Serge Gainsbourg

TrackAlbum
Les Amours PerduesL'Étonnant Serge Gainsbourg
Intoxicated ManNo.4
Coco And CoGainsbourg Percussions
Un Jour Comme Un AutreAnna (soundtrack)
ManonManon 70 (soundtrack)
69 Année ErotiqueJane Birkin/Serge Gainsbourg
Je Suis Venu Te Dire Que Je M'en VaisVu de L'Extérieur
Vieille CanailleAux Armes Et Cætera
Sorry AngelLove On The Beat
Requiem Pour Un ConLe Pacha (soundtrack)

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Contributor: Sten King

This is my first post (of many I hope) for Toppermost, and to be honest I’ve probably chosen the trickiest artist imaginable. It started with a (slightly drunken) off-the-cuff top 10 Gainsbourg songs I posted on Twitter one night. I adore the music of Serge Gainsbourg. There is always something new to discover, a lyric to try and translate and understand, a gorgeously understated arrangement to hear unfold, a hidden twist or turn to discover, a layer to his character to reveal. After more than a decade into listening to his music I still don’t feel I’m any closer to really understanding this complex, contrary old bugger.

So, understandably perhaps, narrowing his canon down to a mere ten songs is quite a challenge. My friend Jeremy Allen has already done so marvellously for a piece in The Guardian, so I have tried to take a slightly different approach for mine.

These aren’t necessarily his 10 best songs, nor even his most popular, but I think they offer a bit of an insight into the Gainsbourg to be discovered beneath all the notoriety and controversy, whatever your preconceptions of him are. There is a sadness in his best work that I think reveals more about the real Serge than you could glean from the characters he presented to the world. He is complex and contradictory, provocative yet pudique, lyrically a genius, if your French is up to it, endlessly intriguing if it isn’t, like mine. Gainsbourg’s story is one of a man fighting a battle with himself, expressed rather well by director Bertrand Blier in the sleevenotes of the recent Le Cinéma de Serge Gainsbourg compilation: “I’m still fascinated by the path taken by this rather shy, introvert creator who invented a dandy-provocateur character for himself. And at the end of his career, his character finally caught up with him and devoured him.”

Les Amours Perdues

One of the first songs Serge wrote, in 1954 when he first registered with the SACEM (the French songwriting society) and metamorphosed from Lucien Ginsburg into Serge Gainsbourg. First recorded by Juliette Gréco in 1959, Serge’s version appeared on his third album, L’Étonnant Serge Gainsbourg, a couple of years later. It’s lyrically quite a simple, innocent lost-love song really, but it’s interesting for that reason; the misanthropy and cynicism of later songs is here merely budding, ready to burst into flower. “My lost loves, still haunt my nights …”, a wistful, understated arrangement, with some beautiful, sad horns. I find myself wanting to give Serge a hug, and not for the last time.

Intoxicated Man

This song perhaps marks the first subtle appearance of “Gainsbarre”, Serge’s drunken, provocative alter-ego who would initially shield his creator and provide enough controversy to keep him in the spotlight, but who later, as noted above, “devoured” him. “Love… doesn’t really interest me anymore” he sings, as visions of pink elephants and spiders on his shirt appear. We’ve already moved on from our lost loves, then. Or perhaps they are lurking in the bottle. An exceptionally louche arrangement of wandering bass and keys, swaggering verses punctuated by pauses as the keyboards summon up a flourish and the verse stumbles back into view, like a drunken wander home late at night.

Coco And Co

In 1964, as Beatlemania razed all around it to the ground and tragically laid the foundations for the cultural cul-de-sac that was Oasis, Serge seemed to be looking for a new direction. His first five albums ploughed a relatively similar furrow of what is actually a hugely enjoyable combination of jazz, chanson and Serge’s endearing croon, but that had met with limited commercial success at the time. Gainsbourg Percussions is a brilliant album though. Unfortunately large chunks of it were lifted somewhat directly from other artists, uncredited. But it’s all delivered with undeniable aplomb. Coco And Co isn’t the best song on it, but it always makes me smile. Serge talks us through the members of his, eminently capable, band and their particular pharmaceutical of choice. It’s huge fun.

