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Serge Gainsbourg iTunes tracks

Serge Gainsbourg


Provocateur extraordinaire and icon of Gallic decadence, SERGE GAINSBOURG was one of the most controversial yet best loved figures in the history of French popular song. From his earliest days as a boho-jazz performer, his unconventional appearance and manner, and his louche, mordant lyrics, polarized the public and most of the critics. Even as a series of inspired late 50s/early 60s ten-inch LPs generated such prize-winning songs as `Le poinconneur de lilas’, GAINSBOURG remained an outsider, interpreting the works of outsider antecedents like Charles Baudelaire, while other performers made his own songs more palatable.
Born Lucien Ginsburg, 2 April 1928, Paris, France; the son of Russian/Jewish immigrants, “Serge” attended art college and initially tried to scrape a living as a painter. To supplement his income, he worked nights as a bar pianist before being snapped up for an unwilling singing role in the cabaret musical, Milord l’Arsouille, alongside early exponent of his work, Michele Arnaud. Reluctant to take to the stage himself (partly due to his less than conventionally handsome appearance); and just turned 30, Serge felt more comfortable as a songwriter, composing for major-league French stars such as Sacha Distel and Johnny Halliday. Nevertheless, the budding star ventured into the studio himself for his Philips Records debut 10-inch LP, DU CHANTE A LA UNE! (1958) {*6}; following it up with N° 2 (1959) {*6}, L’ETONNANT SERGE GAINSBOURG (N° 3) (1961) {*6}, N° 4 (1962) {*6}, CONFIDENTIEL (1964) {*6} and GAINSBOURG PERCUSSIONS (1964) {*6}.
Meanwhile, the Frenchman had already diversified into acting in BRIGITTE BARDOT vehicle “Voulez-vous danser avec moi?” (1959), and took major parts in Italian period dramas “La rivolta degli schiavi” (1961), “Sansone” (1961) and “La furia di Ercole” (1962). He also initiated a highly prolific move into film composition, with soundtrack EPs from Jacques Doniol-Valcroze’s “L’eau a la bouche” (1959), “Les loups dans la bergerie” (1960), “Strip-tease” (1963) and Michel Boisrond’s “Comment trouvez-vous ma soeur?” (1964), as well as unreleased scores for domestic features such as “Week-end en mer” (1962), “Les plus belles escroqueries du monde” (1963), “Le jardinier d’Argenteuil” (1965), “L’espion” (1966), “Carre de dames pour un as” (1966) and “L’une et l’autre” (1966).
Although his recording efforts weren’t fruitful; even in France, GAINSBOURG’s material was exposed to English-speaking audiences via the likes of easy-on-the-ear singers Dionne Warwick and Petula Clark. His time-served breakthrough arrived with teenage sensation FRANCE GALL, for whom he penned the 1965 Eurovision-winning `Poupee de cire, poupee de son’. He continued this musical liaison in spring ’66 via his most controversial offering, `Les Sucettes’, a thinly-disguised double-entendre platter that more than suggested oral sex rather than just the licking of lollipops.
By the mid-60s, “Gainsbarre” – as he was nicknamed – was newly enamoured of American rock’n’roll, Afro rhythms, Brazilian bossa nova and the wonderfully subversive possibilities of anglo-slang. The “Bande Originale de La Comedie Musicale” to ANNA {*7} was the composer’s second TV project of early 1967, trailed by the tense, finger-picked folk timbre he’d sounded for gumshoe hero, “Vidocq”. Michel Colombier was the common denominator; Serge’s musical director and arranger through the most commercially successful, pop-orientated period of his career, and a man whose talents were shown to be alive and swooning as recently as AIR’s `Talkie Walkie’ set of 2004.
