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Est-ce Est-ce Si Bon? Gainsbourg in the Culture Bunker

“Je défendrai le sable d’Israël,
Les villes d’Israël, le pays d’Israël…
Tous les Goliaths venus des pyramides,
Reculeront devant l’étoile de David.”

Serge Gainsbourg, ‘Le Sable et le Soldat’, 1967

“It all feels so silly being an artist when the Israeli army are sending tanks into Gaza. It seems such a whimsical occupation. What did you do in the war, daddy? Oh, I expressed my deep melancholy. Yeah, right. Fuck off!”
Robert Wyatt, interview, 2009

“Take me to the moon / It’s safe and I want to lie down.”
The Teardrop Explodes, ‘The Culture Bunker’, 1981

I – 1967

By early 1967, the French singer and songwriter Serge Gainsbourg had been a professional performer for nearly a decade. At 38, he had not quite perfected his image of himself – it would take the worldwide infamy of ‘Je t’aime… moi non plus’ two years later to achieve that – but he was never short of a paying date. In later life, he would be celebrated for his heroic drinking, womanising and serial Gitane-smoking, but during the 1960s Gainbsourg seemed addicted only to work. His output as a chansonnier, pop star, producer, actor and writer-for-hire was so prolific – so profligate – it is still being catalogued forty years later.

In January, Gainsbourg co-starred with nouvelle vague pin-up Anna Karina in the television film Anna, a pop musical written in collaboration with Michel Colombier, a landmark colour TV broadcast and successful spin-off LP. During the course of the year, he and Colombier would produce three further film scores – Toutes Folles de Lui, Si j’étais un espion, L’Horizon – and Gainsbourg would also provide incidental music for obscurities like L’une et l’autre and L’inconnu de Shangidor. He appeared in the TV series Vidocq and – naturally – contributed a number to that too, the Dylanesque ‘Chanson du forçat’. While Britain and the USA baked in the summer of love, Gainsbourg prepared for and filmed a substantial role in director Jacques Poitrenaud’s Ce Sacré Grand-père; he also made several other on-screen appearances, most notably as the Marquis de Sade in Abel Gance’s three-part historical television extravaganza Valmy.

Elsewhere, in his role as cultural mischief-maker, Gainsbourg attempted to remount one of his greatest coups de foudre. In 1965, the barely disguised piss-take ‘Poupée de cire, poupée de son’ had won the Eurovision Song Contest on behalf of Luxembourg and become a major hit all over Europe for its singer, the yé-yé poppet France Gall. Now the tiny but very rich nation of Monaco had hired Gainsbourg to repeat the trick for them. On April 8th the winsome Minouche Barelli took to the stage of the Hofburg Imperial Palace in Vienna to deliver a new Gainsbourg composition entitled ‘Boum Badaboum’. To deafening orchestral accompaniment, Barelli clip-clops her way through a lyric which equates the singer’s burgeoning sexual awakening with imminent global nuclear apocalypse e.g. “When I’ve tried everything – Boum boum! – I can leave without regret – Badaboum!” (At this juncture, disbelieving readers may find a visit to YouTube useful). The judging panels preferred the rather less bombastic UK entry, ‘Puppet on a String’ by Sandie Shaw , and ‘Boum Badaboum’ finished in fifth place. But, in a popular phrase of the era, what a way to go.

Gainsbourg released only one EP under his own name in the course of 1967, Mr Gainsbourg, which featured four tracks with Anglo-American titles – ‘Comic Strip’, ‘Torrey Canyon’, ‘Chatterton’ and ‘Hold-Up’ – in the style of contemporary English beat music (several songs were attempted with Yardbirds’ producer Georgio Gomelsky). To some extent, the EP was a knowing genre exercise like previous successful forays into jazz and African music. However, Gainsbourg enjoyed the experience of recording in London with British session musicians; soon it would be his preferred way of working.

