A few weeks ago I introduced something that I said would be an occasional regular feature, called Francophile Friday, in which I’d post something about french music or film. Last time I posted about modern french pop star M… today a brief post about a french icon who, while I am a fan, I’m far from any sort of expert on…. the late singer/songwriter/enfant terrible Serge Gainsbourg (1921-1991).
Born in 1921 in Paris to russian-jewish parents who’d fled the bolshevik revolution, Serge started out as a bar pianist and singer/songwriter. His early work (of which I am unfamiliar) from the late 50s/early 60s was apparently very jazz influenced, but sold poorly. He was more successful writing songs for the likes of Petula Clark and Dionne Warwick. In the late 60s, this short, homely, big nosed frenchman became a Bridgitte Bardot’s lover, and she his muse. They recorded a few songs together, including Bonnie & Clyde.
Soon after they separated, Gainsbourg took up with another beauty, the british Jane Birkin (who famously became the first woman to show it all on british mainstream film, in Antonini’s Blow Up)… like his earlier collaborations with Bardot, their duets consisted of Jane’s breathy – and not always solid – singing and much french banter back and forth. Becoming a hit all over europe, Gainsbourg scored a minor (and his only) hit in the states with Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus – a track which caused a bit of a furor over Jane’s heavy breathing on the track, simulating an orgasm. The track was banned in several European countries and even in France was heavily edited (the link above is to an edited version of the track… it cuts out about a minute of heavy breathing).
Serge made two records in which Jane had a prominent role, 1969’s Jane Birkin/Serge Gainsbourg and 1971’s Histoire de Melody Nelson. The latter record was a concept record in which, I’ve gathered from reading various accounts, Gainsbourg plays the rich man who’s Rolls Royce hits teen Melody Nelson (Jane of course) and eventually seduces her. And this being a french record, there is a tragic conclusion of course.
Where Jane Birkin/Serge Gainsbourg was more of a 60s pop/rock record, Melody Nelson adds more psychedlia to that sound. Serge would continue to explore this sound further through two more records, 1975’s Rock Around the Bunker (apparently another concept rock record, this time using black humour on the suject of Nazis) and 1976’s L’Homme à tête de chou (literally Cabbage-Head Man). While I’ve not heard the former I’ve heard the latter, and it might be my favorite Gainsbourg record.
Gainsbourg went on to record some reggae records in Jamaica with Sly and Robbie, and then some electro-funk records in the 80s. All the while causing scandal after scandal with his boozing, his womanizing, and his outrageous public & TV behaviour. Among these was recording a duet with his then very young daughter with Birkin, Charlotte Gainsbourg (an actress who’s been in 21 Grams and The Science of Sleep and in 2007 released her own record, 5:55, on which Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker wrote the songs and french group Air was the backing band) called Lemon Incest.
Famously, Gainsbourg also appeared on a live TV show in 1986 with Whitney Houston, where he told her he wanted to fuck her, and then proceeded to creepily keep touching Whitney’s hair and face (Whitney’s public persona has gone through such a radical change in the last 15 years or so that it’s almost hard to remember how much grace and poise she had initially on the world stage).
While I’m still exploring the eccentric Gainsbourg catalog, I’ve been told by several Gainsbourg fans with much more knowledge than myself that while his records are remarkable for how different they are between his various musical phases, they can be wildly erratic in quality.
So, if looking for an entry point, the aforementioned Histoire de Melody Nelson & L’Homme à tête de chou are excellent places to start. Love On the Beat, from the 80s, has also been highly recommended to me.
There is also a tribute record from wacko saxophonist John Zorn, and his NYC downtown scene buddies, on his avant garde Tzadik label’s Great Jewish Music Series (the series includes tribute records to Burt Bachrach and T-Rex’s Marc Bolan). Bon Appétit!