The French music scene has split in two. Almost legendary for its insularity, The Beatles – and rock n’ roll in general – have thrown a grenade into the sleek Parisian clubs and the precious la chanson française. Édith Piaf is dead, Juliette Gréco can’t buy a hit. Instead, it’s all about the yé-yé. Johnny Hallyday is the man they talk about, whilst Françoise Hardy is even making the notoriously Europhobic British sit up and take notice. The riposte of the chansonniers is delusion: pretend nothing is amiss and gradually perform to fewer and fewer people for less and less money.
In the middle of this is Lucien Ginsburg – a thirty-something art teacher, fledgling alcoholic and Jewish survivor of the Holocaust. Despite being both a late bloomer and handicapped with crippling stage fright, his alter-ego Serge Gainsbourg had stormed to the top of the Rive Gauche with frightening velocity, primarily aided by an irresistible talent for lyrics and sheer force of will. Renaissance man and rebel icon Boris Vian had championed him from his very early days, whilst Michèle Arnaud – the blonder alternative to the dark, sombre Gréco – was putting his bitter, cynical words into the lower reaches of the French singles charts. Young Serge was putting out his own records, but his infrequent solo performances, and – in his mind, at least – considerable ugliness were keeping the masses away. Critically acclaimed as he was – his 1958 debut album Du Chant À La Une won the influential grand prize from the Académie Charles Cros but failed to chart – nobody was buying beyond the trendy Parisian clientèle who elevated him to cult hero status: here was the man who married Vian’s rebellious spirit with the ingenuity of Jacques Brel, but without the stain of the mainstream that afflicted both.
Purity didn’t cash any cheques, though. Initially repulsed by the yé-yé scene – as noted in “Chez Les Yé-Yé,” a 1963 single in which he sings of the teens dancing so much they all drop dead of heart attacks – he couldn’t help but notice that his gradual ascent into the mainstream had been instantly derailed by these young pretenders stealing from the British and Americans. So, almost inevitably, Serge Gainsbourg made a 180-degree turn. He abandoned the smoky bars for the bright lights of Salut Les Copains, the flagship radio program of everything yé-yé. Branded a traitor by those who formerly idolised him, Gainsbourg responded in typical style that he “turned the coat when I discovered the inside is made of mink.” Here, he was a regular feature – his own compositions becoming hits for Hardy, Petula Clark, Michèle Torr, Catherine Sauvage, and most importantly, teen sensation France Gall. His working relationship with Gall had included the mega-hits “Baby Pop” and “Laisse Tomber Les Filles,” both of which were bright, sixties pop anthems, but upon close inspection of the lyrics clearly came from the pen of a man with little taste for his own work.
With Gall arguably the brightest spark in French music – and the French elite still in denial about the durability of this new trend – she was invited to represent Luxembourg at the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest. It was a bold move – every previous winner had performed slow ballads for older audiences, a style alien to Gall – but Gainsbourg was soon roped in to write the song and he quickly produced “Poupée De Cire, Poupée De Son,” in which Gall sings of being a mere “doll”, singing words of love she doesn’t understand. Of course, as Gainsbourg intended, Gall really didn’t understand, but the song stormed to victory, setting the trend that continues to this day of martial-beat gimmickry winning out on Europe’s big stage. Despite the victory coming for Luxembourg, the victory helped to launch Gainsbourg into the mainstream celebrity he had always craved. He had single-handedly vindicated yé-yé as a cultural phenomenon, and within two years of victory this awkward, lanky Russian Jew would go from jobbing songwriter and pianist to consistent hit-maker, tabloid star and – most shockingly of all – boyfriend of Brigitte Bardot.
Even “Boum Badaboum,” Gainsbourg’s return to Eurovision in 1967 as performed by Monaco’s Minouche Barelli, had little effect on his growing stardom. A song that almost defies understanding, “Boum Badaboum” sees Barelli screaming for her life in the midst of a bombing attack. Whether Gainsbourg was subverting Eurovision in a manner even more naked than “Poupée,” trolling the tiny principality, or too busy painting Paris red to take much notice, it stands out in Gainsbourg’s vast canon for its ambiguity: is it a seditious mocking or just bad? The song passed and went with tragically little fanfare for Serge, but what didn’t go unnoticed was “Les Sucettes.” Clearly realising that Gall’s naivete gave him the prime opportunity to write his name into the annals of French music history forever, he penned this barely-obscured double-entendre for the oblivious adolescent and the scandal worked. Gall never spoke to him again (until her career took a downturn and he was writing since-obscure singles for her), and he was both the most vilified and admired man in France.
