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Serge Gainsbourg

Serge Gainsbourg

Serge Gainsbourg (born Lucien Ginsburg; French pronunciation: ?[s??? g?~sbu?\]; 2 April 1928 – 2 March 1991) was a French singer, songwriter, pianist, film composer, poet, painter, screenwriter, writer, actor and director. Regarded as one of the most important figures in French popular music, he was renowned for his often provocative and scandalous releases, as well as his diverse artistic output, which embodied genres ranging from jazz, mambo, world, chanson, pop and yé-yé, to rock and roll, progressive rock, reggae, electronic, disco and new wave. Gainsbourg's varied musical style and individuality make him difficult to categorize although his legacy has been firmly established and he is often regarded as one of the world's most influential popular musicians.His lyrical work incorporated a vast amount of clever word play to hoodwink the listener, often for humorous, provocative, satirical or subversive reasons. Common types of word play in his songs include mondegreen, onomatopoeia, rhyme, spoonerism, dysphemism, paraprosdokian and pun.Personal lifeHe was born Lucien Ginsburg in Paris, France, the son of Russian Jewish emigrants, Joseph Ginsburg (28 December 1898, Kharkov Ukraine – 22 April 1971) and Olga (née Bessman; 1894 – 16 March 1985), who fled to Paris after the 1917 Russian Revolution. He had a twin sister, Liliane. Joseph Ginsburg was a classically trained musician whose profession was playing the piano in cabarets and casinos; he taught his children to play the piano.Gainsbourg's childhood was profoundly affected by the occupation of France by Nazi Germany. The identifying “yellow star” Jews were mandated to wear became a symbol which haunted Gainsbourg and which in later years he was able to transmute into creative inspiration. During the Nazi occupation of World War II, the Jewish Ginsburg family was able to make their way from Paris to Limoges, traveling under false papers. Limoges was an unoccupied city, but under the administration of the collaborationist Vichy government and still a perilous refuge for Jews. At war’s end, Gainsbourg obtained work teaching music and drawing in a school outside of Paris, in Mesnil-Le-Roi. The school was set up under the auspices of local rabbis for the orphaned children of murdered deportees. Here Gainsbourg heard the accounts of Nazi persecution and genocide, stories that resonated for Gainsbourg far into the future. Before he was 30 years old, Gainsbourg was a disillusioned painter, but earned his living as a piano player in bars.Gainsbourg changed his first name to Serge feeling that this was representative of his Russian background and because, as Jane Birkin relates: “Lucien reminded him of a hairdresser's assistant.” He chose Gainsbourg as his last name in homage to the English painter Thomas Gainsborough, whom he admired.He first married Elisabeth "Lize" Levitsky on 3 November 1951, and divorced her in 1957. He married a second time on 7 January 1964, to Françoise-Antoinette "Béatrice" Pancrazzi (b. 28 July 1931), with whom he had two children: a daughter named Natacha (b. 8 August 1964) and a son, Paul (born in spring 1968). He divorced Béatrice in February 1966.In late 1967 he had a short but ardent love affair with Brigitte Bardot, to whom he dedicated the song and album Initials BB.In mid-1968 Gainsbourg fell in love with the younger English singer and actress Jane Birkin, whom he met during the shooting of the film Slogan. Their relationship lasted over a decade. In 1971 they had a daughter, the actress and singer Charlotte Gainsbourg. Although many sources state that they were married, according to their daughter Charlotte this was not the case. Birkin left Gainsbourg in 1980.Birkin remembers the beginning of her affair with Gainsbourg: he first took her to a nightclub, then to a transvestite club and afterwards to the Hilton hotel, where he passed out in a drunken stupor. Birkin left Gainsbourg when pregnant with her third daughter, Lou, by the film director Jacques Doillon.His last partner was Bambou (Caroline Paulus, grandniece of Field marshal Friedrich Paulus). In 1986 they had a son, Lucien (known as Lulu).

