Serge Gainsbourg is best know for the song Je t’aime… moi non plus (I love you… me neither). But don’t let that put you off.
Gainsbourg is one of the most important artists in French popular music. His output is diverse and covers numerous styles ranging from jazz, chanson, pop and rock to electronic, disco and funk.
This wonderful three-CD box set uncovers his foray into reggae.
In 1979 Gainsbourg flew to Jamaica and hooked up with two of reggae’s greatest producers, Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. They put together a stellar band that included I Three, Bob Marley’s backing singers.
Gainsbourg and Shakespeare decided on the name “the Revolutionaries” for two reasons. Firstly they believed reggae had transformed the world musical landscape with its new rhythms and, secondly, reggae was a revolutionary music linked to the struggle for equality and liberation. The result was two superb albums: Aux Armes Et Caetera and Mauvaises Nouvelles Des Étoiles. This reissue contains both albums, numerous outtakes and a live recording of a concert.
The music is fresh and vibrant and the lyrical content oozes with rebellion. The track Strike, is a triumphant call to arms, Bonnie and Clyde a sensual homage to the outlaws, and the songs La Nostalgic Camarade and Drifter are reminiscences of past struggles.
But the most inspiring and controversial track was Aux Armes et caetera, a reggae version of the French national anthem La Marseillaise. In this track Gainsbourg was trying to recreate the revolutionary meaning of the song.
The French press and the right wing rounded on Gainsbourg. Racism reared its ugly head. French TV and radio stations refused to play the track. One French radio DJ said it was a national disgrace that “black reggae artists” should play the French national anthem. The right-wing newspaper Le Figaro made anti-Semitic comments about Gainsbourg, who was Jewish. He also received death threats from veteran French soldiers of the Algerian War of Independence who also disrupted his shows.
Gainsbourg was no saint. He was a complex artist, often drunk and offensive. His music often courted controversy. The Pope denounced the song Je t’aime… moi non plus and in 1975, he released Rock Around the Bunker, an album that mocked Nazism.
As a Jewish boy, Gainsbourg was forced to wear the yellow star during the Nazi occupation of France. He and his family lived in hiding during much of this period, avoiding transportation to the death camps.