Serge Gainsbourg made ugliness work in all its guises. As he said himself, “ugliness is, in a way, superior to beauty, because it endures.” If ever a man was synonymous with an inanimate object, it would Serge and the burning cigarette that was perpetually hanging out of his mouth. Much like the cigarette, he was smouldering, ashy, bad for you and unapologetic, but indelibly entwined with culture and stood as an ineffable fuck you to some undefined established constitution. Gainsbourg was a man who had no cares for genre, decency or timidity, and he made controversy seem like a benign companion.
He traversed the paths of various French underground movements in his early career before arriving at rock and roll in his early 40s. His music was so rich and varied, in fact, that the only justifiable way to introduce his work is as an iconoclastic embodiment of the man himself. Regardless of whether he was writing jazz, chanson, rock, funk, reggae or electronica, there remains a certain je ne sais quoi that is unmistakably Serge.
Admittedly I don’t speak French, but words like Nazi and orgasmic groans are the same in every language, and they reside prolifically within his craft. These jarringly provocative utterances punctuate his pleasant melodies with a sense of immediacy and a strange sort of squirming discomfort that proves engaging throughout his work.
Despite being described by one French journalist as looking “like a drowsy turtle”, he was a sort of counterculture sex icon. A large swathe of his work seems to feature a scantily clad actress or singer draped over his shoulder and purring along with his baritone slur. This stylistic choice heralded a new age for the scruffily sartorial songsmith as he abandoned the stuffy old chanson scene and foraged into the more seductive circuit of rock and roll. By the mid-1960s, he had arrived at his niche. Songs like ‘Bonnie And Clyde’ and the eponymous soundtrack to sex scenes ‘Je T’aime Moi Non Plus’ — a piece so gloriously lewd and overt that it seems like some imagined take on sexual encounters by a romantic midlife virgin – were true acts of originality and captured the daring spirit of the zeitgeist.
It was in this rock and roll realm that he forged his name in France and beyond, breaking out of the new wave and establishing himself as one of the most divisive and emblematic songwriters of the mid 20th century. Here’s a look at the six best places to start with the le suprême’s sultry back catalogue.
Serge Gainsbourg’s six definitive songs:
‘Bonnie And Clyde’
Not to dismiss his early jazz work offhand, but if you want to do a deep dive in time, then the old swinging stuff is there for you to enjoy. However, to start with his jazz work in a list that only explores six songs is like visiting Paris and never escaping the catacombs. The casual free-hand stylings of his early output certainly influenced everything that was to come thereafter, but it wasn’t until the mid-60s that his dark stare fell into focus.
France was a global cultural touchstone in the sixties, thanks to Jean-Luc Goddard’s movies, Claude Chabrol and many other new-wave auteurs. Serge rode the French cinema wave and coasted his way to stardom by collaborating with the peerlessly sexy Brigitte Bardot for this smouldering song. It is a composition and performance that illuminates the no holds barred liberation of music that Serge emboldened like no other.
‘Je t’aime Moi Non Plus’
What sort of introduction to the baroque-pop master of controversy would not include this track? The eroticism of the song was so overt that it was actually deemed offensive and banned in many countries, but the version with Jane Birkin still managed to reach number one in the UK.
To listen to this song on headphones is to invite two singers to gyrate directly in your ear canals; at times, you feel like pausing it and telling the pair to get a room. Likewise, it is almost unplayable out loud for anyone with a degree of a gag reflex about them.
Quite frankly, it is hard to think of a song that has been more profoundly sensual than this. Still, beneath all the groans, moans, and churlish eroticism is an unmistakable sense of fun and a JG Ballard-Esque, tongue-in-cheek amoral disregard for decency.
His first work of the 70s was a concept album, but one which breaks the archetypal mould. It says a lot about the album that unlikely most concept records it is wrapped up in only 28 minutes, illustrating a concise clarity of vision and an unwavering dismissal of any demurring.
The concept in question is one that raised as many eyebrows upon release as it does now. Like the controversial counterculture novel Lolita, which inspired it, it documents a fictionalised tale of the narrator conducting an affair with a 15-year-old girl.
To dismiss any criticism of this concept as stuffy-minded conservatism and champion the record as a daring piece of art in an emancipated realm where all is permissible is to disregard the devastating effect that such encounters existing beyond the world of fiction have on the victims. The record is an essential part of Gainsbourg’s back catalogue that, nevertheless, illuminates the nettlesome legacy that goes along with it.
Before he became known as Serge Gainsbourg and long before he established himself as one of the most complex figures in music, he was Lucien Ginsburg; a young Jewish boy forced to flee Paris under the threat of Nazi encroachment. He sheltered in the French countryside for the remainder of the war. This experience, no doubt, influenced his liberated approach to art as he grew older.
Rock Around the Bunker was another album that landed him in controversy. The 1975 record combined pseudo-1950s musical arrangements with lyrics relating to Nazism and the scourge of the war. ‘Yellow Star’ may well prove to be the key to understanding the fearless work of Gainsbourg as it illustrates that his relationship with controversy was far from just a frivolous shock tactic.
In 1979 Serge travelled to Kingston to team up with some of Jamaica’s best session musicians to craft a reggae crossover album. Serge never cared much for genre constraints, and this record elucidated that fact perfectly.
This reinvented of one of his most famous songs layers the original hook with Caribbean overdubs to provide a rum and riviera cocktail. Once again, it was a slice of sunshine, clouded with controversy as the albums take on La Marseillaise was deemed disrespectful. However, it is one example where time has shaken off these shackles and what remains is a glowing album of refreshingly reimagined reggae.
‘Harley David Son Of A Bitch’
Serge’s second last record in 1984 saw the artist turn entirely glam pop. The album mixed new wave and electronic stylings, pushing Gainsbourg into new territory, but his unfettered singularity still shines through.
With a melody very reminiscent of ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’ by Yes, the song is an excellent example to highlight the fact that behind all of the noise that surrounded each of his releases, it was the hook of the songs that drew people in. Although the usual probing subject matters remain, the music exhibits that Serge had enough craft behind his coolness to feel at home anywhere.