46. Serge’s Reggae

Posted on 19/04/2017

46. Serge’s Reggae.

Serge Gainsbourg was a french-jewish songwriter and singer. His original surname was Ginsburg, and his family was persecuted by the nazis in the Second World War. His chosen surname reflected his art school enthusiasm for the English artist Gainsborough. Given the nature of his music and his love of shocking, the mid 18th Century landscape and portrait painter would probably not have reciprocated.

Gainsbourg became well known as a songwrite and singer, but he was involved in most of the arts. He is mainly famous for ‘Je t’aime, moi non plus’ (1969) with Jane Birkin which is largely about sex. But his two Jamaican reggae albums(1979 adn 1981) recorded with the famous rhythm section of Robbie Shakespeare and Sly Dunbar and with Rita Marley providing vocals are now more highly esteemed. Justifiably when you listen to them.


This is Gainsbourg’s version of the Marseillaise, the French national anthem. He was attacked at the time (1971) for blasphemous use of the anthem. But in a famous confrontation he stood on stage facing a group of army parachutists who had come to attack him. He faced them down, asserting that the anthem had a revolutionary purpose (as indeed it has (composed in the French Revolution) and its language is unlike that of any other national anthem.

His daughter is still keeping the flame growing:


[I cant make this link work in the blog text, but it does work if you put it into Google.]

It is a call to arms: most anthems are about the joys of the particular country. In the end Gainsbourg led the soldiers in singing the anthem! He also managed to buy an original copy of the words, which proved that his version ‘aux armes et caetera’ was correct rather than ‘aux armes citoyens’ as the popular version has it.

The following is a much later (posthumous) dub version of Gainsbourg’s reggae work, and has brought much addtional fame to his name. It also shows him smoking in numerous different poses.

The following is a video of ‘aux armes et caetera’ with Gainsbourg smoking live. Indeed in these no smoking days its wonderful to see him stubbing them out on the floor and lighting up in many differnt contexts. It features scenes such as war memorial services to stress Gainsbourg’s actual patriotism.

Sly Dunbar said that his and Robbie’s sessions with Gainsbourg were in his view the best they had ever done. This is remarkable praise, and shows Serge’s true musicianship.

Gainsbourg is an unlikely icon of reggae except in the sense of smoking a lot: he certainly does that.

The main words in this sont are ‘quand Marilou danse reggae’  (when Marilou dances reggae) said in numerous different ways. With the reggae beat this produces a charming effect, taken in the context of his husky voice topped up as it continuously was with further nicotine.

Gainsbourg’s natural tendency was to ‘epater le bourgeoisie’: to shock. But there was a good musician underneath and and he emerges in these reggae tracks. He also produced a number of ‘concept’ albums which are now highly regarded. His clown persona, sometimes allied to drunkenness, should not be allowed to obscure his serious worth.


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