By Darran Anderson
“For me provocation is oxygen.”
– Serge Gainsbourg
Posted on June 17, 2006
By Darran Anderson
“For me provocation is oxygen.”
– Serge Gainsbourg
You can tell something about a nation from its superheroes. America has the invincible, squeaky-clean Superman of the metropolis, Soviet Russia had the tractor girls and well-muscled pig-iron workers beaming down from posters with dead-eyed smiles, Britain has the provincial Asbo-dodging schoolboy Dennis the Menace terrorising postmen and swots into contemplations of suicide. France has Fantomas.
For the un-initiated Fantomas was the original anti-hero, a masked tuxedo-wearing man of mystery who appeared in countless pulp novels, films and comics in the first half of the 20th century. Beloved by the Surrealists he thankfully possessed none of the heroics of tiresome old queens like Superman. In many ways he was nothing more than a psychopath butchering his way through high society for the sheer joi de vivre of it. His crimes were legion and extravagant: incinerating zeppelins, guillotining archdukes, filling department store perfume bottles with sulphuric acid, unleashing bubonic vermin onto luxury liners. There he is in the shadows of masked balls with a hollow walking stick filled with poison. Fantomas — scourge of the bourgeoisie.
Music critics, when they’re not dancing about architecture, struggle to place Serge Gainsbourg. Possessing the song writing skills of Burt Bacharach, the literate venom of John Lydon and the libido of the Marquis De Sade, they struggle to make sense of him. Singer, songwriter, bohemian, film director, writer, poet, punk, jazz pianist, existentialist, artist, debauched drunkard, professional controversialist Gainsbourg was the eternal rebel, enemy of all that is tame and mainstream. He went electric years before Dylan, made funk records when The Beatles were lovable mop tops, worked with chanteuse after chanteuse years before Andy Warhol or Lee Hazelwood, bore a seditious punk attitude more than decade before ’76. The most bewilderingly complex individual pop music has ever thrown up, Gainsbourg is unique and yet when he steps out in the rare television footage of Les Petits Paves in mask, top hat and evening dress he evokes the dormant spirit of Fantomas. Over the next thirty years the poor sons of bitches wouldn’t know what had hit them.
Looking back it seems all too easy to see that he was destined for extraordinary things, or at the very least mediocrity was a luxury denied to him. His parents Joseph and Oletchka Ginsburg had escaped the upheavals of the Russian Revolution and ensuing Civil War making it to Paris via Constantinople, settling in the French capital where his father took up playing piano in nightclubs. An initially content childhood was thrown into chaos with the Nazi occupation of France. The family barely made it to into hiding in the Vichy Republic having already borne the indignity of wearing yellow stars, that first incremental step to the Holocaust. Millions of men, women and children would not be so fortunate, passing through Drancy transit camp to the night and fog of the East never to be heard of again. Following Liberation and having been kicked out of school he resolved to become a painter but somehow stumbled into following in his father’s footsteps, playing piano for a cabaret drag act. Enraptured initially with jazz he changed his name from Lucien to Serge and wrote songs to Baudelaire and Rimbaud. They would be telling influences for like these damned poets he’d explore the city’s underbelly, champion sensuality and not least revel in the joys of language and controversy.
Carving out a niche as an expert songwriter and a melancholic crooner he first really entered the national consciousness when he began writing for, duetting with and seducing a succession of stunning models and actresses. In the public’s eyes he was Don Juan with a muse for every song, the beast to countless beauties writing for Anna Karina (star of Le Petit Soldat, Une Femme est une femme and wife of Jean Luc Godard), France Gall (for whom he’d write the winning entry ‘Poupee de Cire, Poupee de Son’ in the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest) and famously, Brigitte Bardot. It would be the beginning of Gainsbourg’s alternative career as the French public enemy number one, seducer of nymphettes, a sight and sound as disturbing to parents as Elvis’ hips or Jagger’s lips.