Of course, the great irony of 1968 and 1969 – the years of huge national, and then global, fame for Gainsbourg, would in fact deal a severe blow to his dream of securing Eurovision victory for France. Soon after “Les Sucettes,” “Je T’Aime Moi Non Plus” would make him the first man to write a foreign-language British number one, but it also made him rich, famous, banned by the Vatican, and hated by entire generations. He was the middle-aged crooner who had ensnared the far younger English actor Jane Birkin and made her groan orgasmically on record. In 1969, no less. But the combination of “Poupée,” “Sucettes” and “Je T’Aime” had, importantly, brought Gainsbourg infamy as the “dirty old man” of Europe. He capitalised on this by writing and recording Histoire De Melody Nelson, a 28-minute orchestral/rock/funk piece that prefigured trip-hop, electronica and downtempo and is generally regarded as one of the most perfectly realised concept albums and the absolute magnum opus of contemporary French music. This glorious, timeless work of art was the endgame of a concept that began with the aid of Eurovision. Ironically, that it was an initial flop (as were most of Gainsbourg’s seventies albums) almost brought Gainsbourg back to Eurovision, for he was losing money fast, and had no choice but to return to writing songs for other artists.
Four days before the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest, French president Georges Pompidou died in office. With the nation in mourning, they withdrew at the eleventh hour and the young singer Dani, due to sing “La Vie À Vingt-Cinq Ans” in Brighton, would be staying put in Paris. She was offered to sing at the 1975 contest instead, however, and she agreed on the proviso that Serge Gainsbourg write the song. Despite misgivings about Gainsbourg’s reputation and declining popularity, the French selection committee relented and, finally, Gainsbourg was writing the French entry for Eurovision. Except, apparently, he wasn’t. “Comme Un Boomerang,” the song he offered up, was about a spurned lover planning a murder-suicide in vengeance. The French selectors refused to even consider it, Gainsbourg – as stubborn as ever – refused to change a word, and both Gainsbourg and Dani were kicked out in favour of Nicole Rieu and “Et Bonjour À Toi L’Artiste,” a dreary ballad which took them to fourth place on the night. Gainsbourg’s demo of “Comme Un Boomerang” would eventually be released after his death. Dani herself would never get the chance to sing it until 2006, when she performed it in collaboration with Gonzales and Feist for the English-language tribute album Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited.
Four years later, Gainsbourg would return to the bosom of French celebrity with his reggae phase – 1979’s Aux Armes Et Cætera would become his first number one album – and this time he would stay there for good. But all was not well. The following year, Birkin would leave him as his functioning alcoholism lost its ability to function. Through the eighties, Serge Gainsbourg publicly fell apart in a haze of Bloody Mary’s and a four-pack a day habit of unfiltered Gitanes cigarettes. His output remained exciting, intriguing and on the cutting-edge, but Gainsbourg’s music was secondary to his slow, public suicide via his regular televised appearances. each more painful and flagellant than the last. As the nineties sped into view, he was going blind, in the early stages of cancer, and living alone in his museum-like apartment in Saint-Germain, but even in this state he took steps in an attempt to turn his life around. He went clean, mostly disappeared from the tabloid headlines, and instead became an instrumental figure in the rise of a new generation of French artists, among them Alain Bashung, Isabelle Adjani and, latterly, Vanessa Paradis. By 1990, he was overcome with a need to finally win Eurovision for France. With the French selection committee presumably having no desire to turn down a national legend clearly on his last legs, Gainsbourg was given the opportunity he craved, and promptly teamed up with another new star in Joëlle Ursull – France’s first black Eurovision entrant – and wrote “White & Black Blues,” a song that couldn’t be further away from his previous entries. Rather than focusing on singers as money-making puppets, bomb attacks, or murderous ex-boyfriends; Gainsbourg was instead calling for racial unity – celebrating France as the multicultural country that gave his own émigré parents asylum, a welcome he now hopes will be extended to Ursull and all those “beating African blood.” An early favourite for the crown; Ursull’s flat, disappointing performance on the show itself may have been the reason it was pipped to the post by Italy.
Ultimately, it proved to be Gainsbourg’s final brush with the mainstream. Again disappearing into his lonely apartment, he suffered a final heart attack less than a year later and passed away at the age of 62. He never did manage to win the Eurovision Song Contest for France, but Eurovision will always be indelibly linked with the man who may well be the one of the finest songwriters the twentieth century ever saw – and perhaps he knew that. On his Paris gravestone, it reads not “Je T’Aime Moi Non Plus,” or “L’Anamour,” or any of his large, varied and fascinating greatest hits, but “White & Black Blues.”