Meanwhile, Gainsbourg the hitmaker turned out new songs for acts as diverse as France Gall (‘Teenie Weenie Boppie’), Stone (‘Buffalo Bill’), Dominique Walter (‘Les Petits Boudins’), Claude François (‘Hip Hip Hip Hurrah’) and, most significantly, Brigitte Bardot. His liaison with the divine BB seemed to inspire Gainsbourg to new heights of avant-garde pop genius: ‘Harley Davidson’, ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, ‘Contact’ and the first, suppressed version of ‘Je t’aime… moi non plus’ remain some of his greatest records. By the year’s end he would be filming Le Show Bardot for French TV and conducting an open and passionate affair with its star.

Although 1967 was arguably Gainsbourg’s most successful and productive period to date, in many ways it was just another working year. Let others grow their hair and kick off their shoes; for Gainsbourg there was always the next record, the next song, the next film. One of his sillier contributions to BB’s TV special offered ‘La bise aux hippies’ – a kiss-off to the hippies, the new youth cult which had rapidly become synonymous with the laid-back mood of the times. But for Gainsbourg, there was always more work to do, whatever and wherever that work happened to be. And why not? As the title of another song for Dominique Walter had it, ‘Je suis capable de n’importe quoi’ – I am capable of absolutely anything.

It was Gainsbourg’s fierce work ethic and even fiercer self-belief which resulted in the most uncharacteristic composition of that year, perhaps of his career. On the eve of the Six Day War, he was approached by a cultural attaché from the Israeli embassy in Paris. Would Monsieur Gainsbourg like to do his bit for his spiritual homeland? The army was in need of a new march, something stirring for the troops to sing at this difficult moment. (It was around this time that Harpo Marx bequeathed his famous harp to the nation of Israel.) Gainsbourg accepted the commission.

The song he produced was entitled ‘Le Sable et le Soldat’ – ‘The Sand and the Soldier’. Its rousing partisan lyric was intended to be translated into Hebrew: “All the Goliaths coming from the pyramids / will recoil from the Star of David.” A basic recording of the song, with droning organ accompaniment, was dispatched to Tel Aviv and that, as far as the composer was concerned, was that – job done, business concluded.

For reasons unknown, ‘Le Sable et le Soldat’ was never put into action and Gainsbourg’s demo gathered dust in the vaults of Kol Israel radio until the early 21st century, when it was rediscovered by a fan and posted on the Internet. “I will defend the sand of Israel,” sings Gainsbourg, “…die for the sand of Israel, the land of Israel, the children of Israel.” To the modern listener, there is something genuinely startling about it. In its own way, the song is more unsettling than well-thumbed infamies like ‘Lemon Incest’ or ‘Je t’aime… moi non plus’. The man who was born Lucien Ginsburg to immigrant Jewish parents, who as a boy was made to wear the hated yellow star, never set foot on Israeli soil and usually referred to Russia as his “spiritual homeland”. But here he is, apparently offering to lay down his life in the service of the Jewish state. He sounds disarmingly sincere. Officially, the song remains unreleased but one can find it easily on the web, where it is often accompanied by highly politicised blogarrhoea or co-opted as unambiguous propaganda.

We are still not used to musicians addressing us directly on matters of politics, or of taking sides in wars, though plenty have done – Robert Wyatt, for example, articulates a pro-Palestinian stance in keeping with a public, leftist world view. But Gainsbourg and Wyatt albums coexist peacefully on neighbouring shelves in my record collection (literally side-by-side; I only noticed it while writing this sentence). I don’t have to choose one or the other. All sides meet in the culture bunker.

Serge Gainsbourg had no reason to think that a demo recording made as a private donation would enter the global public domain many years after his death, in a manner which in 1967 would have seemed pure sci-fi. His words, which we mistakenly take as addressed directly to us, were supposed to be rendered in Hebrew, chanted by soldiers, unrecorded, carried on the winds of the Golan Heights and blown away. If we prefer, we can remind ourselves that this was a commission, just one of a number of projects or opportunities from a madcap, chaotic year. Or we can offer a final absolution to ourselves and the artist and simply say: it’s only a song.

