Serge Gainsbourg: Wikis


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Serge Gainsbourg

Background information
Birth name Lucien Ginsburg
Also known as Julien Grix[1]
Born 2 April 1928(1928-04-02)
Origin Paris, France
Died 2 March 1991 (aged 62)
Genres Chanson
French rock
French pop
Occupations French poet
Instruments Piano, Guitar, bass, accordion, harmonica
Years active 1957 - 1991
Labels Mercury/Universal Records
Website Serge Gainsbourg

Serge Gainsbourg, born Lucien Ginsburg (French pronunciation: [sɛʁʒ ɡɛ̃zbuʁ]; 2 April 1928 – 2 March 1991)[2] was a French singer-songwriter, actor and director. Gainsbourg's extremely varied musical style and individuality make him difficult to categorize. His legacy has been firmly established, and he is often regarded as one of the world's most influential popular musicians.[3]



Personal life

He was born Lucien Ginsburg[4] in Paris, France, the son of Russian Jewish parents, Joseph Ginsburg (1896 — 22 April 1971) and Olga[5] Bessman (1894 — 16 March 1985), who fled to France after the 1917 Bolshevik uprising. His childhood was profoundly affected by the occupation of France by Nazi Germany, during which he and his family, as Jews, were forced to wear the yellow star and eventually flee Paris. Before he was 30 years old, Gainsbourg was a disillusioned painter, but earned his living as a piano player in bars.

He first married Elisabeth "Lize" Levitsky on 3 November 1951, and divorced her in 1957. He married a second time on 7 January 1964, to Françoise-Antoinette "Béatrice" Pancrazzi (b. 28 July 1931), with whom he had two children: a daughter named Natacha (b. 8 August 1964) and a son, Paul (born in spring 1968, after Serge had gotten back together with Béatrice). They divorced in February 1966.

In late-1967, he had a short but ardent love affair with Brigitte Bardot to whom he dedicated the song and album Initials BB.

In mid-1968, Gainsbourg fell in love with the much younger English singer and actress Jane Birkin, whom he met during the shooting of the film Slogan. They married some time afterwards. In 1971 they had a daughter, the actress and singer Charlotte. She left him in 1980.

His last partner was Bambou (Caroline von Paulus, grandchild of General Friedrich Paulus). In 1986 they had a son, Lucien (best known as Lulu).[2]

Birkin remembers the beginning of her affair with Gainsbourg: he first took her to a nightclub, then to a transvestite club and afterwards to the Hilton hotel, where he passed out in a drunken stupor. Birkin left Gainsbourg when pregnant with her third daughter, Lou, by the film director Jacques Doillon, whom she later married.[6]

Early work

His early songs were influenced by Boris Vian and were largely in the vein of old-fashioned chanson. Very early, however, Gainsbourg began to move beyond this and experiment with a succession of different musical styles: jazz early on, pop in the 1960s, rock and reggae in the 1970s, and electronica in the 1980s.[2]

Many of his songs contained themes with a morbid or sexual twist in them. An early success, "Le Poinçonneur des Lilas", describes the day in the life of a Paris Métro ticket man whose job it is to stamp holes in passengers' tickets. Gainsbourg describes this chore as so monotonous that the man eventually thinks of putting a hole into his own head and being buried in another.

More success began to arrive when, in 1965, his song "Poupée de cire, poupée de son" was the Luxembourg entry in the Eurovision Song Contest. Performed by French teen singer France Gall, it won first prize. (The song was covered in English as "A Lonely Singing Doll" by British teen idol Twinkle.)[2]

His next song for Gall, "Les Sucettes" ("Lollipops"), caused a scandal in France: Gainsbourg had written the song with double-meanings and strong sexual innuendo, of which the singer was apparently unaware when she recorded it. Whereas Gall thought that the song was about a girl enjoying lollipops, it was really about oral sex. The controversy arising from the song, although a big hit for Gall, threw her career off-track in France for several years.

