Only Connect, Barbican, London</br>Towers of London, Forum, London

The spirit of Serge is alive and smoking
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The Independent Culture

Serge Gainsbourg exists on the outskirts of the Anglo-Saxon imagination. Necessarily exiled by language, he invaded the British mainstream only once during his lifetime, with the banned No 1 hit "Je T'Aime (Moi Non Plus)", but in the 15 years since his death, his reputation among those in the know has risen steadily.

And so, when the Barbican announces a Gainsbourg-themed night as part of this year's Only Connect season of collaborations, it sells out rapidly, and the auditorium is filled with the sensation that we're all in on a wonderful secret.

When President Mitterand spoke at Gainsbourg's funeral, he called him "our Apollinaire, our Baudelaire." He might have added "our Dylan", maybe even "our Presley". Gainsbourg's complex appeal takes as much unpicking as any of those figures.

Born Lucien Ginzburg, the child of Russian Jews, Gainsbourg might not be the first candidate you'd expect to make light of the Third Reich, but that's exactly what he did (as his "Nazi Rock"attests). Sick, mischievous, subversive humour ran through his blood.

So did sick lust. The sexual politics of the self-proclaimed misogynist who evidently worshipped women are a riddle. He made the innocent France Gall sing "Les Sucettes" (a song that wasn't about lollipops at all) and his 13-year-old daughter Charlotte duet with him on a song called "Lemon Incest".

Ostensibly, it's the symphonic side of Gainsbourg's oeuvre which is being celebrated tonight. The key presence is that of the elegantly ruffled conductor Jean-Claude Vannier, collaborator on much of Gainsbourg's finest work. Leading the BBC Concert Orchestra, the Crouch End Singers, and a rock band featuring Herbie Flowers on bass, Vannier warms up with an assortment of pieces, notably "Cannabis".

Then, his multitude of musicians (I lose count at 80) perform a full classical symphony: L'Enfant Assassin Des Mouches, a psychedelic suite which Vannier, inspired by his work with Gainsbourg, recorded with a band under the name Les Insolitudes. Am I, a mere Rock & Pop critic, out of my depth? Yes and no. Musical onomatopoeia is one of the first things you're taught as a child andL'Enfant Assassin Des Mouches is filled with it, utilising such live sound effects as teaspoons in cups, a sewing machine, a blender, five out-of-phase metronomes, a small child tearing up pieces of paper, and the entire orchestra waving handkerchiefs and sneezing in unison. If music can be said to possess wit, Vannier's does, and it draws appreciative laughter.

After an interval, it's the main event: the first-ever live performance of L'Histoire de Melody Nelson, Gainsbourg's 1971 concept album about a young girl who falls in love with the older male driver who knocks her off her bicycle.

As the band recreate the louche lounge-funk of the record, a succession of guest vocalists stroll on and off. The first, Jarvis Cocker, makes total sense. If Gainsbourg's influence can be heard anywhere in British pop, it's in Pulp, particularly their spoken-word, sotto-voce moments ("Sheffield Sex City","Deep Fried in Kelvin", "F.E.E.L.I.N.G.-C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E"). Abetted by Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier, Cocker recites an English translation, with a piece of paper shaking in his hand.

Following Jarvis, Damon "Badly Drawn Boy" Gough doesn't quite nail the falsetto on "Ballade de Melody Nelson", but credit for trying. Next, there's an unnerving apparition. A spectral elderly French lady, wearing a witchy wig, too-tight lycra top, sleeve-gloves, flamenco skirt and kitten heels, throws melodramatic shapes with her arms, like a distressed silent movie heroine. She is, it transpires, Brigitte Fontaine, a veteran avant-garde singer.

Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals knows a thing or two about making pop music when your first language isn't English, but his gorgeous voice is wasted in a thematic passage mostly consisting of repeating the word "Melody". Bad Seed Mick Harvey is no singer, but since he's released two Gainsbourg covers CDs, they could hardly not invite him.

After a Chinese lady in a sparkling purple dress (we later learn she's jazz/opera singer Seaming To) giggles insanely for five minutes, Sadier and Fontaine return, reciting the plane-crash tale of "Cargo Culte" in the original French.

But it's Cocker's English translation which lives in the memory, revealing in turns the sheer poetry ("the Venus on top of my 1910 Silver Ghost, its diaphanous wings like an advance search party...") and base perversion ("I saw the body on the road, and couldn't help noticing that her skirt was hitched up to reveal white panties") of Serge Gainsbourg's songwriting genius.

By the time you read this, the first episode of Towers of London's reality series will have been screened by Bravo. The highlights, however, have been doing the rounds of You Tube for months;the sex, drugs and violence-packedtrailer shows a naked groupie bouncing up and down on an unnamed Tower's lap, and asking "What's your name again?"

It's this sort of behaviour which has landed Donny - the singer with the Rotten sneer - on the cover of The Daily Star on the morning of tonight's gig (supporting New York Dolls), with the headline "Dirty Don: Peaches, drugs and my 500 lovers". Supposedly, Peaches Geldof, who Donny has been dating, is heartbroken at his groupie-shagging exploits. In which case, why do we see none other than Ms Geldof shaking her blonde locks onstage tonight?

Towers of London are the street-dogs of rock'n'roll, a valuable extreme compass point of unrepentant insolence and excess-all-areas misbehaviour, but they also happen to be a truly thrilling, invigorating (and, invariably, thoroughly offensive) live band, and capable of writing exhilarating punch-the-air glam rock anthems like "Fuck it Up", "How Rude She Was" and "I'm a Rat". They're not remotely innovative. But that's not remotely relevant.

If tabloid notoriety, and an already-legendary TV series, are what it takes to finally catapult Towers to fame, everyone's a winner. Now, what d'you think about that?