The Essential Serge Gainsbourg Playlist
Serge Gainsbourg was one of the most revolutionary composers of his time. By mixing several styles that had rarely been combined before (Jazz, Chanson, World music, Bossa Nova, Pop, Prog Rock, Reggae — to name only a few), he created some of last century’s greatest melodies, either for him or for other artists. He wrote for (and sang with) Jane Birkin, Brigitte Bardot, Anna Karina, France Gall, and loads of others, and composed several pieces for film soundtracks (including full scores, like Anna and Cannabis), even acting in some of them (Les Chemins de Katmandou, Le Pacha, Mr Freedom).
Constantly and outrageously living on the edge and following his hedonistic impulses, he managed to love and be loved despite his misogynistic nature, eventually leaving an irreplaceable hole in French contemporary music when he prematurely died back in ‘91.
So immerse yourself in the Monde Merveilleuse de Serge Gainsbourg through this introductory playlist, and prepare to be amazed by his incredible compositions.
- ‘Le Poinçonneur des Lilas’ — Du Chant À La Une! (1958)
This was Gainsbourg’s debut “hit record”, one of the first songs he composed after having given up the guitar (he initially wanted to be a jazz master like Django Reinhardt). Mixing chanson française with his jazz influences, ‘Le Poinçonneur des Lilas’ is one of his first catchy tunes, telling the story of a Métro ticket-puncher that makes “little holes” in the tickets.
2. ‘Intoxicated Man’ — Nº4 (1962)
Obviously a hymn to one of his favourite addictions, ‘Intoxicated Man’ is an homage to his friend and writer Boris Vian’s ‘Je Bois’. The song has a slight James Bond vibe that featured as one of Gainsbourg’s characteristics on many of his upcoming hits.
3. ‘Baudelaire’ — Nº4 (1962)
Serge Gainsbourg was one of the first composers to make what is now called “fusion jazz” — whatever that might be. As early as 1962 he was experimenting with new Latin rhythms in his songs, combining them with European jazz and, every once in a while, beautiful poems like ‘La Serpent Qui Danse’, which he “stole” from Baudelaire for this song.
4. ‘La Javanaise’ — Nº4 (1962)
Initially composed for Juliette Gréco after a “soirée” at her place (as portrayed in Joann Sfar’s 2010 film), ‘La Javanaise’ is once again a great example of his ability to blend traditional music (la “Java” is a Parisian dance often evoked by chanson divas like Fréhél or Édith Piaf) with the smoothness of a jazz ballad.
5. ‘Pauvre Lola’ — Gainsbourg Percussions (1964)
Also included on Gainsbourg’s collaborative album with Brigitte Bardot Bonnie & Clyde (although the song is heavily reminiscent of Miriam Makeba’s ‘Umqokozo’), ‘Pauvre Lola’ was inspired by Nabokov’s Lolita and features Gainsbourg’s most recent “gamine”, the teen-idol France Gall for whom he composed many hits, including Eurovision winner ‘Poupée de Cire, Poupée de Son’. Although non-credited, Gall can be heard laughing (creepily, one must add) along the mambo-inspired tune.
6. ‘Couleur Cafe’ — Gainsbourg Percussions (1964)
Another African-beat-inspired track from Gainsbourg Percussions — very tropical and obviously politically incorrect due to France’s recent involvement in Algeria’s war and subsequent decolonisation.
7. ‘Initials B.B.’ — Initials B.B. (1965)
Inspired by Dvorak’s ‘9th Symphony’, this hymn to beauty is the opening track of an album that marks not only Gainsbourg’s obvious relationship with actress Brigitte Bardot, but also his slow movement towards new styles of music, including psychedelic rock and pop.
8. ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ (ft. Brigitte Bardot) — Initials B.B. (1965)
In 1968 Gainsbourg and Bardot put out a collaborative album called Bonnie & Clyde, reprising several tracks from his repertoire (the title-track initially appears on Initials B.B.) and featuring Brigitte Bardot singing several previously unreleased tunes. ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ mixes Gainsbourg’s “Bondesque” ability with subtle sampling and a slight Americanisation in theme, revolutionising the way chanson was approached.
9. ‘Je t’Aime… Moi Non Plus’ (ft. Jane Birkin) — Jane Birkin — Serge Gainsbourg (1969)
Seriously, do I even need to say anything about this?
10. ‘Valse de Melody’ — L’Histoire de Melody Nelson (1971)
This small yet wonderfully cinematic song is part of Gainsbourg’s first concept record L’Histoire de Melody Nelson — a story about a tragic, Lolita-inspired romance that is almost always narrated instead of sung.
11. ‘Nazi Rock’ — Rock Around the Bunker (1975)
The opening track of Gainsbourg’s third concept album (succeeding to Vu de l’Extérieur) sees him oddly relying on rock’n’roll and blues instead of chilled-out jazz melodies. His Jewish roots are revisited throughout the album’s continuous references to Nazi Germany.
12. ‘L’Homme à la Tête de Chou’ — L’Homme à la Tête de Chou (1976)
Considered by some as one of Gainsbourg’s finest albums, L’Homme à la Tête de Chou is another concept album about a love story (that once again ends tragically), and its title-track is an excellent example of his reconciliation with jazz, mixed with progressive rock and exotic beats.
13.Aux Armes Et Caetera (La Marseillaise)’ — Aux Armes et Caetera (1979)
Yes, Serge Gainsbourg had a reggae phase. He went to Jamaica to record Aux Armes et Caetera with some of Bob Marley’s musicians, and his outrageous approach to France’s National Hymn ‘La Marseillaise’ was only supplanted by the duet with his daughter Charlotte, ‘Lemon Incest’, on the scandal scale.
Originally published at thefourohfive.com in May 2014.