Few figures in popular music immersed themselves in as many genres as Serge Gainsbourg, and the French icon managed it with seemingly effortless guile.
Aside from having earned status as one of the world’s most revered and influential songwriters, Gainsbourg was also a painter, actor, filmmaker, screenwriter, director, novelist, poet, and composer. Gainsbourg is a true example of the renaissance man, a multitalented cultural polymath whose life was so filled with both odd coincidence and calculated career savvy that he makes contemporary attempts at such ubiquity seem laughable. When playing six degrees of separation with Gainsbourg’s studio sessions, one finds direct connections with world famous film stars and sex symbols, renowned genre pioneers and esteemed composers alike.
Across a 30-plus year recording career, Gainsbourg moved from modern jazz sounds to explorations of African highlife, Afro Cuban dance orchestras, French Antillean zouk and compas rhythms and even Jamaican reggae, paying homage to (and openly speaking of his admiration for) the modernity of their sounds while attempting to avoid the novelties of their perceived exoticism. (Lyrically, though, it’s another story – he was prone to fetishizing women of color in his songs, and while many of his recordings feature these women as objects of both lust and obsession or love and adoration, the contexts in which these scenarios were sometimes portrayed remain questionable.)
Gainsbourg received his first commercial breakthroughs in the late 1950s via interpretations of his early work by singers high on the totem pole of the Rive Gauche’s second wave; these songs were arranged, much like his own recordings of the era, in lush fusions of “cool” modern jazz and Latin cha-cha. This would become a continuing practice throughout his career, writing songs for others to fund the sessions for his own lesser-selling albums.
By the mid-60s his work-for-hire had extended beyond jazz and Left Bank chanson into the world of “yé-yé” teen idol pop; much of his work from this period in the later 1960s and early 70s is what put him on the map in France, Japan, and the UK, and earned him cult status in America among hip cognoscenti. What most non-French speakers tend to focus on are his musical arrangements, which were often intricate and infused with a keen sense of rhythmic syncopation, no doubt derived from his beginnings as a jazz pianist for hire working nightclubs and piano bars. Many listeners, however, miss out on the fact that his lyrics are often sharp and intricate unto themselves.
Fond of utilizing puns, entendre, alliteration, and complex rhyme schemes, Gainsbourg’s lyricism foreshadows the complexity of rap music by decades, fusing built-in rhythms with tongue-twisting couplets in ways that few others performers and songwriters of the era were exercising. He brought an inspired sophistication to the artform of the song while simultaneously winking at listeners with double and triple meanings, and while his lyrics are at times so tangled up in their complexities, colloquial slang references, and multiple interpretations that translations are Herculean efforts, the hypnotic cadences with which he delivered them has remained a constant, even as he moved from a hesitant crooner in his early years to the more weathered strains of half-spoken proto-rap and poetics of his ‘prime’ years.
The selections I’ve chosen here are not necessarily his ‘hits’, per se, but rather a focus on the different styles and rhythmic anchors with which he delivered his magic. I focus on his own solo catalogue primarily, as including his work for other singers would leave the reader with a small novella of recommendations. Even at his most uninspired, Gainsbourg always delivers in some form or another; as his work increasingly becomes source material for sample-sourcing producers, inspired ingenues-in-the-making, and pop star pervs who want to get their freak on, let’s dive into some of the songs that show his depth and breadth of style.
‘Le Poinçonneur Des Lilas’ (1958)
(From Du Chant À La Une!…, Philips, 1958)
This is where the journey begins. Gainsbourg’s first single, released in September of 1958, proved to be a promising start for the songwriter, who at the age of 30 found himself with his first hit. A critical success which soon received a number of cover versions, ‘Le Poinçonneur Des Lilas’ tells the tale of a man working in a Paris Metro station as a ticket taker; he describes his inner torment of being stuck in the tunnels all day punching holes in people’s tickets, looking for benign ways to cure his unceasing boredom until he considers suicide – making one last little hole – as his only true escape.
This dark yet dryly witty lyrical undertone, combined with a sharp, syncopated musical arrangement by frequent early collaborator Alain Goraguer – whose train-invoking rhythm anchors the acidic percussive attack of Gainsbourg’s delivery – led to a number of cover versions throughout the year by French cabaret performers and chansonniers. Its accompanying debut album, Du Chant à la Une!…, featured Goraguer arrangements rooted in modern jazz which stayed rooted in a rather straightforward format, displaying Gainsbourg’s roots as a performer and a rock-solid, competent understanding of the style for which he’s not always given credit.