But still, the question remains. “I will defend the sand of Israel … die for the sand of Israel.” Would it be worse if Gainsbourg really meant this? Or if he didn’t mean a word?

***

II – 1974

In his modest Left Bank house at 5 Rue Verneuil, Gainsbourg was becalmed; as Sylvie Simmons notes in her biography A Fistful of Gitanes, 1974 was chiefly notable for “a remarkable absence of Serge”. Après le déluge, moi

In contrast to the manic activity of 1967, Gainsbourg’s output for 1974 amounted to just one single for wife Jane Birkin and an appearance in the movie Les Diablesses. He masterminded a pornographic photo shoot for Lui magazine, with Jane in handcuffs and little else. He played with his little daughter, Charlotte, who was three years old that summer. Otherwise, as Paris quietly marked the thirtieth anniversary of liberation from the Nazis, Gainsbourg stayed at home and wondered what he should do next.

His previous LP, the playful, scatalogical Vu de l’extérieur (1973) had been acclaimed by the French press as a triumph, but it had not been a hit. On the album, the epic orchestral sound which Jean-Claude Vannier had concocted for Histoire de Melody Nelson (1971) was exchanged for Alan Hawkshaw’s small group arrangements, mostly for piano, bass guitar and drums. In musical terms, these were perhaps the least ambitious settings of Gainsbourg’s career, but the comparatively plain backdrop placed renewed emphasis on lyrics and delivery, an inimitable flow of puns, alliteration and innuendo.

Professionally, he was still enjoying the success of ‘Je t’aime… moi non plus’, five years after it had topped the charts, caused international scandal and earned censure from the Pope. Gainsbourg was working on a script for the film he hoped would be his directorial debut, also called Je t’aime… But the on-going notoriety of his biggest success also put Gainsbourg at a creative disadvantage. The ambivalence of its title would come to epitomise a new duality in his work; a moment of truth – je t’aime – contradicted in a shrug of denial – moi non plus. As time wore on, he would feel obliged to build every project around some new scandal, some fresh affront to public decency or bourgeois morality. In itself, this was not difficult to achieve; the bourgeoisie was easily outraged and Gainbourg was brilliant at it. The difficulty lay in making a record good enough (je t’aime) to justify the brouhaha which inevitably accompanied it (moi non plus).

It is often assumed that Rock Around the Bunker, the album dreamt up by Gainsbourg in the summer of 1974, is a debacle along exactly these lines, the incorrigible shock merchant’s “Nazi LP”. It is generally regarded as gratuitously offensive and musically pedestrian, at best. In Britain and the USA especially, it seems baffling that the artist who produced the sumptuous, sampled and adored Histore de Melody Nelson could so swiftly issue a follow-up which appears to be little more than a series of bad jokes, badly told. As one of the LP’s daredevil puns has it, Est-ce est-ce si bon? The answer is usually an emphatic ‘non’.

In fact, critics and biographers usually deal with Rock Around the Bunker by trying to ignore it. Gainsbourg’s posthumous critical reputation picks up again with L’Homme à tête de chou (1976) and the justly iconoclastic reggae ‘Marseilleses’ (Aux armes et caetera, 1979). On those rare occasions the album is written about, it is alongside long-playing ‘disasters’ such as Everybody’s Rockin’ or Self Portrait or Metal Machine Music – necessary aberrations in a brilliant career, legend-enhancing in their own way. Otherwise, Rock Around the Bunker is a staple of heritage music mag pieces about rock’s occasional flirtations with fascism, a footnote to Bowie’s “nazi salute” or Eric Clapton’s public pronouncements on immigration and stout defence of Enoch Powell. But it deserves a better fate.

