Tagged: Charlotte Gainsbourg

Mick Harvey: Delirium Tremens

In 1995, at the pinnacle of his success as Nick Cave’s right-hand man, multi-instrumentalist Mick Harvey embarked on the most quixotic of solo projects. He set about translating the songs of the dissolute, recently deceased French songwriter Serge Gainsbourg into English, resulting in two albums in just over two years: Intoxicated Man and Pink Elephants.

For the uninitiated, some context is necessary. To English speakers, Gainsbourg is best known for his 1969 erotic novelty hit Je T’aime … Moi Non Plus, first recorded with Brigitte Bardot and later, successfully, with longtime flame Jane Birkin. But his full catalogue is an embarrassment of riches. At his funeral in 1991, no less than French president François Mitterrand said: “He was our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire.”

He was also a notorious provocateur. To All The Lucky Kids is the funniest not-really anti-drugs song ever: “To all the lucky kids, in substance I’d say this / Don’t go near magic mushrooms / Or acrid marijuana fumes.” Then there’s Lemon Incest, originally recorded with daughter Charlotte: “The love we’ll never make together’s heaven sent, the purest, the most intense” – creepily recorded with “pa-pa-pa” backing vocals.

Both Intoxicated Man and Pink Elephants were cult hits, introducing a generation of English speakers to one of the oddest and finest songwriters of the 20th century. The arrangements ranged from the baroque to lean, muscular rock (singer Anita Lane’s vocal on Harley Davidson left Bardot’s original in the dust). Most crucially, Harvey’s translations preserved all of Gainsbourg’s brilliant rhymes, puns and mordant wit.

The albums were reissued in 2014, with Harvey touring behind them to acclaim. Now, 20 years later, he’s gone back to Gainsbourg’s well for a third time with Delirium Tremens – with a fourth volume due to be released later this year. The obvious question is, why? Harvey has answered that making the original records was simply enormous fun. Thankfully, they’re just as much of a pleasure to listen to.

In any case, Harvey has barely scratched the surface. Gainsbourg’s 34-year, pan-genre catalogue spawned well over 500 songs, and it remains both a revelation and a joy to hear them translated into English. Expanding the project allows Harvey to explore some of the (even) stranger corners of his oeuvre, beginning with The Man With The Cabbage Head – “Half-guy, vegetable from the neck”.

SS C’est Bon, from Gainsbourg’s controversial 1975 album Rock Around The Bunker, is a feedback-drenched march with an unsettlingly chirpy female backing vocal (the album drew on his Jewish upbringing in occupied France). The playful mambo Coffee Colour – possibly familiar, if you watched the second series of Mad Men – is a tribute of sorts to his, ahem, affection for Latina women.

I Envisage is at the opposite extreme, slowly coming to the boil over six minutes on a bass line that simmers under a dread-laden lyric. The sonic landscape here is most akin to the Bad Seeds in full flow, when Harvey, and not the Dirty Three’s Warren Ellis, was conducting proceedings. It’s easy to imagine Cave singing it, too, but the controlled menace of Harvey’s vocal gives it white-knuckled tension.

There are also pop confections such as A Day Like Any Other, sung with evident delight by Xanthe Waite, and the sinuous hard rock of A Violent Poison, That’s What Love Is (“What else is a life of the senses but a move of alternating / Between desire and disgust, from disgust back to desire … A violent poison, that’s what love is / An excess dose of which you should resist.”)

The album is rounded out on a romantic note, a duet between Harvey and his wife Katy Beale on The Decadance. Whether you enjoyed the first two excursions or you’re a Gainsbourg neophyte, Delirium Tremens is every bit as strong and enjoyable as its predecessors.

First published in The Guardian, 24 June 2016

Le provocateur

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/Sydney Morning Herald), 17 June 2016