Now something of a classic in French music, the album laid the groundwork for what was to come. Its success was a freak occurrence, though, and Gainsbourg would toil in the frustrating zone of critical acclaim without chart success for the bulk of his early career, writing songs for others to make money while having the Philips label bankroll his inspired yet eccentric genre experiments. We’re off to a great start, but the best is yet to come.
(From Serge Gainsbourg N°2, Philips, 1959)
The cover of Gainsbourg’s second full-length features an awkwardly debonair Gainsbourg sitting at a table, trademark Gitanes cig in hand, offering the listener a bouquet of roses and a revolver (“those who like my songs get flowers, others get a taste of my gunpowder!”). That blood-drawing dichotomy sums up nicely the standard of Gainsbourg’s early music, as he willfully intermingled with the romantic hits of the day while attempting to subvert them with a cynic’s wit.
The music of Serge Gainsbourg N°2 saw a shift into more exotic rhythmic templates, though, flirting with Afro-Cuban big band arrangements – the late 50s were rife with mambo and cha-cha pastiches, though Goraguer really flexes his muscle here, infusing these tunes with a strong drive and sharp, knife-point swing. While the record features a number of solid tunes (and a few examples of Gainsbourg’s obvious discomfort with his own singing voice), ‘L’Anthracite’ stands out as one of Serge’s best Latin numbers.
Featuring a dazzlingly exotic woodwind, brass, and percussion arrangement recalling the powerhouse volume of Perez Prado while mocking the exoticism and trite opium-den sensuality offered up by many of the era’s Latin Party/Music Of The Orient-styled LPs, ‘L’Anthracite’ lyrically describes the black humour of a suspicious despot, and the song’s subtle aggression is echoed in the arrangement throughout. Gainsbourg was trying hard to break out of the shackles of chanson, and his use of cadence and tempo throughout N°2 demonstrates his success wildly.
(From Serge Gainsbourg N°4, Philips, 1962)
1963’s Serge Gainsbourg N°4 (his fourth album) sees Gainsbourg – after a series of 45s and a third album which continued his forays into the exotica explored on N°2 – returning and reassessing his roots in jazz and fusing it with his wilder experiments. It features his most swinging, most bile-soaked and arguably most satisfying jazz numbers, among them the cooly anthemic ‘Intoxicated Man’, which drew inspiration from author, songwriter, and Gainsbourg mentor Boris Vian’s ‘Je Bois’ (‘I Drink’).
Over a loping, laconic cymbal ride and a slurring electric organ (which features heavily throughout many of the record’s best tunes to satisfying effect), Gainsbourg describes matter-of-factly the hallucinations of the narrator as he drinks himself into a stupor. Elsewhere on the album, he incorporates Brazilian samba rhythms, jazz fugues, New Orleans blues, and the poetry of Baudelaire into songs that add up to one of his most beautiful and underrated albums. It’s both a transitional work and one that signals the end of an era for Gainsbourg.
(From Confidentiel, Philips, 1963)
If N°4 was a work of transition fusing two disparate halves of Gainsbourg’s creative mind in the early 60s, his next two albums took those tangled streams and yanked them apart. Confidentiel, released at the tail end of 1963, was the most stripped down take on jazz Gainsbourg attempted during his life. It’s also his most minimal production on record, an album recorded in just three days after a series of live concerts and comprised musically of just Gainsbourg’s voice, the deep upright bass work of Michel Gaudry, and the darting, dancing electric guitar of Elec Bacsik, both noted talents in the jazz world themselves.
Bacsik’s playing in particular gives he album a startling, modern sound, and Gainsbourg’s singing – often hesitant and seemingly anxious in its delivery, sounds more confident despite the incredibly intimate musical settings. While there isn’t a duff track on the album, its literal and figurative centerpiece is ‘Elaeudanla Téïtéïa’, an onomatopoeic deconstruction of a lost lover named Laetitia, whose deceptively simple surface structures betray a complex dance of an arrangement and some of Gainsbourg’s most beautifully musical wordplay.
