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The Quasimodo of Pop

Serge Gainsbourg and French Rock 


How revered French pop idol, songwriter, artist, actor and Gitane-powered sex maniac overcame personal ugliness to become a nation’s heart-throb.


There is a wildly popular tradition in French music called the chanson, a high syrup ballad or love-song. During its heyday, it would be crooned by one of France’s middle-aged pop idols like Johnny Hallyday, Charles Aznavour or Sasha Distel, caught in all their embalmed glory in a single spot, the mike held close to the lips, eyes brimming with a far-away look as if the singer was receiving an unrequested barium enema. The king of the chanson was Serge Gainsbourg.

He was the definitive French pop star. Specifically, he was old, he looked like a prune and he wrote catchy little numbers with pretentious lyrics that he insisted were art. 

“He had a typical French feel for rock; he was hopeless at it”, wrote rock historian Caroline Sullivan in the Guardian newspaper at the time of his death. “He was only interested in two things – sex and money (in that order).” There was one other thing else he was interested in: being a real rock star like his American equivalents. In a career lasting four decades, he was to fail hopelessly.

Born Lucien Ginzburg of Jewish musician parents in 1928, he was a young, trendy art teacher and amateur jazz pianist when he changed his name to Serge Gainsbourg. The old name was just “too Jewish” for France. (And why not? Charles Aznavour’s original name was Shahnour Verengh Aznavourian.)

What Gainsbourg was good at was writing the sentimental, plinkety-plonk tunes filling up the new French charts and giving them  bizarre, sour lyrics. His first big hit in the mid-50s was Le Poinconneur Des Lilas about a Metro ticket clipper who goes mad punching all those “p’tits trous” (little holes) that he punches a “un grand trou” (a big hole) in his head with a gun. This was not a comedy number, mind, but the kind of thing that got the hip Parisian beatniks clicking their fingers. 

Soon he was performing his own material in jazz clubs like Milord L’Arsoille. Singing in a voice that seemed filtered through an ashtray, his eyes screwed shut with passion and accompanied by vague and self-conscious hand-ballets, his act was so mannered that the in-crowd spectators, including president-to-be François Mitterrand, thought it was deliberate.

“His delivery”, summed up his British biographer, Adam Clayson, “was a gravely croak, bubbling with catarrh.” Not surprising, since he sustained himself through his career with a bottle of bourbon and five packs of unfiltered Gitanes a day. His record label tried hard to persuade him to concentrate on the writing of his sub-jazz tunes rather than singing them because, to put it simply, he was an ugloid. His eyes were heavily hooded, and his nose and ears lumpy. French teen magazine Special Pop found the kindest way to describe him was as “a drowsy turtle”. One of the girls, the many girls, who fell for him despite or because of his looks, remembered him as “like a filthy uncle smelling of nicotine, whisky and socks”. At the time, he was thirty-two.

By the 1960s, it seemed all over for him. The day of the crooner was passing even in France, swept away by le pop from the US. “Here is a summary of the basic ingredients for French pop success in the Sixties”, analyses a US biographer Angeline Morrison, “One – beautiful girl who is entirely unable to sing. Two – pure, bubble-gummy “yé-yé” pop melody. Three – brilliant ‘ironic’ lyrics”. 

Well, Gainsbourg could do all that. He latched onto the virginal, sixteen-year-old France Gall, a friend of the family, and began churning out hits for her like Baby Pop, Teenie Weenie Boppie and the one that won her the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest (for Luxembourg), Poupee De Cire Poupee De Son (Lonely, Singing Doll). Gall was pretty, if dim, and only fathomed that Gainsbourg’s interest in her was more than commercial with Les Sucettes (The Lollipops), which, it was explained to her, slowly, after its successful release, was about oral sex. She was so shocked she retired from performing, got bored, decided to make a comeback and was persuaded by her record company to partner again with Gainsbourg who wrote for her Les Petits Ballons (The Little Balloons), a sincere tribute to her breasts. Gall retired again for twenty years.