Un Jour Comme Un Autre

After Percussions, Serge would mainly focus on extra-curricular activities for a while: writing songs for others mostly, winning the Eurovision Song Contest for Luxembourg, etc. but also some sterling soundtrack work. I thought about including La Horse in my list (from the 1970 movie of the same name), but it’s not on Spotify, so here it is as a bonus extra track. We could easily create a separate top 10 of Serge’s soundtrack work – check out the aforementioned Le Cinéma de Serge Gainsbourg compilation for evidence. There is more than enough for a third list too, of the songs he wrote for others to sing. This song neatly fits on all three. Un Jour Comme Un Autre is from the soundtrack for TV movie, Anna. Anna Karina had never sung before, apparently. This song says more in one minute than most do in three or four. Portishead covered it capably for Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited tribute album (2006) as Requiem For Anna, a sort of mashup of this song and Requiem Pour Un Con.

Manon

Manon, from 1968, is the best song Serge ever wrote. It broods. The strings swell, then recede … Serge’s voice is high in the mix… “A quel point je HAIS… ce que tu es”. I think this song sets a template for much of Serge’s later work, especially Melody Nelson. Serge would often use his soundtrack work to experiment with ideas that later found their way onto his own albums. It’s just a beautiful song, really.

 

Here’s another beautiful song (see above) that I didn’t include in the Top 10 as it’s not on Spotify: La Noyée. I don’t know much about it even, other than it was written for Yves Montand and he turned it down. I think Carla Bruni recorded it later, as did Serge’s son Lulu on his excellent From Gainsbourg To Lulu album, which also includes an amazing version of another song on our list, sung by Rufus Wainwright.

69 Année Erotique

I’m employing a classic British trait regarding music sung in a language other than English here. No, this song didn’t go anywhere near Eurovision, (though Serge did have three entries in that competition over the years), it’s this: I heard it while on holiday and brought it back with me. Like, um, Saturday Night by Whigfield. Or that Ketchup one. Or Y Viva Espana. Oh Britain, you’ve slept on so much awesome non-British, non-American music over the years. Anyway, sadly for the British pop charts, this was in 2003 and not on its original release (the clue is in the title), so a posthumous summer smash was alas denied Monsieur Gainsbourg on this occasion.

1969, however, was a pivotal year full of pivotal events. Serge must’ve been giddy from all the pivoting. At 41, Serge had just had a genuine worldwide hit that would shape the rest of his life and career, I think it’s fair to say. If you know nothing else of Serge Gainsbourg, you will surely know Je T’Aime … Moi Non Plus. It was a hit of the magnitude labels probably now expect from a debut album, let alone from a guy in his early 40s, ten or so years and nearly as many albums deep into his career. The catalyst for all this was meeting a certain Jane Birkin on the set of Slogan the previous year, and refining the template developed in his collaborations with Brigitte Bardot (not represented in this list but worthy of further investigation, not least the classic Bonnie And Clyde). He would also start working with the genius arranger Jean-Claude Vannier in this period, and all of these factors would combine to produce what most consider Serge’s greatest achievement.

 

At this point in the list I recommend pouring yourself another pastis and listening to Histoire de Melody Nelson in its entirety. See you back here in about half an hour, oui?

 