Gainsbourg would never make another record that sounded like Confientiel, and with good reason: it is a perfect, concentrated statement, one which throws daggers at love, life, and the lackeys of youth culture – though he’d soon change his mind on them and beckon them forth with some of his most successful songs. Confidentiel was a commercial bomb, but stands today as one of Gainsbourg’s most accomplished albums.
(From Gainsbourg Percussions, Philips, 1964)
If Confidentiel represented Gainsbourg’s jazz mind in its most pure form, his following album, 1964’s Gainsbourg Percussions, was Gainsbourg in peak-exotica mode. To contrast Confidentiel‘s drumless guitar and bass lamentations, Percussions inverts that formula entirely with a song cycle structured around orchestrated thickets of booming and clattering percussive figures. This is Gainsbourg’s love letter to the drum, and while at times overly kitschy, the record remains a gorgeous, sensual affair.
It controversially features a trio of songs liberally “interpolating” arrangements from Babatunde Olatunji’s Drums Of Passion, itself an album of modernized Nigerian chants. Gainsbourg essentially wrote new French lyrics for the songs ‘Akiwowo’, ‘Gin-Go-Lo-Ba’, and ‘Kiyakiya’, turning them into ‘New York USA’, ‘Marabout’, and ‘Joanna’ respectively. Olatunji was given retrospective credit and royalties, and this incident echoes a practice Gainsbourg used often, drawing inspiration from elements of classical compositions (more of which we’ll discuss later) and other popular songs, in essence exercising an early concept of modern sampling culture (though additionally exercising the early practices of leaving said “samples” uncredited until called out).
Elsewhere on the album, Gainsbourg crafts tunes from Brazilian samba school rhythms, Angolan themes, and a few percolating hot jazz tunes. This was an honest attempt to show just how truly modern these “primitive” song structures were, and while the industry standard of uncredited samples and interpolation remained in effect here, the album on the whole displays a sincere love for its sources (“I’ve tried to do something where the words and music meld together as one; to make this record, I sampled African rhythms and used them abundantly,” he claimed), something which Gainsbourg would continue as his career progressed. Having separated the two contrasting dichotomies of his music up to this point, Gainsbourg next moved into a field he’d long lambasted with an eye-rolling smirk: that of pop music. Percussions was the end of the first period of Gainsbourg’s career, and it’s one hell of a funeral.
‘Qui Est „In“ Qui Est „Out“’
(From Qui Est „In“ Qui Est „Out“, Philips, 1966)
While he’d recorded cynical criticisms of teen culture on his early records, by 1964 Gainsbourg was flirting with rock and pop success via his commissions for young singer France Gall, for whom he’d been writing songs and who gave him his first bona-fide chart hit with 1965’s Eurovision-winning ‘Poupée de cire, poupée de son’. After this rousing success, he changed his tune both figuratively and literally, as Qui Est „In“ Qui Est „Out” featured something at this point unheard on a Gainsbourg record: a rock band.
Having penned tunes for the likes of Brigitte Bardot, Gall and a number of other youth favorites, Gainsbourg decided that it as time to sell some records with his own name on the cover, so he changed direction. “I want to be a star in ’65! I’m going to do real rock and roll – I’ll write a dozen tunes this year,” he said, and he did just that. The results were, unsurprisingly, a fresh and modern interpretation of the beat-group garage pop sounds making waves throughout the world at the time; he’d record the sessions in the UK with English session musicians for a more authentic sound, and then craft French lyrics overtop, giving France some of its first real ‘rock’ flavors.
The title track ‘Qui Est „In“ Qui Est „Out“’ is another cynical skewering of the fickle attentions of pop fans, but this time, his sharp tongue struck record buyers right in their hearts, as he found himself on the charts with both this tune and the EP’s ‘Docteur Jekyll Et Monsieur Hyde’. Featuring arrangements by Arthur Greenslade, who had replaced the departed Goraguer (himself a jazzman), these songs ushered in what would prove to be Gainsbourg’s most successful era and the one for which he is most often recognized. He entered the public eye and pretty much never left, remaining a constant tabloid and television presence up until his death in 1991.