Early work

His early songs were influenced by Boris Vian and were largely in the vein of old-fashioned chanson. Very early, however, Gainsbourg began to move beyond this and experiment with a succession of musical styles: jazz early on, pop in the 1960s, funk, rock and reggae in the 1970s, and electronica in the 1980s.Many of his songs contained themes with a morbid or sexual twist in them. An early success, "Le Poinçonneur des Lilas", describes the day in the life of a Paris Métro ticket man whose job it is to stamp holes in passengers' tickets. Gainsbourg describes this chore as so monotonous that the man eventually thinks of putting a hole into his own head and being buried in another.By the time the yéyés arrived to France, Gainsbourg was 32 years old and was not feeling very comfortable: he spent much time with Jacques Brel or Juliette Greco, but the public and critics rejected him, mocking his prominent ears and nose. During this period, Gainsbourg began working with Greco, a collaboration that lasted throughout the 'Left Bank' period culminating in the song 'La Javanaise' in the fall of 1962.He performed a few duets in 1964 with the artist Philippe Clay, with whom he shared some resemblance.Around this time, Gainsbourg met Elek Bacsik and Michel Gaudry and asked them to make a record with him. This would become Confidentiel, which exuded a modern jazz aesthetic that pleased Gainsbourg, despite knowing that such a sound would not allow him access to success. The album sold only 1,500 copies. The decision was taken right upon leaving the studio: "I'll get into hack work and buy myself a Rolls". Still, his next album, Gainsbourg Percussions, inspired by the rhythms and melodies of Miriam Makeba and Babatunde Olatunji, was a world away from the yéyé wave on the scene which was to become a key to the Gainsbourg fortune.More success began to arrive when, in 1965, his song "Poupée de cire, poupée de son" was the Luxembourg entry in the Eurovision Song Contest. Performed by French teen and charming singer France Gall, it won first prize. The song was recorded in English as "A Lonely Singing Doll" by British teen idol Twinkle.His next song for Gall, "Les Sucettes" ("Lollipops"), caused a scandal in France: Gainsbourg had written the song with double-meanings and strong sexual innuendo, of which the singer was apparently unaware when she recorded it. Whereas Gall thought that the song was about a girl enjoying lollipops, it was really about oral sex. The controversy arising from the song, although a big hit for Gall, threw her career off-track in France for several years.Gainsbourg arranged other Gall songs and LPs that were characteristic of the late 1960s psychedelic styles, among them Gall's 1968 album. Another of Serge's songs "Boum Bada Boum" was entered in by Monaco in the 1967 contest, sung by Minouche Barelli; it came fifth. He also wrote hit songs for other artists, such as "Comment Te Dire Adieu" for Françoise Hardy.In 1969, he released "Je t'aime... moi non plus", which featured explicit lyrics and simulated sounds of female orgasm. The song appeared that year on an LP, Jane Birkin/Serge Gainsbourg. Originally recorded with Brigitte Bardot, it was released with future girlfriend Birkin when Bardot backed out. While Gainsbourg declared it the "ultimate love song," it was considered too "hot"; the song was censored or banned from public broadcast in numerous countries, and in France even the toned-down version was suppressed. The Vatican made a public statement citing the song as offensive. However, despite or perhaps because of all the controversy, it sold well and charted within the top ten in many European countries.