By then Gainsbourg had moved on to bigger things. At the time there was no one bigger than Brigitte Bardot. Her movie career was not what it had been as audiences had begun to recognise that her dramatic range did not extend much beyond her dramatic physique so she had re-emerged as a singer of le Rock and Roll. She took on the unshaven, shambolic Gainsbourg as a writer for a 1967 TV special and, to the mesmerised fascination of the media, as her latest lover. Worse, she invited him back in front of the spotlights to sing with her. 

The result was a series of songs slavishly ‘Americain’ but so off the mark they might have come from Uranus. Their first hit was a mangled version of Bonnie and Clyde and it was followed by Comic Strip (with Bardot breathily mouthing all the “Bangs!” and “Ka-Pows!”) and then the enduringly hilarious Harley David Son of a Bitch which featured Bardot in leather hotpants astride a HD Sportster while Gainsbourg grunts at her: “Hey, what the hell you doing on my Harley!”

This was nothing to what was to come. As their affair reached its climax, they recorded the notorious, Je T’Aime...Moi, Non Plus (I Love You... Me, Neither) in a midnight session on December 1967. To an easy-listening tune, the pair simulated the grunts, whimpers and whispers of a couple making love. Bardot’s moan of “You are the wave, I am the bare island. You go, you and come between my loins” was matched by Gainsbourg’s answering groan: “I see you, I want you, I come between your kidneys”.

The song was to be a gigantic hit but not for Bardot. When the original recording was played back, the blonde bombshell lost her nerve and begged Gainsbourg not to release the track. Gainsbourg was happy to agree because he had already found a new sexual and musical partner in Jane Birkin.

Birkin is, in the words of Sam White, veteran correspondent in Paris, “one of those long-legged, horse-faced Anglo-Saxon actresses to whom the French are irresistibly drawn in the belief that under their cold Atlantic lid lies a seething cauldron of filthiness”. Birkin had just appeared in the definitive Swinging Sixties film Blowup which featured the first ever screening of pubic hair (hers). How could Gainsbourg resist? He re-recorded Je T’Aime with her and released it to massive commercial success. Naturally it was banned by the Vatican but, to Gainsbourg’s joy, it reached No.1 in the chart that really counted back then, the UK. (It was not immediately so popular in the US where it reached No. 69).

Overnight Gainsbourg and Birkin became the French John and Yoko. While she became a spectacularly successful movie actress (in France), Gainsbourg revived his performing career with a vengeance based on the two principles that had sustained his patchy record so far: sex and shock.

1971 saw the release of his concept album, Histoire de Melody Nelson (The Story of Melody Nelson), based on Nabokov's novel Lolita. (Gainsbourg gloried in his image as a dirty old man. One of his last publicity stills shows him, unshaven and drunk as ever, at a 1990s music awards ceremony, draped over a just-about-post-pubescent Vanessa Paradis. She looks like she is being smothered by a moth-eaten fur rug). He followed it up with his gesture to punk rock, 1975’s amazingly crass Rock around the Bunker, a song-set entirely devoted to the Nazis that included tracks like Tata teutonne, Eva and “SS in Uruguay”. Radio stations gave it no airplay but it gained him a following amongst pre-Goth teenagers in France

By the end of the decade he discovered that UK and US musicians had discovered reggae. He flew to Jamaica and recorded Aux Armes et cetera, a reggae version of the French national anthem, La Marseillaise with Bob Marley's band, The Wailers, whom he referred to as “mes chimpanzees” (my monkeys). In a country as sensitive about its nationalism as France, Aux Armes caused an outrage and Gainsbourg’s tour of the country was disrupted by bomb threats and demonstrations by far-right and veterans groups. 