Serge Gainsbourg & Brigitte Bardot
‘Bonnie And Clyde’
In 1967, Gainsbourg began a romantic relationship with actress, model and vocalist Bardot, who had been singing his songs since 1963. His contributions to Bardot’s rock and roll period remain iconic classics still played and covered to this day – ‘Harley Davidson’ and ‘Contact’ in particular still resonate with as much sugar and power as they did then – but it’s their duet ‘Bonnie And Clyde’ which remains truly timeless.
Essentially a redrafting a poem entitled ‘The Ballad Of Bonnie And Clyde’ by Bonnie Parker, the lover of infamous American gangster Clyde Barrow, into French, the song romanticizes the duo’s tumultuous whirlwind romance via a swirling arrangement structured around an incessantly cyclical string motif and a skittering hi-hat cymbal. The song has been sample fodder for many a rap tune, and has seen a number of cover versions by French, English, and American bands alike – it was even used as makeout music in an episode of hit American TV show Mad Men.
Its most stunning reinterpretation arguably remains MC Solaar’s ‘Nouveau Western’, though the song still carries mileage today and remains a highwater mark in Gainsbourg’s career, and its early promo film stands as some of the most iconic imagery in both Bardot and Gainsbourg’s respective careers. It was allegedly written for Bardot after she demanded he write her one of the greatest love songs ever; ever the confident romantic, he wrote her two.
(From Initials B.B., Philips, 1968)
1968’s Initials B.B. is perhaps my personal favorite of Gainsbourg’s yé-yé pop period, an epic swoon that serves as a transition from the swinging beat pop of the mid-60s period into the beginnings of what would become his signature sound – a gravelly, sensuous murmur recited overtop loping grooves and massive orchestrations.
The footage documenting the making of Initials B.B. is simply incredible; watching the tune take its shape from a simple piano demo into the tour-de-force of the final product, one gets a rare glimpse of Gainsbourg’s brilliance at work. Written and recorded as a love letter to Bardot (who by this point had spurned him for another man – though both were already married), the song is one of the finest examples of Gainsbourg sampling a previously recorded work for his own; the stings and horns are pilfered from the first movement of Antonín Dvořák’s ‘Symphony N°9’, nodding to Gainsbourg’s upbringing practicing classical piano as a youth at the insistence of his pianist father. He’d sample from the classical canon a number of other times over the years, but this remains one of the most dazzlingly effective examples of his collusionist creativity. While Bardot had left Gainsbourg a moping, heartbroken mess, he’d soon meet the woman who was to be the love of his life.
Jane Birkin & Serge Gainsbourg
‘La Chanson de Slogan’
(From Bande Originale Du Film Slogan, Philips, 1969)
Gainsbourg had long held a secondary career as a film actor taking supporting roles, often as a nefarious villain character or some form of scheming miscreant. In 1969, he collaborated with filmmaker Pierre Grimblat on a film entitled Slogan, about an award-winning advertising mogul who leads a double life of deceit and high-fashion ennui – sound familiar, Mad Men fans? Slogan featured Gainsbourg in the starring role this time out, and his co-star was an awkward feminine sexpot named Jane Birkin, who had been married to noted film composer John Barry. Gainsbourg and Birkin fell in love on set after a tumultuous start, and were soon inseparable.
Gainsbourg’s score for Slogan featured some of his first collaborations with a young composer and arranger by the name of Jean-Claude Vannier, who showed a risk-taking enthusiasm and experimental methodology that deeply resonated with Serge. The title theme to the film is one of their most beautifully somber and mesmerizing collabs, and it’s one hell of an intro to their partnership, featuring Vannier’s trademark fusion of Middle Eastern harmonics and sweeping classical melancholy, anchored by a deep funk groove and exotic double-reed woodwinds.
While Serge and Jane would soon hit paydirt with the epochal ‘Je T’Aime, Moi Non Plus’, it is the couple’s work with Vannier that truly brings out the passion in their relationship. While this “Song of Slurs” doesn’t exactly read as a love song, the passion is there, and the frustrating desire and tension perfectly balances the elemental desire and devotion at the heart of their dynamic.
(From Bande Originale Du Film Cannabis, Philips, 1970)
Cannabis was a 1970 feature film starring Gainsbourg which reunited him with director Pierre Koralnik, who was at the helm for their successful 1967 collaboration Anna. While Anna was a romantic pop art romp that stands as a vivid portrait of the swinging mod Europe in the 60s, Cannabis was an entirely different affair – Serge plays a hitman (named Serge Morgan) who broods around shooting people in a massive fur coat while Birkin romps around in the nude for most of the film.