Having met his future wife, and lasting muse, the English actress Jane Birkin he released an atom bomb disguised as a novelty single. ‘Je T’Aime…Moi Non Plus’ has the character of a curious one hit-wonder when in fact it is the opening shot in Gainsbourg’s campaign against all that is square, boring and hypocritical, doing more for the sexual revolution than a million essays, marches or copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover ever could. If its revolutionary impact is doubted consider this: ‘God Save The Queen’ by the Sex Pistols outraged middle England and the British establishment yet the record itself was never outlawed. ‘Je T’Aime’ on the other hand was banned in Iceland, Sweden, Brazil, Spain and Britain, after two million sales the record company was forced to cancel pressing it and the Pope (the fucking Pope!) publicly condemned it forcing its ban in Italy. And the reason? To the sound of atmospheric Wurlitzer organ-led funk Gainsbourg had added Birkin’s barely whispered sounds of orgasm. This was a love song that subverted the conventions of love songs. Rather than the “boy meets girl, boy loses girl” formula of old this was daringly “boy meets girl, boy and girl fuck each others brains out.” Even the title is infused with Gainsbourg’s trademark light-hearted cynicism, translating as “I love you…me neither.”
Though he’d have earned a place in pop history with this track alone, the song’s success does have the unfortunate effect of overshadowing a lifetime of brilliant work, framing Gainsbourg as a one hit wonder in the blinkered Anglo-centric music world outside France. Within the French borders though — and amongst musical connoisseurs elsewhere — there has always been an awareness of his boundless talents including, to name but a few, the utterly sublime ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, the hauntingly beautiful ‘Chanson de Prevert’, the joyous beat rap tribute to a ticket inspector ‘Poinncoeur des Lilas’, the genius surf-pop of ‘L’Appareil A Sous’, the breakbeats of ‘Requiem Pour Un Con’ (at least a quarter of a century ahead of its time), the shimmering ’69 Annee Erotique’ and the upbeat, soulful ‘L’Anamour’ with it’s genius lyrics, “I sing for the transistors… I thought I heard the propellers / Of a four-engined plane but alas…” And above them all stands his magnum opus the album Histoire de Melody Nelson.
For lunatic shock value it may pale in comparison to his later works the notorious ‘Lemon Incest’ or ‘L’Homme à Tête de Choux’ (‘The Man With A Cabbage For A Head’), the engaging tale of a serial killing sex offender who believes he has a cabbage for a head, yet it is undoubtedly his most consistently beautiful album. Reining in the eclecticism and the wordplay it floats by as a mood piece, its washes and sweeps of sound exquisitely orchestrated by Jean-Claude Vannier. Essentially a concept album it is nonetheless the exact opposite of the overblown prog rock monstrosities of the time being succinct, sexy, understated and funky in contrast to the fuck-awful dry ice and space-wizards of the likes of Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Weaving soothing acoustic guitars with sweeps and stabs of strings held together with the sort of bass loops and beats that would later emerge in dub and hip-hop years later it’s an innovative concoction that has you reaching for the album sleeve to double check how the fuck he made this in 1971? Musically its profoundly influenced a host of artists from folktronica to dance: Beck‘s ‘Paper Tiger’ sounds like an outtake, David Holmes‘ single ‘Don’t Die Just Yet’ is lifted wholesale from the album while the laidback gentle gorgeousness of Air‘s Moon Safari is L’Histoire redux. Even its disreputable monologues relating the tale of the seduction of an English Lolita by a middle-aged French Casanova would re-emerge unmistakably years later in the sordid soliloquy’s (‘I Spy’, ‘Seductive Barry’, etc) of Jarvis Cocker.
