Perfect Sound Forever

Serge Gainsbourg


Left to right: Alain Bashung, Serge (photo from gainsbourg.net), Alain Chamfort

His 80's collaborations
Bashung, Chamfort, and the Post-Punk Masterpiece
by Mikey IQ Jones
(February 2010)

As a longtime devotee and (somewhat obsessive) fan of the life and work of French songwriter/performer Serge Gainsbourg, I've witnessed more than one renaissance in critical celebration of the man and his deep discography. Though opinions vary on what is his true "golden era," one thing tends to remain a constant among even fanatics-- though the man passed away in early 1991, much of Gainsbourg's work in the Me Decade is oft-overlooked, somewhat unfairly.

It's true that production techniques may time-stamp an album and provide an unfair disadvantage in assessing the work of even one of France's most gifted songwriters; his last two solo albums, recorded in 1984 and 1987 respectively, certainly provide proof to that argument. Gainsbourg was a prolific songwriter and clever lyricist who bestowed his gift upon many a singer throughout the course of his entire career. It was my personal discovery of two particular albums written by Gainsbourg for other singers-- 1981's Amour Année Zéro, written for Alain Chamfort, and 1982's Play Blessures, for Alain Bashung-- that made me reassess my personal opinion of the tail end of Gainsbourg's career and look at it with a newfound respect and love... even for his own '80's LP's.

1980 was off to a rather triumphant start for Gainsbourg; he rang in the new decade with a sold-out New Year's Eve concert at Paris's Palace Theatre, performing songs from his then-current album Aux Armes Et Cætera alongside reggae updates of some of his classic '60's pop tunes, with a band that featured none other than the best reggae session players-- namely Sly & Robbie and the Revolutionaries. Aux Armes was the biggest album of Gainsbourg's career, and his first to be certified platinum in France; it proved to be a huge hit with the nascent punk scene, and the New Year's gig was filled with kids too young to remember his early jazz & Afro-Cuban recordings.

Despite all of this success, 1980 was also bittersweet; Jane Birkin, his lover, muse, and companion of 13 years, had recently left him for director Jacques Doillon, leaving Gainsbourg in an increasing state of alcoholic social disarray, which would continue throughout the decade. Birkin's departure would forever change Gainsbourg; he crafted his alcoholic alter ego 'Gainsbarre' as a sort of defense mechanism against criticism of his increasingly erratic, misogynistic public behavior on TV chat shows and interview programs, where he would set fire to French currency, call Les Rita Mitsouko's singer Catherine Ringer (who had a former early career as an adult film star) a 'prostitute, and tell Whitney Houston, in English, that he "want[ed] to fuck her." His lyrics, though, perhaps most clearly reflect and illustrate the anguish and pain he felt in coping with Doillon's absence: there are signs all over Bashung and Chamfort's albums, not to mention in the lyrics for the albums he continued to write for Birkin herself after their separation. This trend became most obvious in the lyrics of Gainsbourg's second reggae album, 1981's Mauvaises Nouvelles Des Ètoiles, whose song "Ecce Homo" featured Gainsbarre's first public appearance. Gainsbourg knew when to keep 'Gainsbarre' locked in a cage, yet 'Gainsbarre' was clever enough to tip-toe through Gainsbourg's songs, brooding and causing damage where he deemed appropriate.

After releasing Mauvaises, Gainsbourg was called in to work on a new album for singer Alain Chamfort, who started out as singer/actor Jacques Dutronc's keyboard player in the 1960's, before serving time as protégé to Claude François, the king of French disco. This wasn't the first time the two had worked together; Gainsbourg had provided lyrics to the entirety of Chamfort's 1977 album Rock 'N' Rose, as well as to a handful of songs on its 1979 follow-up, Poses. One of Gainsbourg's songs from Poses, the synth-disco stomper "Manureva," became a million-selling hit single in the French charts for Chamfort.

Keen to keep that success rolling, Gainsbourg was called back for the follow-up. What Chamfort received was cut from a similar cloth, but tailored quite differently altogether. Amour Année Zéro's musical arrangements, and the bulk of the album's production, were handled by synth wizard Wally Badarou, best known as part of the Compass Point All Stars with the aforementioned Sly & Robbie; his inventive keyboards have graced many an important and highly regarded album throughout the 1980's, among them Grace Jones's trilogy of brilliant Compass Point albums (Nightclubbing, Warm Leatherette and Living My Life). For Amour Année Zéro, Badarou sets Gainsbourg's songs in a lush, tropical jungle of synth textures that share similarities with some of his best work with Grace Jones and the Compass Point All Stars, and also prefigures the brilliant Afro-Euro synthesis of Badarou's own 1983 solo masterpiece Echoes. Chamfort maneuvers his way through thickets of percussion, warm, liquid synths and rubbery bass lines as he sings of ivory hunters ("Chasseur D'ivoire"), erasing the memories one gets from looking in the little black book of lovers past ("Amour Année Zéro"), comparing falling in love to contracting malaria in Malaysia ("Malaise en Malaisie," which would go on to be the victim of a dreadful cover by Manhattan Transfer) and Milton's concept of 'Paradise Lost' ("Paradis"). There are frequent uses of African imagery and metaphor in the album's lyrics, and throughout Chamfort's weightless falsetto hovers above the landscape like a bird working its way through the treeline. The album proved to be a sales disappointment after the million-selling Poses, allegedly only selling about 50,000 copies. Soon, afterward Chamfort would focus his energies as a producer to his then-girlfriend Lio for a her third album Amour Toujours.

