Twenty years ago this week saw an event that brought the entire French population to a standstill. It was the day that Serge Gainsbourg – France’s answer to David Bowie, Mick Jagger and John Lennon rolled into one smoke cloud of controversy – died of a heart attack. So what better way to commemorate his life and legacy than a look at the 20 most scandalous things he achieved during his career?
1. Writing suggestive songs for Eurovision-winning 18-year-old girls
1965 saw French sweetheart France Gall take to the Eurovision stage to perform a Gainsbourg-penned entry, Poupée de Cire, Poupée de Son (later covered by Arcade Fire). A resounding win at the competition, combined with the success of their previous collaborations such as 1964’s Laisse Tomber Les Filles led Gall to trust Gainsbourg to a point that she would sing more or less whatever he presented her with. A trust that would be well and truly scuppered with the release of Les Sucettes (Lollipops) in 1966, the story of a girl who is “in paradise” every time “that little stick is on her tongue”. Upon discovering the dual meaning of the risqué lyrics, Gall refused to perform the song and never worked with, nor spoke to Gainsbourg again.
2. Dating the already married Brigitte Bardot
In 1967 Gainsbourg became infatuated with the French siren who, while enduring a difficult time in her marriage, agreed to go on a date with him. So intimidated was he by her stunning looks that on the date, he lost all of the wit and charisma that he was renowned for. Thinking he had ruined his chances with the sultry blonde, he returned home to hear a ringing phone over which Bardot insisted that as an apology for his poor performance on the date, he write her the most beautiful love song ever heard. The next morning, there were two: Bonnie et Clyde and Je T’aime … Moi Non Plus.
3. Recording songs in steamy, sweaty vocal booths (also with Brigitte Bardot)
Understandably, this upset Bardot’s husband. Upon hearing Je T’aime … Moi Non Plus, Bardot headed to a Parisian studio with her new beau to record it. Throughout the two-hour session, sound engineer William Flageollet claimed to have witnessed “heavy petting” in the vocal booth while the sighs and whispers were committed to tape. The song had been mixed and readied for radio when Bardot, remembering that she was married, revoked her consent for its release. News of the recording had reached her husband, German businessman Gunter Sachs, and after desperate pleas, Gainsbourg relented to Bardot’s wishes and the version was shelved. Bardot later went on to release the recording in 1986. And also to divorce her husband.
4. “Enticing” and entrapping a young English rose
This was how the wooing of his next major love interest was widely reported, but it’s not necessarily the truth. Distraught after the collapse of his relationship with Bardot, Gainsbourg occupied himself with a role in the 1969 film Slogan. Playing opposite him was a charming, young English actor called Jane Birkin. Under the impression that her co-star hated her, Birkin arranged a dinner with him over which Gainsbourg, 18 years her senior, fell in love. Unfortunately, due to the amount of alcohol consumed throughout the date, the first night the pair spent together was in a hotel room ... with Gainsbourg passed out drunk on the bed. The pair would remain a couple until 1980, and inseparable friends until the end of Serge’s life.
5. Moaning and groaning on record
After shelving the original Bardot recorded version, Marianne Faithfull and Valérie Lagrange (among others) were approached to make feminine “noises”, as it were, but both declined. A willing companion was, however, found in new love interest Jane Birkin. Rumours had circulated that the pair recorded some of the more intimate parts of the song by placing a microphone underneath their bed. In actual fact, the re-recording was undertaken in studios in Paris and London where the heavy breathing was claimed to have been meticulously stage-managed by Gainsbourg. Birkin has always denied the rumours of employing the under-bed recording technique ... for this song, anyway.
6. Getting rich by shocking the world
Je T’aime … Moi Non Plus brought huge success, notoriety, substantial record sales and worldwide outrage when it was finally released in 1969. It was No 1 throughout Europe, and was the first UK No 1 to be sung in a language other than English. By far Gainsbourg’s most successful release, the song is recognised internationally as “that one with the organs and the girl having an orgasm?”. The single sold millions and set the tone for what was to come next from the scandalous pair.
