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Honouring French Singers

Serge Gainsbourg


From the Weekend Sun and Winston Watusi

News of France's Bastille Day horrors arrived too late for last week's deadline.

So, slightly belatedly, I thought we'd make this week French Week and look at a great French singer.

There are a lot to choose from, from the iconic Johnny Hallyday to Francoise Hardy – or Plastic Bertrand anyone? And the ever-astonishing Charles Aznavour, still going strong at 92. But my favourite is Serge Gainsbourg.

A well-known piece

I'm guessing that many readers don't know a lot of songs in French. There are about three songs widely familiar to native English speakers. 

There's ‘Alouette', Bill Wyman's ‘Je Suis Un Rockstar' perhaps, and the third is from Serge Gainsbourg. A song that represented one of the many times he scandalised France and, unusually in this case, the world. 

‘Je T'Aime Moi Non Plus' – that breathily whispered ultra-sexy seduction piece set to pulsing organ crescendos – was banned in the United Kingdom, Spain, Sweden, Brazil, Italy, Portugal and more. 

From the late-1950s till the early-1990s, Serge Gainsbourg was the most famous singer and songwriter in France. His own albums and recordings rarely topped the charts but he, in a manner that seems almost unique to France, wrote prodigiously for beautiful actresses. 

He wrote for Brigitte Bardot, Jane Birkin, Isabelle Adjani, Honor Blackman, Catherine Deneuve, Zizi Jeanmaire, Anna Karina, Vanessa Paradis, and many more, often full albums. 

Serge Gainsbourg.
Starting scandal

One of those early commissions caused his first big scandal. After writing the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest winner for 16-year-old France Gall he followed it with ‘Les Sucettes' (Lollipops) a hit on which the young singer seemed the only person unaware that the lyric appeared to about more than simply sucking a lollipop.

Serge was unusual and an unusual-looking guy. Son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, he had big ears and a lifelong addiction to alcohol and cigarettes. His mid-1960s affair with Brigitte Bardot put him firmly on the front pages. He wrote an album for her – of course – and she recorded ‘Je T'Aime Moi Non Plus' with him. 

But the affair ended and she barred the song's release. He rebounded, into the arms of the young and lovely Jane Birkin, wrote an album for her, and rerecorded 'Je T'Aime Moi Non Plus' for his only worldwide hit. 

Then, in 1971 with Jane as his muse, he released what many regard as his masterpiece, ‘Histoire De Melody Nelson', using top English rock session musicians and creating what sounds like acid jazz decades before its time.

Seeking new sounds

Looking for new sounds Serge travelled to Jamaica in 1979 to record with Sly and Robbie and the I-Threes. 

The resulting album introduced mainstream France to reggae, and scandal once again ensued. The title track was a reggae version of French national anthem ‘La Marseillaise'. It got the same reaction as The Sex Pistols' ‘God Save the Queen' in England. Veterans marched on the French parliament to return medals; Serge's shows were disrupted by rioting paratroopers. But Serge continued his musical restlessness. In the 1980s he recorded in America with musicians in the axis of Bruce Springsteen and Southside Johnny. 

He combined French dancefloor with his inimitable punning, outrageous, confrontational lyrics. 

Those lyrics? Wow. Beautiful, surprising, profound and…sometimes not. He wrote an album which was mainly “fart songs”; his ‘Rock Around the Bunker' album crudely satirised the Nazis. It was a very fine line between high art and low comedy.

A final drama

One last scandal. In the mid-1980s Serge was on a live TV talk show with Whitney Houston and clearly drunk. Being interviewed together, he leaned over and made an obscene suggestion. The flustered interviewer tried to explain: “What Mr Gainsbourg means is he thinks you're great...” “No,” repeated Serge, “I would like to **** you”. True story – you can watch it on YouTube. And, despite all that, I urge you to listen to Serge's music, from the early nightclub chansons to the slick sixties pop and the bare-bones reggae. 

Best place to start is any compilation, and the best accompaniment to the originals are two albums by Australian musician Mick Harvey, one of Nick Cave's Bad Seeds. 

‘Intoxicated Man' and ‘Pink Elephants' both translate Serge's songs into English and both are brilliant.