Maverick, bon viveur, raconteur and rebel. These are just a few of the words that describe French singer, songwriter, poet, composer, artist, actor and director Serge Gainsbourg. He’s one of the most influential and controversial figures in French culture. Serge did things his way. Often that proved controversial. A master of wordplay, his  lyrics are funny, provocative, satirical, subversive, shocking and thought-provoking. This was the case throughout his career. During his career, it was impossible to categorise Serge’s music.  His back-catalogue is best described as eclectic. He recorded everything from chanson, disco, jazz, mambo, new wave, pop, prog rock, reggae, rock ’n’ roll and ye ye. Serge’s music was also recorded by a whole host of artists, including many female singers. 

Among the artists who recorded Serge Gainsbourg’s Françoise Hardy, Marianne Faithfull, Juliette Gréco,  Jane Birkin, Brigitte Bardot and Michèle Torr. They all feature on Vamps Et Vampire-The Songs Of Serge Gainsbourg. It was recently released by Ace International, a subsidiary of Ace Records. Fittingly, Vamps Et Vampire-The Songs Of Serge Gainsbourg features contributions from  some of female singers who recorded Serge’s songs. They bring to life Serge’s music. Before I pick my highlights of Vamps Et Vampire-The Songs Of Serge Gainsbourg, I’ll tell you about Serge’s career.

Serge Gainsbourg was born Lucien Ginsburg in April 1928, in Paris, France. He was a twin and grew-up in a family of Russian-Jewish emigrants. His parents had fled Russia during the Russian Revolution. On his arrival in Paris, Serge’s father made a living playing piano in casinos and cabarets. He also taught his children to play piano. Little did realise that Serge would become one of France’s most famous musicians. That was still to come. Before that, the war interrupted Serge’s childhood. 

As part of a Jewish family living in Nazi occupied Paris, the war years proved to be a traumatic time for Serge. He was traumatised. Paris had been his family’s safe haven. Not any more. Serge’s family fled Paris, and headed to Limoges. They travelled under false papers. Limoges was unoccupied. However, the Vichy government collaborated with the Nazis. For Jews, this wasn’t the safe haven Serge’s family had hoped for. During the war years, Serge was badly affected by what he saw and heard. Later, his music would prove cathartic, for cleansing himself of these experiences. By then, Serge Gainsbourg had been born.

Following the war, Lucien Ginsburg became Serge Gainsbourg. That wasn’t the only change in Serge’s life. He got married in 1951 and with his first wife Elisabeth had two children. The marriage only lasted six years, before the couple divorced. By the time Serge married for the second time in 1964, his musical career was underway. This time, his marriage to Françoise resulted in another two children. However, the marriage only lasted two years. By then, Serge was about to embark upon affairs with some of the most eligible women in Europe.

During the early years of his career, Boris Vian inspired Serge. Looking back, this seems ironic, given his chanson style of music was perceived as old-fashioned. However, before long, Serge couldn’t resist experimenting musically. As the sixties dawned, ye-ye swept not just France, but Europe. Originally, Serge wasn’t comfortable with this style of music. So his music headed in the direction of jazz and then pop. During this time,  Serge spent time with Jaques Brel and Juliette Gréco. His solo career faltered and his early releases didn’t sell well.

During the early sixties, Serge met Elek Bacsik and Michel Gaudry. He asked if they’d collaborate with him.They agreed and the result was their 1963 album Confidentiel. It’s best described as an album the epitomes modern jazz. An innovative album, success eluded Confidentiel. It sold only 1,500 copies. Disappointed, Serge made a decision that day that changed his life.

Following the failure of Confidentiel, Serge was heard to say: ”I’ll get into hack work and buy myself a Rolls.” Despite this, his next album, 1964s Percussions was another groundbreaking album. Again, success eluded Serge. This reinforced his earlier decision to change tack.

