[16 September 2010]
Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin can be viewed as everything from lecherous slob and naïve posh tart to the cult couple of the late 20th century. Neither of these extremes should obscure his musical experimentation and her role as muse and collaborator. While Histoire De Melody Nelson is the best album bearing either of their names, Jane Birkin/Serge Gainsbourg is unbridled, sophisticated fun and has deservedly come to be called after its most important song, “Je T’Aime…Mon Non Plus”, a genuine pop classic and one of the best 45s ever released.
After attempting painting, Gainsbourg was a singer in the chanson style by the 1960s and a songwriter who penned the winning entry to the Eurovision Song Contest in 1965, “Poupée de cire, poupée de son”, performed by France Gall. In 1967, he wrote Monaco’s “Boum Bada Boum” (sung by Minouche Barelli), which finished fifth at Eurovision. Further momentum came from English pop teen Twinkle covering “Poupée”, Gainsbourg writing for the divine Françoise Hardy, and having his songs recorded by Petula Clark. Another hit for Gall caused scandal; “Les Sucettes” (“Lollipops”) was an early glimpse into his love of the double entendre, with a girl sucking a lollipop/popsicle barely concealing the theme of fellatio.
Gall’s embarrassment was as nothing compared to the moral panic which accompanied the 1969 release of “Je T’Aime…”. While the original 1966 recording with Brigitte Bardot would not (at her request) see the light of day until 1986, the version with Birkin was banned in a long list of countries, condemned as salacious muck by the Pope, and a worldwide smash hit (the UK chart even had versions on two labels after Fontana got nervous). “Je T’Aime…” was perfect for discotheques and boutiques: a gorgeous mixture of a light, hook-laden tune and breathless suggestive cooing that remains unmatched. It’s not for me to say what is or isn’t obscene, but the song has an insistent bass line, a slapped guitar chord, and a delicate balance of romance and passion that is neither sordid nor sentimental. “Je T’Aime…” conjures the cultural perfume of 1960s Europe as easily as the phallic design of an E-type Jaguar, a mazy run by George Best, the organ sound from “A Whiter Shade of Pale” (which it partially resembles), a photo of the uncovered legs of the mini-skirted Jean Shrimpton, or the very words St. Tropez.
According to the booklet accompanying this Light in the Attic reissue, the rest of the Jane Birkin/Serge Gainsbourg album was hastily written by Gainsbourg at the request of label bosses who felt they’d as soon be hung for a whole album as for a single. To some extent, this shows, as other tracks are not always at the level of the author of “Bonnie and Clyde” and other classics, and yet this also remains sophisticated, timeless pop music. “69 Année Érotique” is marvelous, all swirling strings studded with thumping bass and the obvious pun proclaimed loud and clear. “Les Sucettes” is also reprised with Serge on vocals, and “Jane B.”, wherein Birkin introduces herself by way of describing some of her attributes—“blue eyes, brown hair, pale complexion, aquiline nose, missing this morning, at four-forty”—has its charms. In all honesty, I have no desire to ever again hear her wail and whisper her way through “Orang Outang”, and yet on tracks such as “Sous Le Soleil Exactement”, her high dreamy vocals are the perfect counterpart to Gainsbourg’s deep, throaty—sorry, couldn’t resist—voice, which is mixed to be right up close to the listener. The arrangements by Arthur Greenslade are excellent and there are plenty of glimpses of the experimentation which would be a feature of Gainsbourg’s music. (This re-master comes with an added track “Le Chanson du Slogan”, from the movie where the couple met as actors, and a booklet featuring photos and lyric translations.)
Birkin’s father was a British military man involved with the French resistance, but her mother was in the theatre, so her upbringing was around such people as film director Carol Reed, “Gypsy” Rose Lee, and the genius wag Noel Coward. So perhaps, even at 17, she was less naïve than most girls. At any rate, she appeared in the first full-frontal scene in British cinema, and she and Gainsbourg spent 13 years together. In his prolific career, Gainsbourg wrote a novel, starred in and directed movies, composed a slew of film soundtracks, and released music that would move from jazz and pop to reggae and electronic influences. On one album, he would reference his Jewish background from a Nazi perspective, and on another…well, it’s called Cannabis. In later years, Gainsbourg could seem a parody of a rebel, burning 500-franc bills on TV, approaching Whitney Houston in a lewd and leering manner, recording “Lemon Incest”—a wordplay on “un zeste de citron” (“a tang of lemon”)—with his daughter. Yet it seems his warts-and-all Peter Lorre-meets-Shane MacGowan magnetism blew handsome narcissists out of the water, and his nicknames for himself, Cabbage-Head Man and Cainsbarre, suggested he knew, embraced, and mimicked his faults.
A word of warning here: Yes, Serge Gainsbourg, the oft-unshaven, always brazen son of Russian Jews, became an unlikely hero for the stereotypically glamorous and stylish French. They may have recently fallen hard for Englishman Hugh Laurie, embracing everything from his ignored novel to his portrayal of the disheveled, pill-popping, straight-talking anti-hero on House, but let’s not try this at home, eh, chaps? At least not without genuine talent to go along with the boorish exterior! Beyond France, the Gainsbourg tribute concerts and recordings and covers continue apace. I suspect this will only increase as his music and style definitely manage to transcend the reality of a mere taboo-crunching addict.
Meanwhile, although views of the effect of the 1960s on gender and sexual politics, social and political change may depend upon one’s age and geographical location, few would deny that Birkin and Gainsbourg did their bit for musical revolution. Personally, I didn’t hear “Je T’Aime…” until around 1970-71 at a lunchtime dance at my high school played after three-quarters of an hour of various Motown tracks, Free, Atomic Rooster, and such like. The teacher on duty looked suitably confused as the moaning began, but what I recall is the melody burning into my brain for all time. It survives as the best banned pop single from 1960-70s Europe, outstripping the Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” (which relied on some of its power partly for being released during the 1977 Silver Jubilee) and McCartney’s “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” (also played at my school in morning chapel/assembly), which, despite its radical message, was musically dull. As a composition, “Je T’Aime…” easily surpasses Max Romeo’s “Wet Dream”, with its crude command to “lie down girl let me…push it up…push it up,” which you are doubtless seeking out at this very moment. Rumors that Gainsbourg and Birkin were intimate during the actual recording have since proven true: Serge was aiding Jane’s performance from 300 feet away, waving his arms to help by signaling when she should stop breathing and moaning.
Now that’s romance.