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Serge Gainsbourg

Serge Gainsbourg (2 April 1928 – 2 March 1991) was a French poet, singer-songwriter, actor and director. Gainsbourg's varied musical style and individuality made him difficult to categorize. His legacy has been firmly established, and he is often regarded as one of the world's most influential musicians.


Personal life

He was born Lucien Ginsburg in Paris, France, the son of Russian Jewish parents who fled to France after the 1917 Bolshevik uprising. His childhood was profoundly affected by the occupation of France by Nazi Germany, during which he and his family, as Jews, were forced to wear the yellow star and eventually flee Paris.

Before he was 30 years old, Gainsbourg was a disillusioned painter but earned his living as a piano player in bars.

He had a daughter, actress Charlotte, with English singer and actress Jane Birkin; and a son, Lucien (best known as Lulu), with his last partner, Bambou (Caroline von Paulus, who is related to Friedrich Paulus).

Birkin states "Serge could only show love for his child if there was a camera there to record it. He was very shy.

Birkin recollects the beginning of her affair with Gainsbourg , where he first took her to a nightclub, then to a transvestite club and afterwards to the Hilton, where he passed out in a drunken stupor. He confessed to Birkin that he had been scared of Bardot's breasts. Gainsbourg married Birkin when she was 19, he was 36. Birkin left Gainsbourg when pregnant with her third daughter Lou, by the film director Jacques Doillon, whom she later married.

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 different musical styles: jazz early on, pop in the 1960s, 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.

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 singer France Gall, it won first prize. (The song was covered 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 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 in various countries, and in France even the toned-down version was suppressed. The Vatican made a public statement citing the song as offensive. It reached no. 1 in the UK singles chart.

The seventies

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 and Jane Birkin as the eponymous English heroine. 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 humour, 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 1978 he recorded "Aux Armes et cetera," a reggae version of the French national anthem "La Marseillaise," with Robbie Shakespeare, Sly Dunbar, and Rita Marley. This song earned him death threats from right-wing veterans of the Algerian War of Independence who were opposed to certain lyrics. Bob Marley was furious when he discovered Gainsbourg made his wife Rita Marley sing erotic lyrics.Shortly afterward, Gainsbourg bought the original manuscript of "La Marseillaise." He was able to reply 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.

The next year saw him in the new look of Gainsbarre, officially introduced in the song "Ecce Homo."

Final years

After a 13 year long turbulent relationship Jane Birkin left Gainsbourg. In the 1980s, approaching 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, while this was illegal and highly offending, he burned a 500 French franc note on television to protest against heavy taxation. 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 exclaimed to the host, "I want to fuck her." The same year, in another talk show interview he appeared alongside Catherine Ringer, a well known singer who in the past had appeared in pornographic films. Gainsbourg shouted, "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."

By December, 1988, while a judge at a film festival in Val d'Isère, he appeared drunk and in a rage 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 - although he denied any connection to cancer or cirrhosis. His appearances and releases become 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, which was a collaboration with Larry Fast, presented more synth-driven songs.

His songs became increasingly eccentric during this period, ranging from the anti-drug "Aux Enfants de la Chance" to the duet with his daughter Charlotte named "Lemon Incest." This translates as "Inceste de citron", a wordplay on "un zeste de citron" (a tang of lemon). The title demonstrates Gainsbourg's love for puns (another example of which is Beau oui comme Bowie, a song he gave to Isabelle Adjani).

Film work

During his career, he wrote the soundtracks for more than 40 films. In 1996, he received a César Award for Best Music Written for a Film for Élisa, along with Zbigniew Preisner and Michel Colombier.

He directed four movies: Je t'aime... moi non plus, Équateur, Charlotte For Ever and Stan The Flasher.

Death and legacy

Gainsbourg died on 2 March 1991 of a heart attack. He was buried in 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), 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.

He is also considered to be one of the first music pop artists of the late 1960s. While artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein explored modern iconographic consumer culture through painting, Gainsbourg explored similar territory in music with songs such as "Comic Strip," "Ford Mustang," "Qui est In Qui est Out," and "Teenie Weenie Boppie."

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.

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, and Michael Stipe.

Covers and tributes

  • 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 worth of Gainsbourg's songs translated into English.
  • Placebo did a cover of Gainsbourg's "The Ballad Of Melody Nelson".
  • Gainsbourg's song "Bonnie and Clyde" is featured in the burlesque show scene of Rush Hour 3.
  • American alt-rock band Luna included a cover of "Bonnie and Clyde" as a hidden track on their 1995 album Penthouse.
  • 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.
  • Senegalese French rapper MC Solaar sampled Serge Gainsbourg & Brigitte Bardot's song "Bonnie & Clyde" in his song "Nouveau Western", on his 1994 album, Prose Combat
  • Okkervil River covers "Je suis venu te dire que je m'en vais" in English ("I Came Here To Say I'm Going Away").
  • Jarvis Cocker has also covered the above mentioned song, but named it "I Just Came To Tell You That I'm Going" instead.
  • The Arcade Fire covers Poupée de cire, poupée de Son and also released it as a split 7" single with LCD Soundsystem (covering Joy Division's No Love Lost on their side).


  • Serge Gainsbourg only wore Repetto jazz shoes for the last 20 years of his life.



  • 1958: Du chant à la une
  • 1959: Disque N°2
  • 1961: L'Étonnant Serge Gainsbourg
  • 1962: Disque N°4
  • 1963: Gainsbourg Confidentiel
  • 1964: Gainsbourg Percussions
  • 1967: Anna
  • 1967: Gainsbourg & Brigitte Bardot: Bonnie & Clyde
  • 1968: Gainsbourg & Brigitte Bardot: Initials B.B.
  • 1968: Ce Sacré Grand-Père
  • 1969: Jane Birkin/Serge Gainsbourg
  • 1970: Cannabis
  • 1971: Histoire de Melody Nelson
  • 1974: Vu de l'extérieur
  • 1975: Rock Around the Bunker
  • 1976: L'Homme à tête de chou
  • 1979: Aux armes et cætera
  • 1980: Enregistrement public au Théâtre Le Palace
  • 1981: Mauvaises nouvelles des étoiles
  • 1984: Love On The Beat
  • 1985: Serge Gainsbourg live (Casino de Paris)
  • 1987: You're Under Arrest
  • 1988: Le Zénith de Gainsbourg
  • 1989: De Gainsbourg à Gainsbarre (Box Set)
  • 1997: Great Jewish Music: Serge Gainsbourg (Tribute album)
  • 2001: Gainsbourg Forever (Integral Box Set)
  • 2001: Le Cinéma de Gainsbourg (Box Set)
  • 2001: I Love Serge: Electronicagainsbourg (Remix album)
  • 2005: Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited (Tribute album)




  • Serge Gainsbourg: View From The Exterior by Alan Clayson (1998). Sanctuary. ISBN 9781860742224

External links

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