Serge Gainsbourg: Filthy French

By the time of his death in 1991 Serge Gainsbourg was a French national institution, as beloved for his outrageous behaviour in public (often drunk, always in a haze of Gitane smoke) as for his music. Now his continuing influence on les anglo-saxons is marked by a new CD of his songs performed by his admirers - including Franz Ferdinand, Jarvis Cocker and Tricky. Philip Sweeney reports
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The Independent Culture

It seems like only yesterday we were commemorating the 10th anniversary of the death of the grand-père terrible of French pop, Serge Gainsbourg. Paris was a log-jam of tribute CDs, TV specials and journalists queuing outside the Latin Quarter apartment of Jane Birkin to fall, yet again, under the spell of charmingly accented reminiscences about her one-time partner and Svengali. I recall backing out of Birkin's front door still recording her stream of consciousness an hour over the allotted time, and reading all of what I foolishly hoped were exclusive revelations in other people's articles over ensuing months.

And now, the 15th anniversary is upon us, Gainsbourg's myth has continued to grow and the tributes are blooming. But this time, the British are in the vanguard. A new album, Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited, features the maestro's work, translated into English, performed by a couple of dozen choice members of the UK and US music scenes, and the flagship French Gainsbourg TV show broadcast last month was devoted largely to these performers. Along with Gainsbourg contemporaries such as Birkin, Marianne Faithfull and Françoise Hardy, a new crop of Gainsbourgians - Franz Ferdinand, Placebo, Tricky, Jarvis Cocker - was in the studio to testify to the unshaven anti-hero's greatness, and to comment, almost without exception, that their first experience of his music was that number, you know, with the girl moaning, "Je T'Aime".

If nothing else, the new CD advances the reading of the celebrated "Je T'Aime Moi Non Plus". With a lesbian version, no less. Once Gainsbourg's own distinctive murmur mingled with the orgasmic sighs of his co-duetists - first Brigitte Bardot, then Jane Birkin for the world hit in 1969. This time it is two female voices - the American singer Cat Power, and the British model Karen Elson who murmur mysterious coital catchphrases over the dreamy keyboard figure. Pour l'anecdote, as they say, Jean-Daniel Beauvallet, one of the record's producers, says Power's original idea was to record the number with a male singer, with whom she would achieve actual orgasm, but she couldn't find the right artist, and eventually suggested her friend Elson. The resulting track is rather pretty, though not as sexy as Birkin's, and illustrative of several problems with interpreting Gainsbourg, one being the attitude of the family members who control the use of his work, and another the thorny issue of translation, more of which later.

What of Gainsbourg's status in the world of French chanson, though? Does the old roué merit his ever-expanding international cult? There are still traditionalists who consider that Gainsbourg's so-called textual virtuosity is empty flash, and his obsession with lyrical amorality and alien pop trends incompatible with the loftily poetic ideals of the great chanson trinity of Jacques Brel, Georges Brassens and Leo Ferré. Gainsbourg's own trajectory in some ways invited this criticism.

At the outset of his career in the late Fifties, he shared the small Parisian club stages, and the literary-musical aspirations, of writer-performers such as Brel and Boris Vian, and his first clients as writer were legends such as Juliette Greco. His subsequent rush to embrace lucrative Eurovision songwriting, pop and rock novelty, and finally all-purpose celebrity with the outrageous, debauched public alter ego he referred to as Gainsbarre had an alienating effect for some. The overwhelming majority of French evidence, nonetheless, points to chanson canonisation. When the prestigious Parisian Hall de la Chanson recently inaugurated a series of major conferences and concerts devoted to the greats of chanson, Gainsbourg was the first subject. His work is revered by the latest generation of nouvelle chanson practitioners, young women such as Carla Bruni or Camille who espouse the wispy gamine delivery patented by Gainsbourg for Birkin and Hardy, young men such as Philip Katerine, Vincent Delerm, Thomas Fersen or Benjamin Biolay who esteem the bricoleur creativity with which Gainsbourg refreshed chanson's sound while maintaining the pre-eminence of quality lyrics.