7. Getting banned by radio
Even though millions of copies of Je T’aime ... Moi Non Plus were sold around the world, the song was still considered too explicit for radio play. In the UK, it was the first No 1 to be banned by the BBC due to its explicit content. It was also banned in Spain, Sweden, Italy and even on French radio before 11pm. It has also been claimed that the Italian executive who permitted the release of the song was excommunicated by the Vatican, and in the US, limited sales and radio play led the single to peak at the oddly appropriate chart position of 69. However, Americans and Italians used thriftiness to get hold of the records, and in the end, all of this publicity didn’t do the sales much harm at all.
8. Writing a concept album about falling in love with a teenage girl, who subsequently dies in a plane crash
This was always going to raise a few eyebrows, particularly when you get your young girlfriend to pose as the eponymous teenage seductress for the album cover. 1971’s Histoire de Melody Nelson was Gainsbourg’s first concept album, the story of a man who knocks a young redhead from her bicycle and falls in love with her. An ultimately tragic tale, the album is now recognised much more for its musical prowess than any underlying Lolita-inspired tones. With strings and arrangements orchestrated by the profoundly talented Jean-Claude Vannier, musicians from Beck through to Placebo and Portishead have cited this album as hugely influential on their work, demonstrating once again how Gainsbourg could overcome a scandal to emerge the immensely gifted hero.
9. Suffering his first heart attack at 45
In 1973, at the relatively young age of 45, Gainsbourg’s years of smoking and drinking began to catch up with him and in May, he suffered his first heart attack. After collapsing in his museum-like home on Rue de Verneuil in Paris’s trendy St Germain, an ambulance arrived to take him to hospital. Before leaving the house however, Gainsbourg insisted he be covered with his highly fashionable, extremely valuable Hermès blanket as the hospital’s “own brand” ones were too ugly. Typical Gainsbourg, always one to go out in style.
10. Performing publicity stunts in hospital beds
While recovering from his heart attack, Gainsbourg began to miss the spotlight so called a press conference from his hospital bed during which he claimed he would reduce the risk of suffering a second heart attack by “increasing his intake of alcohol and cigarettes”. Found hidden around his hospital room on his departure were pill bottles stuffed with cigarette butts, from the sneaky smokes he’d been illicitly enjoying while “recovering”.
11. Casting his girlfriend in the role of the boyish-looking lover of a homosexual man
This is what Serge riled people with in 1976. The Gainsbourg-directed film, which shared the title of his hugely successful song Je T’aime ... Moi Non Plus was a complicated, explicit story following the difficult relationship of a gay man who falls in love with a boyish female (Birkin), and the sexual problems and emotional difficulties this inevitably leads to. The film was poorly received in France, and even more so in England where it was shown on only one screen – in an adult cinema in Soho.
12. Embracing Nazi rock
Paris, 1975. Thirty years after the end of the second world war. This would be a good moment, Gainsbourg thought to himself, to release Rock Around the Bunker, an upbeat concept album about Nazi Germany. The songs were set to swinging two-step beats, a return to a rockier feel after a few albums exploring more orchestral sounds. Opening track Nazi Rock tells the story of SS soldiers dressed as drag queens, dancing during the Night of the Long Knives. This song, combined with other tracks from the album such as Eva and SS in Uruguay led Gainsbourg, provocative as ever, to find himself in trouble for his comical take on a controversial subject.
13. Releasing a reggae version of the French national anthem
This has a tendency to incite hatred among your fellow countrymen. A stint in Jamaica was where Gainsbourg recorded his 1979 reggae-inspired effort, Aux Armes Et Caetera, of which the title track was a cover of the French national anthem, La Marseillaise. The album was a collaboration with reggae legends Sly & Robbie, who accompanied Gainsbourg on a subsequent tour that was plagued with bomb threats, cancellations and disgruntled protesting paratroopers. However, in true Gainsbourg style, the controversy was manipulated to work to his advantage, and the album eventually became one of his fastest sellers. Aux Armes Et Caetera sold more than 600,000 copies in France and is considered to be one of the earliest albums to have brought reggae to the mainstream.