Je Suis Venu Te Dire Que Je M’en Vais

Life took a decidedly rum turn for Serge in the early 70s, a heart attack at 45. A clear, and early reminder of his mortality, one he apparently heeded by increasing his alcohol intake to counter the effect of the cigarettes, and writing Vu de l’Extérieur, which is my absolute favourite Gainsbourg album. I described it once on Twitter as “Serge has a heart attack and writes an album about farting”, and it’s not terribly far from the truth. It’s also the saddest sounding album he made. I bought it while on holiday (Brit abroad part 2), staying in a fairly remote house in Normandy, and this album on headphones late at night, the house surrounded by the sort of inky black night that only seems to exist in the countryside, was amazing. My French is pretty average even now, even sketchier back then, so the lyrics were mostly lost on me at the time, but the sombre mood of the album really had an impact on me. Some wonderful arrangements by Alan Hawkshaw, a fascinating artist in his own right – he recorded a song which became a classic hip hop break (The Champ by The Mohawks), wrote the theme tune to Grange Hill and the Countdown clock music, and then worked with Serge on this, as well as the subsequent albums Rock Around The Bunker and the excellent L’Homme à Tête de Chou. Je Suis Venu Te Dire Que Je M’en Vais is the best song on the album, although it lacks the splendid lyrical vulgarity of the rest of it, being a wonderfully executed end-of-a-relationship ballad. However, all the other songs on the album are brilliant. All of them.

Vieille Canaille

The title track of the Aux Armes Et Cætera album, a reggae version of the French national anthem, was received with predictable outrage by the knuckle-dragging French right, culminating in a bold stand-off at a concert in Strasbourg where Serge sang La Marseillaise acapella and the poor mites didn’t know whether to follow through with their fuck-witted threats of violence or sing along. Vieille Canaille, however, was a much more personal affair. Serge’s relationship with Jane was becoming toxic and, in 1980, she would leave him for another man, Jacques Doillon, who is the implied subject of this song. It’s not actually a Gainsbourg original but a 1931 composition by Sam Theard, most famously covered by Louis Armstrong. “I’ll be glad when you’re dead,” Serge snarls, “I welcomed you with open arms”. “Je t’ai présenté ma femme… puis t’es parti avec elle”. He fantasises about shooting him, and anticipates a drunken celebration at his funeral; his trademark dark humour to the fore in his choice of song to cover. It’s probably fairly reasonable to say that he wasn’t quite the full Serge before he met Jane Birkin, nor was he quite the full Serge after she left. It’s impossible to overstate the impact of Jane Birkin on his life. If you had to split his career into manageable chunks, the first obvious approach would be: avant Jane, avec Jane, après Jane.

To English ears, having heard a lot of reggae in the late 70s, it’s fascinating to hear a French take on the genre (albeit one backed by about the best Jamaican musicians available at that time, Sly & Robbie et al). It’s odd to consider how France was largely oblivious to reggae before this, and how huge this album was. Equally, how did this album not make any sort of mark at all in the UK? There was a decent reissue with dub versions which is worth seeking out too.

Sorry Angel

Suicide had featured before in Serge’s lyrics, the ticket puncher in Lilas station, the poor subject of En Relisant Ta Lettre. His decline at the hands of his nefarious alter-ego “Gainsbarre” has been described as an ‘optimistic suicide’ – a slow pattern of self-destruction, yet one he appeared to believe he could always outpace. Sorry Angel reads as if it’s written to a lover Serge has driven away and who has taken their own life as a result, but it can perhaps be interpreted as an apology from Serge to himself, or a version of himself (young Lucien Ginsburg?) for his own ‘suicide’. It is another beautifully made sad-eyed song. The guitar pattern is one that I could listen to on a loop for hours, it has a very satisfying circular quality. Serge’s 80s albums were interesting, underrated I think, musically sounding a little dated now, but many great songs, and Serge sounds amazing. A bit like Mark E Smith, in that he could read an article from a local newspaper over a piece of music and it’d sound like the best thing ever. I’d say Serge was definitely going in a bit of a hip hop direction in his later years, especially on 1987’s You’re Under Arrest album. Which leads us neatly on to ….

Requiem Pour Un Con

Serge’s proto-hip hop song from 68’s Le Pacha soundtrack. We’re going out of chronological sequence here, but it’s a fitting end to our Top 10, as a version of this was released, as scheduled much earlier, three days after Serge died, and as France mourned. ‘Con’ is a French swear word, and there’s a certain dark humour (again!) in this missa pro defunctis appearing when it did. Everything about it sounds fantastic. As if built from loops, stark drums crack and a monotone bass line pulses threateningly. And there is Serge, his voice cutting through a fog of Gitanes smoke, close-miked and at least twice as loud as everything else in the track, as always. The mood created is every bit as intense and engaging as anything on Histoire de Melody Nelson.

