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World Music Legends

Serge Gainsbourg

By Chris Nickson
Published October 9, 2005

French

One country’s cultural icon can be a source of bemusement for others. Take Serge Gainsbourg, for example. He was so idolized in his native France that the whole country mourned after his death in 1991, at the age of 62. Elsewhere people just shook their heads—if he was remembered at all, it was for his orgasmic hit with partner Jane Birkin on “Je T’Aime… Moi Non Plus.”

            In fact, that wasn’t the first version of the famous song. That had come in 1967, with Gainsbourg and film icon Brigitte Bardot. By then Gainsbourg was already well-known in his homeland as a songwriter who’d composed hits for many but still sought stardom for himself.

            Born Lucien Ginzburg in Paris in 1928, he’d learned classical piano and Gypsy guitar as a child. His original intention was to be an artist, but he abandoned that for songwriting, changing his name to Serge Gainsbourg—Serge for its Russian connotations, Gainsbourg because of his admiration for British painter Gainsborough.

            He released his first album in 1958, a slightly jazzy affair with smart, sometimes cynical lyrics. But when rock ’n’ roll arrived in France, it turned his world upside down. After almost quitting music, he decided to record in England, which proved a great artistic success. There was even an early foray into world music on 1964’s Gainsbourg Percussions.

            While his LPs found a small audience, his writing, often to order, gained much wider acceptance. There was a Eurovision Song Contest-winning piece for Luxembourg, a musical…and then there was “Je T’Aime…Moi Non Plus,” made when he was 40 and Birkin 20.

            That was followed by a concept disc, Histoire De Melody Nelson, on which Gainsbourg and Birkin, now a couple, worked together again. Next came Rock Around The Bunker, where the Nazis met rock, and good taste lay by the wayside. More successful (at least artistically) was 1976’s L’Homme A Tête Du Chou, after which he toured—ever the iconoclast—with a French punk band, Bijou.

            While no stranger to controversy, he fell smack into the spotlight of outrage with his next disc, 1979’s Aux Armes Et

Recommended Recordings

 

Gainsbourg Percussions (Universal International)

Histoire De Melody Nelson (PolyGram International)

Aux Armes Et Caetera (PolyGram International)