It’s a rather inconsequential picture, but its score, again recorded with Vannier handling arrangements, is another story altogether. It’s a tour-de-force of heavy, sluggish rock riffs serving as foundation for deft electric piano runs, some wild strings, and brick-thick percolating basslines. It’s arguably the most ‘rock’ album Gainsbourg ever recorded, filled with drum breaks and acid funk workouts that are a dusty-fingered producer’s wet dream. The album layed the foundations for what was to be regarded as both men’s crowning achievements, both together and separately.
(From Histoire De Melody Nelson, Philips, 1971)
1971’s Histoire De Melody Nelson comes with heavy hyperbole attached. It is a constant presence in any number of “greatest albums” lists (French or otherwise), and with good reason – it is a singular work that has stood the test of time as a unique, hypnotic, and truly beautiful fusion of sparse grooves, soaring orchestral arrangements, and conceptual lyrics that tell a timeless yet controversial story. Its fusion of rock economy and orchestral colouring have been attempted by many over the years, but seldom with the stark, immediate power of Histoire De Melody Nelson.
Over a backing of quietly skittering minimalist funk drumming, acid-fried guitar accents and stratospheric strings, the album is anchored by the traveling liquidity of an electric bass guitar and Gainsbourg’s nicotine-stained tale of hitting a teenage cyclist whilst driving his Rolls Royce. Sparks fly, they hook up in a seedy hotel, and then, of course, she has to die so that the narrator can be punished for his moral crimes. A true masterclass in aesthetic economy, there is absolutely no fat on this album; everything is pared down to the essentials.
The album wasn’t a hit at the time (though it was a critical success), but in the decades since it has become canonized as highly as the likes of Pet Sounds, Dark Side Of the Moon, or Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and deservedly so – its scant 28-minutes of music has provided endless inspiration generations later, from samples and interpolations by the likes of De La Soul, Beck, and Portishead, and led to the rediscovery of arranger and co-conspirator Jean-Claude Vannier’s deeper catalogue of orchestral rock fusions and funhouse cabaret psychedelia.
It is an album that rises above the shackles of genre, standing alone as a declaration of love for Gainsbourg’s then-partner Jane Birkin (who voices Melody in fleeting cameos throughout), utilizing the financial cashflow of ‘Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus”s international success (as well as that of a number of other tunes penned for others) in order to bankroll an album of peak indulgence. On this rare occasion, that indulgence was deserved and returned its dividends repeatedly.
‘Vu De L’Extérieur’
(From Vu De L’Extérieur, Philips, 1973)
By 1973, Gainsbourg and Vannier had parted ways creatively, and Serge had begun working with British keyboardist, composer and KPM library music maestro Alan Hawkshaw as his new bandleader for the next extended stretch of albums. The first of these collaborations was the loping scat-funk classic Vu De L’Extérieur, which found Gainsbourg framing his lyrics around more explicit themes of sex and the human body.
More specifically, he wrote a set of songs which cover topics like the pros and cons of anal sex, the sounds of vaginal flatulence, the sensual pleasures of the zaftig figure, and a ditty casually entitled ‘Titicaca’ about fucking an Incan princess. While definitely not for the squeamish (it makes ‘Je T’aime…”s hymnal church organ and stifled exhalations seem positively conservative in comparison!), the album’s lyrics are guided along by the fatback bump and grind of Hawkshaw’s loose-limbed rhythms, giving the record more of a pervy porno groove than just about anything else in his catalogue.
It’s probably not the best starting point for neophytes, but Vu De L’Extérieur is an album filled with deep cuts that oft gets overlooked due to the overwhelming hype surrounding both its predecessor and successor.
‘Le Cadavre Exquis’
This non-album single is a bit of a personal pleasure: it’s inessential but offers up two ridiculous and simply killer grooves. Both tunes are essentially little more than Gainsbourg having a bit of fun with wordplay, and taking pleasure in not having any overarching themes or concepts with which to unify them.