I think Serge would have been a fan of sampling, and hip hop in general really. I wish he’d stuck around a while longer; we can only imagine the sort of collaborators he might have worked with through the 90s and beyond. Pondering this has led me to start work on a sort of tribute album, created using almost nothing else but samples from Gainsbourg records. A different take on a huge, fascinating body of work, an attempt to capture the essence of what he was about, to tell his story in a different language. It’s in the very early stages but if this sort of thing interests you, you can follow @SampledSerge on Twitter for updates…

 

FURTHER LISTENING/READING

I am indebted to the wonderful Sylvie Simmons for her excellent biography, A Fistful Of Gitanes (2002), now out of print but recently re-issued in an expanded e-book format, and very highly recommended. This has been my navigational aid through the often murky and disorientating waters of the Gainsbourg oeuvre, and helped me put this list together. Where I have included English translations of Serge’s lyrics, they are either from Alex Chabot’s website, a great and fascinating resource for the English-speaking Serge fan, or my own clumsy attempts.

I’d recommend the compilation Initials SG for a more comprehensive overview of the important stuff. Even if you only ever listen to that and Histoire de Melody Nelson you’ll be doing OK. But there is so much more to discover, and though the journey might be uncomfortable at times I promise you it is worth it. Bon courage !

 

Serge Gainsbourg website (archived)

Serge Gainsbourg discography

Serge Gainsbourg lyrics (in French and English)

Serge Gainsbourg biography (iTunes)

Follow Sten on Twitter @earthboundboy and listen to his original music on Soundcloud. For all things Serge, go to @RadioGainsbourg.

TopperPost #454

5 Comments

  1. Lazer Guided Melody
    Jun 25, 2015

    Great selections (‘Requiem Pour Un Con’ especially), written with knowledge, passion and élan. Bravo.

    • Sten
      Jun 25, 2015

      Thank you kindly, sir!

  2. Glenn Smith
    Jun 26, 2015

    What no L’Hippopodame? And I really like the title track from Aux Armes et caeteara. I’ve also got to go for Bonnie and Clyde as well if only to get that image in my head of Bardot with the machine gun! Thanks for a great essay, my only quibble would be that of poor old Noel being written off as a cultural cul-de-sac, we’d be a poorer world without Don’t Look Back in Anger, Serge would’ve approved…

  3. Peter Viney
    Jun 28, 2015

    A very clear and intriguing introduction to Serge Gainsbourg. I only know Le Histoire de Melody Nelson, basically because it kept getting quoted so many times I had to buy it. I did write an article on Je t’aime … mois non plus once, and got fascinated not only by the Jane Birkin v Brigitte Bardot versions, but by the stories behind it, such as the BBC commissioning the instrumental version Love At First Sight to play on “Top of The Pops” after they banned it. Marianne Faithful said he invited every singer in a skirt to sing it after Bardot’s husband stopped the release of their original version. She later let it be released to benefit her animal charity. (I think the Jane one s better). There have also been so many pastiches of the song. What gets me now is Bonnie & Clyde above which will be today’s earworm.

  4. Ilkka Jauramo
    Jul 3, 2015

    Merci beaucoup monsieur King. I have planned to post mon liste on monsieur Gainsbarre here for mois. As a finlandaise I carry a lot of his slavonian melancholic “esprit” in my soul. I grew up with la musique of Serge although my mother said that he is “an erotomaniac and he should not be listened to”. I didn’t understand the word. – None of your choices is on mon liste, negatif monsieur, negatif! No reason for echaufforee, monsieur King. Monsieur Gainsbourg has so many faces. Or just one! I adore him as a provocateur, provocateur politicue. I adore him as an homme building a bridge and uniting le tradition Russe, Juif and Francaise. A lot of this can be found even in Finnish tango tradition which is so dear to my heart. – Merci monsieur King!

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