For the many who don’t speak French, their first, and perhaps only, exposure to Serge Gainsbourg’s musical oeuvre would be through his 1969 international hit ‘Je t’Aime…moi non plus’. Or, if they missed the Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin original recording, they may have heard one of the many and varied cover versions of the song. Yet the song is hardly a cabaret standard covered by the usual contenders, nor is it likely to be heard bleated out on Australian Idol by some MOR hopeful. In fact, on its original release it was condemned by the Vatican, banned from the airwaves in Britain, Spain, Sweden, and various US states, and withdrawn from sale by the record company at the request of an influential company director: Queen Juliana of the Netherlands.
Despite these setbacks, the song managed to chart well in all these territories. So what was it that brought such conservative condemnation, moral panic, and popular success to a song that detractors dismiss as a kitsch novelty? Why does it continue to inspire such a broad spectrum of musicians well beyond its initial release? It’s a simple keyboard melody over a steady, almost laconic, beat and a lilting bass line, then overlaid with a woozy delirium of strings plus vocals. From Gainsbourg: a seductive half-croon / half-groan. From Birkin: a half-whispered / half-sung statement of love that reaches a breathy climax (in every sense). Gainsbourg had captured in a song not just the sex act with lines that translate, “I come and go between your kidneys”, but also the uncertain ambivalence of love with the refrain, “I love you,” answered with, “not me”.
So how did a middle-aged Frenchman come to make this audacious recording with an Englishwoman 20 years his junior? In fact the renowned Birkin version was Gainsbourg’s second recording of the song. The first was made in 1967 with French “sex-kitten”, Brigitte Bardot. But Bardot, then married to millionaire playboy Gunter Sachs, asked Gainsbourg to shelve their steamy chanson (rumours persist that the sex was recorded “live”). Gainsbourg had just appeared on Bardot’s French TV special singing duets on a couple of songs he had written for her: ‘Comic Book’ and ‘Bonnie and Clyde’.
And they made out like gangsters. When their affair became public, unkind scandal sheets referred to them as “Beauty and the Beast”. Gainsbourg’s prominent features resembled that of another French icon: the Citroen DS with its long sloping bonnet (his ears made it look as if someone had left the doors open). Even Serge thought himself ugly and insisted “ugliness has more going for it than beauty – it endures.” Coincidentally, it was Serge’s Slavic features that landed him his first movie role eight years earlier, as a sleazy photographer in the Bardot vehicle Come Dance With Me. And his nose was also deemed “Roman” enough to have him play the villain in three Italian sword-and-sandal movies to follow. But I digress. Serge’s background in music began long before his high profile dalliance with B.B.
His father, a Russian-Jew who immigrated to France, was a professional musician and taught his Paris-born son, then called Lucien Ginsburg, to play piano. As a teenager, young Lucien survived tuberculosis and endured humiliation at the hands of occupying Nazi forces during WWII. Knowing he could have died so young possibly strengthened his resolve to make it as an artist. He tried then abandoned painting before turning his talents to music – adopting the nom de plume Serge Gainsbourg for his song-writing. In his twenties, though still painfully shy, he began performing his own curious jazz/pop compositions in Left Bank haunts and found that his caustic lyrics struck a chord with the locals. Word-of-mouth earned him a recording contract with record label Philips at the age of thirty. A series of EPs and albums followed filled with songs about suicides, booze, and women.
However, the intricate word play and black humour of his songs was lost outside of the French-speaking world, and his delicate pop arrangements were almost drowned out by the rock’n’roll sound sweeping through Europe. He also wrote material for the likes of Juliette Greco and Francoise Hardy. Oddly enough, his first hit was an uncharacteristically sweet pop song sung by a sixteen-year-old France Gall. It won the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest long before the event became the target of sneering derision by arbiters of taste.
Serge also had a healthy sideline writing movie soundtracks and appearing in the films themselves. He wrote music for and had cameos in Strip Tease (1963), and Le Pacha (1968), as well as supporting roles in Le Jardiner di Argenteuil (1965), Estouffade a la Caraibe (1966), and Anna (1967). But his big break on screen came when he scored and starred in Slogan (1969). His co-star Jane Birkin had caused a sensation as a teenager a couple of years earlier in the UK, with her full frontal nude appearance in Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966). When she met Gainsbourg on the set, Birkin was on the rebound from her marriage to James Bond theme composer John Barry. Despite initial tensions between the two, life mimicked the script and love blossomed. Birkin would later refer to Slogan as, “a sort of joyous home movie”. And with another lover half his age, Serge again made headlines, only this time they were calling kinder referring to the pair as “couple of the year”.
The romance lasted a decade and produced a slew of recordings including the concept-album masterpiece Melody Nelson, another movie (this time with Serge directing) Je T’Aime…Moi Non Plus (1976), and a child, Charlotte, who added to their respective broods from previous partners. Scandal was never far away from Gainsbourg, however. He photographed Jane naked for the cover of Lui magazine, he burnt a 500 franc banknote on live TV, and set lyrics from the French national anthem to reggae music, sparking outrage among right-wing “patriots” (much in the same way as the Sex Pistols’ song ‘God Save the Queen’ had done in the UK).
When Birkin eventually left him, Gainsbourg was desolate and very publicly pursued his proclaimed “trilogy in my life…Gitanes [a brand of cigarettes], alcoholism, and girls”. He wrote and produced records for his new, and again much younger, partner Bambou, as well as actresses Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Adjani, Vanessa Paradis, and daughter Charlotte (the latter creating more controversy with ‘Lemon Incest’ – a duet sung with Serge). Although now approaching sixty he continued to push the boundaries of music and taste with disco and rap albums. including songs about Nazis, turds, and, of course, sex. In the 80s he cultivated a dissolute persona as the drunken sleaze of chanson. He even gave his ‘Hyde’ a name: Gainsbarre (a play on the French, “se bourre,” meaning to get rolling drunk). Infamously in 1986 he bluntly, and with colourful language, propositioned Whitney Houston on live French TV.
Inevitably his vices were his undoing and the composer, singer, writer, director, actor, lover and provocateur, died of a heart attack in 1991 at the age of 63. Ironically, in recent times his work has finally received the success outside of France that eluded him during his lifetime.
His vast back catalogue is available in countless reissues and new generations are now falling in love…(not me) with Gainsbourg À Gainsbarre.
Phillipa is a regular contributor of content to fanzines, TV and radio on off-beat movies, music, and other pursuits
* Notes: ‘Je t’Aime…moi non plus’ has been covered by Australian TV soap star Abigail, Carry On comedian Frankie Howerd, US disco queen Donna Summer, UK disco doyens Pet Shop Boys, German Industrial band Einsturzende Neubauten, “Godfather of Grunge” Kim Salmon, underground experimental artiste Genesis P-Orridge, Memphis music legend Alex Chilton, infamous Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, Japanese duo Cibo Matto, Bad Seed Mick Harvey with Nick Cave and Anita Lane…the list goes on.