The A-side, ‘L’ami Caouette’ was a song that Gainsbourg himself seemed to loathe for its sheer stupidity, which didn’t help matters when it became a minor hit in the summer of 1975. Despite its sheer reckless goofiness in the lyric department, it rides a solid French Antillean rhythm inspired by Guadeloupean cadence and tumbélé dance musics, arranged by Jean-Pierre Sabar, another frequent Gainsbourg collaborator of the post-Vannier 1970s period. As much as I love the A-side, though, it’s the single’s B-side which really delivers the goods.
‘Le Cadavre Exquis’ is one of Serge’s meatiest funk tunes, a totally stoned stomper by Hawkshaw and co. which anchors Gainsbourg melodically describing the rules of the Exquisite Corpse game (done with either images or, in this case, words). It’s essentially an excuse for Gainsbourg to throw off some choice couplets that didn’t really fit together in any context, and is possibly the first pop single to obliquely reference then-Ugandan-president Idi Amin’s brutal and despotic torture practices (punctuated by a blood-curdling scream).
In total, the single offers up a miniature dose of surrealism that finds Gainsbourg, a man who lost his virginity on a pile of Dali originals and had the walls of his house lined in black Astrakhan fur, reveling like a pig in pop shit.
‘Rock Around The Bunker’
(from Rock Around The Bunker, Philips, 1975)
While the ‘L’ami Caouette’ single kept Serge in the good graces of the 1975 summer charts, it was his album of that same year that brought the most attention. As a youth of Russian-Jewish ancestry who was forced to wear a yellow star during the Nazi occupation of France, Rock Around The Bunker was Gainsbourg tackling the complexities of his Jewish identity via a beguiling LP fusing the sounds of the Andrews Sisters’ ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’ with Marc Bolan’s electric rockabilly zip-gun boogie, in effect creating his own version of Mel Brooks’s ‘Springtime For Hitler’ recast for the glam rock set.
It’s simultaneously Serge’s most ruthlessly satirical and yet deeply personal albums, relating his personal experiences fleeing the Nazis and reclaiming his identity in the face of fear and tragedy. He ironically denounces the violence of the Night Of The Long Knives in ‘Nazi Rock’, depicting the despicable Nazi Purge from their perspective in the form of a dance craze here and in the rollicking title track. Elsewhere, he tells stories of Hitler being trapped in a bunker with Eva Braun as she endlessly sings one of her favorite songs, the American standard ‘Smoke gets In Your Eyes’, driving Adolf to furious insanity.
As a complete “fuck you” to Hitler himself, Gainsbourg then straight-up covers ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’. In English. Even though he had nurtured a lifelong career as a provocateur and commentator, this album was a bit too raw for most, and it was not a hit; to this day it leaves many listeners a bit beguiled. It’s perhaps the one album in Gainsbourg’s discography that really requires an understanding of the French language in order to fully grasp the depth of these songs, which on the surface seem mockingly slight and one-dimensional. It remains one Gainsbourg’s most overt political statements, though his biggest controversy in that regard wouldn’t come until 1979.
(From L’Homme À Tête De Chou, Philips, 1976)
Sometime in the mid-1970s, Gainsbourg was taken by a surrealist bronze sculpture made by Claude Lalanne entitled ‘L’Homme À Tête De Chou’. Having long suffered barbs in the press and by the media at his physical appearance due to his prominent nose and wide ears, Gainsbourg bought Lalanne’s sculpture in tribute to his own self-image and named his newest album after it (the statue also graces the record’s sleeve.)
While Histoire De Melody Nelson often receives the highest accolades of Gainsbourg’s solo discography, this 1976 prog-funk heavyweight is the dark horse in the running. A long-form concept album, L’Homme À Tête De Chou tells the tale of a man’s lust for a freewheeling, open-minded and sexually experimental hairdresser named Marilou, who the narrator catches fucking a band of acid-fried hippies and murders with a fire extinguisher in a fit of jealous rage. He finds himself jailed in an insane asylum by album’s end, believing his head to be fed upon by the Playboy bunny, as it is made of cabbage. Histoire De Melody Nelson this is not.