But what of the album, this enchanting laudanum-dosed dream of a record? At a mere twenty eight minutes long it stands out even in its form as a unique artistic statement, too long and deep for a single, too short to be an album, an EP at a time that the charts were being bombarded by ludicrously pompous double albums and rock operas. The scene is immediately set with ‘Melody’ a nocturnal soundscape of strings and beats over which Gainsbourg, the arch-decadent full of regrets and weariness like the narrator of Camus‘ The Fall, narrates how he came to knock down the underage girl and initiate their love affair, having been lured to the spot by the Spirit of Ecstasy on the bonnet of his Rolls Royce (his “silver ghost”). The mesmerising ‘Ballade de Melody Nelson’ follows, possibly his finest moment and certainly the centrepiece of the album, a poignant hypnotic ode to debauched love. Had he crooned not in Las Vegas but Sodom and Gomorrah, Frank Sinatra may have dared to produce the lush skewered classicism of ‘Valse de Melody’ while Ballade is echoed in the evocative ‘Ah! Melody’ with its ghost strings and regal brass. Amidst “naked slaves carved from ebony” and beneath a mirrored roof Melody is ravished during the gloriously squalid ‘L’Hotel Particulier’ and ‘En Melody’ — a buoyant funk breakdown complete with proto-breakbeats and guitar wig-outs spelling out in no uncertain terms the process of being “in Melody.” And yet as in all great stories it must end in tragedy and it does so, not through some Romeo and Juliet-type suicide but in true Serge extravagance, through a plane crash and the shady involvement of a South Pacific tribe. As Serge explained to Denise Glaser on the French TV show Discorama, “In New Guinea there’s an indigenous people the Papuans who practise ‘airplane worship,’ the cargo cult. They see these things flying over their heads, without ever seeing them land, and they want to benefit from them. So they want the planes to crash to get their hands on the freight.” Thus Melody is brought to an end in an aeroplane hurtling at several hundred miles an hour towards the natives, a gift from their island God. The tale concludes with ‘Cargo Culte’ a more experimental, morose reprise of the opening track in which Gainsbourg describes his hallucinations praying that a cargo plane will fall to earth to return his love to him.
Consistently cited as one of the most influential albums musically of all time Gainsbourg’s lyrics have been criminally overlooked, reaching genuine poetic heights reminiscent of Arthur Rimbaud. Admirably translated online by Alex Chabot, his lyrics stand up impressively to close scrutiny especially in a time when songwriters, say Chris Martin, employing the sort of “fly, high, sky” rhymes common to the ramblings of an idiot child, can be seriously regarded as poets. Rather than have the likes of, and this is a genuine line, “Do you feel like a puzzle / You can’t find your missing piece?” Gainsbourg creates lines such as “the magicians who call to jets / In the jungle of New Guinea… dream of hijacks and of bird accidents…Where are you Melody and your wrecked body? Is it haunting the archipelago where the sirens live? Those bright corals of the Guinean coasts / Where those indigenous magicians act in vain / Who still hope for smashed planes…Having nothing more to lose nor a God in whom to believe / So that they give me meaningless loves / I, like them, I prayed to the night cargo planes / And I hold onto that hope of an air / Disaster that would bring Melody back to me / A minor turned away from the gravity of the stars.”
“I’m not a cynic, as some maintain,” Serge once said, “I’m a romantic, I always have been. As a boy, I was shy and romantic. I became cynical through contact with others.”
Is there one of our heroes that could resist the urge to drink, drug or fuck him or herself into oblivion? Alas from this pinnacle the future for Serge, with horrible predictability, would be a slope of downward increments. The turning point at which his debauchery would overtake his creativity comes with Rock Around The Bunker (1975), a cabaret concept album that took the piss out of the Nazis. It went down like a lead balloon but did his burgeoning notoriety no harm, infamy and fame being two sides of the same coin. Despite being a Jew who had barely escaped the Holocaust Gainsbourg was ludicrously condemned, and misrepresented, as an anti-Semite. “If you get up on a soapbox and trade rhetoric with a dictator you can never win,” Mel Brooks once said, “But if you ridicule them with laughter: they can’t win. You show the world just how crazy they are.”
The episode did highlight a certain lamentable lapse into embittered self-parody, into sensationalism for sensationalisms sake. The more he settled into the role of the depraved pisshead, the less he had to expose his real vulnerability. To make a fumbling attempt at amateur psychology his urge for controversy seems to have been compensation for shyness, a smokescreen to prevent real confrontation. He acted the role until he became it. While his contemporaries got old and fat and comfortable and sold out in their droves Gainsbourg stayed true to the lunacy and the humour, becoming each year more of a rebel, more of a disgrace, a national institution of pandemonium, drunk on chat shows, cursing and burning five hundred franc notes and you just can’t help but watch and feel a strange and sad sense of magnetism still there. The fire was still in him.
