Serge Gainsbourg

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Serge Gainsbourg
Background information
Birth nameLucien Ginsburg
Also known asJulien Grix[1]
Born(1928-04-02)2 April 1928
OriginParis, France
Died2 March 1991(1991-03-02) (aged 62)
GenresAdult contemporary, jazz, funk, reggae, French rock, French pop, electronic, New Wave, yé-yé
InstrumentsVocals, piano, guitar, bass, clavinet, accordion, harmonica
Years active1957–1991
LabelsMercury/Universal Records
WebsiteSerge Gainsbourg
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Serge Gainsbourg
Background information
Birth nameLucien Ginsburg
Also known asJulien Grix[1]
Born(1928-04-02)2 April 1928
OriginParis, France
Died2 March 1991(1991-03-02) (aged 62)
GenresAdult contemporary, jazz, funk, reggae, French rock, French pop, electronic, New Wave, yé-yé
InstrumentsVocals, piano, guitar, bass, clavinet, accordion, harmonica
Years active1957–1991
LabelsMercury/Universal Records
WebsiteSerge Gainsbourg

Serge Gainsbourg, born Lucien Ginsburg (French pronunciation: [sɛʁʒ ɡɛ̃sbuʁ]; 2 April 1928 – 2 March 1991)[2] was a French singer, songwriter, poet, composer, artist, actor and director.[3] Regarded as one of the most important figures in French popular music, he was renowned for his often provocative and scandalous releases,[4][5] as well as his diverse artistic output, which embodied genres ranging from jazz, chanson, pop and yé-yé, to reggae, funk, rock, electronic and disco music.[6] Gainsbourg's extremely varied musical style and individuality make him difficult to categorize. His legacy has been firmly established, and he is often regarded as one of the world's most influential popular musicians.[7]



Personal life

He was born Lucien Ginsburg[8] in Paris, France, the son of Russian Jewish emigrants, Joseph Ginsburg (28 December 1898, Kharkov (Ukraine) – 22 April 1971) and Olga[9] Bessman (1894 – 16 March 1985), who fled to Paris after the 1917 Russian Revolution. He had a twin sister, Liliane.[10][11] Joseph Ginsburg was a classically trained musician whose profession was playing the piano in cabarets and casinos; he taught his children to play the piano. [12]

Gainsbourg's childhood was profoundly affected by the occupation of France by Nazi Germany. The identifying “yellow star” Jews were mandated to wear, became a symbol which haunted Gainsbourg and which in later years he was able to transmute into creative inspiration. During the Nazi occupation of World War II, the Jewish Ginsburg family was able to make their way from Paris to Limoges, traveling under false papers. Limoges was an unoccupied city, but under the administration of the collaborationist Vichy government and still a perilous refuge for Jews. At war’s end, Gainsbourg obtained work teaching music and drawing in a school outside of Paris, in Mesnil-Le-Roi. The school was set up under the auspices of local rabbis for the orphaned children of murdered deportees. Here Gainsbourg heard the recounts of Nazi persecution and genocide, stories that resonated for Gainsbourg far into the future. [13] Before he was 30 years old, Gainsbourg was a disillusioned painter, but earned his living as a piano player in bars.

Gainsbourg changed his first name to Serge feeling that this was representative of his Russian background and because, as Jane Birkin relates: “Lucien reminded him of a gentleman’s hairdresser.” [14] He chose Gainsbourg as his last name in homage to the English painter Thomas Gainsborough whom he admired. [15]

He first married Elisabeth "Lize" Levitsky on 3 November 1951, and divorced her in 1957. He married a second time on 7 January 1964, to Françoise-Antoinette "Béatrice" Pancrazzi (b. 28 July 1931), with whom he had two children: a daughter named Natacha (b. 8 August 1964) and a son, Paul (born in spring 1968). He divorced Béatrice in February 1966.

In late-1967, he had a short but ardent love affair with Brigitte Bardot to whom he dedicated the song and album Initials BB.

In mid-1968, Gainsbourg fell in love with the younger English singer and actress Jane Birkin, whom he met during the shooting of the film Slogan. Their relationship lasted over a decade.[16] In 1971 they had a daughter, the actress and singer Charlotte Gainsbourg. Although many sources state that they were married,[17] according to their daughter Charlotte this was not the case.[16] Birkin left Gainsbourg in 1980.