Musically, it’s one of my personal favorites, with Gainsbourg spitting smoke-addled stories and crooning longingly for the first time in years over thickets of Brazilian percussion, swarms of ululating jaw harps, squelching sci-fi synthesizers, and some gnarly, distorted guitar riffs. It’s Gainsbourg gone prog rock, and it’s surprisingly one of his most solid and rewarding albums. The album is also noteworthy for featuring Gainsbourg’s first attempt (and one of the first attempts at large in French pop music) at tackling reggae rhythms, which would quickly become his newest musical obsession. This brought with it the greatest public controversy of his career.
‘Aux Armes Et Caetera’
(From Aux Armes Et Caetera, Philips/Phonogram, 1979)
In 1979, at the suggestion of his longtime producer and manager Philippe Lerichomme, Gainsbourg booked recording time in Kingston, Jamaica, requesting “the best musicians you’ve got.” That ended up being Sly & Robbie and the bulk of The Revolutionaries band, including Sticky Thompson, Mikey “Mao” Chung, “Dougie” Bryant, Ansel Collins, and The I-Threes.
With what is essentially the cream of the reggae session crop backing him, Gainsbourg recorded what was not only his funkiest album, but also his most successful and most controversial. Aux Armes Et Caetera found Serge essentially rapping over twelve rough, raw reggae rhythms, revisiting old tunes like ‘La Javanaise’ and ‘Marilou Reggae’ while offering up new tales about his dog, drug dealers, and a confrontation between a group of rastas and the Ku Klux Klan.
What sent the album into the top of the charts, though, was its title track, a cover version of France’s national anthem ‘La Marseillaise’, the original manuscript of which Gainsbourg had recently purchased in a public auction. His goal was to recast France’s most popular song of revolution with the world’s then-most revolutionary music; the results are simply beguiling and yet wholly accessible, like Lee “Scratch” Perry lighting Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Star Spangled Banner’ ablaze in a cloud of weed smoke.
France’s conservative public were not amused, though, accusing him of encouraging antisemitism by attempting to profit off of the national anthem. Gainsbourg received death threats and repeated antisemetic slurs himself, and took utter delight in proving with his newly acquired manuscript of Rouge De Lisle’s original Marseillaise text (which happened to be signed by its author) that his rendition of the song was actually the most historically accurate when compared to other more popular and beloved versions.
All of this constant media uproar sent Gainsbourg’s youth approval ratings at their highest levels perhaps ever, Aux Armes Et Caetera became his first gold record before year’s end, and Gainsbourg, who notoriously suffered from crippling stage fright, performed in concert for the first time since 1963 (!) with his reggae Revolutionaries backing him, doing the entirety of the new album as well as recasting yé-yé hits like ‘Harley Davidson’ and ‘Dr Jeckyll & Mr Hyde’ in new reggae arrangements.
This was a long-deserved victory lap for Gainsbourg, who’d suffered a breakup with Birkin and a heart attack by this point. Although he would record another reggae album with Sly & Robbie at Compass Point studios at the start of the 80s, Aux Armes Et Caetera was essentially the last solid solo album. While later records would feature some classic songs in fits and starts, they didn’t hold a candle to his commissioned work for other artists in the 1980s.
(From Amour, Année Zéro, CBS, 1981)
These last selections cover what are my own personal favorite works of Gainsbourg’s in the 1980s, offering a more diverse and rewarding portrait than his rather drab solo offerings. The first of these is the stunning blue-eyed balearic masterpiece Amour, Année Zéro by Alain Chamfort, a singer who got his start in Jacques Dutronc’s backing band during the end of the yé-yé era and whose own solo works reached middling success until his first collaboration with Gainsbourg, 1979’s synth-disco banger and smash hit ‘Manureva’.
1981’s Amour, Année Zéro, though, was an altogether different beast; it was written by Gainsbourg and featured production and arrangements by noneother than synthesizer wizard Wally Badarou, fresh off of success with the Compass Point All Stars, who included Sly & Robbie among their ranks. Curiously, when Gainsbourg recorded his 1980 LP Mauvaises nouvelles des étoiles with Sly & Robbie at Compass Point, Badarou was missing from the lineup. That’s a shame, as his colourful arrangements are exactly what Serge’s album was missing and what make Chamfort’s such a breathtaking success.
