. Histoire De Melody Nelson; His commonly acknowledge masterpiece.
2. Initials B.B.; A compilation of his late 60’s singles and a tribute to lover Brigitte Bardot. Feature’s some of his most rhythmically interesting and melodic compositions.
3. Anna OST; The soundtrack to the first colour film broadcast on French TV. The film is a bit of an intriguing mess, starring Jean Luc Goddard’s former muse Anna Karina as well as a cameo from Marianne Faithfull, but the soundtrack is a minor masterpiece and is often seen as a precursor to Melody Nelson. Now available only as a Japanese CD import.
4. Jane Birkin/Sege Gainsbourg; His most successful album worldwide, not as consistent as others but featuring some beautiful orchestration as well as the controversial Je T’aime…and other hits such as Elisa and the wonderfully named 69 Anne Erotique
5. Jane Birkin – Baby alone in Babylone; A record composed for his ex-lover into which he poured all the pain of his breakup. An often overlooked gem marred perhaps by dated 80’s production.
Others of note; L’Homme a tete de Chou, Gainsbourg Percussions and Aux Armes Etcetera
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