Four of Serge Gainsbourg’s Gitanes cigarette butts and a box of the matches that lit those smokes went for €500 in an auction held 22 years after his death in 1991. A year earlier, in 2012, his handwritten shopping lists fetched €60 000.
The singer, composer, poet, film director and actor – one of the most influential figures in French popular culture – would no doubt have approved as his biographer, Sylvie Simmons, wrote that Gainsbourg “was extremely fond” of both scandal and huge sales.
In 1969, his duet with English singer Jane Birkin, Je T’aime... Moi Non Plus, achieved both with gusto and grunts. The notoriously explicit song was, to cut to the chase, sex on vinyl. It featured lustful whispered vocals, heavy breathing and orgasmic moaning over a slow, sensual organ accompaniment.
It sold in the millions and made it to number one on hit parades across Europe. But Gainsbourg’s craving for controversy was also satisfied. It became the first number one hit to be banned by the BBC. The censors in Spain, Sweden and Italy also banned the single and the Vatican released a statement condemning Je T’aime... Moi Non Plus as offensive.
The song even made it to South Africa. (In my case, via the naughty son of my parents’ dominee, who somehow got hold of it on a worn cassette tape. It blew our young adolescent minds.) The song also featured as the severely sanitised soundtrack of a local radio advert for a deodorant for women, called Je T’aime. No breathing, heavy or otherwise, just the organ and a payoff line in a cringeworthy “French” accent: “Je T’aime, no one says ‘I love you’ quite like the French…”
About a decade after the release of Je T’aime... Moi Non Plus, and a number of fine concept albums later, Monsieur Provocateur was getting withdrawal symptoms. “It had been eating at Serge Gainsbourg for quite some time, the problem of what he might do to end the 1970s with the same kind of bang as he had the 1960s,” wrote Simmons.
Gainsbourg’s producer and musical director, Philippe Lerichomme, had the answer.
In September 1978, they flew to Kingston for the first ever reggae album to be recorded by a white singer in Jamaica. They had hired some of the island’s finest musicians, including the supreme rhythm section of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, organist Ansel Collins, the band the Revolutionaries and, as backing singers, the I-Threes, which included Bob Marley’s wife, Rita.
They gelled spectacularly. The result, Aux Armes Et Cætera, was Gainsbourg’s 13th album and certainly one of his masterpieces. As Sly said: “He wasn’t really singing, he was more like a poet doing French poems on top of rhythms.”
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With Serge being subversive Serge, he used the opportunity to stir up shit in a way only he could.
The title track was a quote from French national anthem La Marseillaise, a song Serge described to Liberation newspaper as “the bloodiest song in all of history”.
It premiered on French television in April 1979, and nobody could have predicted the intensity of the storm brought on by this reggae Marseillaise performed by a debauched, diminutive French Jew and backed by a bunch of Afro-Caribbean rastas. To add insult to injury, Gainsbourg shortened the chorus of the untouchable, sacred battle hymn with a dismissive “et cætera”.
Right-wing nationalists were outraged. Gainsbourg received death threats for “insulting” the French Republic. But the bad publicity was great publicity.
The follow-up tour was a huge success, with all the tickets sold out. Celebrities and intellectuals such as dancer and choreographer Rudolf Nureyev and philosopher and linguist Roland Barthes attended the opening concert in Paris.
But outside of the capital, things got really bad.
Former paratroopers threatened to whip Gainsbourg’s arse, there were bomb scares and more death threats. The paratroopers demanded that the mayor of Strasbourg ban the concert there in 1980, but fortunately he refused.
The show was packed with uniformed thugs. The wily Gainsbourg went on stage and sang La Marseillaise a cappella. The paratroopers blinked first. They rose to their feet and sang along to the national anthem.
The controversy and sales that Gainsbourg so loved came together with his left-wing politics – and not only was Aux Armes Et Cætera a great record but it also sold fast and incredibly well (more than 600 000 copies in France alone).
The Left and young people loved him even more. French punks started adopting reggae, because you don’t get more punk than Aux Armes Et Cætera.
Take a listen. It still sounds as vital, 40 years later.
Read more by Charles Leonard:
- Political Songs | Dub journalism, a cultural weapon
- Political Songs | The parody of ‘Dirty Computer’
- Political Songs | Power from plight
[Thumbnail image] 18 April 1980: French singer Serge Gainsbourg clutches a pack of Gitanes and a lit cigarette of the same make during a portrait-taking session in Paris. (Photograph by Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)