By the mid-1970s, rock music was old enough to have a past; for the first time, nostalgia swirled into pop’s milkshake. Glam rock was tinsel and spandex, but it was also a return to the three-chord dogma of ‘traditional’ rock’n’roll. In turn, a wave of souped-up, retro rock’n’roll groups started to appear on the charts: Showaddywaddy, Shakin’ Stevens and the Sunsets, the Rubettes – ‘Sugar Baby Love’ by the Rubettes was a huge hit during the summer of 1974, selling over two million copies in France alone. In England, there were stirrings of a Teddy Boy revival. Self-proclaimed futurists like Roxy Music remade and remodelled the iconography of post-war America into something which was both new and “new”. American Graffiti and That’ll Be the Day were in the cinemas; Happy Days debuted on American TV in January 1974. Even “rock’n’roll future”, as epitomised by Bruce Springsteen, was a backward-looking package of 50s and 60s greatest hits. In Britain, this combination of introspection and retrospection was captured most perfectly in the theme song to the era’s defining sit-com, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? (itself a revival of an earlier hit sit-com):

“Oh, what happened to you? Whatever happened to me?
What became of the people we used to be?
Tomorrow’s almost over, today went by so fast.
It’s the only thing to look forward to: the past.”

There was also the phenomenon of ‘Nazi chic’. The influence of Visconti’s The Night Porter (released in France on April 3rd 1974) or Fosse’s Cabaret (September 1972) proved to be widespread and long-lasting. “The Liza Minnelli look in Cabaret had a huge impact on punk, if you think of Siouxsie Sioux,” Neil Tennant has said. “It was part of pop culture, it wasn’t just musical theatre or musical film.” An aura of Weimar decadence could be found in everything from Roxy Music to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. David Bowie, meanwhile, the original ‘homo superior’, was presenting himself as a kind of Isherwood manqué in Oxford bags and making statements to the press such as “Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars … he staged a country” (1974) and “Britain could benefit from a Fascist leader” (1976). Which would be all good fun – raiding the dressing-up box – were it not for a revival in actual fascism which was taking place across Europe at the same time. Jean-Marie Le Pen’s enduringly popular Front National had formed in France in 1972; by 1974 the British National Front had as many as 20,000 members and had managed to come third in three parliamentary by-elections.

Rock Around the Bunker, then, was conceived in an atmosphere of anything-goes revivalism. In a bunker on the Left Bank, with the Rubettes on the radio, Rampling and Bogarde on the silver screen, the far right on the rise and memories of occupation in the air, Gainsbourg formulated a response which was both profoundly sincere and scornfully facetious. Rock Around the Bunker yoked together two rival revivals – rock’n’roll and Nazism – and treated both with the contempt they deserved.

Let me be precise: heard cold, Rock Around the Bunker is not a great LP. I understand why many listeners prefer the grand design of …Melody Nelson to the concrete drabness of Rock Around the Bunker. …Melody Nelson swoops and soars; Rock Around the Bunker, on the other hand, is ersatz, wimpy rock’n’roll, 1950s-style, played with soul-sapping expertise by top British session men. At times it sounds like a listless Showaddywaddy with chirpy Dave Bartram replaced by a singer who can’t sing, making enigmatic jokes in French about Hitler and the gas chambers (and those are the good bits). For those looking to be offended, there is plenty to offend. But in what it says about its author and in how we listen to it today, Rock Around the Bunker is, I believe, Gainsbourg’s most consistent, compelling and relevant work.

The LP tells the story of the rise and fall of the Third Reich in roughly chronological order. To the non-French speaker, Gainsbourg’s barrage of puns, jokes and allusions can be mystifying (if you download this LP out of curiosity, keep a dictionary handy), but the sound of his words is plain: quick-fire, repetitive, percussive. Side one takes us from decadent Berlin in the early 1930s (‘Nazi Rock’), via Hitler’s intensifying lunacy (‘J’Entends des voix off’), to the chimneys of the concentration camps (a mordant rendition of ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’). So far, so kitsch.