The 1970s

Histoire de Melody Nelson was released in 1971. This concept album, produced and arranged by Jean-Claude Vannier, tells the story of a Lolita-esque affair, with Gainsbourg as the narrator. It features prominent string arrangements and even a massed choir at its tragic climax. The album has proven influential with artists such as Air, David Holmes, Jarvis Cocker, Beck and Dan the Automator.In 1975, he released the album Rock Around the Bunker, a rock album written entirely on the subject of the Nazis. Gainsbourg used black comedy, as he and his family suffered during World War II. While a child in Paris, Gainsbourg had worn the yellow badge as the mark of a Jew. Rock Around the Bunker belonged in the mid-1970s "retro" trend.The next year saw the release of another major work, L'Homme à tête de chou (Cabbage-Head Man), featuring the new character Marilou and sumptuous orchestral themes. Cabbage-Head Man is one of his nicknames, as it refers to his ears. Musically, L'homme à tête de chou turned out to be Gainsbourg's last LP in the English rock style he had favoured since the late 1960s. He would go on to produce two reggae albums recorded in Jamaica (1979 and 1981) and two electronic funk albums recorded in New York (1984 and 1987).In Jamaica in 1979, he recorded "Aux Armes et cætera", a reggae version of the French national anthem "La Marseillaise", with Robbie Shakespeare, Sly Dunbar, and Rita Marley. Following harsh and anti-semitic criticism in right-wing newspaper Le Figaro by Charles de Gaulle biographer Michel Droit, his song earned him death threats from right-wing veteran soldiers of the Algerian War of Independence who were opposed to their national anthem being arranged in reggae style. In 1979, a show had to be cancelled because an angry mob of French Army parachutists came to demonstrate in the audience. Alone onstage, Gainsbourg rose his fist and answered "The true meaning of our national anthem is revolutionary" and sung it with the audience. The soldiers joined them, a scene enjoyed by millions as French TV news broadcast it, creating more publicity. Shortly afterward, Gainsbourg bought the original manuscript of "La Marseillaise". He replied to his critics that his version was, in fact, closer to the original as the manuscript clearly shows the words "Aux armes et cætera..." for the chorus. This fine album, described by legendary drummer Sly Dunbar as "Perhaps the best record he ever played on" was his biggest commercial success, including major hits Lola Rastaquouère, Aux Armes Et Cætera and a French version of Sam Theard's jazz classic You Rascal You entitled Vieille Canaille. Rita Marley and the I-Three would record another controversial reggae album with him in 1981, Mauvaises nouvelles des étoiles. Bob Marley was furious when he discovered that Gainsbourg made his wife Rita sing erotic lyrics. Posthumous new mixes, including dub versions by Soljie Hamilton and versions of both albums by Jamaican artists were released as double "Dub Style" albums in 2003 to critical praise in France as well as abroad and to international commercial success. Although belatedly, Aux Armes Et Cætera - Dub Style and Mauvaises Nouvelles Des Étoiles - Dub Style further established the late Serge Gainsbourg as an influential icon in European pop music.

Final years

In 1982, Gainsbourg wrote an album for French rocker Alain Bashung, Play blessures. The album, although now considered a masterpiece by French critics, was a commercial failure.After a turbulent 13-year-long relationship, Jane Birkin left Gainsbourg. In the 1980s, near the end of his life, Gainsbourg became a regular figure on French TV. His appearances seemed devoted to his controversial sense of humour and provocation. In March 1984, he burned three-quarters of a 500 French franc bill on television to protest against taxes raising up to 75% of income.He would show up drunk and unshaven on stage: in April 1986, in Michel Drucker's live Saturday evening show with the American singer Whitney Houston, he objected to Drucker's translating his comments to Whitney Houston and in English stated: "I said, I want to fuck her" - Drucker insisted this meant "He says you are great..." The same year, in another talk show interview, he appeared alongside Catherine Ringer, a well known singer who had appeared in pornographic films. Gainsbourg spat out at her, "You're nothing but a filthy whore, a filthy, fucking whore". Ringer scolded back, "Look at you, you're just a bitter old alcoholic. I used to admire you but these days you've become a disgusting old parasite".His songs became increasingly eccentric during this period, ranging from the anti-drug "Aux Enfants de la Chance" to the highly controversial duet with his daughter Charlotte named "Lemon Incest". This translates as "Inceste de citron", a wordplay on "un zeste de citron" (a lemon zest). The title demonstrates Gainsbourg's love for puns – another example of which is Beau oui comme Bowie, a song he gave to Isabelle Adjani.By December 1988, while a judge at a film festival in Val d'Isère, he was extremely intoxicated at a local theatre where he was to do a presentation. While on stage he began to tell an obscene story about Brigitte Bardot and a champagne bottle, only to stagger offstage and collapse in a nearby seat. Subsequent years saw his health deteriorate. He had to undergo liver surgery, but denied any connection to cancer or cirrhosis. His appearances and releases became sparser as he had to rest and recover in Vezelay. During these final years, he released Love on the Beat, a controversial electronic album with mostly sexual themes in the lyrics, and his last studio album, You're Under Arrest, presented more synth-driven songs.

Film work

In 1960, Gainsbourg co-starred with Rhonda Fleming in the Italian film La Rivolta Degli Schiavi (The Revolt of the Slaves) as Corvino, the Roman Emperor Massimiano's evil henchman. In 1969, he appeared in William Klein's pop art satire Mister Freedom, and in the same year he starred with Jane Birkin in Les Chemins de Katmandou (The Pleasure Pit). He also made a brief appearance with Birkin in Herbert Vesely's 1980 film, Egon Schiele Exzess und Bestrafung. He co-starred alongside Birkin in the French movie "Slogan", for which he wrote the title song "La chanson de slogan". Also with Birkin, he acted in the French-Yugoslavian film "Devetnaest djevojaka i jedan mornar" (19 girls and one sailor), where he had a role of a partisan man.Gainsbourg directed four movies: Je t'aime ... moi non plus, Équateur, Charlotte for Ever, and Stan the Flasher.Throughout his career, Gainsbourg wrote the soundtracks for nearly sixty films and television programs. In 1996, he received a posthumous César Award for Best Music Written for a Film for Élisa, along with Zbigniew Preisner and Michel Colombier.