Gainsbourg arranged other Gall songs and LPs that were characteristic of the late 1960s psychedelic styles, among them Gall's 1968 album. Another of Serge's songs "Boum Bada Boum" was entered in by Monaco in the 1967 contest, sung by Minouche Barelli; it came fifth. He also wrote hit songs for other artists, such as "Comment Te Dire Adieu" for Françoise Hardy.[2]

In 1969, he released "Je t'aime... moi non plus," which featured explicit lyrics and simulated sounds of female orgasm. The song appeared that year on an LP, Jane Birkin/Serge Gainsbourg. Originally recorded with Brigitte Bardot, it was released with future girlfriend Birkin when Bardot backed out. While Gainsbourg declared it the "ultimate love song," it was considered too "hot"; the song was censored in various countries, and in France even the toned-down version was suppressed. The Vatican made a public statement citing the song as offensive. However, despite all the controversy, it charted within the top ten in many European countries.

The seventies

Histoire de Melody Nelson was released in 1971. This concept album, produced and arranged by Jean-Claude Vannier, tells the story of a Lolita-esque affair, with Gainsbourg as the narrator. It features prominent string arrangements and even a massed choir at its tragic climax. The album has proven influential with artists such as Air, David Holmes, Jarvis Cocker, Beck and Dan the Automator.[7]

In 1975, he released the album Rock Around the Bunker, a rock album written entirely on the subject of the Nazis. Gainsbourg used black humour, as he and his family suffered during World War II. While a child in Paris, Gainsbourg had worn the yellow badge as the mark of a Jew. Rock Around the Bunker belonged in the mid-1970s "retro" trend.

The next year saw the release of another major work, L'Homme à tête de chou (Cabbage-Head Man), featuring the new character Marilou and sumptuous orchestral themes. Cabbage-Head Man is one of his nicknames, as it refers to his ears. Musically, L'homme à tête de chou turned out to be Gainsbourg's last LP in the English rock style he had favoured since the late 1960s. He would go on to produce two reggae albums recorded in Jamaica (1979 and 1981) and two electronic funk albums recorded in New York (1984 and 1987).

In Jamaica in 1978 he recorded "Aux Armes et cetera", a reggae version of the French national anthem "La Marseillaise", with Robbie Shakespeare, Sly Dunbar, and Rita Marley. This song earned him death threats from right-wing veterans of the Algerian War of Independence who were opposed to certain lyrics. Bob Marley was furious when he discovered Gainsbourg made his wife Rita Marley sing erotic lyrics.[8] Shortly afterward, Gainsbourg bought the original manuscript of "La Marseillaise". He was able to reply to his critics that his version was, in fact, closer to the original as the manuscript clearly shows the words "Aux armes et cætera..." for the chorus.

The next year saw him coin the nickname Gainsbarre, for the evil himself in the song "Ecce Homo"[2], Gainsbarre being a kind of Mr Hyde hiding in him.

Final years

Serge Gainsbourg's house on the rue de Verneuil in Paris, looked after by Charlotte Gainsbourg after her father's death

After a turbulent 13-year-long relationship, Jane Birkin left Gainsbourg.[9] In the 1980s, near the end of his life, Gainsbourg became a regular figure on French TV. His appearances seemed devoted to his controversial sense of humour and provocation. In March 1984, while this was illegal (article 132 of the "Code Penal") and highly offensive, he burned a 500 French franc bill[10] on television to protest against heavy taxation.[11] He would show up drunk and unshaven on stage: in April 1986, in Michel Drucker's live Saturday evening show with the American singer Whitney Houston, he exclaimed to the host (in English), "I want to fuck her."[8] The same year, in another talk show interview, he appeared alongside Catherine Ringer, a well known singer who had appeared in pornographic films. Gainsbourg shouted, "You're nothing but a filthy whore, a filthy, fucking whore." Ringer scolded back, "Look at you, you're just a bitter old alcoholic. I used to admire you but these days you've become a disgusting old parasite."[12]

By December, 1988, while a judge at a film festival in Val d'Isère, he appeared raging drunk at a local theatre where he was to do a presentation. While on stage he began to tell an obscene story about Brigitte Bardot and a champagne bottle, only to stagger offstage and collapse in a nearby seat.[12] Subsequent years saw his health deteriorate. He had to undergo liver surgery, but denied any connection to cancer or cirrhosis. His appearances and releases become sparser as he had to rest and recover in Vezelay. During these final years, he released Love on the Beat, a controversial electronic album with mostly sexual themes in the lyrics, and his last studio album, You're Under Arrest, which was a collaboration with Larry Fast, presented more synth-driven songs.[2]

His songs became increasingly eccentric during this period, ranging from the anti-drug "Aux Enfants de la Chance" to the duet with his daughter Charlotte named "Lemon Incest".[13] This translates as "Inceste de citron", a wordplay on "un zeste de citron" (a tang of lemon). The title demonstrates Gainsbourg's love for puns (another example of which is Beau oui comme Bowie, a song he gave to Isabelle Adjani).