Side two offers a more complex picture. ‘Zig zig avec toi’ might be more correctly heard as ‘Sieg sieg avec toi’; ‘zig zig’ is a euphemism for sex; and we also think of Ziggy Stardust :

“Zig zig avec toi, et lorsque ton corps zigzague,
Zig zig, toi et moi, Zig zig, hmm quel émoi,
Zig zig, oui je t’aime, j’aime ton petit corps bleme,
Zig zig, toi et moi, Zig zig, hmm quel émoi.”

In other words, this is a song which draws a line between fascism and sex and rock’n’roll, 1970s-style, climaxing in Gainsbourg’s droll request – “Tout le monde danse!” (‘Chain Lightning’ from Steely Dan’s 1975 album Katy Lied also deals with the seductiveness of mob rule but in far more elliptical, and musically tasteful, style.) ‘Est-ce est-ce si bon’? follows, another dubious pun parade. And then we come to ‘Yellow Star’.

For some ‘Yellow Star’ is the weakest point of Rock Around the Bunker, a failed get-out-of-jail-free card; by invoking his own Jewishness in such a convenient and glib manner, Gainsbourg is trying to pre-empt any and all criticism of the album’s subject matter. But this is nonsense. On ‘Yellow Star’, in marked contrast to ‘Le sable et le soldat’, Gainsbourg is fully, brilliantly engaged with the problem he has set himself. In three short verses, he sketches his emotion as a child who was forced to wear the “curious hieroglyph”. The ambiguity he felt then – “perhaps it says sheriff or marshal or big chief” – is matched by his blunt assessment of what the star means to him now, what it continues to mean for all Jews:

“Je porte la yellow star,
Difficile pour un juif,
La loi du struggle for life.”

(The song has a parallel in a famous Gainsbourg story from the same time. After the success of ‘Je t’aime…’, Gainsbourg commissioned Cartier to make him a facsimile yellow star made of platinum. It was both an exorcism and a gesture of magnificent disdain for both his past and present; as a Jew, he would always be wearing a metaphorical star, but at least it would be garish and expensive and on his terms.)

The album closes with ‘Rock Around the Bunker’ and ‘S.S. in Uruguay’. The former ends with an explosion, the wreckage of culture itself at the end of the war. Meanwhile, down in South America, a former S.S. officer wears a straw hat, sips his papaya juice through a straw and commands a small ‘rabble’ of loyal supporters. “Pour moi pas questionne de payer l’additionne” – “For me, no question of paying the bill.” The comeback – the revival – is only a matter of time.

Rock Around the Bunker was recorded in London in late 1974 and released in France the following year.

Appropriately, it bombed.

***

III – 2009

These days, Serge Gainsbourg’s place in the culture bunker is assured. Here are five things you already knew about him.

1. Histoire de Melody Nelson is Serge Gainsbourg’s best LP.
2. In 1985, he released a hit single and video with his 13 year-old daughter Charlotte called ‘Lemon Incest’.
3. Towards the end of his life he appeared on a TV chat show and informed a stunned Whitney Houston, “I want to fuck her.”
4. When Gainsbourg died, his funeral brought Paris to a standstill.
5. Beck really likes him.

In 2009, we know all we need to know about an artist’s great recordings: Pet Sounds, Revolver, Astral bloody Weeks. Magazines and newspapers chronicle the making of this or that famous record, again. DVD documentaries tinker with the master tapes of such “classics” as Bat Out of Hell and Rio by Duran Duran. Earnest scribes have written entire books about single LPs – why, I have written one myself (The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society; please note the pedantically correct title). Sometimes it can be hard to hear an album like, say, Blonde on Blonde for all the critical noise and chatter around it. Did I know Kris Kristofferson was the studio janitor? That Dylan kept the Nashville cats waiting until four in the morning? I did actually.

This has created the novel situation where, in the hyper-annotated 21st century, great artists are in danger of being erased from their best work. The Beatles music needs the new context of a Vegas show or a video game because the traditional platforms of radio, TV and magazines – of sitting and listening to records then checking what Nick Kent thinks – are all clapped out. Conversely, if you wish to be reminded of what made John Lennon or Brian Wilson or Van Morrison remarkable in the first place, you will need to look in some unlikely places.