And, internationally, the body of Gainsbourg's work is more sought after for covering and sampling than that of any other French artist. Individual ultra-famous songs, such as Charles Trenet's "La Mer" or Edith Piaf's "La Vie En Rose", may still dwarf even Gainsbourg favourites such as "La Javanaise", but, en masse, Gainsbourg wins hands down. The Gainsbourg estate's considerable royalties income, and the approval of Gainsbourg-related projects, are in the hands of the artist's four children, the products of the singer's three major relationships: Natacha and Paul Ginsburg, the children of his youthful sweetheart Elisabeth, whom he left at the first hint of show-business success; Charlotte, his daughter with Jane Birkin; and Lulu, the child of his last partner, Bambou. Unfortunately, they don't all see eye to eye, hence the problems with the new CD. "Natacha and Paul don't approve of the constant emphasis of their father's risqué Gainsbarre side," says Jean-Daniel Beauvallet. "They hated the new 'Je T'Aime' - they said Serge would never have approved a lesbian version." The day was eventually saved by scholarship: the discovery of an obscure Japanese cover version from the 70s, by two girl singers, in effect a Japanese lesbian 'Je T'Aime' (triple points) which Gainsbourg, Jane Birkin could affirm, had loved. Bingo.

The Natacha and Paul veto was not lifted, however, from another track. This was a version of "Les Sucettes" (The Lollipops), the song which naughty old Serge famously put in the demure teenage mouth of the debutante France Gall, and which was "revisited" by Keith Flint, of the Prodigy. A great track, apparently, with a wild string section playing the parts of all the instruments. So why was it shelved - the point about "Les Sucettes" was surely its lack of explicitness, the double entendre being in the ear of the listener? "Well, it was the licking noises that Keith put in," says Beauvallet. Flint's lascivious slurping, it appears, tipped the balance of probability too far away from the consumption of confectionery and the Ginsburg thumbs went down. Tant pis.

In fact, it's possible to sympathise with those who find the sensational, provocative Gainsbourg overemphasised. On the rare occasion he gave it rein, Gainsbourg had a gift for finer sentiment. "La Chanson de Prevert", for example, is almost as poignant as the beautiful chanson classic "Les Feuilles Mortes" it pays tribute to. Nonetheless, it was the Gainsbarre persona which brought him fame. Especially abroad. It's notable that many of the artist's new Anglo fans cite his louche, nonconformist image. "He doesn't give a fuck," comments a member Trash Palace - who back Marc Almond on the record - admiringly.

If Gainsbourg's image is a key factor in his new appeal, language, supposedly the prime attribute of French chanson, is evidently not. Few of the converts seem to speak French, though Gainsbourg could be a great recruiter for classes. "I'm mad, I was so lazy at school, so that I can't read Sartre or listen to the poetry of Gainsbourg," comments Adrian Utley of Portishead (the group came out of virtual retirement to record a track for the new album), while his colleague Geoff Barrow adds, "Even without understanding a word, I consider Gainsbourg a genius."

This opinion, it seems, is gaining currency fast. The Anglo-American cult of Gainsbourg has been simmering for a decade or more. Nick Cave's henchman Mick Harvey, the rock star Beck, dance stylist David Holmes, New York avant gardist John Zorn, Rufus Wainwright, Jarvis Cocker, The Orb... the list lengthens continually. It was realisation of the scope of the phenomenon which made Beauvallet, a Brighton-based editor of the French arts monthly Les Inrockuptibles, come up with the idea of the new CD. "We've been interviewing British and American artists for years." he comments, "and it's amazing how many of them began to ask us questions about Gainsbourg - there's a real fascination."

For such a complex work, Monsieur Gainsbourg was made both cheaply - a mere €100,000 budget, underspent - and easily, with artists signing up enthusiastically and recruiting their friends. So what is it about Gainsbourg's work which fascinates the Brits, apart from the je m'en foutiste image and the brilliant but incomprehensible lyrics? Logically enough, it is his music, the mixture of remarkably catchy melodies, often based, such as that of "Je T'Aime", on classical themes, and strikingly individual arrangements. This is the very factor which distinguished Gainsbourg from those chanson predecessors whose work, so inextricably linked to textual appreciation, does not have the ear of the new generation of non-French. Geoff Barrow of Portishead again: "Gainsbourg's sound is like nothing in the Anglo-Saxon world: the weight of that voice, the extraordinary combinations of instrumentation in one song ... there's one disc that was given to me by a French DJ which literally overturned all my certitudes of song-writing, production ... that's Melody Nelson."

