With the imminent British cinema release of the Serge Gainsbourg film Vie Heroique, it may be the case that the general opinion of the French cultural icon in the UK will be altered, and for the better. To many in Britain and indeed elsewhere, the name Serge Gainsbourg is familiar solely due to the worldwide smash hit Je t’aime moi non plus which he originally recorded with Brigitte Bardot but re-recorded with Jane Birkin which is the version that hit the charts with such oomph. For others, recognition could be down to the fact that on a French chat show in 1986 he told a completely unprepared Whitney Houston that he wanted to fuck her. It may simply be that people recognise his image as that of a quintessential Frenchman with a Gitane in one hand and a look of obstinance in his eyes. The fact is, he did write Je t’aime non plus, did tell Whitney about his sexual lusting and did look “French” to some casual observers (although he was in fact of Russian Jewish parentage). What I don’t think he got enough credit for outside his home land was the fact that he was also a great songwriter, producer and composer, something that has been far too overshadowed throughout the years. Hopefully the film will go some way to remedy this but thankfully there are books which have already cast light on the artistic life of Gainsbourg.
In A Fistful Of Gitanes, the music writer Sylvie Simmons does an admirable job of unravelling the different facets, talents and contradictions of the man and I would recommend it highly for those wanting to learn more. Somewhat surprisingly, at the moment there are only two books on Gainsbourg available in the English language but I haven’t read the other. Going by reviews afforded to it, it’s a hastily cobbled together piece of work with more than a few factual inaccuracies to warrant never contemplating buying it. There are of course a multitude of books written in French and if your linguistic skills in that language are up to it a couple of worthy examples are Gainsbourg by Gilles Verlant and Mort Ou Vices by Bruno Bayon.
As much as he appeared the archetypal French artist, he had great regard for English music. When the music of the UK was taking the world by storm in the sixties, Serge decided to record in London with the best session musicians available. Some of these recordings can be found on the excellent compilation album Comic Strip which contains some of Serge’s most famous collaborations with Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin. This album like many others of Serge’s features his distinctive use of franglais and helps showcase his intelligent lyrics, sadly lost on those who cannot speak French. Merd. Nonetheless, there’s nothing not to love about this rendition of Initials B.B., this one of Qui est in, qui est out and (et) the shear nonchalance in this rendition of 69 Annee Erotique. I would of course recommend the full albums these songs are plucked from – Initials B.B. and Jane Birkin/Serge Gainsbourg.
Perhaps the most celebrated Gainsbourg album is Histoire De Melody Nelson. This is an album that Beck has described as “one of the greatest marriages of rock band and orchestra I’ve ever heard”. It’s not surprising to find out he’s a fan having sampled several of Serge’s songs, all in a very good way I would hasten to add. It’s also worth reiterating that there aren’t too many French concept albums that mention the city of Sunderland, at least not that I am aware of. The plot of the story contained on this recording is a typically controversial one, the music sublime and very influential on not just Beck but also Jarvis Cocker, David Holmes and countless others. Even when he turned his hand to reggae, and lets face it French reggae has never been chart busting, the results were not just interesting but genuinely successful. This is partly down to again choosing the best musicians to work alongside. Traveling to Kingston to record the album Aux Armes et Cætera, Gainsbourg managed to acquire the services of reggae’s premiere rhythm section, Robbie Shakespeare and Sly Dunbar. Not only did this add to the records authenticity, it helped contribute to the very first appearance of reggae in French music. In fact, the experience was such a pleasurable one for Sly and Robbie that they even travelled to Europe to play gigs in support of the album.
Whilst his output of the eighties might not have matched that of the previous two decades, Serge remained an intriguing character with absolute hero status in France. It’s rather surprising that’s it’s taken until 19 years after his death for a biopic to be released but as they would no doubt say on the Left Bank, mieux vaut tard que jamais.
I hope that the film brings in a new audience for the man and his music whilst helping to in some way rid the caricature he remains to some. There is no denying he permanently had a Gitane hanging out his mouth or that he drank too much. No-one would dispute that he went out with some of the most beautiful women in the world whilst not being a natural beauty himself. It’s just that these tend to mask his genuine talent and hopefully the film will act as a catalyst for a greater number of people to discover his musical genius and indeed more about the man behind the image. I understand why much is written about him appearing drunk on a chat show or writing the album Rock Around The Bunker as opposed to the fact he was a loving father but I’m glad to know both sides of this captivating character. Thankfully, the broadsheet press in the UK seem to have cottoned on to the fact that there will be a renewed interest in him with recent articles to be found in The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Independent. It’s telling that Jane Birkin, his ex-girlfriend and mother of his daughter Charlotte, still speaks extremely fondly of him and how he is still sadly missed. You wouldn’t do that for someone who simply had a 60 a day snout habit and a penchant for booze and women would you?
Image – lastfm