For example, there is something properly thrilling about hearing John & Yoko’s Some Time in New York City for the first time, precisely because it is considered an unmitigated, irreversible disaster; no one is ever going to produce a version of Rock Band where you get to be the drummer in Elephant’s Memory. The lyrics are frequently risible, both in their political naivety and their McGonagall-like grasp of rhyme and scansion (e.g. “They gave you coffee / They gave you tea / They gave you everything but equality.” – and they printed them on the front cover!) But because the album has been dismissed and ignored for forty years, it has resisted cultural assimilation, and the bits which work – ‘New York City’, ‘John Sinclair’, ‘We’re All Water’ – sound scathing and difficult and loud and new. They sound like John Lennon in a way ‘Give Peace a Chance’, say, no longer does. They sound like rock ‘n’ roll.

I am not saying Some Time in New York City is a better LP than Imagine; it isn’t. Nor am I suggesting the Dylan neophyte ignores Blonde on Blonde and heads straight for Empire Burlesque. But the type of Gainsbourg listener who worships Histoire de Melody Nelson and dismisses Rock Around the Bunker is in danger of not really understanding either. Which would be a shame. In the words of Neil Young, who has made more than his fair share of inscrutable albums, it’s all one song.

It may be difficult to accept that Histoire de Melody Nelson and Rock Around the Bunker – and for that matter Gainsbourg’s later albums – are founded on the same sonic principle. In many of Gainsbourg’s records the musical setting and the words never quite gel with one another. In the case of …Melody Nelson, a non-French speaker need not be too concerned about this; Gainsbourg’s vocals are murmured, suggestive, and the music is both baroque and a colossal groove, which is precisely why the LP rose to prominence amongst ‘crate-diggers’ in the breakbeat-happy era of the early 1990s and has remained popular ever since. But on Rock Around the Bunker, the lyrics are central both to the concept and the sound of the LP – the groove, such as it is, emerges from Gainsbourg’s tongue-twisting delivery of the words rather than the purposefully antiseptic musical backing, and the feeling those words evoke is not intended to be one of eroticism or ennui. It is a nasty itch, a filthy joke.

“He used to grumble, ‘Why aren’t there any covers of my songs in England or America?’” Jane Birkin told Sylvie Simmons. “But people would say that you can’t translate things that have two meanings, if not three; it put them off.” A literal translation of Rock Around the Bunker loses not just the jokes but also the intensity, both of what Gainsbourg is saying and how he is choosing to say it. The LP’s power lies in that precise combination of style and substance. In this regard, it is significantly more punk rock than Siouxsie’s swastika armband or Sex Pistols’ superficially similar ‘Belsen Was a Gas’. At heart, it is an act of appropriation and confrontation similar to ‘No Future’/‘God Save the Queen’ or Nico’s ‘Das Lied der Deutschen’ or Gainsbourg’s own later ‘Aux armes et caetera’ (all of which provoked death threats or riots when performed in public), national anthems dished up as hate mail.

In later years, Gainsbourg performed little from Rock Around the Bunker and when he did the material was usually recast in the style of punk rock. It is certainly more fun to listen to and makes more sense to the modern ear than the slickness of the original, partly because we are used to hearing these kinds of lyrics attached to that kind of sound. But again, something is lost in translation.

The original Rock Around the Bunker is hilarious and brilliant in the way it skewers the era in which it was made. It is also tasteless, dumb and ugly. If such a thing is possible in pop – or any art – it offers a perfect aesthetic response to the Holocaust. It is also its author’s most truthful acknowledgement of his Jewishness, without self-pity or telling the gentiles what they want to hear. You might not enjoy listening to it but who cares? Gainsbourg’s heart did not lie in Israel but in his own calling as an artist and his skills as an artisan. He always found a way out of the bunker. Let’s call it a triumph of the will – Serge would surely approve.

But did he mean it?

Moi non plus…

Andy Miller © 2009

Serge Gainsbourg