Over the course of these nine tracks, Badarou, Chamfort, and Gainsbourg create a lush world of synthesized exotica, tapping fully into Badarou’s French-Antillean heritage and essentially bridging the gap between his work at Compass Point and his 1984 masterpiece Echoes. Chamfort’s angelic vocals float high above these humid tracks, as Badarou glides underneath with quicksilver flourishes and skittering drum machine programming; a special mention must be given to opener ‘Bambou’, an ode to Serge’s newest (and last) lover, and the mother to his son Lulu. While Chamfort is the focal point of Amour, Année Zéro, make no mistake that this is Badarou’s show, and to hear him working with Gainsbourg is absolute heaven.
‘Scènes de Manager’
(From Play Blessures, Barclay, 1982)
The flipside to that heaven can be heard over the course of 1982’s stiflingly dark Play Blessures, an album written by Gainsbourg in collaboration with obtuse rocker Alain Bashung. Bashung, an upstart who had also attempted a failed yé-yé career as a pop idol, shifted gears in the late 1970s to embrace a rock troubadour approach, eventually hitting gold and gaining a long-deserved fanbase. He then proceeded to alienate those new young fans entirely with Play Blessures, a brooding mood piece heavily inspired by the Durutti Column, Suicide, and the then-burgeoning French coldwave/minimal synth underground.
Bashung had propsed a collab with longtime hero Gainsbourg, not expecting an affirmative response, but much to Bashung’s surprise and delight, Serge enthusiastically agreed to not only write for him, but to actually collaborate on the entire album. Gainsbourg, inspired by the shadowed synthetic rock noir of Bashung’s arrangements, penned some of his most bleak and surrealistic lyrics ever, and it’s one of Bashung’s best albums (though he does have a few, some of which are on par with Scott Walker’s Tilt in terms of oppressive sonic malaise).
The pair’s goal was apparently “absolute blackness,” and they succeed, bludgeoning the listener with atonal synth chords, spindly guitar figures straight out of Vini Reilly and Andy Gill of Gang Of Four’s aesthetic playbooks, and a mix of live and machine drum patterns that punctuate and propulse the proceedings like morse code sent through a fuzzbox. This is Gainsbourg gone fully post-punk, and while it was a massive commercial failure at the time, hindsight has been kind to the LP, which now often receives high praise as one of France’s most essential rock albums.
Play Blessures stands as a wonderful if frustrating example of a direction Gainsbourg could have further explored himself after the heavy rock opus of L’Homme À Tête De Chou…, an album which Bashung would later rerecord in its entirety shortly before his death in 2009 as a tribute to Gainsbourg. Buy it on sight.
(From Isabelle Adjani, Philips, 1983)
Our final entry is an unlikely collaboration between Serge and noted film starlet Isabelle Adjani, who in 1983 recorded her debut album Isabelle Adjani. A full LP of original Gainsbourg tunes, it is not exactly flawless, but is still a gorgeous record of liquid pop ballads and synthetic pop propulsion which includes among its tunes the jaw-dropping ‘Pull Marine’. This song was made somewhat infamous thanks to an iconic video by a young Luc Besson (who would soon after collaborate with Adjani again on his 1985 film Subway), and emerged during a period when Gainsbourg was not only writing for Adjani, but also for former lover Jane Birkin as well.
Birkin often talks of how Serge would play her a song of breathtaking beauty, only to tell Jane, “Oh no, that one’s for Adjani…” While Birkin’s Baby Alone In Babylon is indeed a great album, it doesn’t really compare to Adjani’s; throughout, the actress proves herself a vocalist capable of both playful pop command and sensual emotional tenderness. While songs like ‘Beau Oui Comme Bowie’ and ‘D’Un Taxiphone’ are robotic slow burners that manage to overcome the album’s somewhat syrupy timestamped production flourishes, ‘Pull Marine’ is the crown jewel here.
The album’s brutal parting shot, it features Adjani detailing her own demise as she drowns in her lover’s navy blue sweater, simultaneously recalling the demise of their relationship as she suffocates in a pool of vivid blue, gazing at the sweater’s torn elbow. The song’s melody takes full advantage of the album’s uneasy, awkward synthesized production, and the lyrics beautifully detail the painful transitions and stillborn moments at the end of an affair. It’s a fitting conclusion to our guide, for while Gainsbourg would continue to write, record, and tour until his death in 1991, he never again quite reached these sublime heights while plumbing such disparate depths.