Everybody knows that aside from Cherry 7-up, the best kind of pop is of the French variety. Our cousins across the channel just seem to have a knack for effortlessly knocking out pure crystalline pop music, from Petula Clark and Sacha Distel to ‘French House’ pioneers Daft Punk and Justice, right through to Air, Yelle and Sebastien Tellier. The snail-botherers just know how to push the right buttons and keep on churning out hits. However, it could be said that it one man in particular epitomises the effortless cool that, in the main, runs throughout French music. And that man is none other than the grande papa of Gallic pop, Monsieur Serge Gainsbourg – the louche genius who provides the focus for Joan Sfar’s biopic Gainsbourg.
The film offers a glimpse into the hazy world of the crooner, tracing his days as a ‘chanson‘ performer to his reinvention as the first modern star of French music. Despite looking like an amalgamation of Colin Murray, Roy Hodgson and Jim Rosenthal painted by Dali, Gainsbourg managed to frequently punch above his weight when it came to the ladies, counting the likes of English Rose Jane Birkin (played by the late Lucy Gordon in the movie) and Bridget Bardot amongst his conquests. The philanderer’s debauched antics meant he often rivalled Jagger and Morrison in the headonism steaks, propagating the sleazy mystique surrounding him with each incident.
However, Gainsbourg wasn’t just some drunken lush with a penchant for the ladies, he was also responsible for some of the greatest songs ever written. And for those of you unfamiliar with Serge’s output or unaware of his vast influence, we’ve been rather nice and produced our very own Dans Le Tele guide to Gainsbourg’s greatest pop moments. Écoute et regardé.
Cargo Culte – Histoire de Melody Nelson (1971)
One of many standout moments from Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melody Nelson – a concept album about knocking a teenage girl off her bike in his Rolls Royce and then seducing her. The languid funk and hushed vocals drip with Parisian sexiness as Serge croons about his wholly inappropriate love affair. The mucky sod. Gainsbourg’s squeeze, the delectable English actress Jane Birkin plays the role of the teen cyclist throughout the album. Sampled by Massive Attack on their rather ace 1995 single Karmacoma.
Ballade de Melody Nelson – Histoire de Melody Nelson (1971)
Taken from the same album, this funky bass driven ballad is as dark as it is sexy. The spoken word vocal delivery (Birkin’s in particular) and lush orchestral string arrangements make our pants warm. I just wished that I’d payed attention in GCSE French so I could tell you what they were on about. The official video was parodied to great effect by Flight of The Conchords in the episode ‘Girlfriends‘
Je t’aime – Jane Birkin Serge Gainsbourg (1969)
Perhaps the most well known Gainsbourg tune, the song actually caused public outrage upon its release in 1969. Gainsbourg’s erotic lyrics and Jane’s passionate whispering was too much for some and the song’s supposed “lewd” message led the BBC to ban it. The Vatican even saw fit to issue a statement condemning the immoral nature of the song. Of course, the free publicity rocketed it straight to the top of the charts, selling around a million copies just a few months. Just think of all the Gauloises he must have bought with the proceedes.
Les Papillons Noir – Duet with Michele Arnaud (1966)
Literally translated as The Black Butterflys, it doesn’t get better than this when it comes to Francophone. Weird orchestral ambience and primitive breakbeat drums give the uplifting pop vibes a foreboding edge. I challenge you to listen to this and not find yourself walking around the office/college/house intoning the infectious chorus. Altogether now “Les Papillion Noir…Les Papil….”.
Lemon Incest – Duet with Daughter Charlotte, Love on The Beat (1985)
The king of self-perpetuation, Gainsbourg touted controversy throughout his career with each outrage adding to the myth of the man. When you’ve already pissed off the Pope, made a concept album about Nazis and told Whitney Huston that you’d “like to fuck her” live on national television, where can you go next? How about a duet with your twelve year old daughter with an 80s Power/Paedo pop vibe in which she sings ambiguous lyrics seeming to refer to a physical love between an adult and a child? The resulting furore about the song an accompanying video (featuring a semi-naked Serge and Charlotte) again provided maximum exposure for professional agitator Gainsbourg.
Gainsbourg (15) is on general release now.