In 1982, Gainsbourg found himself collaborating with Alain Bashung, who started out recording 45's in the late 1960's as a brooding pop idol, but who didn't make a proper album until 1977's excellent Roman Photos. Bashung was an interesting character in the French pop scene- his lyrics and delivery were much more dark, cerebral and brooding than the likes of Dutronc, Johnny Halliday, Dick Rivers (with whom Bashung worked briefly in the early '70's) and the rest of the Salut Les Copains-worshipped pop stars of the day. Oddly enough, despite being active since the mid '60's, Bashung never released an album until Roman Photos. From there, he was off and running, scoring his first big solo hit with "Gaby Oh Gaby," from his third album, 1981's Pizza. It was in 1982 though when Bashung hooked up with Gainsbourg, a man Bashung deeply admired and had longed to work with. Both men shared a taste for lyrical absurdities, biting wit, and dizzying, often humorous puns; they also shared an understanding for sacrificing commercial appeal in order to produce a more satisfying and affective final product. The two shut themselves away with smokes, booze, and a stack of sonic influences-- Suicide, the Durutti Column, the French cold wave synth scene, and '50's rockabilly, to name a few-- that cut deep through the album that emerged. Titled Play Blessures (translation: Play Injuries or Play Wounds), Bashung and Gainsbourg emerged with an album that stands as one of the most staggering entries in not only Bashung's discography, but in Gainsbourg's massive discography as well.

Combining icy synth textures, razor sharp guitars and crisp, minimal machinistic rhythms, Play Blessures remains a key document of the French post-punk sound, whether it intended to be or not. Yes, you read that correctly: Serge Gainsbourg made a post-punk album. From the sputtering bursts of noise and shards of splintered guitar that attack throughout album opener "C'est Comment Qu'on Freine" to the cubist rockabilly swagger of closer "Trompé D'érection," this album is unlike anything else either man had ever recorded before or ever would in the future. The slow burning frostbitten keyboards, rolling drums and fingerpicked guitars of "Martine Boude" sounds like Magazine keyboardist Dave Formula circa Secondhand Daylight sitting in with Vini Reilly and Bruce Mitchell of the Durutti Column circa LC, while Bashung delivers a surreal monologue about a depressed girl who grapples with sexual and identity politics. "Junge Männer" plays out like a hybrid of Suicide and Cluster, mixed by Dennis Bovell in the style of The Pop Group's Y. The rest of the album follows suit, with the focus on lean, minimal, no-frills arrangements of rather sharp, cold and diamond-hard sonics. Gainsbourg is at perhaps his most surrealistically nihilistic on this album- his puns, onomatopoeas, and rather explicit verbal aggression swing like wrecking balls via Bashung's snarling, bile-filled delivery.

The album, of course, did not sell upon release. It was too brash, too dark, too rude for even most punk fans, let alone the casual pop fan. It has, over time though, become one of the most highly regarded albums in Bashung's discography, often featured in obligatory "Best Albums of All Time" lists in the French press, and oft-regarded as a cult classic.

If you want to hear these albums, you'll most likely have to get them from French retailers. Both albums are currently in print on CD as of this writing, and both performers went on to have acclaimed careers of sustained commercial and critical longevity. Chamfort is alive and kicking, still performing live, though he hasn't released an album since 2006. Bashung went on to work extensively over the years with Marc Ribot, Arto Lindsay, Martyn Ware (Human League/Heaven 17) and Steve Nieve (from Elvis Costello's band) amongst others over the course of nine more highly acclaimed studio albums. He passed away, sadly, in March of 2009, succumbing to cancer just weeks after recieving a record-breaking number of awards at the Victoires de la Musique ceremony-- the French Grammys, essentially-- in honor of his excellent final album, Bleu Petrole and its subsequent tour. The awards he recieved for Bleu Petrole went on to make him the most awarded artist in French music history at the Victoires de la Musique, and his back catalogue is currently undergoing a deep restoration and reexamination since his passing.

Neither performer ever worked with Gainsbourg again but the experiences of those collaborations proved to be formative in each man's career trajectory. Chamfort's later albums are all rather accessible and user-friendly, though in my opinion they do vary in quality. Bashung's albums veer between more accessible variations on the formula established on Play Blessures, a bit of Leonard Cohen/Nick Cave-esque loner balladry and storytelling, and obtuse, heavily experimental sounscapes akin to recent Scott Walker albums like Tilt and The Drift. Bashung in particular proved to be a lasting influence and inspiration to me personally, and much like Gainsbourg, I've grown to love and appreciate the man's entire discography. Both of these albums changed my life; while I can't guarantee that they'll do the same to you, I think they'll at least provide evidence that Gainsbourg still had his shit together and came correct in the 1980's.

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