If one had ever wondered at the way SAINT ETIENNE seemingly plucked their out-of-time, space-clipper echo from nowhere, `Sous le soleil exactement’ offered up an irresistible precedent. The bass line was a revelation, but the voice – and the film’s title and iconic promo shot – was Anna Karina; French screen goddess and then wife and muse of Jean-Luc Godard, who added pop star to her CV after the song cracked the French charts. Her petulant magnetism made this soundtrack tick, whether balladeering with tack-throated co-star Jean-Claude Brialy on `Ne dis rien’, jauntily tipping her cowboy hat on Serge’s mandatory Americana piss-take, `Pistolet Jo’, or grinding her vowels like a boho satyr on `Roller Girl’, the last word in Gallic bubblegum-fuzz. It was Brialy, though, who got to play the trump card as the GAINSBOURG-Colombier dynamic shifted ever subtly on its future-pop axis, growling away in phlegmatic outrage as `Boomerang’ traced a deceptive arc of piano, bass and strings, before spinning back on a relentless, coppery gut-ache of treated guitar. GAINSBOURG, in fact, walked his favourite tightrope between provocative populism and the sublime right to the end, almost tripping himself on cheerleading stars ‘n’ stripes satire, `G.I. Jo’.
A brief but very intense and high-profile dalliance in late ‘67 with French actress/sex symbol BRIGITTE BARDOT inspired some of Serge’s finest work; the pair duly cutting a series of celebrated duets, including the awesome Hollywood movie-inspired `Bonnie and Clyde’ (nothing whatsoever to do with GEORGIE FAME’s hit) and her solo `Harley Davidson’; even the infamous `Je t’aime… moi non plus’ was penned for Brigitte, who subsequently declined to take it further than demo stage. Instead the increasingly wayward Frenchman duetted on the classic with another actress-cum-sex-kitten, JANE BIRKIN; his lover/partner until 1980.
1968 was indeed a very busy year for the man, and coming after the BARDOT/GAINSBOURG parent set, BONNIE AND CLYDE {*7}, and sandwiched either side of starring roles in films for which he composed the score into the bargain: “Ce sacre grand-pere” and “Le pacha” – the latter containing his great 45: `Requiem pour un c…’ – pop LP INITIALS B.B. {*8} was, in time, described as racy and effortlessly cool. A 6-track soundtrack EP, “Mister Freedom”, ended the year in fine fettle.
The aforesaid `Je t’aime… moi non plus’ was released the following summer by BIRKIN & GAINSBOURG. This orgasmic ode to sweaty goings on between the sheets was banned by the BBC, although it crowned the charts all the same: in October ‘69 the Major Minor Records re-issue was UK No.1, whilst its identical counterpart was still in the charts having made No.2; it even cracked the Top 100 in the conservative USA. A prophetic B.B. had been right about the scandal, although its international success raised GAINSBOURG’s profile to unprecedented levels. Meanwhile, “Slogan” (1969), continued Serge’s surge of soundtrack-to-vinyl EP dispatches.
The new decade also saw the couple getting jiggy in the notorious CANNABIS (1970) {*8}, a movie OST redeemed only by the wigged-out, acid-orchestral brilliance of GAINSBOURG’s score – composed in collaboration with the arranger of his follow-up venture, Jean-Claude Vannier. The album kicked off with the kind of fretboard bluster that suggested a glam-rock B-side; its descent into monumental acid-baroque, however, heralded great, great things. If one ever had any preconceptions about GAINSBOURG, they’d be left at the pissoir door. Even the man’s subsequent conceptual masterpiece, `Histoire de Melody Nelson’, only barely hinted at this soundtrack’s outrageous scale and the symphonic ambition which predicted it.
With Vannier orchestrating Serge’s wild, vague impulses (“sometimes he’d turn up at the studio with just six bars scribbled on a piece of sheet-music”, admitted director Pierre Koralnik), French pop’s ungainly enfant-terrible dreamed up one of the great lost 70s guitar riffs: hulking, salacious, majestic and undeniably, soulfully Gallic. The songsmith even offered up one of his gloriously laboured vocals (as Koralnik put it: “he did his own diction”) over the top; as an exercise in contrast it was up there with KLF/TAMMY WYNETTE. And if there was ever a convincing apology for the harpsichord in rock, this was it. Vannier’s arrangements pitched it in ingenious counterpoint on the guitar pieces (and on the brief orchestral reprise, `Dernière blessure’), as a dramatic arabesque in `Le deuxième homme’ and `Avant de mourir’, and as a conduit for stinging jazz-funk in `Danger’.
