Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Serge Gainsbourg

Linking to that video of Brigitte Bardot and Serge Gainsbourg the other day on this blog made me wonder whether it’s still the case that most British people (and Americans too maybe?) think of two things when they think of Gainsbourg:

first, his infamous hit with Jane Birkin, Je t’aime (moi non plus), which became both the first foreign language song to reach number 1 in the UK singles chart (at a time when that chart meant something), and the first song to reach number 1 after being banned from the radio and TV, and:

second, his infamous encounter with Whitney Houston on live French TV (and you don’t need to understand a word of French to know what’s going on here), in which Serge plays up his drunken-womaniser image to the full. Whitney’s astonished expression and the TV host’s desperate attempt to cover things up are jaw-dropping.

But Serge was so much more than these two incidents. Views tend to polarise around him: either he is virtually a god, and his many faults are ignored, or he is the most evil, mysogynistic bastard who ever walked the planet. The truth is (obviously, I hope) far more complex. He was a genius, one of the greatest and most creative songwriters and lyricists of the 20th century, and at times he must have been funny, stimulating, and terrific company. At other times, his excesses (and you only need glance at photos of the later Serge to guess how many litres of alcohol he must have consumed in an average day) must have made him impossible to live with.

He was brought up as part of a Jewish family in Paris and, as a child, was made to wear the yellow star under Nazi occupation. He escaped from Paris, and later began to make a living as a bar piano player. His songs soon began to attract attention. He fused the traditional French ‘chanson’ with elements of cool jazz and rock and, in time, also with reggae, North African music, early electronica, and hip-hop.

His song Poupée de Cire, Poupée de Son won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1965, sung by France Gall.

The fabulous L’Anamour, from 1968, is one early example of fusion.

Serge was never far from controversy. Halfway through one of his finest songs, Je Suis Venu te Dire que Je m’en Vais, a woman starts to cry. The woman is Jane Birkin, and it’s reported that Serge, without her knowledge, taped her real tears of grief at a family death, and then dropped them into his song.

In the late seventies, Serge went to Jamaica and recorded (with Sly and Robbie no less, with Rita Marley on backing vocals) Aux Armes et Caetera (audio link only), a reggae version of La Marseillaise, the French National Anthem, which outraged several right-wing groups in the country. Before a concert in Paris, Serge was threatened with death if he went ahead with a tour to promote the album. His response was not only to play the concert, but to open his set with the offending song. And he lived…

Gainsbourg then bought the original manuscript of La Marseillaise. He proved to his critics that his version was, in fact, closer to the original. The manuscript has the words "Aux armes et cætera..." scrawled in for the chorus!

Despite not being particularly eye-catching, Serge teamed up with some of the most beautiful women of his era – sometimes just to sing, sometimes for a little more.

With Jane Birkin lying on top of the piano, here here's a fantastic video of 69 Année Erotique.
With Brigitte Bardot, having a bit of a laugh, here’s Comic Strip
And trying to cuddle up with close friend and screen legend, Catherine Deneuve, here’s Dieu Fumeur de Havanes . Catherine appears well able to handle this kind of attention…
Finally, a fantastic live version of La Ballade de Johnny by Jane Birkin and Vanessa Paradis.

He died in 2 March 1991. At his funeral, French President, François Mitterrand, said of him "He was our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire...He elevated the song to the level of Art." His reputation in France today has never been higher. And the word appears to be spreading through the rest of the world too, despite resistance in the UK to anyone who doesn’t sing in English. I wish that wasn’t the case. My French is terrible, but I can still hear why Gainsbourg is acknowledged as one of the great songwriters, lyricists and performers. Bands like Belle and Sebastian, Pulp, and many other groups have been listening to Gainsbourg too.


nmj said...

I'd never seen this clip of Serge wooing Whitney, I watched it a couple of times just now, & even when you know what he's going to say, it's still kind of shocking, but I think Whitney dealt with it well. I can understand the French, there really isn't much to add, the asides to the audience that Serge isn't drunk, this is his normal state, ha ha ha . . . It reminded me bizarrely of Preston whatever his name is walking off never Mind the Buzzcocks recently when the presenter was slagging off Chantelle. Preston could have taken a leaf out of Whitney's book & stayed put.

apprentice said...

The Whitney clip is all the more ironic now that we know she's suffered a similar fate with addiction.

I love Piaf and that earlier era of French song writing, but Serge has never really held any appeal for me, not sure why. Something just doesn't click, it's like Sondheim I know he's a genuis too, but his work has no appeal either.

Unknown said...

You've written such an interesting post that I'm off to follow the links. Thanks for that Rob.

Rob said...

Yes, poor old Whitney.

Serge is an interesting charcter, no doubt about that. There is a video floating about of him burning a 500 Franc note (an illegal act) live on TV. And much more besides.

His daughter (with Jane Birkin), Charlotte is now a successful actress and singer in her own right, so something must be running in his genes.