An unsurprising choice: Histoire de Melody Nelson, Gainsbourg's celebrated 1971 concept album, is highly esteemed by samplers. Melody Nelson is a weirdly jewel-like micro-opera featuring a vintage Rolls- Royce, a male obsession for the eponymous 14-year-old garçonne, and demise via New Guinean cargo-cult, rendered by Gainsbourg's voluptuous drawl and Birkin's Lolita whisper, and a richly idiosyncratic instrumentation by Gainsbourg's close collaborator Jean-Claude Vannier, owing as much to Abbey Road, George Martin and the film soundtracks of John Barry as to anything from Paris.

Though Melody Nelson was recorded in Paris, it could easily have been London, because Gainsbourg's acceptance by the English represents a circular journey. Gainsbourg was an enthralled recycler of English and American trends, themes and phrases: Bonnie and Clyde, Harley- Davidson, the Torrey Canyon. One of his few homosexual songs seems to have been written solely for the rather silly opportunity to use the phrase "Kiss me, Hardy". Initially taken aback when the Beatles tsunami broke over his early Left Bank chanson output, Gainsbourg responded by hurrying to the source of the new vogue and he was soon recording in Fontana's Oxford Street studios with session groups under the baton of old pros such as the late Arthur Greenslade. (Greenslade recalled Gainsbourg's precise requirements in arrangements, omnipresent packets of Gitanes, and inexhaustible appetite for Kings Road finery.)

It was Greenslade's colleague, the guitarist Alan Hawkshaw, who provided the striking bespoke instrumentation for Melody Nelson's even finer successor, the 1976 released L'Homme à la Tête de Chou, with its exuberantly arcane rhyming schemes and memorable introduction of the character Marilou, a gold-digging nymphomaniac shampooineuse murdered by fire-extinguisher (giving rise to the irresistibly hummable requiem "Marilou sous la Neige").

Though Gainsbourg spiced his songs with Anglicisms, the results are far from easily transferable into English. In fact, Gainsbourg's texts, rich in esoteric allusions, recherché vocabulary, puns and word-play of all sorts, are extraordinarily hard to translate, making projects such as the Monsieur Gainsbourg CD highly challenging. Apart from a couple of artists - the Paris-resident Jarvis Cocker, whose French wife organised the task; Portishead, who involved Francophone friends - the translations for the CD were undertaken by the Anglo-Russian writer Boris Bergman, who observes reasonably that the only course with Gainsbourg is to create new English texts interpreting the inner content of the original. For such an idiosyncratic distinctive voice as Gainsbourg's, this is a tall order, and even the intermittent success of Bergman's versions is praiseworthy.

The most literal texts, such as the Michael Stipe-recited "Hotel Particulier", are the most successful. Others, such as young Northern indie band The Rakes' version of the early "Poinconneur des Lilas", in which the original's Metro ticket-puncher is transformed into a London car park attendant, almost work, though in this case the singer's inaudible rock'n'roll delivery scuppers comprehension anyway: "Come on lad - enunciate!" you feel like barking at the stereo. Some songs just plain couldn't give a damn about being translated, however - "Je T'Aime", for example, where the new rendition of the male (or second female) riposte "Moi non plus" as "Me either" is uglier and even less meaningful that previous attempts. (The puzzling non-sequitur "Moi Non Plus" is actually a reference to a celebrated quip by Salvador Dalí.)

If the art of Gainsbourg translation has yet to reach its apogee, there's still plenty of time: the 20th anniversary's another five years yet. Though other subjects are joining the queue as the new generation of Francophiles explores further into the huge repertoire of chanson. "I get young people now telling me they've just discovered these terrible kitsch pop singers I hated when I was young," says Jean-Daniel Beauvallet. "Have you heard Sheila, they say, or Claude François, they're fantastic! and I'm saying 'No! No! They're not!'" Don't knock Claude "Clo Clo" François, the Cliff Richard of the Seine, Jean-Daniel - Gainsbourg wasn't too fastidious to flog him a hit song nor indeed to call it "Hip! Hip! Hurrah!".

I confidently expect the cream of Brit pop to come up with an Homage to Clo Clo any day now.

'Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited' is released by Universal on 1 May. Liberty department store, London, W1 has an in-store exhibition of Gainsbourg photographs from 17 April to the end of May