His bass lines were just as prominently arranged, even louder and more inspired, and while it could be argued that the whole depended too heavily on a single motif, it was one hell of a motif; the fact that GAINSBOURG dedicated it to the ill-fated JIMI HENDRIX and Bela Bartok spoke volumes. Regardless of its thematic singularity, the smokin’ set had it all: sleaze, style, Moorish mystique, sophistication, steel, savoir-faire and even a BIRKIN cabaret number.
1971’s the BIRKIN-inspired concept set, HISTOIRE DE MELODY NELSON {*8} album found GAINSBOURG preoccupied with life’s darker side; the Melody in question was a 14-year old girl with whom the writer – as its narrator – was having an affair; a trait which would become more pronounced as his reputation grew ever more lecherous and provocative. Further acting roles (usually alongside Jane) and OST EP’s followed, including “Trop jolies pour etre honnetes” (1972) and “Sex Shop” (1972).
GAINSBOURG’s subsequent concept-type sets in the mid-70s were weird to say the least. From 1973’s VU DE L’EXTERIEUR {*7} – with its vulgar fart joke song, `Des vents des pets des poum’ – to 1975’s Adolf Hitler concept, ROCK AROUND THE BUNKER {*6} and 1976’s L’HOMME A TETE DE CHOU {*6} – aka `The Man With A Cabbage Head’ – all were extremely shocking and OTT; LOU REED meeting 50s pastiche rock’n’roll was how one could best describe them.
Squeezed somewhere between the latter pair, Serge – at the height of his French celebrity – finally helmed his own production, JE T’AIME MOI NON PLUS (1976) {*7}; named after his steamy megahit and featuring BIRKIN opposite Andy Warhol alumnus, Joe Dallesandro, as well as a cameo from a youthful Gerard Depardieu. The movie’s typically risque subject matter; the relationship between a gay truck driver and an androgynous young waitress, caused yet further furore.
It was also Serge’s directorial debut, in which his artistic schedule extended from the script to the music; perhaps the reason why the soundtrack relied so heavily on previous material. Time Out called it a “riotously bleak and brutalised love story”; likely a compliment in the mighty GAINSBOURG’s book. Love story or not, there were a full three versions of that iconic anthem here; all minus the nuisance-caller breathing: the even softer-focus-than-the-original `Je t’aime moi non plus au lac vert’ was the most evocative, and the kind of luscious pop that was the aforesaid SAINT ETIENNE’s pan et beurre in the 90s.
But the soundtrack’s big (domestic) hit was `Ballade de Johnny-Jane’, a rolling, saloon-salon piano melody with a banjo coda; i.e. exactly what one wouldn’t expect to hear in a piece of caustic art house subversion, even from GAINSBOURG. It was difficult to imagine what Appalachian purists would make of a title like `Banjo au bord du Styx’; as Serge made his grand Gallic bluegrass statement. Another priceless title, `L’Abominable Strip-Tease’, concealed some average 12-bar blues-rock. Like a hurried, sweaty tryst, there was a lot of repetitive movement showcased.
1977’s MADAME CLAUDE {*6} has always been the most fetishized and obtuse of all SERGE GAINSBOURG soundtracks. Few albums actually live up to the expectations the “crack house of record collecting” – as one waggish internet soul put it. This was one of them. It’s a good Serge soundtrack; however it’s not quite a great one. Unlike a somewhat re-cooked “Je T’Aime…” set; though the soft-core disco-funk tropes were at least freshly written, it generated some Concorde mileage from the faintly surreal convergence of Serge, MURRAY HEAD and Klaus Kinski (who, observed Time Out acidly: “looks like he’d give anything to be on a raft up the Amazon”).