Gainsbourg wrote a novel entitled Evguénie Sokolov.

Death and legacy

Gainsbourg died on 2 March 1991 of a heart attack. He was buried in the Jewish lot of the Montparnasse Cemetery, in Paris. His funeral brought Paris to a standstill, and French President François Mitterrand said of him, "He was our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire... He elevated the song to the level of art." His home at the well-known address 5bis rue de Verneuil is still covered in graffiti and poems.Since his death, Gainsbourg's music has reached legendary stature in France. His lyrical brilliance in French has left an extraordinary legacy. His music, always progressive, covered many styles: jazz, ballads, mambo, lounge, reggae, pop (including adult contemporary pop, kitsch pop, yé-yé pop, '80s pop, pop-art pop, prog pop, space-age pop, psychedelic pop, and erotic pop), funk, disco, calypso, Africana, bossa nova, and rock and roll. He has gained a following in the English-speaking world with many non-mainstream artists finding his arrangements highly influential.One of the most frequent interpreters of Gainsbourg's songs was British singer Petula Clark, whose success in France was propelled by her recordings of his tunes. In 2003, she wrote and recorded La Chanson de Gainsbourg as a tribute to the composer of some of her biggest hits.His lyrics are collected in the volume Dernières nouvelles des étoiles.

Film biopic

A feature film titled Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque) was released in France in January 2010, which is based on the graphic novel by the writer-director of the film, Joann Sfar. Gainsbourg is portrayed by Eric Elmosnino and Kacey Mottet Klein. The film was awarded 3 César Awards, including Best Actor for Elmosnino, and nominated for an additional 8.