Birkin remembers the beginning of her affair with Gainsbourg: he first took her to a nightclub, then to a transvestite club and afterwards to the Hilton hotel, where he passed out in a drunken stupor. Birkin left Gainsbourg when pregnant with her third daughter, Lou, by the film director Jacques Doillon.[18]

His last partner was Bambou (Caroline Paulus, grandniece of General Friedrich Paulus). In 1986 they had a son, Lucien (known as Lulu).[2]

Early work

His early songs were influenced by Boris Vian and were largely in the vein of old-fashioned chanson. Very early, however, Gainsbourg began to move beyond this and experiment with a succession of musical styles: jazz early on, pop in the 1960s, funk, rock and reggae in the 1970s, and electronica in the 1980s.[2]

Many of his songs contained themes with a morbid or sexual twist in them. An early success, "Le Poinçonneur des Lilas", describes the day in the life of a Paris Métro ticket man whose job it is to stamp holes in passengers' tickets. Gainsbourg describes this chore as so monotonous that the man eventually thinks of putting a hole into his own head and being buried in another.

More success began to arrive when, in 1965, his song "Poupée de cire, poupée de son" was the Luxembourg entry in the Eurovision Song Contest. Performed by French teen and charming singer France Gall, it won first prize. The song was recorded in English as "A Lonely Singing Doll" by British teen idol Twinkle.[2]

His next song for Gall, "Les Sucettes" ("Lollipops"), caused a scandal in France: Gainsbourg had written the song with double-meanings and strong sexual innuendo, of which the singer was apparently unaware when she recorded it. Whereas Gall thought that the song was about a girl enjoying lollipops, it was really about oral sex. The controversy arising from the song, although a big hit for Gall, threw her career off-track in France for several years.

Gainsbourg arranged other Gall songs and LPs that were characteristic of the late 1960s psychedelic styles, among them Gall's 1968 album. Another of Serge's songs "Boum Bada Boum" was entered in by Monaco in the 1967 contest, sung by Minouche Barelli; it came fifth. He also wrote hit songs for other artists, such as "Comment Te Dire Adieu" for Françoise Hardy.[2]

In 1969, he released "Je t'aime... moi non plus", which featured explicit lyrics and simulated sounds of female orgasm. The song appeared that year on an LP, Jane Birkin/Serge Gainsbourg. Originally recorded with Brigitte Bardot, it was released with future girlfriend Birkin when Bardot backed out. While Gainsbourg declared it the "ultimate love song," it was considered too "hot"; the song was censored or banned from public broadcast in numerous countries, and in France even the toned-down version was suppressed. The Vatican made a public statement citing the song as offensive. However, despite or perhaps because of all the controversy, it sold well and charted within the top ten in many European countries.

The 1970s

Histoire de Melody Nelson was released in 1971. This concept album, produced and arranged by Jean-Claude Vannier, tells the story of a Lolita-esque affair, with Gainsbourg as the narrator. It features prominent string arrangements and even a massed choir at its tragic climax. The album has proven influential with artists such as Air, David Holmes, Jarvis Cocker, Beck and Dan the Automator.[19]

In 1975, he released the album Rock Around the Bunker, a rock album written entirely on the subject of the Nazis. Gainsbourg used black comedy, as he and his family suffered during World War II. While a child in Paris, Gainsbourg had worn the yellow badge as the mark of a Jew. Rock Around the Bunker belonged in the mid-1970s "retro" trend.

The next year saw the release of another major work, L'Homme à tête de chou (Cabbage-Head Man), featuring the new character Marilou and sumptuous orchestral themes. Cabbage-Head Man is one of his nicknames, as it refers to his ears. Musically, L'homme à tête de chou turned out to be Gainsbourg's last LP in the English rock style he had favoured since the late 1960s. He would go on to produce two reggae albums recorded in Jamaica (1979 and 1981) and two electronic funk albums recorded in New York (1984 and 1987).

In Jamaica in 1978 he recorded "Aux Armes et cetera", a reggae version of the French national anthem "La Marseillaise", with Robbie Shakespeare, Sly Dunbar, and Rita Marley. This song earned him death threats from right-wing veterans of the Algerian War of Independence who were opposed to certain lyrics. Bob Marley was furious when he discovered that Gainsbourg made his wife Rita sing erotic lyrics.[20] Shortly afterward, Gainsbourg bought the original manuscript of "La Marseillaise". He replied to his critics that his version was, in fact, closer to the original as the manuscript clearly shows the words "Aux armes et cætera..." for the chorus.

