Throughout his musical career, Serge Gainsbourg was a man who lived and breathed scandals. Despite – or perhaps in spite of – his tendency to add fuel to the fire (both literally – he once burnt a 500 franc note on live TV – and figuratively), he has attained legendary status in France since his death.
Born Lucien Ginsburg in 1928, Gainsbourg was the son of Jewish Ukrainian migrants, Joseph and Olga. Hundreds of kilometres away, Adolf Hitler’s anti-Semitic ideologies were gaining momentum; during the war, Gainsbourg’s identity was reduced to little more than a patch of cloth bearing the Star of David. (These years later served as the inspiration behind his 1975 album Rock Around the Bunker. Only Gainsbourg, the unapologetic provocateur, would think to compile an entire album on the theme of National Socialism, and fill it with black comedy to boot.) Having escaped to Limoges during the Occupation, Gainsbourg returned to Paris after the war, where he taught music and drawing before setting his sights on a musical career. Gainsbourg’s discography spanned several decades and a rainbow of genres, from jazz and yé-yé (1960s pop) to reggae and electronica. Undeniably a controversial figure until his last breath, Gainsbourg was scandalous and subversive, provocative yet popular.
I first came across Gainsbourg’s work in my final year at Leeds, as part of the ‘French Popular Culture’ module I was studying, which covered music, film, contemporary fiction and bande dessinée. (This module was one of the highlights of my degree, so I owe a huge thank you to David Platten for running it, thereby introducing me to the life and work of Serge Gainsbourg.) To my surprise, I found myself utterly engrossed in Gainsbourg’s œuvre, and ended up writing my assessed essay on the aesthetic value of his work. I promised a post on him some eight or nine months ago, and I’ve finally made good on that promise. (I hope it was worth the wait.) Without further ado, here are nine of my favourite songs by the legendary Serge Gainsbourg . . .
1 | ‘Le Poinçonneur des Lilas’ (1959)
Gainsbourg’s early work revitalised the traditional chanson, though the fatalistic lyrics of this particular offering hint at a new subgenre, a sort of chanson noire, if you like. ‘Le Poinçonneur des Lilas’ is testament to Gainsbourg’s verbal dexterity and mastery of wordplay. Seemingly upbeat swing melodies mask a picture of despair, of a man so hopelessly trapped in his dead-end job punching trous (holes) into metro tickets that he (somewhat paradoxically) considers escaping talk of trous by shooting one into his own head.
2 | ‘La Chanson de Prévert’ (1961)
I’m not anticipating kicking the bucket any time soon, but this tune would make it onto my funeral playlist for its beautiful lyricism alone. Dripping with nostalgia, ‘La Chanson de Prévert’ incorporates elements of Jacques Prévert’s haunting melody ‘Les Feuilles Mortes’ and exposes the rarely seen, vulnerable side of Gainsbourg. (Of all the songs on this list, this is my absolute favourite – so if you only listen to one, make it this one.)
3 | ‘La Javanaise’ (1963)
Although ‘La Javanaise’ bears many of the hallmarks of the chanson genre, Gainsbourg’s outlandish alter-ego Gainsbarre makes his first appearance here, subtly hiding between the lines, hinting at fleeting romance and unrequited love. ‘La Javanaise’ refers to both a language game, whereby the syllables –av are inserted into words after each consonant that is followed by a vowel thus rendering the words unintelligible to the uninitiated, and a dance: Gainsbourg plays on the sounds used in the game, deftly combining them in such a way that they sound like a dance in themselves.
4 | ‘Poupée de Cire, Poupée de Son’ (1965)
When France Gall belted out this tune at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1965 – and won the title – she had little idea that she was the very puppet the song spoke of. Gall became the physical incarnation of Gainsbourg’s critique directed at the music industry: a naïve, young singer admitting to her inability to sing about experiences that she had yet to experience herself. With its exceptionally catchy tune and playful use of idiomatic expressions, it’s no wonder this song became a chart-topper. ‘Poupée de Cire, Poupée de Son’ has since been reprised by many other artists of various nationalities, including Arcade Fire in 2007.
5 | ‘Les Sucettes’ (1966)
Impish Gainsbourg couldn’t resist pushing the limits – and then pushing them some more. At first glance, ‘Les Sucettes’ tells the tale of a young girl called Annie who has a penchant for aniseed-flavoured lollipops. Give it another listen, however, and Gainsbourg’s lyrics unveil an entirely different story. While I’m not condoning his manipulative streak – Gall professed that she had no idea of the song’s (heavily sexual) double meaning when she first sang it – I do particularly like the psychedelic melody of ‘Les Sucettes’.
6 | ‘Initials BB’ (1968)
I’ve already mentioned ‘Initials BB’ in a post featuring some of my favourite French songs, and couldn’t resist giving it another mention here. Cast aside by Brigitte Bardot, Gainsbourg is caught between fantasy and reality. ‘Initials BB’ pays homage to their relationship, and also to the relationship between the possessor and the possession, thereby highlighting both Gainsbourg’s unwavering love for Bardot and his misogynistic tendencies towards women.
7 | ‘Docteur Jekyll et Monsieur Hyde’ (1968)
Autobiographical in nature, ‘Docteur Jekyll et Monsieur Hyde’ captures the very essence of Gainsbourg’s dual personality: Gainsbarre is the Hyde to his Jekyll. By explicitly alluding to the characters of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Gothic masterpiece, Gainsbourg effectively tells the tale of his own transition into Gainsbarre, his provocative, hedonistic alter-ego.
8 | ‘Je Suis Venu Te Dire Que Je M’en Vais’ (1973)
In 1973, Gainsbourg suffered his first heart attack, and was advised to cut back on the hard stuff. His response? He called for a press conference from his hospital bed, proclaiming that, to reduce the risk of suffering a second, he would up his consumption of alcohol and cigarettes. ‘Je Suis Venu Te Dire Que Je M’en Vais’ was born from this experience; in it, Gainsbourg laments his own mortality, intensifying the drama by punctuating the song with the tears of his then-lover, Jane Birkin.
9 | ‘Aux Armes Et Cætera’ (1979)
Never one to shy away from controversy, Gainsbourg took it upon himself to reinvent ‘La Marseillaise’, the French national anthem. Enter, a recording studio in Kingston and the crème de la crème of Jamaica’s reggae musicians. An emphasis on beat, rather than lyrics, enabled Gainsbourg to critique the identity of the French Republic and parody its relationship towards the oppressed other. Initially perceived as an attack on French identity and values, ‘Aux Armes Et Cætera’ unexpectedly became a hit and catapulted Gainsbourg’s career to new heights.
Serge Gainsbourg was, quite simply, a magician of the chanson française, an auteur-compositeur-interprète (singer-songwriter) extraordinaire. Upon his death in 1991, François Mitterrand described Gainsbourg as “notre Baudelaire, notre Apollinaire”, commending his ability to elevate popular music to the realm of art. César award-winning Gainsbourg (Vie Héroïque) traces Gainsbourg’s exploits from the streets of occupied France to his life in the limelight – so if you’re into biopics (and are prepared to embrace Joann Sfar’s unusual cinematographic style), give this a whirl to learn more about the wild and wacky life of Monsieur Gainsbourg.