Film work

During his career, he wrote the soundtracks for more than 40 films. In 1996, he received a posthumous César Award for Best Music Written for a Film for Élisa, along with Zbigniew Preisner and Michel Colombier.

He directed four movies: Je t'aime... moi non plus, Équateur, Charlotte For Ever and Stan The Flasher.

He made an brief appearance with Jane Birkin in 1980 in Egon Schiele Exzess und Bestrafung, a film by Herbert Vesely, and also starred at "Les Chemins de Katmandou", with Jane Birkin.

Death and legacy

Serge, Olga and Joseph Gainsbourg's grave

Gainsbourg died on March 2, 1991 of a heart attack. He was buried in the Jewish lot of the Montparnasse Cemetery, in Paris. His funeral brought Paris to a standstill, and French President François Mitterrand said of him, "He was our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire... He elevated the song to the level of art."[14] His home at the well-known address rue de Verneuil is still covered in graffiti and poems.

Since his death, Gainsbourg's music has reached legendary stature in France. His lyrical brilliance in French has left an extraordinary legacy. His music, always progressive, covered many styles: 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. He has gained a following in the English-speaking world with many non-mainstream artists finding his arrangements highly influential.

One of the most frequent interpreters of Gainsbourg's songs was British singer Petula Clark, whose success in France was propelled by her recordings of his tunes. In 2003, she wrote and recorded La Chanson de Gainsbourg as a tribute to the composer of some of her biggest hits.

His lyrics are collected in the volume Dernières nouvelles des étoiles.

In 2005, the album Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited was released by Virgin Records. The album consisted of specially-recorded English-language cover versions of Gainsbourg's songs, recorded by artists as diverse as Franz Ferdinand, Portishead, Placebo, and Michael Stipe.

Film adaptation(s)

A feature film titled Serge Gainsbourg (Vie Héroïque) was released in France in January 2010, which is based on the graphic novel by the writer-director of the film, Joann Sfar. Gainsbourg is portrayed by Eric Elmosnino and Kacey Mottet Klein.

