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(Credit: Claude Truong-Ngoc / Wikimedia)

Music

Revisiting Serge Gainsbourg's version of the French National Anthem

Serge Gainsbourg was a visionary, a vagrant, a villain, a rogue, a pop writer, a raconteur… a troll?. He was an emblem of hope, a station of creative endeavours, a pillar of potential, a crusader, a charlatan, a conditioned anarchist and a man of deep intellectual thought, presenting himself as the next station in the wider birth of experimentalism and art. He inspired nothing but the devotion from each of his followers, as fans dedicated themselves entirely to the scope, scale and greatness of his art. He was incendiary, but that only added to the commitment and appetite he had for his art.

“I really came into my own with Serge because he did nothing all day long but think of jolly things to do with me,” Jane Birkin once recalled. “So I was extremely happy. He was as jealous as I was. And although now people consider him as really quite a genius in France, which indeed he was, he was never a boring genius. He never said: ‘Well, now I’m going to go up to work’. I never saw him work. No, when I did rather bad films, he had a tendency of writing his best stuff because he was pissed off that I was not there. He used to come on to all the film sets, then sit miserably in the hotel bedroom where he wrote The Man With the Cabbage Head or Melody Nelson. In that way, it was a rather ideal 13 years.”

But Gainsbourg was known for raising eyebrows, whether it was demanding to conduct a conference from the hospital ward where he was supposed to be resting, or subverting ‘La Marseillaise’ in the style of a reggae flavoured track. Unveiling ‘Aux armes et cætera’ to the public in 1979, Gainsbourg utilised the flavours and feelings in contemporary rock to create a tune of great invention and pathos, complete with one of his saltiest vocals. But it was met badly in some quarters in France, particularly in Le Figaro, where writer Michel Droit accused the artist of making money from the national anthem, hypothesising that the songwriter was feeding antisemitism with his efforts.

Gainsbourg was also criticised for cutting out some of the military-focused aspects of the song. For many contemporary listeners, this was their moment of truth, but those who were brave enough to throw themselves into the uncertain waters were rewarded with a strong overview of the reggae tunes that were steadily growing more interesting over the years.
10cc had just enjoyed a UK number one with ‘Dreadlock Holiday’, inspired by a holiday bassist Graham Gouldman enjoyed in Jamaica, and Wings had recorded a makeover of ‘Love Is Strange’, complete with a reggae backbeat.

Bob Marley was enjoying a level of tremendous success across Europe, and Gainsbourg’s interpretation of reggae was met with applause around the world. The Aux Armes et cætera album was certainly authentic, having been cut in the heart of Kingston, Jamaica, incorporating some of the island’s most accomplished musicians in the work. Members of the I Threes, Bob Marley’s backing band, were involved with the making of the Aux armes et caetera record, giving it a greater sense of integrity.

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Although Gainsbourg tended to provoke, his work was always rooted in an area of perspective and honesty, especially when it came to his music. The songwriter felt that the songs needed to be instrumental in their outlook in building another area of music traditionally unheard in his native France. The singer knew that to be powerful he had to be certain of his ambition, and to carry out a message most tentatively, he needed to understand the aim and the controversy that he was setting for himself.

Gainsbourg’s finest moments were his most explosive, and although the recording of ‘Aux armes et caetera’ is relatively low-key and understated, the work is nonetheless lit with possibility and romance, showing that a nation’s anthem is nothing to bow down to, provided that the overview of the work is strong in itself.

It’s possible to discern from the recording of ‘Aux armes et caetera’ a great reverence for the rise of French reggae, and the track may have done much to help with the writing of such anthems as ‘Contraste et Coleurs’ and ‘Ne Touche Pas’ over the years. Ultimately there’s a tremendous sense of care put into the track, and the song is rich with texture, possibility, potential and passion. ”Aux armes et caetera’ is one of the watershed moments of Gainsbourg’s career, and that includes a tune about dealing with the pleasures and possibilities of hate-sex (‘Je t-aime…Moi, non Plus’).

Among Gainsbourg’s admirers were British laureates, Morrissey and Petula Clark, who saw the French songwriter as a person close to their philosophy and heart. He was naturally subversive, but a very good subversive.

Stream ‘Aux armes et caetera’ below.