Soon, this paid off. Serge was writing more commercial songs. These songs were performed by many artists. One of these France Gall. The French teenager sang Poupée de Cire, Poupée de Son which won Luxembourg the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest. This was just the start of a series of commercially successful songs Serge wrote. Over the next few years, Serge had the best of both worlds. Serge’s solo career continued. He was able to release groundbreaking music, knowing that the songs he wrote for other artists would become commercially successful

Over the next few years, Serge Gainsbourg penned commercially successful tracks for everyone from Françoise Hardy, Marianne Faithfull, Juliette Gréco, Marianne Faithfull, Jane Birkin, Brigitte Bardot and Michèle Torr. They’re among the twenty-four tracks which feature on Vamps Et Vampire-The Songs Of Serge Gainsbourg, which I’ll pick the highlights of.

Fittingly, Brigitte Bardot’s Harley Davidson opens Vamps Et Vampire-The Songs Of Serge Gainsbourg. This is one of two tracks on the compilation. The other is Contact. They were written for Le Brigitte Bardot Show. Having met on the set of the show, the pair embarked upon a hight-profile relationship. These two tracks feature on Brigitte’s 1968 album Show. Released on AZ Records, this was Brigitte’s fourth album. Of the two tracks, Contact is the best. Brigitte’s vocal veers between moody, defiant sultry on this slice of Euro Pop.

Françoise Hardy is one of France’s greatest singer-songwriters. One of her most memorable songs was the 1968 single Comment Te Dire Adieu. This is the definitive version of a song that was originally recorded as It Hurts To Say Goodbye by Margaret Whiting. Having heard an instrumental version, Françoise wanted to record the song. Serge was asked to write some French lyrics and the result was an evocative and beautiful song. It was the title-track to Françoise’s 1968 album. It also features Françoise’s other contribution L’Anamour, which is best described as tender, sensual and beautiful.

France Gall’s Poupee De Cire, Poupee De Son was kick-started Serge’s songwriting career. It won the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest. At first glance it sounds like many a ye-ye single. It’s not. It’s much more than that. Here, Serge showcases his ability as a wordsmith. Not for the last time, wordplay is high on the agenda. Sometimes, this got Serge into trouble. Not here. It transformed his career. The same can be said of France Gall. Poupee De Cire, Poupee De Son was the title-track to her 1965 album. A year later, Les Sucettes featured on France’s FG album. Featuring a tender, breathy vocal and understated, orchestral arrangement, it shows another side to France Gall and her music, one I’d like to hear more of.

At the start of his career, Serge worked with Juliette Gréco. So, it’s fitting that she controbutes two tracks. They’re La Javanaise and Strip Tease. Both are from her Juliette Gréco (8ème Série) album. Released in 1963, this was her fifth album. La Javanaise is the best of the two tracks. It epitomises the chanson style of music and features a pensive, heartfelt and heartachingly beautiful vocal from Juliette.

Catherine Sauvage was one of the first artists to record Serge’s songs. Previously, she’d specialised in bringing the poems of poets like Leo Ferre and Louis Aaragon to music. This was a stylistic departure. The two tracks are very different. Baudelaiire featured on her 1962 E.P. Catherine Sauvage Chante Serge Gainsbourg. It has a much more traditional chanson sound. As for Overseas Telegram, chugging guitars provide a rocky backdrop to her heartbroken vocal.  It’s a track from the 2006 box set Mister Melody-Les Interprètes De Serge Gainsbourg. Both tracks have one thing in common, Catherine’s emotive vocal, which brings Serge’s songs to life.

Having written the winning entry to the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest, Serge was seen as the man with Midas touch. All of a sudden, his services were in demand. One of the artists who recorded a Serge Gainsbourg song was Michèle Torr. Non, A Tous Les Garcons is a stomping slice of irresistible Euro Pop which featured on her 1966 E.P.

In 1967, Marianne Faithfull released an E.P. Hier Ou Demain (De La Comédie Musicale Anna.) Serge penned the title-track which Marianne sings in French. This was a departure for her, as usually, she records in English. Her delivery is flawless. She gets across the song’s nuances and subtleties, with a vocal that’s full of emotion, sadness and melancholia.

