Serge Gainsbourg was a one of a kind talent. A now-iconic figure of popular culture who had a supernatural aura to him, one which made him a true iconoclast both on and off stage. It’s hard to look past his importance in the shaping French pop, even did he play into the archetypes associated with his countrymen by always having a cigarette in hand while shoehorning in the liberal attitudes that oozed out of his lyrics.
Gainsbourg polarised audiences during his lifetime, with many believing that he was too obscene but, in truth, that only revered him to everybody else. His infamous track, ‘Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus’, was deemed so unsavoury due to the sexual noises in it performed by Jane Berkin that Gainsbourg was banned from appearing on the BBC’s ‘Top Of The Pops’, with the stiff upper lip of the Brit’s preventing him from performing.
Following his death in 1991, Gainsbourg has taken on a God-like figure in France. The Parisian house in which Gainsbourg lived from 1969 until 1991, at 5 bis Rue de Verneuil, is now a shrine covered in his ashtrays and collections of various items from Gainsbourg’s life.
Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker once recalled his memory of visiting Gainsbourg’s grave: “I used to hire a bike and ride around a lot with headphones on, listening to the Melody Nelson album. One day I was going through a cemetery, looking for Jim Morrison’s grave [it turned out Parker was in the wrong cemetery], when suddenly I stumbled across Serge Gainsbourg’s grave.
“It was really unexpected and pretty weird because I had him on the headphones at that exact moment. I knew it was his grave because there were all these empty packets of cigarettes and liquor bottles left around in tribute.”
Gainsbourg is known for his wild moments just as much as his music. He had everything that you’d ever wish from an artist. He lived and breathed rebellion, an attitude that landed him into a spot of trouble on more than one occasion. Here are ten iconic moments that epitomise the late, complicated character.
Serge Gainsbourg’s 10 wildest moments:
While burning money is a crass move, Serge Gainsbourg is a rare entity in that this sort of exploit is the kind of salacious thing that you could bank on from the French crooner. The motive behind the stunt was political from Gainsbourg as he decided to fight back against the tax increase in 1984 by burning a 500 franc note on television.
The move was illegal, but that didn’t stop him from making his point and angering the establishment. Of course, there was no prosecution even though he broke the law, but it did lead to his daughter, Charlotte’s classmates, setting her homework on fire after being upset by Serge’s antics.
Nazi concept album
Sympathising with the Nazi’s should never be done, but Gainsbourg was someone who didn’t abide by any rules and often overstepped the mark, with this being the prime example. In 1975, he decided to create a joyous concept album set around Nazi Germany titled Rock Around the Bunker.
In Gainsbourg’s defence, at the time of the Second World War, he was a Jewish child living in occupied France, and he wasn’t poking fun at the victims of the Nazi’s. Instead, he painted a comedic picture of life inside these camps, with Gainsbourg just trying to be as provocative as possible and shocking as many people as he could along the way.
His relationship with Bridgette Bardot
His relationship with Bridgette Bardot only made its way on to this list because of how they met. Bardot was already married to Gunter Sachs, but the relationship had started to flail, and she couldn’t resist beginning to date Gainsbourg.
Gainsbourg lost his cool on their first date and was a nervous wreck, and promised to write her a beautiful love song as an apology. The following day Gainsbourg had written ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ and ‘Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus’ thanks to his new muse.
Recording ‘Je T’aime … Moi Non Plus’
The two recorded the track together in a passion-filled two-hour session in an intimate Parisian studio. Sound engineer William Flageollet later claimed to have witnessed “heavy petting” in the vocal booth and included it on the final tape.
The song had already been signed off and ready to be released when Bardot had a change of heart. She thought it couldn’t see the light of day because she was married. Bardot then begged Gainsbourg to not release the original recording, but she then eventually shared it in 1986, long after her divorce from Sachs.