Final years

Tribute graffiti covers the outer wall of Serge Gainsbourg's house on the rue de Verneuil in Paris, looked after by Charlotte Gainsbourg after her father's death

In 1982, Gainsbourg wrote an album for French rocker Alain Bashung, Play blessures. The album, although now considered a masterpiece by French critics, was a commercial failure.[citation needed]

After a turbulent 13-year-long relationship, Jane Birkin left Gainsbourg.[21] In the 1980s, near the end of his life, Gainsbourg became a regular figure on French TV. His appearances seemed devoted to his controversial sense of humour and provocation. In March 1984, he burned a 500 French franc bill[22] on television to protest against heavy taxation.[23]

He would show up drunk and unshaven on stage: in April 1986, in Michel Drucker's live Saturday evening show with the American singer Whitney Houston, he objected to Drucker's translating his comments to Whitney Houston and in English stated: "I said, I want to fuck her" - Drucker insisted this meant "He says you are great..."[20] The same year, in another talk show interview, he appeared alongside Catherine Ringer, a well known singer who had appeared in pornographic films. Gainsbourg spat out at her, "You're nothing but a filthy whore, a filthy, fucking whore". Ringer scolded back, "Look at you, you're just a bitter old alcoholic. I used to admire you but these days you've become a disgusting old parasite".[24]

By December 1988, while a judge at a film festival in Val d'Isère, he was extremely intoxicated at a local theatre where he was to do a presentation. While on stage he began to tell an obscene story about Brigitte Bardot and a champagne bottle, only to stagger offstage and collapse in a nearby seat.[24] Subsequent years saw his health deteriorate. He had to undergo liver surgery, but denied any connection to cancer or cirrhosis. His appearances and releases became sparser as he had to rest and recover in Vezelay. During these final years, he released Love on the Beat, a controversial electronic album with mostly sexual themes in the lyrics, and his last studio album, You're Under Arrest, presented more synth-driven songs.[2]

His songs became increasingly eccentric during this period, ranging from the anti-drug "Aux Enfants de la Chance" to the highly controversial duet with his daughter Charlotte named "Lemon Incest".[25] This translates as "Inceste de citron", a wordplay on "un zeste de citron" (a lemon zest). The title demonstrates Gainsbourg's love for puns – another example of which is Beau oui comme Bowie, a song he gave to Isabelle Adjani.

Film work

In 1960 Gainsbourg co-starred with Rhonda Fleming in the Italian film, La Rivolta Degli Schiavi "The Revolt of The Slaves" as Corvino, the Roman Emperor Massimiano's evil henchman.

During his career, he wrote the soundtracks for more than 40 films. In 1996, he received a posthumous César Award for Best Music Written for a Film for Élisa, along with Zbigniew Preisner and Michel Colombier.

He directed four movies: Je t'aime... moi non plus, Équateur, Charlotte For Ever and Stan The Flasher.

He made a brief appearance with Jane Birkin in 1980 in Egon Schiele Exzess und Bestrafung, a film by Herbert Vesely, and also starred at "Les Chemins de Katmandou", with Jane Birkin.


Gainsbourg wrote a novel entitled Evguénie Sokolov.[26]

Death and legacy

Serge, Olga and Joseph Gainsbourg's grave

Gainsbourg died on 2 March 1991 of a heart attack. He was buried in the Jewish lot of the Montparnasse Cemetery, in Paris. His funeral brought Paris to a standstill, and French President François Mitterrand said of him, "He was our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire... He elevated the song to the level of art."[27] His home at the well-known address 5bis rue de Verneuil is still covered in graffiti and poems.

Since his death, Gainsbourg's music has reached legendary stature in France. His lyrical brilliance in French has left an extraordinary legacy. His music, always progressive, covered many styles: jazz, ballads, mambo, lounge, reggae, pop (including adult contemporary pop, kitsch pop, yé-yé pop, '80s pop, pop-art pop, prog pop, space-age pop, psychedelic pop, and erotic pop), funk, disco, calypso, Africana, bossa nova, and rock and roll. He has gained a following in the English-speaking world with many non-mainstream artists finding his arrangements highly influential.

One of the most frequent interpreters of Gainsbourg's songs was British singer Petula Clark, whose success in France was propelled by her recordings of his tunes. In 2003, she wrote and recorded La Chanson de Gainsbourg as a tribute to the composer of some of her biggest hits.

His lyrics are collected in the volume Dernières nouvelles des étoiles.

