gall and gumption

Thursday, November 06, 2008

I May Have to Get This Book

Excerpts from a biography of Serge Gainsbourg at the Guardian. If I had a second whack at life I'd like to be crazy like this. I mean, really, you might as well live.

A week had been booked at Island's Dynamic Sounds studio, a place Gainsbourg would describe to Birkin on his return (with a touch of artistic licence) as the most primitive place imaginable, with chickens clucking about on top of the mixing board. At the outset, it looked like it might turn out to be seven days too long.

"When we arrived," said Lerichomme, "the engineer wasn't there and we couldn't really communicate because Jamaicans speak a special kind of English we found difficult to understand, and for a while Robbie didn't know which one of us was the singer and kept talking to me - because Gainsbourg was older than me and he was wearing a suit." Not that they gave the impression of caring either way. "It was quite tense, no one smiling - it was a case of take the money and run. Gainsbourg, to try to ease the atmosphere, tried to talk to them and said, 'Do you know any French music?' and they started to take the piss out of us, 'French music? We're Jamaican.'

"Gainsbourg and I looked at each other, crestfallen. This wasn't good. Then Sly said, 'We know just one piece of French music, a song called Je T'Aime . . . Moi Non Plus, which has a girl groaning in it.' And Gainsbourg said in English, 'It's me'. That changed the whole mood. We recorded very, very fast, and when it was done they didn't want to leave. They hung around the studio to hear the playbacks, smoking their enormous spliffs, saying, 'Great! Brilliant!' "

Drummer Sly Dunbar remembered getting a call from Chris Blackwell, the head of Island Records. "He said this French guy wants to work with us, but he didn't realise he was the guy who did Je T'Aime - it was very popular in Jamaica. We couldn't believe it. He didn't say why he wanted to do a reggae album. So when we met him here in Kingston we said, 'So, we're going to make it polished?' And he said no, no, no, he wants it raw. It took less than a week to do everything. He just sang and said he wanted us to play reggae, so we just played reggae, and he didn't say anything - he was into the music, but he was also having a good time. He was constantly smoking and drinking but he never looked drunk. I didn't see him smoke ganja, it was just his French cigarettes in the blue pack.

"He was singing in French. We didn't know what he was singing about, but his singing was good and the melodies were great." Perhaps it was for the best that they didn't know. Relax Baby Be Cool - one of the album's perkier tracks, a mix of reggae, 1960s R&B and comic-strip "bing-boong" noises - is a chat-up routine taking place against a backdrop of hooded Klansmen, morgues and blood running through the streets. The minimalist lyrics of Eau et Gaz à Tous les Etages (Water and Gas on Every Floor) has a man taking his dick out and pissing and farting his way upstairs. The slinky singalong Lola Rastaquouère is an ode to an underage rasta girl whose breasts are "two spheres that I would give up two months' pay for, just to get to roll my poor joint between them".

But the song that made Gainsbourg notorious, the song that had the album flying out of the shops back home in France, was the second track, Aux Armes et Caetera, released in 1979. Over a swaying backdrop of laid-back reggae with a patter of percussion and slinky support vocals from the I Threes, an understated Gainsbourg talk-sings the words familiar to every Frenchman: " Allons enfants de la patrie/ Le jour de gloire est arrivé " - the opening lines of the French national anthem. It was a masterstroke. Hearing a bunch of Jamaicans messing with La Marseillaise was, for the French, the equivalent of the Sex Pistols' God Save the Queen and Jimi Hendrix's Star-Spangled Banner rolled into one.

If we had ever chanced to meet I would probably have broken my heart over him.


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