Titles like `Ketchup In The Night’ and `Discophoteque’ screamed parody, however the music was written and performed pretty much straight; the latter brazenly quoting from Philly disco nugget, `Do It Any Way You Wanna’. It was fine, DEODATO-esque stuff, full of creamy electric piano and bulbous bass, flying close to reggae on `Dusty Lane’ and perfected amid the percussive modulation and lead yelps of `First Class Ticket’. But, well, it just wasn’t Serge the arch-provocateur, or even Serge the maverick. Just when one thought he was going to leaf the 70s style-handbook dry, he pulled out the baroque organ weirdness of `Putain que ma joie demeure’ and medina-funk of `Arabysance’; punctuating swirling, coolly authentic Middle Eastern arrangements with aggravated clavinet. Then there’s the JANE BIRKIN ballad, `Yesterday Was A Day’, one of the loveliest, most bittersweet and fragile in her Serge-penned oeuvre; that it was penned for a soft-porn film was just another GAINSBOURG-ian irony; sweeter than ever on the instrumental close-out, `Yesterday On A Fender’. It’s fair to say, DJs get all hot and bothered about this coveted OST, and as a late-decade funk album, it purred like red leather. For the essential essence of GAINSBOURG the composer though, it was maybe not the best place to lose one’s cherry, so to speak.
“Goodbye Emmanuelle” (1977) maintained his naked ambitions as he continued scoring French features such as Patrice Leconte’s tourist satire, “Les bronzes” (1978), which spawned another big home-soil hit, `Sea, Sex And Sun’. 1979’s cod-reggae AUX ARMES ET CAETERA {*6} – his only bona fide UK release on Island Records – was also diverse; SLY & ROBBIE giving it their Jamaican dub treatment.
Recorded live in Paris on 28th December 1979, ENREGISTREMENT PUBLIC AU THEATRE LE PALACE (1980) {*5}, was never going to win him new friends. By the end of the decade, he’d flirted with new wave, composed some incredible porno-funk/disco – as said – and managed to offend Algerian War veterans with an irreverent reggae remake of `La Marseillaise’. Actor/composer/you name it, GAINSBOURG was at it again on Claude Berri’s JE VOUS AIME (1980) {*6}, reimagining `Ave Maria’ as francophone dub; even if his duet with a hesitant Catherine Deneuve was – the `God Smokes Havanas’ title, Serge preferred Gitanes lyric aside – shockingly respectable balladry, one of his most conventional themes in years and one of his few songs one could actually take home to one’s mater.
The organ instrumental wasn’t bad either. Depardieu wasn’t so pliant; he does hysterical, Gauloise-ravaged punk rock with a little help from BIJOU, the band who recorded GAINSBOURG’s classic, proto-NEW ORDER theme for Catherine Breillat’s “Tapage Nocturne” (1979) – hear it and weep. And, on opener `La fautive’ and `Je pense queue’, Serge found bubblegum soul; sounding not very guilty at all over a “Stax”-style brass section and doo-wah-wah backing, recapitulating with familiar cracked-saloon piano. In other words, the kind of glorious ahistorical mess his soundtracks occasionally threatened to be; though relying a little too much on repetition.
With 80s panache, 50-something Serge refused to grow old gracefully, continuing his music CV by way of MAUVAISES NOUVELLES DES ETOILES (1981) {*4}, and his directorial career with critically-slated African drama, “Equateur” (1983), he duly recorded a concept album about male prostitutes: LOVE ON THE BEAT (1984) {*5}, which updated a classic piece as `Harley David Son Of A Bitch’.
Also guaranteed to shock was a duet with his daughter; actress Charlotte Gainsbourg on `Lemon Incest’; the Gallic Jew going a little astray even by his standards; he also produced her debut album, `Charlotte For Ever’ (1986). Later the same year, he composed the soundtrack for Bertrand Blier’s “Tenue De Soiree”; starring Gerard Depardieu, and afterwards, below-par studio album, YOU’RE UNDER ARREST (1987) {*3} and the live LE ZENITH DE GAINSBOURG (1989) {*5}.
In 1990, Serge completed his final flick, “Stan The Flasher”. Controversy was indeed Serge’s middle name, while appearances on French chat shows were often accompanied by outrageous comments and remarks; actor Oliver Reed must’ve been watching.
A pillar of the French anti-establishment, lothario GAINSBOURG’s hard-drinking, heart-attack-inducing lifestyle eventually caught up with him on 2nd March 1991, when he died of heart complications having just undergone a liver operation. GAINSBOURG was posthumously honoured with one of his few film awards, a French Oscar for the theme song to `Elisa’, starring his latest (and final) protégé, VANESSA “Joe Le Taxi” PARADIS.
© MC Strong/MCS 2000-2009/GRD/LCS-BG // rev-up MCS Oct2019

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