At one show in Strasbourg, a group of four hundred ex-paratroopers marched into the auditorium with the firm intention of smashing the place up. The Wailers refused to go on. Gainsbourg’s response was legendary. He went on stage and sang “La Marseillaise” absolutely straight. The bullet-headed paras could only stand their saluting until, at the end, he flipped them off and zoomed out of the theatre into a waiting car. “A couple of minutes later”, remembers Sly Dunbar, “we were fifty miles away.” (The legend lost some lustre when it was revealed that the concert promoter had hired his own gang of ex-soldiers to form a tight wall in front of the stage in case the audience tried any tricks. Gainsbourg was never in any danger.)

Aux Armes went to the top of the French charts but it was a rare commercial success. He was more famous for being infamous. Another album, Ecce Homo, toyed with the idea of a gay Gainsbourg, singing songs like Bowie, Beau oui comme Bowie (As Pretty As David Bowie), while his Lolita fixation reached its high point in the creepy video for Un Zeste de Citron (Lemon Incest) which showed him half-naked eyeing his thirteen-year-old daughter, Charlotte across a large bed. It caused barely a stir.

By this end stage, his music was not important anyway. Listening to Gainsbourg was always more of a cultural duty than fun. He became a regular feature on French TV, usually reeling into the studio drunken and unshaven but always capable of some outrage to delight the watching public. During one interview, he burned a 500-franc note to protest against high taxes while, in perhaps his most famous outburst on the Michel Drucker show, he informed Whitney Houston in a loud but not persuasive voice, "I want to fuck you”.

On 02 March 1991, Gainsbourg died of a heart attack and was buried in Montparnasse Cemetery, in Paris. France went into something approaching national mourning. The impressive list of people who attended his funeral included Catherine Deneuve, Yves Saint Laurent, Claudia Cardinale, Jacques Chirac and Brigitte Bardot. Most impressive however was the fax from President Mitterrand who described Gainsbourg as "our Apollinaire". His home at 5 bis rue de Verneuil is still covered by graffiti and poems. Gainsbourg's songs are now studied in French schools as part of the national curriculum.


EXTRA….EXTRA….EXTRA….EXTRA….EXTRA


From Under A Rock "Ugliness is in a way superior to beauty because it lasts.” Serge Gainsbourg


The History of French Rock. Why is there no French Rolling Stones? Why did no French performer appear at Live Aid? Why doesn’t Madonna go and live in Paris (a question demanded by every Londoner)? The answers lie in the story of French Rock.


Pre-War: In the early 20th century, Paris was the counter-culture capital of Europe, teeming with avant garde painters, decadent poets, realist novelists, pioneering film-makers and folk singers. This artistic fertility contrasts its absolute failure in the international pop scene during the next half of the century.


Post-War: At the end of World War II, the "chansonniers" fell in with the spirit of existentialism and working class angst against the “conformism” of everyone else. Stars included Georges Brassens with soupy but bitter albums such as Le Parapluie (1954) and Jacques Brel with Quand On N'a Que L'Amour (1957) and Ne Me Quitte Pas (1959). Bringing up the rear was the warbling Armenian shrimp Charles Aznavour whose still-continuing career includes a 740 songs and over a hundred albums like La Mamma (1963)


1960s: The scene only had mopey, proto-hippy Juliette Greco to contend against the rise of the “rockers” like Johnny Hallyday, still huge in France as a type of Gallic Zombie-Elvis, and "ye-ye" girls such as Sylvie Vartan of Comme un Garcon and Françoise Hardy. 


1970s: French pop is dominated by “symphonic rock” clone copies of early King Crimson and Yes. Ange's Le Cimetiere des Arlequins (1973) and Atoll's L'Araignee-Mal (1975) eventually evolve into Vangelis’ thumping movie tracks and Jean-Michel Jarre’s un-danceable electronic dance albums, Oxygene (1976) and Equinoxe (1978).


1980s: The French (and Belgian) new wave is a freeway pile-up of styles, almost all originating in the UK or the US. It includes Telephone's pub-rock, Bijou's punk rock, La Muerte's psychobilly, Les Thugs' punk-pop, Telex's synth-pop, and culminates in Eric Debris' combo Metal Urbain which produced synthesizer and drum-machine tracks that were like Ultravox yet worse. 