Banned from radio
After meeting Jane Birkin on the 1969 film, Slogan, Gainsbourg recruited her to record an equally groaning version of ‘Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus’, which became the first song to be banned from Top Of The Pops. It was an unprecedented move. The institution had made it a deserved right of whichever artist topped the chart to have their song performed on the how. However, the criticism that Gainsbourg received from the media only led people to buy the track so they could hear his taboo-breaking effort, and the song was blanket banned by the BBC.
The legendary effort was also banned in Spain, Sweden, Brazil, Italy, Portugal and couldn’t air before 11pm in France. However, the most remarkable thing that came from the whole facade was that the Vatican deemed it appropriate to denounce the track. One report even claimed the Vatican excommunicated the record executive who released it in Italy, which made Gainsbourg hilariously say to Birkin that the Pope “our greatest PR man”.
Another scandalous concept album
1971’s Historie de Melody Nelson was Gainsbourg’s first delve into concept albums, and the topic was scandalous. The project is revered as Gainsbourg’s finest work. Still, the subject topic is reprehensible and tells a pseudo-autobiographical tale about falling in love with a teenage girl after knocking her off her motorcycle.
Creating art in strange, unacceptable places is a trope that Gainsbourg did throughout his career; he told uncomfortable stories about subjects that others wouldn’t go near and somehow get away with it. Throughout the album, the strange tale told is easy to forget about once you hear the staggering arrangements smattered across the record.
Stunts from his death bed
Having a heart attack at 45 would make anyone reconsider their life, but Gainsbourg instead treated it as an opportunity for another audacious stunt. While most people would want to recover in peace, Gainsbourg never did things the usual way and called for a press conference from his hospital bed.
During this press conference, Gainsbourg spoke about how the only way to reduce the chances of a second heart attack was to increase his alcohol and cigarettes intake. He then made sure that the press could see the copious amount of pill bottles filled up with cigarette butts that he’d been smoking while in the hospital.
Reggae French national anthem
Altering the French national anthem is sacrilege, which is why Gainsbourg decided to rework it as a reggae track. The singer spent some time in Jamaica and recorded his 1979 reggae-influenced album, Aux Armes Et Caetera, with the title track a cover of the French national anthem, La Marseillaise.
The following tour that accompanied the release led Gainsbourg to face countless threats, which led to numerous dates cancelled because of security measures, and he was even on the receiving end of bomb threats. This furore only enhanced Gainsbourg’s image, and the album remarkably sold more than 600,000 copies in France and helped bring reggae to the masses.
Making advances to Whitney Houston on TV
In 1986, as a favour to his friend, television host Michel Drucker introduced a newly discovered 22-year-old Whitney Houston to French prime time show the Champs Elysées and fellow guest Gainsbourg outrageously tried to make advances with her while on air in an unsavoury manner.
“I said, I want to fuck her,” Gainsbourg said on air in English to the astonishment of a fresh-faced Houston whose facial expression matches that of the crowd who had suddenly let out a gasp of pure shock. “What did you say?” she replied with bemusement as Drucker does his best to usher the situation away, desperately trying to rescue the show by claiming that Gainsbourg simply wants to give her some flowers.
“Not at all,” Gainsbourg chimed back in, not for a second allowing Drucker to stop the car crash that was unfolding on live television. “I said I wanted to fuck her,” he repeated, this time in French.
“Are you sure you’re not drunk?” Houston asks Gainsbourg. “You’ve got to be!” she adds. The moment is sad to watch and showed Gainsbourg completely inebriated.
Bringing France to a standstill
When Serge Gainsbourg died in 1992, aged 62, after refusing to change his ways after his first heart attack years earlier and left the world prematurely, France united in shared grief of Gainsbourg following the loss of one of their most beloved sons, and the country came to a standstill.
François Mitterrand, the president at the time, labelled Gainsbourg as “our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire … he elevated song to the level of art”.
Although this list is proof that Gainsbourg was a complicated character, who was far from a perfect person and helped create the tortured artist’s image. Gainsbourg wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s impossible to deny his pure artistry, which is impossible not to admire whatever you think about the man.