“At least we won’t be bored,” Charles De Gaulle once said when faced with the ruins and challenges following the Second World War, and all along through triumphs and disasters Gainsbourg was always compelling. There was the aforementioned album The Man With The Cabbage For A Head, the satirical book Evguenie Sokolov about an artist whose primary skill was in using “anal gales” to create critically acclaimed works of art. Then there were the notorious duets with his young daughter Charlotte the most infamous of which ‘Lemon Incest’ takes it’s music from Chopin and its name from a typical pun on lemon zest (“Un Zeste De Citron”). It aimed to shock and it succeeded, winding up the French Right who could see fit to morally condemn a mere pop song whilst supporting say the subjugation of Algeria years earlier. His nadir in these years is debatable being either the disco atrocity, albeit still commercially successful, Love On The Beat or the live synth-pop performance of ‘Marilou Sous La Neige’ with its preposterously camp male dancers. Triumph would come though hand in hand with controversy.
One of the first white musicians to embrace reggae and dub, long before it was fashionable, Gainsbourg travelled to Jamaica, where he recorded with Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare and Bob Marley’s Wailers. Many of the tracks lyrically were of a scatological or erotic nature but it would be the most apparently innocuous song that would cause the greatest offence. ‘Aux Armes Etcetera’ was simply a reggae song incorporating excerpts of La Marseillaise. That a Jewish son of Russian immigrants would dare conspire with hashish smoking black Rastafarians in denigrating the French national anthem was too much for some. Denounced by the government and military he received death threats whilst his concerts were picketed and cancelled due to bomb alerts. He replied in typical fuck you fashion, buying the original manuscript of the Marseillaise when it came up at auction, claiming he was prepared to bankrupt himself for it in the process. When four hundred incensed paratroopers turned up to his Strasbourg gig vowing revenge Gainsbourg went out alone and sang the national anthem, facing them down in a brave but emotionally ravaging stand.
Perhaps Gainsbourg would have had a Johnny Cash-style renaissance in the 90’s when a new generation discovered his work but we’ll never know. He went to bed on March 2nd 1991 and didn’t wake up, burnt out from decades of alcoholism and excess. Tributes to him were plentiful once it was established he was safely in the soil. No less than President Mitterand saluted him as “our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire” who had “elevated song to the level of art.” Fans left tributes of whiskey bottles, blue packets of his beloved Gitanes ‘Spanish gypsy’ cigarettes and even the occasional cabbage. The love of his life Birkin placed the rag doll monkey she had held on the cover of Histoire in his coffin. He is buried in Montparnasse cemetery alongside fellow artists and absurdists Baudelaire, Beckett, Robert Desnos, Eugène Ionesco and Man Ray.
Today he is cited by a massive range of artists as an inspiration from Beck to Pulp, Sonic Youth to Stereolab. Sampled by MC Solaar, De La Soul, Andy Smith and Renegade Soundwave, covered by David Holmes, Luscious Jackson and the Bad Seeds you’d be forgiven for thinking his day had arrived, but his work is still obscure and much of it remains relatively unattainable, too bewildering for the mainstream. Unable to be reduced to a definable type he’s remembered simply as a one hit wonder or worse for telling Whitney Houston he liked to fuck her on a talk show. The relative unavailability of his work in the English-speaking world is a scandal, hit and miss compilations occasionally come to light though a definitive remastering and release of his entire canon, along with rarities and out-takes, is sorely lacking. It says something that it’s often easier to locate tribute albums to him than his originals. In the past few years alone there’s been the indie-based Monsieur Gainsbourg featuring Jane Birkin and Franz Ferdinand, The Kills, Tricky, Michael Stipe, a Sapphic duet between Cat Power and Karen Elson, Marianne Faithful, Portishead, and The Rakes amongst others and the electronic We Love Serge featuring remixes and covers by Howie B, The Orb and Matthew Herbert testifying to the sheer range of his influence.
The recent release of the D’Autres Nouvelle Des Etoiles DVD featuring live performances, videos and interviews is a step in the right direction, it’s impossible to watch without being hypnotized by his charm, wit, self-deprecation, the mixture of vulnerability and charisma that creates a sense of being cool, that genuinely rare thing, and of course the indignity of his decline. Then there are the characteristics the name-dropping hipsters fail to see in him: his humour, all the puns and flourishes, the unadulterated fun in his work. It says a hell of a lot that his work is more outrageous than ever today. More than ever we need a Serge, someone prepared to voice a note of dissent, to laugh in the face of self-righteousness, to go head-on against the neo-Puritanism of today’s tabloid culture. Serge is dead. Long live Fantomas.
Darran Anderson once slept through an earthquake.