1998.05.24 The Guardian (London) "Gallic CDs of the week: Serge Gainsbourg"
Gallic CDs of the week: Serge Gainsbourg
How to sell the notion of Serge Gainsbourg to a disbelieving Angle world? He is thought of here, if at all, as someone whose compositional skills grant him honorary membership of the One Off Novelty Number One elite. Someone who stuck his cheesy organ, as it were, into the world of Lieutenant Pigeon and the Wurzels with that cunnilingamungous 69 Euro smash "Je t'aime". The fact that the conditional "Moi non plus" - roughly, "me neither" - is mostly left off the end of the record's title is a minor pointer to how perplexed we've always been by this bug-eyed monstre sacre, this dissolute Gallic export. Not only don't we get this guy we resent him too: he did all the things New Lad dreams of doing, but did them with a poet's mind and a Bacharach ear.
To La France, he wasn't just some minor low-life icon who gave good scowl and jowl, but a revered cultural institution. In Paris once, I watched slightly agog as one of their main TV channels devoted an entire night's programming to a Gainsbourg tribute; to produce a convincing equivalent over here you'd have to somehow blend together the various graces and dangers of, oh, Jeffrey Bernard, John Barry, George Best, Lucien Freud and Shane McGowan. First and foremost, though, Gainsbourg was a talented - precocious, promiscuous, polished - composer and songwriter. As these covetable re-issues illustrate (sometimes literally: great photos!), there is scarcely a pop trend or mutation extant that Gainsbourg didn't think of and do better first. Think Mo'Wax and ice-cool hipster poise and jazz-as flick-flock wallpaper; think the under-the-bedsit skid-mark navigations of Pulp and Momus; think the tongue-in-chic MOR stylings-with-bite of the Pet Shop Boys and The Divine Comedy; think frilly disco incest... Well, maybe not, we are English after all, but you get the picture: Euro diversity; sardonic intelligence in buckets; gone-to-seed sensuality and sunny sex poi; a demon's way with arrangements, swiping inspiration from soundtrack, theatre, mambo and samba, and half a dozen Gallic traditions we ought to remain properly clueless about. I always knew somewhere - in the back of my Deletions Bin mind that Gainsbourg was more than just image and infamy, but the music on these three CDs is a revelation: Gainsbourg deserves as much a place in your 20th Century heart as Charles Bukowski and Barry White, Jim Morrison and Leonard Cohen, Scott Walker and Chet Baker. Couleur café and Du jazz dans le ravin - which cover the period 1958-1964 and feature his harder-edged jazzier stuff - are probably less essential purchases For non-obsessives; although the latter does feature the extraordinary brooding loop of "Intoxicated Man" - which sounds like the James Bond song (re)written by Baudelaire. Comic strip sees him on a prolific mid/late sixties high (as well at a wide range of fluffy acrylic carpets), singing about everything from Chatterton to the Torrey Canyon disaster, Bonnie and Clyde to Brigitte Bardot. And - by putting it back in career context - the compilation rescues "Moi non plus" from kitschy-cat oblivion, and reveals instead an erotico-ambient frug aeons ahead of its time. Try Comic strip out for size, and then investigate the 3-CD history Gainsbourg à Gainsbarre that Discovery Records also import into this country. (If you're having trouble with translation, then try out Mick Harvey's recent tribute album, Intoxicated man).
Oh, and stop me in a bar and I'll tell you the recipe to Gainsbourg's personalised, lethal cocktail - the Monna Vanna.