Immediately after cutting their striptease classic Je t’aime … Moi Non Plus in 1969, French songwriter Serge Gainsbourg and his English paramour, Jane Birkin, adjourned to the restaurant of their Parisian hotel. Gainsbourg, full of mischief, convinced the staff to play the record. As the song built, literally, to its climax – with the sound of Birkin in the throes of apparent orgasm – the room went still.
“Everybody’s knives and forks were in the air, suspended,” Birkin later told Gainsbourg’s biographer, Sylvie Simmons. “Gainsbourg said, ‘I think we’ve got a hit.’” And for decades, Je t’aime was the erotic novelty hit for which Gainsbourg was best known – at least outside of France, until a heart attack ended his life aged 62, in 1991.
Four years later, Melbourne musician Mick Harvey – then a key member of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – released Intoxicated Man, a collection of Gainsbourg covers, translated into English. In the liner notes, he explained “what might otherwise be an unnecessarily enigmatic project,” professing his bewilderment that Gainsbourg’s work was virtually unknown outside of French-speaking countries.
These days, it’s a different story. Gainsbourg’s legacy is everywhere: from season two of Mad Men (a jingle for a coffee company is a reworking of his racy 1964 single Couleur Café) through the work of everyone from French band Air to Beck to Arcade Fire. Bonnie And Clyde has been covered by a multitude of artists, including Luna, Tame Impala and Belinda Carlisle, as well as being sampled by Kylie Minogue.
And Harvey’s translations of the songs, which meticulously preserved the rhymes, innuendos, puns and endless double-entendres of the originals, are a major reason why. He claims as “a feather” that Birkin, with whom Gainsbourg also recorded the classic 1971 album Histoire de Melody Nelson, credits Harvey for her own continued ability to tour Australia and the United States.
Then he backtracks, as if wary of over-inflating himself. “Oh … That’s nice,” he says with a self-deprecating chuckle, when told that’s quite a feather. “It’s not necessarily the aim of what I’m doing, but it’s a pleasant side-effect.”
Harvey, who remained with the Bad Seeds until 2010, remains the perennial side-man, burnishing the songs of others seemingly in preference to his own original body of work. (Our conversation is punctuated by the roar of passing trucks outside a studio in Bristol, where he is rehearsing with another long-time associate, PJ Harvey, ahead of a forthcoming tour.)
Harvey followed the cult success of Intoxicated Man with a second volume of Gainsbourg songs in 1997, Pink Elephants. In 2014, the albums were paired together and reissued, with Harvey playing shows to support the release in Australia and Europe. Talk turned to expanding the project; now there’s a third album in the series, Delirium Tremens – with a fourth to follow later this year.
If that seems a bridge too far, consider this: Gainsbourg left behind well over 500 songs, many of them written for other artists including Brigitte Bardot – with whom he first recorded Je t’aime – Françoise Hardy, Juliette Gréco and France Gall, who sang his winning Eurovision entry of 1965, Poupeé de Cire, Poupeé de Son, a version of which will be on Volume 4.
If four album’s worth of covers devoted to a single artist seems obsessive, Harvey’s reasons for returning to Gainsbourg’s catalogue is disarmingly simple. “The first time around I saw it as a large undertaking, a daunting task, and took it all very seriously,” he says. “And at some point JP Shilo [formerly of Hungry Ghosts, now in Harvey’s band] suggested ‘Well, why don’t we do some more? Are there any other songs?’
“So I just started looking at the prospect of doing another album, and when I came back to the material I found that it was just really entertaining and great fun to engage with.”
Besides, he says, the first two albums were just the tip of the iceberg. “I used to ask in interviews quite often, when people would declare themselves to be big Gainsbourg fans, ‘Well, how many songs do you know?’ – and there’d usually be about three or four,” he says. “A lot of the songs on Delirium Tremens are some of his better-known songs in France – Couleur Café, even The Man With The Cabbage Head is from one of the now revered concept albums.”
Translating the material was no less of a challenge. “The toughest songs to translate [were] the two songs from the concept albums, The Man With The Cabbage Head and Cargo Cult … SS C’est Bon was the other one, with all the alliteration, that was pretty hard to solve, but I think we got there. It was a very funny song to do – kind of ridiculous, but with Serge, that’s part of the deal, the ridiculous.”
He also hasn’t shied away from the most provocative aspects of Gainsbourg’s oeuvre. For Pink Elephants, he translated Aux Enfants de la Chance, Gainsbourg’s parody of an anti-drug song, recorded for his final album in 1987 when he was at his most dissolute: “To all the lucky kids, who’ve never been on trips, shooting up shit / In substance I’d say this / Don’t try dragon-chasing / Don’t even think of freebasing.”
Gainsbourg’s willingness to shock and scandalise, Harvey says, was crucial to his art. “To shy away from the more controversial material would be to do the balance of his work an injustice, because that was a really big part of what he was doing. It’s not who I am, and it’s not even really a major aspect of what he does that I like, but I have to acknowledge that it’s there.”
Asked about the notorious Lemon Incest – which Gainsbourg recorded with his then-12-year-old daughter to Birkin, Charlotte, in 1984 – Harvey keeps a studied intellectual distance. “I don’t feel responsible for the content of those lyrics, so it’s really like a depersonalised event for me in some ways,” he says. (Charlotte Gainsbourg has publicly defended both the song and her father.)
“That song is a number of things. I think it’s a beautiful song, in a way. Even though it’s got a dodgy undertone, it’s actually very gently rendered. It’s a declaration of love, as well as being put in a manner to deliberately upset people.” He slips into an accent akin to John Cleese’s French taunter. “‘Oh, if I just put this line here and that line there, it will outrage everyone – and why not!’”
“I can take an arms-length position, really, because it’s someone else’s song. And anyway, I don’t think there’s anything true in that stuff … I think Gainsbourg, at his core, was a very gentle and loving person; I don’t think all the wild-man stuff was really who he was, until much later on, when he sort of descended into drunken idiocy. Before that he was a very considered and charming guy.
“I think if you just look at the list of artistically empowered, strong-minded women that he worked with, who just adored him and wouldn’t say a bad word against him, I don’t think you’re dealing with a boorish misogynist; it just doesn’t add up. The evidence doesn’t back up the idea, I’m afraid.”
First published in Spectrum (The Age), 17 June 2016