1990s: Giving up on domestic originality, French pop welcomes “world music” influences like Raksha Mancham’s Phydair (1992) and The Gypsy Kings Allegria (1990). An apologetic Grunge influence seeps in with FFF’s funk-metal Blast Culture (1991) along with DJ Cam’s castrated trip-hop. By the end of the decade, the scene is flooded by sub-Moby pop electronica like Air’s Moon Safari (1998), which jams together Pink Floyd's psychedelic ramblings, ambient jazz, random quotes from soul, funk and disco, and melodies Burt Bacharach and Ennio Morricone might have written for ready cash. Otherwise, the towering creative personality of mainstream French pop remains Vanessa Paradis.


Beyond: Nothing yet. Perhaps Stereolab. Perhaps not.

(Based on Piero Scaruffi’s “The History of Rock Music” (2002))



Birkin on Gainsbourg on Bardot

“What did I, who have rivalled Raquel Welch as the media’s most physically ideal woman, see in Serge Gainsbourg? Why, his monstrosity.” Brigitte Bardot 1970

“Serge’s affair [with Bardot] was a little fling. It was nothing that lasted very long, but when it was over, Serge’s self-esteem was rather bruised. He tends to over-react when that happens.” Jane Birkin 1978

“That woman has flattened me like a hot iron! I can never sing again!” Serge Gainsbourg 1969



Obituary for Gainsbourg (1)

“Like Jonathan King and ‘Weird’ Al Yankovic, Gainsbourg could turn his hand to any kind of music, just as long as you didn’t ask him to do it well. The clattery, clumsy rhythms of his sixties ‘rock and roll’ efforts were a pathetic, Pat Boone take on the music.”


Je T’Aime has the dishonour of sounding like twenty years of lame porno soundtracks – except, astonishingly, even less funky. The stinkiest hippie on the lowliest commune could have beaten Serge’s 70s acoustic numbers into the ground.” 


“Your phone is a better synthesizer than the ones on his ‘80s records.”


“And then he died. His influence is with us today, of course – France still turns up the odd snippet of paedo-pop in honour of the old bore (Latest example: “Moi….Lolita”) – though it’s worth remarking that the only French music to have become remotely fashionable since Serge turned his toes up is house, the only kind of music he didn’t get a chance to ruin.”


“And Serge looms large in the memory of assorted neurotics desperate to convince themselves they’re having filthier sex than the general public. That public ignores such people and gets on with shagging like rabbits – and whatever soundtrack they choose, you can bet your life it’s not Serge Gainsbourg.”


- Tanya Headon, Name and Shame, 2002



Selected Lyrics 


Annie likes the lollipops 

The lollipops with aniseed 

That give her mouth the taste of aniseed

And when she’s done 

With just a little stick on her tongue 

She goes shopping for another one

Les Sucettes (The Lollipops) 1966


Harley David son of a bitch 

There you go, you are hard, you're in heat 

Harley David son of a bitch

That vibration really affects you 

 

Harley David son of a bitch 

You shouldn't have fallen off 

Harley David son of a bitch 

You're dead, and I'm glad 

Harley David Son of a Bitch, 1967


Out of a painting by Francis Bacon 

I've come out 

To make love to another man 

Who said to me 

Kiss me Hardy 

Kiss me my love 


In Frisco, not far from Sodom, 

There as well 

I met a handsome young man 

Who said to me 

Kiss me Hardy 

Kiss me my love

Love on the Beat, 1984 [In French, ‘Beat’ is a homonym for ‘bite’, slang for ‘penis’]


Suck baby suck 

With the CD of 

Chuck Berry Chuck 

Suck baby suck 

To the laserdisc of 

Chuck Berry Chuck 

Do you want me to give you a video. Look 

I have everything by Avery Tex 

In Yankee in the original text 

As well as Donald Duck

– Suck, Baby, Suck, 1987

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