When Serge and Jane Birkin first met on the set to the film Slogan, they didn’t hit it off. No wonder. Originally, Serge Marisa Bereson to star alongside him. Soon, though, things thawed out and they embarked upon a high profile relationship. This more than made up for being dropped by Brigitte Bardot. Jane was more than an actor though. She was a talented singer. They recorded an album together in 1969. Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg features the sultry, sensual Jane B. and Con C’est Con Ces Consequences, a similarly sultry, seductive track featured on Jane’s 1983 album Baby Alone In Babylone. Fourteen years after Jane B. made her debut, her voice had matured like a fine wine.

My final choice from Vamps Et Vampire-The Songs Of Serge Gainsbourg is Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Elastique. Here was a woman destined to become either a singer, songwriter or actress. She was he daughter of Jane Birkin and Serge, and the granddaughter of Judy Campbell. This is a track from her 1986 debut album Charlotte For Ever. Against a new wave backdrop, Charlotte revisits the classic chanson style. This is perfect for the song. She’s her mother’s daughter, delivering a breathy, coquettish vocal. Even the rocky guitars work, bringing a new twist to her father’s song.

While I’ve only mentioned fifteen of the tracks on Vamps Et Vampire-The Songs Of Serge Gainsbourg, I could just as easily have chosen any number of the tracks. It’s a case of all killer, no filler. That’s thanks to compiler Mick Patrick. He dug deep, in his quest to find what’s essentially the perfect introduction to the music of Serge Gainsbourg. These twenty-five tracks are just the tip of the iceberg. After all, Serge was a truly prolific songwriter. It’s thought Serge penned over one-thousand tracks and released twenty solo albums. However, there was one type of artist Serge seemed to enjoy the most success with. 

He seems to be at his best when writing for female singers. That’s what he became known for. Indeed, his known and most successful single was Je T’Aime, Moi Non Plus, which he wrote for and recorded with Jane Birkin on their 1967 eponymous album. When Jane asked him to write the most beautiful song, this is what he wrote. It’s a true classic and one of the most sensual songs ever recorded. Sadly, like many of Serge’s songs it provoked controversy. 

Indeed, throughout his career, Serge seemed to court controversy. His lyrics weren’t the usual fare. The was more to Serge’s music that life, love, loss, heartbreak and joy. Subjects other songwriters dared to shy away from, were meat and drink for Serge. Often the way he did this was with subtlety. He used wordplay. Puns, paraprosdokians, dysphemisms and onomatopoeia were Serge’s secret weapons. With Serge’s lyrics, it was a case of listening carefully. Things weren’t necessary what they first seemed. Mind you, what did you expect from a wordsmith extraordinaire. That describes Serge Gainsbourg and is apparent when you listen to Vamps Et Vampire-The Songs Of Serge Gainsbourg, which was recently released by Ace International, a subsidiary of Ace Records.

Vamps Et Vampire-The Songs Of Serge Gainsbourg is the perfect introduction to Serge Gainsbourg’s music. It features contributions from some of the greatest French female vocalists. Among them are Françoise Hardy, Marianne Faithfull, Juliette Gréco, Marianne Faithfull, Jane Birkin, Brigitte Bardot and Michèle Torr. It’s like a who’s who of French music. Each of these songs have one thing in common, they were written by Serge Gainsbourg. He was one of the most influential and controversial figures in French culture. Serge did things his way. Often that proved controversial. A master of wordplay his are lyrics funny, provocative, satirical, subversive, shocking and thought-provoking. This was the case throughout his long and successful career. Sadly, Serge Gainsbourg passed away in March 1991. Twenty-three years ago, French music lost one of its legends. He’s sadly missed and Vamps Et Vampire-The Songs Of Serge Gainsbourg is a reminder of the man and his music.


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