Serge Gainsbourg: Raconteur, Bon Savant, Libertine (No Pete Doherty)
Just take a look at this man. If Serge Gainsbourg hadn't become one of the most famous musicians in French History, he probably could have only found work as a ditch digger, a man-whore or perhaps a Catholic Priest. Either way, Serge didn't quite project the image of a clean-living good samaritan. Then again, his date rapist appearance wasn't exactly helped by his tendencies to write songs about incest, the unsanitary setbacks of anal sex and seducing under-age women. He also wrote a song called "Homo Dub." I kid you not. In his 62 years on earth, Serge (nee Lucien Ginzburg) was either the world's most awesome human being or its most despicable. Probably a little of both.
Most Americans haven't heard of Serge Gainsbourg, meaning that if you end up liking him you probably will be subjected to strange accusatory glances whenever you play one of his songs. Inevitably, a friend or two will ask you to turn off "your French sodomy music." To which, you will hang your head in shame and immediately throw on some Led Zeppelin. But you can't be blamed for such indiscretions. It's not your fault that Serge Gainsbourg's music is pretty great.
Of course, not all of it is brilliant. Some of it is downright bad. However, it never manages to be anything less than entertaining. Of course, all of it is in French so you can't understand a thing (unless you're one of those "smart" people, or you can go here). But the language barriers only make the thing more fun to listen to, as you can make-up your own nonsensical lyrics to accompany the sumptuous baroque instrumentation. For instance, Histoire de Melody Nelson, Gainsbourg's epic 1971 song cycle about a middle-aged man in a Rolls Royce who likes to seduce teenage girls, can be an epic 2006 cycle about how much you hate King of Queens.
Best Album About A Fat Guy, His Attractive Wife and the Borough of Queens Ever Made Indeed, Histoire de Melody Nelson is regarded by music critics, hipsters and hipster music critics as the high point of Gainsbourg's career. And it's tough to argue with that logic, as the album has a feel that few albums ever made has, a spell of soft strings, elastic bass lines, inspired guitar licks and a creepy but eerily soothing sound.
The album also features the voice of Jane Birkin, Gainsbourg's muse and the very attractive woman on the album you see above. According to lore, Gainsbourg was quite the ladies man, bedding (and recording with) Brigitte Bardot and reportedly 3/4ths of Paris and 1/5th of Alsace-Lorraine (facts about Paris and Alsace-Lorraine may or may not be true). Gainsbourg also did such amazing things as tell Whitney Houston that he wanted to "fuck her" live on French television (available for viewing here). He even convinced Rita Marley to sing erotic lyrics on record, a request which apparently pissed Bob off to no end.
In the course of the 30 years between 1958 and 1988, Gainsbourg experimented with a variety of music styles, incorporating (according to Wikipedia), 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. On his last album, You're Under Arrest, he apparently went hip-hop. Sadly, I have yet to hear it.
So in honor of Thanksgiving, the most American of holidays, I present my Serge Gainsbourg sampler, in honor of the most French person to ever live. (Paris was brought to a standstill when he died). So take a listen, have a look-see, and the next time someone asks you to turn off the "French sodomy music," look them directly in the eye and say, "You know what? This is damn good French sodomy music. Got a problem with that?"
Serge Gainsbourg & Brigitte Bardot: "Bonnie and Clyde" from Bonnie and Clyde (1968) (right-click, save as)
Serge Gainsbourg & Jane Birkin: "Je T'aime Moi Non Plus" from Jane Birkin/Serge Gainsbourg (1969) (right-click, save as)
Serge Gainsbourg: "Ballade de Melody Nelson" from Histoire de Melody Nelson (1971) (right-click, save as)
Serge Gainsbourg: "Homme À Tête de Chou" from L'Homme À Tête de Chou (1976) (right-click, save as)
Serge Gainsbourg: "Dub Homo" from Mauvaises Nouvelles Des Etoiles (right-click,save as) (not that there's anything wrong with that)
MC Solaar: "Nouveau Western" (the famous French rapper sampling Bonnie and Clyde) (right-click, save as)