Mon. Nov. 29, 2021

Serge Gainsbourg: Dr. Serge & Mr. Gainsbarre

Serge GainsbourgIf there had been any so to say dirty ol’ man of popular music, I suppose the first name comin’ to the minds of many would be the one of Serge Gainsbourg. A multi-talented artist who progressively turned himself into an agent provocateur which would most likely helped him makin’ abstraction of his obvious homely appearance…

Born in Paris on Apr. 02, 1928, Lucien Ginsburg was of Jewish Russian ancestry. His parents comin’ to find a new home in France further to the events of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. He would start studying art and teaching. Eventually coming to painting before working as a bar pianist in a then boiling cabaret circuit. He would then reluctantly assume a singing role in the cast of the ‘Milord L’Arsouille’ musical. Obviously prefering to remain in the shadow, as a composer and producer. And this as opposed to be performing, because of his looking…

Undoubtedly inhabited by the Classic Music harmonies, but also influenced by the particular Russian music play, Serge Gainsbourg achieved to reach a rare level in terms of composition which, dubbed with a versatile mind, allowed him to embrace countless moods. Giving them his unique own twist, when not creating the foundations of what would be later seen as new genres like Trip Hop for instance. And, as if it wasn’t enough, he also had the art to play with words with a rare fluidity. All in all bringing what I’d be tempted to call floetry on his songs. Thus inspiring famous French Hip-Hopper MC Solaar in the 90’s.

The man nevertheless encountered difficulties to make himself a name at the beginning. His Jazz-inflected albums such as ‘Du chant à la une!…’ which marked his debut back in 1958. But also ‘L’étonnant Serge Gainsbourg’ and ‘Gainsbourg confidentiel’. As many efforts which found it hard to make themselves a niche into the charts. Although his compositions for Petula Clark, Dionne Warwick, not to mention Saint-Germain muse Juliette Gréco managed to be more successful. Gainsbourg‘s most memorable songs from this period being ‘Le poinçonneur des Lillas’ and ‘Couleur café’ (on a mambo vein). This in addition to ‘La Javanaise’ which Gréco also happened to sing on her own.

The mid-60’s definitely marked a turning point for Serge Gainsbourg. With 18 years old France Gall winning the 1965 Eurovision contest with ‘Poupée de cire, poupée de son’ which he wrote for her. A song followed the year after by ‘Les sucettes’ (‘The Lollipops’) depicting the story of a girl feeling like in heaven each time “that little stick is on her tongue”. A song which Gall refused to perform soon after realizing the dual meaning of the lyrics. This leading her to definitely get her distance from her then author.

All of a sudden, Serge Gainsbourg was seen as the dirty old man. Breaking the rules of the said politically correct, with the erotic allusions featuring on his songs. Eventually partnering with 60’s sex symbol and renown actress Brigitte Bardot with whom he performed a series of duets such as ‘Harley Davidson’ and ‘Comic strip’. Not to mention ‘Bonnie & Clyde’, which MC Solaar sampled years after on ‘Nouveau western’…

His liaison with Bardot happened to be brief. But combined with his previous affair with Gall, its effects were irrevocable. Gainsbourg pushing the boundaries further along with British actress Jane Birkin on the 1969 released ‘Je t’aime, moi non plus’. Aa song which he’d originally shelved for Bardot). Itself characterized by steamy lyrics mixed with explicit moaning and growning rumored to have been recorded from a microphone placed underneath their bed. A song which, ironically, stalled at position #69 on the Pop charts in America!

It would be followed 2 years after by ‘Histoire de Melody Nelson’. A narration that depicts the story of a man who knocks a young redhead from her bicycle and falls in love with her. A dark and complex song where he once again made proof of his versatility musicwise. This with the help of Jean-Claude Vannier in charge of the arrangements. Thus blending a Rock guitar riff on an infectious bassline which he’d put forward (like the funksters) with elements of symphonic music. With the whole sounding like a primar form of Trip Hop. Showasing his growing alienation from modern culture, drugs, disease and misanthropy that would grow from a release to another. Artists from Beck to Placebo and Portishead citing this album as hugely influential on their work, in addition to Coldcut and Howie B. Not to mention Air for the ensemble of his repertoire.

Although he never again reached the commercial success of his late 60’s peak, Serge Gainsbourg kept on exploring new directions. And eventually shaking the conscience of his contemporaries from a year/project to another. Just like when he decided to record his ‘Aux armes et ceatera’ album in Jamaica back in 1979. An effort the title of which happened to be an adaptation of French national anthem ‘La Marseillaise’. An album that saw him collaborating with Reggae moguls Sly & Robbie. The latter eventually following him on a tour that got plagued with bomb threats cancellations and heavy protests from paratroopers. But the experience happened to be another commerical success for Gainsbourg. With the album selling more than 600,000 copies in France. Itself considered as one of the earliest works to have brought Reggae to mainstream.

Releasing a duet with his teenage daughter entitled “Lemon Incest” resulted in one of the biggest scandals in Gainsbourg‘s career. Recorded back in 1984 with the then 12 years old Charlotte (Gainsbourg), the song caused uproar in France. And it eventually made the headlines on the other side of the Channel. With its titled playing on similarities between the words “zest” and “incest”. But even more, its video, starring Charolotte in a nightshirt lying in bed with her topless dad singing about the love they’ll never make together, outraged the world. Its publicity though leading to increased album sales. All in all proving Gainsbourg‘s recipe for success to be, once again, a succesful one…

“Je t’aime, moi non plus” (“I love you, me neither”)… was pretty much the feeling that Serge Gainsbourg left to his contemporaries. Either vilified or celebrated, he definitely left no one indifferent. And chances are great that this was his aim. From the moment he got aware of the ability that was his to play with words. Even though it was not in the most brilliant way, when he explicitely stated his sexual desires to Whitney Houston who was seating close to him on a French prime TV show hosted by Michel Drucker. Telling the latter he wanted to “fµ** her”. Or when he happened to burn a 500 Francs note as a protest against heavy taxation. This during another live television broadcast a couple of years before…

Although he’d been warned with a first heart attack back in the mid-70’s after years of heavy smoking, the man kept on doin’so. If not even more until his death on Mar. 02, 1991. This would be his final provocation…

Chosen few
Bonnie And Clyde (Fontana) – Brigitte Bardot & Serge Gainsbourg
Histoire de Melody Nelson (Phillips) – Serge Gainsbourg
L’homme à tête de chou (Phillips) – Serge Gainsbourg
Bande Originale Du Film De Serge Gainsbourg ‘Je t’aime moi non plus (Phillips) – Serge Gainsbourg
Bande Originale Du Film ‘Goodbye Emmanuelle’ (Phillips) – Serge Gainsbourg
Serge Gainsbourg – Love On The Beat (Phillips) – Serge Gainsbourg
Electronica Gainsbourg 2 (Mercury) – Serge Gainsbourg

Tribute: Serge Gainsbourg

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