Covers and tributes

  • One of the celebrating events of the Year of France in Brazil was a concert in September 2009 called "Gainsbourg Imperial", an event celebrating the music of Serge Gainsbourg. It was performed by Brazilian Samba Big Band Orquestra Imperial, having French maestro Jean-Claude Vannier, French singer Jane Birkin and Brazilian musician and singer Caetano Veloso as special guests.
  • Belinda Carlisle covers "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Contact" on her 2007 French language album Voila.
  • Giddle & Boyd (Giddle Partridge and Boyd Rice) cover "Bonnie and Clyde" on their 2008 EP Going Steady with Peggy Moffitt.
  • The first English-language version of a Gainsbourg song was Dionne Warwick's 1965 version of Mamadou.
  • Australian rock musician Mick Harvey released two CDs of Gainsbourg's songs translated into English.
  • Placebo did a cover of Gainsbourg's "The Ballad Of Melody Nelson".
  • Gainsbourg's song "Bonnie and Clyde" is featured in the burlesque show scene of Rush Hour 3 and in the romantic film Laurel Canyon starring Christian Bale and Kate Beckinsale.
  • American alt-rock band Luna included a cover of "Bonnie and Clyde" as a hidden track on their 1995 album Penthouse.
  • Okkervil River covers "Je suis venu te dire que je m'en vais" in English ("I Came Here to Say I'm Going Away").
  • Jarvis Cocker has also covered the above mentioned song, but named it "I Just Came To Tell You That I'm Going" instead.
  • Arcade Fire covers "Poupée de cire, poupée de Son" and also released it as a split 7" single with LCD Soundsystem (covering Joy Division's "No Love Lost" on their side).
  • Beirut often covers "La Javanaise" in their live sets and it is included in the live album Live at the Music Hall of Williamsburg (2009).
  • Australian pop singer-songwriter Kylie Minogue extensively sampled his duet with Brigitte Bardot "Bonnie and Clyde" on the song "Sensitized" off her 2007 album X. In 2003, she sampled "Je t'aime... moi non plus" in a modified version of her song "Breathe" (which originally did not contain any samples) for a special one-off live performance at the Hammersmith Apollo in promotion of her album Body Language.
  • French rapper MC Solaar sampled Serge Gainsbourg & Brigitte Bardot's song "Bonnie and Clyde" in his song "Nouveau Western", on his 1994 album, Prose Combat
  • Irish musician David Holmes covered "Cargo Culte" in his song "Don't Die Just Yet" on his 1997 album Let's Get Killed.* American emcee Princess Superstar sampled the melody of the songs "Melody" and "Cargo Culte" in the song "You Get Mad At Napster" on her album Princess Superstar Is.
  • The Welsh comedy-rap band Goldie Lookin Chain extensively sampled the title track of Gainsbourg's "Cannabis" film soundtrack for their single Your Missus Is a Nutter.
  • In 1997 Tzadik records released a tribute to Gainsbourg in their Great Jewish Composers series. The album includes covers by John Zorn, Medeski, Martin and Wood, Mike Patton, Fred Frith, Ikue Mori, Marc Ribot and Cyro Baptista.
  • On the HBO show Flight of the Conchords, the sequence for the song "A Kiss is Not a Contract" is a tribute to Gainsbourg's video for "Ballade de Melody Nelson".
  • The track "Serge" on The Herbaliser's album Take London is about a chance encounter with Gainsbourg 3 days before his death.
  • Black Grape's "A Big Day in the North" is based on a sample taken from 'Initials B.B.' and also features samples from "Ford Mustang".



Tribute albums and posthumous releases

  • 1997: Great Jewish Music: Serge Gainsbourg (Tribute album)
  • 2001: Gainsbourg Forever (Integral Box Set)
  • 2001: Le Cinéma de Gainsbourg (Box Set)
  • 2001: I Love Serge: Electronicagainsbourg (Remix album)
  • 2005: Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited (Tribute album)
  • 2008: Classé X (Compilation)



  1. ^ Julien Grix is the name he used when he first deposited his songs with the Sacem in 1954
  2. ^ a b c d e f g allmusic Biography
  3. ^
  4. ^ Ginsburg is sometimes spelled Ginzburg in the media, including print encyclopedias and dictionaries. However, Ginsburg is the name engraved on Gainsbourg's grave, and "Lucien Ginsburg" is the name by which Gainsbourg is referred to, as a performer, in the Sacem catalog [1] (along with "Serge Gainsbourg" as the author/composer/adaptor)
  5. ^ Sometimes spelled Olia, his mother's actual given name was Olga, as written on Gainsbourg's grave
  6. ^ "Jane Birkin reveals the naked truth about being a Sixties icon". The Daily Mail. 
  7. ^ Album notes from Initials SG
  8. ^ a b Chrisafis, Angelique, The Guardian (14 April 2006). "Gainsbourg, je t'aime".,,1753018,00.html. 
  9. ^ Vanity Fair, "The Secret World of Serge Gainsbourg", November 2007
  10. ^ Roughly 75 €, but in 1984, 500 FF represented one sixth of the net minimum monthly wage in France
  11. ^ Hodgkinson, Will, The Guardian (5 February 2003). "Serge, mon amour".,,888892,00.html. 
  12. ^ a b Kent, Nick , The Guardian (15 April 2006). "What a drag".,,1754146,00.html. 
  13. ^ A controversial video for "Lemon Incest" featured a half-naked Gainsbourg lying on a bed with his daughter Charlotte. Phrases from the song include "L'amour que nous ne ferons jamais ensemble/ Est le plus beau le plus violent/ Le plus pur le plus enivrant" ("The love that we will never make together/ is the most beautiful, the most violent/ The most pure, the most heady").
  14. ^ Simmons, Sylvie, The Guardian (2 February 2001). "The eyes have it".,4273,4128684,00.html. 


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