Covers and tributes

  • In 1964, Gainsbourg himself did covers of Babatunde Olatunji's drum-heavy tunes "Kiyakiya (Why Do You Run Away?)", "Akiwowo (Chant to the Trainman)" and "Jin-go-lo-ba" which are featured on Olatunji's acclaimed Drums of Passion LP (1959). They appeared, with new French lyrics but otherwise identical in rhythm, melody and overall sound, as "Joanna", "New York – U.S.A." and "Marabout", respectively, on the "Gainsbourg Percussions" album – without any credit given to Olatunji.
  • One of the celebrating events of the Year of France in Brazil was a concert in September 2009 called "Gainsbourg Imperial", an event celebrating the music of Serge Gainsbourg. It was performed by Brazilian Samba Big Band Orquestra Imperial, having French maestro Jean-Claude Vannier, English singer Jane Birkin and Brazilian musician and singer Caetano Veloso as special guests.
  • Steve Wynn (formerly of The Dream Syndicate) recorded "Bonnie and Clyde" as a duet with Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde on his 1992 solo album, Dazzling Display.
  • Belinda Carlisle covered "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Contact" on her 2007 French language album Voila.
  • Giddle & Boyd (Giddle Partridge and Boyd Rice) covered "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Contact" on their 2008 EP Going Steady with Peggy Moffitt.
  • The first English-language version of a Gainsbourg song was Dionne Warwick's 1965 version of "Mamadou".
  • Australian rock musician Mick Harvey released two CDs of Gainsbourg's songs translated into English. Of particular note is "To All the Lucky Kids (Aux Enfants De La Chance)" on Pink Elephants.
  • Gainsbourg's song "Bonnie and Clyde" is featured in the burlesque show scene of Rush Hour 3 and in the romantic film Laurel Canyon starring Christian Bale and Kate Beckinsale.
  • American indie rock band Luna included a cover of "Bonnie and Clyde" as a hidden track on their 1995 album Penthouse, and their 2001 Luna Live album features a live performance of the song.
  • American artist Angel Corpus Christi merged "Je t'aime ... moi non plus" with Lou Reed's "I Wanna Boogie With You" and recorded it as a duet with Dean Wareham.
  • Swedish band Sambassadeur covers "La Chanson de Prevert" in French on their self-titled debut album.
  • Okkervil River covers "Je suis venu te dire que je m'en vais" in English ("I Came Here to Say I'm Going Away").
  • Arcade Fire covered "Poupée de cire, poupée de Son" and also released it as a split 7" single with LCD Soundsystem.
  • Beirut often covers "La Javanaise" in their live sets and it is included in the live album Live at the Music Hall of Williamsburg (2009).
  • Australian pop singer-songwriter Kylie Minogue extensively sampled his duet with Brigitte Bardot "Bonnie and Clyde" on the song "Sensitized" off her 2007 album X. In 2003, she sampled "Je t'aime... moi non plus" in a modified version of her song "Breathe" (which originally did not contain any samples) for a special one-off live performance at the Hammersmith Apollo in promotion of her album Body Language.
  • French rapper MC Solaar sampled "Bonnie and Clyde" in his song "Nouveau Western" on his 1994 album Prose Combat. Renegade Soundwave released "Renegade Soundwave" with the same sample at the same time.
  • Irish musician David Holmes covered "Cargo Culte" in his song "Don't Die Just Yet" on his 1997 album Let's Get Killed.
  • American emcee Princess Superstar sampled the melody of the songs "Melody" and "Cargo Culte" in the song "You Get Mad At Napster" on her album Princess Superstar Is.
  • The Welsh comedy-rap band Goldie Lookin Chain extensively sampled the title track of Gainsbourg's Cannabis film soundtrack for their single "Your Missus Is a Nutter".
  • In 1997 Tzadik records released a tribute to Gainsbourg in their Great Jewish Composers series. The album includes covers by John Zorn, Medeski, Martin and Wood, Mike Patton, Fred Frith, Ikue Mori, Marc Ribot and Cyro Baptista.
  • On the HBO show Flight of the Conchords, the sequence for the song "A Kiss is Not a Contract" is a tribute to Gainsbourg's video for "Ballade de Melody Nelson".
  • The track "Serge" on The Herbaliser's album Take London is about a chance encounter with Gainsbourg 3 days before his death.
  • Black Grape's "A Big Day in the North" is based on a sample taken from Initials B.B. and also features samples from "Ford Mustang".
  • In the film High Fidelity, when a pair of punks steals from Rob Gordon's record store, one of the things they stole was a Serge Gainsbourg record.
  • American hip hop duo The Beatnuts sampled "Melody" on their track "Superbad" off their album The Beatnuts LP.
  • Nick Cave sang a duet of "I love you nor do I" with his longtime girlfriend Anita Lane. So did Barry Adamson with Anita in 1993 on his release The Negro inside Me with "Je t'aime ... Moi non plus".
  • Trumpet player Erik Truffaz did a jazz remake of "Je t'aime, moi non plus".
  • Australian psychedelic band Tame Impala covered "Bonnie and Clyde" in their 2011 tour of Europe.
  • American hip hop band De La Soul sampled "Les Oubliettes" and "En Melody" on their second album De La Soul Is Dead released in 1991.
  • In 2005, the album Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited was released by Virgin Records. The album consisted of specially-recorded English-language cover versions of Gainsbourg's songs, recorded by artists as diverse as Franz Ferdinand, Portishead, Placebo, Marc Almond, Michael Stipe, Cat Power, Karen Elson, Jarvis Cocker, Kid Loco, Faultline, Françoise Hardy, Tricky, Marianne Faithfull, Sly and Robbie, Gonzales, Feist, Dani, Trash Palace, The Rakes, The Kills, Carla Bruni, James Iha, Kazu Makino, Nina Persson and Nathan Larson.
  • Brazilian musician and former Titãs member Ciro Pessoa wrote a song in honor of Gainsbourg, named "Até os Anos 70" ("To the 1970s"). It is present in his 2003 album No Meio da Chuva Eu Grito "Help".
  • In 1994, Malcolm McLaren recorded a version of "Je t'aime ... moi non plus" for his album Paris
  • On the American television drama series Mad Men, the song "Couleur café" was reworked into a jingle for a coffee company in the episode "The Gold Violin" from season 2. The song "Bonnie and Clyde" also featured prominently in the 6th season episode "To Have and to Hold".
  • Slovenian industrial music band Laibach covered song “Love on the Beat” on their latest album Spectre in 2014.


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