14. Turning his house into a black, fabric-lined museum
Gainsbourg claimed to need the calming influence of black at his St Germain home to counter the relentless activity in his brain. Each item of his extravagant collection of objects was specifically placed around his house and according to Birkin, Gainsbourg would know if anything had been touched or moved. Surrounded by beautiful things, but also compelled by an impulse that would probably be described today as OCD, Gainsbourg strived to keep his home exactly as he wanted it. Being unable to treat the house as a home was reportedly one of the contributing factors to Birkin leaving him in 1980.
15. Setting a 500 franc note alight on French TV
For one thing, this was illegal. Yes. even if you are Serge Gainsbourg. 1984 would prove to be one of his more audacious years, seeing him cause all kinds of stirs. It was in this year that Gainsbourg burned a 500 franc note live on French TV in a protest against heavy taxation. Although an offence punishable by law, Gainsbourg would feel the heat from a different direction. As a reaction to the extravagant behaviour of her father, Charlotte’s classmates would retaliate by setting her homework on fire, punishing her for her father’s disregard for money.
16. Releasing a duet with his teenage daughter entitled Lemon Incest
This caused one of the biggest scandals of Gainsbourg’s career. Recorded with 12-year-old daughter Charlotte in 1984 (as previously mentioned, one of his more outlandish years), the song caused uproar in France, and even made headlines in the UK. The title, a play on similarities between the words “zest” and “incest” was considered shocking enough, but it was the video that would be the major source of complaint. Young Charlotte was filmed in a nightshirt and knickers lying on a bed with her topless father, singing about “the love that we will never make together”. The world was outraged, but the publicity led to increased album sales with Serge and Charlotte subsequently made a huge amount of money, proving Gainsbourg’s recipe for success, once again, to be a winning one.
Looking again to 1984, as though inspired by George Orwell’s authority-battling ideas, Gainsbourg once again managed to outrage the nation. In this year Love On the Beat was released, the title of the album being a play on the word “bite”, a colloquial French term meaning “dick”. The album was surrounded by controversy for Gainsbourg’s application of sexually driven puns. Also featuring his most highly contested release, Lemon Incest, Love On the Beat would go on to become his most provocative album.
18. Explicitly stating his sexual desires to Whitney Houston on French TV
After a performance on the French prime time show of Michel Drucker in 1986, Houston found herself seated next to France’s most notorious lothario for a post-performance chat. Little did she expect that the praise she would receive would turn into something sordid as Gainsbourg, in his best English clearly and confidently informed his host that he wanted “to fuck her”. Houston’s already highly blushed cheeks deepened a shade, and the scenario has never since been forgotten.
19.Taking his twisted ideas and ... making a movie out of them
As if the hysteria surrounding Lemon Incest hadn’t provided quite enough drama for the Gainsbourgs, in 1986 Serge took it a step further when he wrote and directed Charlotte Forever, the story of a young girl (played by his daughter Charlotte) living with her widowed, alcoholic father. The film intertwined stories of incest and suicidal tendencies that French audiences found distasteful and difficult to understand. This reaction was upsetting for all involved in the film and to make things up to his daughter, Gainsbourg wrote her an album of the same name with poignant, touching duets. His audience forgave him, and Serge went on to record his final release, a rap album entitled You’re Under Arrest.
20. Dying in style
Serge Gainsbourg would be found dead after suffering another heart attack at his home in Rue de Verneuil. It seems his decision to preserve his health by smoking and drinking even more didn’t quite work out. France stood still on hearing the news, and fans flocked to his home to pay tribute to the country’s most illustrious rock star. François Mitterrand, the president at the time, described Gainsbourg as “our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire ... he elevated song to the level of art”. Although leaving a legacy of scandal, drama and controversy, Gainsbourg is now remembered much more for his artistic ability, music and charisma. Serge Gainsbourg is still a highly debated, yet widely adored character. He also achieved what he intended, to have us all talking about him, even 20 years after his death.