Film biopic

A feature film titled Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque) was released in France in January 2010, which is based on the graphic novel by the writer-director of the film, Joann Sfar. Gainsbourg is portrayed by Eric Elmosnino and Kacey Mottet Klein.

Covers and tributes


Studio albums

Live albums


Film scores

Albums written for other artists

Tribute albums and posthumous releases


Singles written for other artists


  1. ^ Julien Grix is the name he used when he first deposited his songs with the Sacem in 1954
  2. ^ a b c d e f allmusic Biography
  3. ^ Obituary Variety, 11 March 1991.
  4. ^
  5. ^ Simmons, Sylvie (2 February 2001). "An extract from Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes by Sylvie Simmons". The Guardian. 
  6. ^ Simmons, Sylvie (2 February 2001). "An extract from Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes by Sylvie Simmons". The Guardian. 
  7. ^ 2003年4月21日 (月). "The 100 Greatest Artists – No. 62". Retrieved 25 January 2011. 
  8. ^ Ginsburg is sometimes spelled Ginzburg in the media, including print encyclopedias and dictionaries. However, Ginsburg is the name engraved on Gainsbourg's grave, and "Lucien Ginsburg" is the name by which Gainsbourg is referred to, as a performer, in the Sacem catalog [1] (along with "Serge Gainsbourg" as the author/composer/adaptor)
  9. ^ Sometimes spelled Olia, his mother's actual given name was Olga, as written on Gainsbourg's grave
  10. ^ "Serge Gainsbourg Biography – life, family, parents, name, story, death, wife, school, young, son, book, old, born, husband, marriage, time, year, scandal, sister, The outsider". Retrieved 25 January 2011. 
  11. ^ By LucienGrix No real name given + Add Contact. "1928 Liliane & Lucien Ginsburg | Flickr – Photo Sharing!". Flickr. Retrieved 25 January 2011. 
  12. ^, Robinson, Lisa, Legends, “The World of Serge Gainsbourg,” November, 2007, retrieved September 3, 2012
  13. ^, Ivry, Benjamin, “When You Feel The Jewish Life of Serge Gainsbourg,” November 26, 2008, retrieved September 4, 2012
  14. ^, Robinson, Lisa, Legends, “The World of Serge Gainsbourg,” November, 2007, retrieved September 3, 2012
  15. ^, "Serge Gainsbourg," retrieved September 3, 2012
  16. ^ a b Adams, William Lee (26 January 2010). "French Chanteuse Charlotte Gainsbourg". TIME.,8599,1956411,00.html#ixzz1Va7NJr9U. 
  17. ^ "Best-Looking Couples Ever". See Your World LLC. 
    JoAnne Good (Saturday, 9 July 2011). "Inside Travel: Pooches in Paris". 
    "Serge Gainsbourg's women: the music". The Telegraph (Telegraph Media Group Limited). 7 February 2011. 
    "Birkin, Bardot and Gainsbourg, the accidental sex symbol". The Guardian (Guardian News and Media Limited). 5 July 2010. 
    "Jane Birkin". Apple Inc. 
  18. ^ Wyatt, Petronella (25 January 2008). "Jane Birkin reveals the naked truth about being a Sixties icon". The Daily Mail (London). 
  19. ^ Album notes from Initials SG
  20. ^ a b Chrisafis, Angelique, The Guardian (14 April 2006). "Gainsbourg, je t'aime". London.,,1753018,00.html. 
  21. ^ Vanity Fair, "The Secret World of Serge Gainsbourg", November 2007
  22. ^ Roughly 75 €, but in 1984, 500 FF represented one sixth of the net minimum monthly wage in France
  23. ^ Hodgkinson, Will, The Guardian (5 February 2003). "Serge, mon amour". London.,,888892,00.html. 
  24. ^ a b Kent, Nick , The Guardian (15 April 2006). "What a drag". London.,,1754146,00.html. 
  25. ^ A controversial video for "Lemon Incest" featured a half-naked Gainsbourg lying on a bed with his daughter Charlotte. Phrases from the song include "L'amour que nous ne ferons jamais ensemble/ Est le plus beau le plus violent/ Le plus pur le plus enivrant" ("The love that we will never make together/ is the most beautiful, the most violent/ The most pure, the most heady").
  26. ^ "Tam Tam Books". Tam Tam Books. Retrieved 25 January 2011. 
  27. ^ Simmons, Sylvie, The Guardian (2 February 2001). "The eyes have it". London.,4273,4128684,00.html. 


External links