By Jason Draper
In 1964, Serge Gainsbourg was still a little-known French jazz musician who, despite having long earned his chops in local clubs (including a stint backing Michèle Arnaud) and penned songs for Juliette Gréco (even then a living icon), was closing in on his late 30s and despairing at the lack of serious interest in the five records he’d released under his own name. So it might have been through despondency — though, just as likely, sheer audacity — that he decided to record an Afro-Latin jazz album with zero precedent in French-language music, Gainsbourg Percussions, released on 26 October 1964.
It was all done with a distinctly Gainsbourgian shrug, making it look easy (it wasn’t: the musical arrangement on ‘Pauvre Lola’ is exquisite; Gainsbourg’s commanding vocals ooze confidence while the laughing female on top adds a typically off-kilter element) while also caring little for propriety. Indeed, it would subsequently emerge that he had wholesale lifted the music for three Gainsbourg Percussions songs (‘Joanna’, ‘New York — USA’ and ‘Marabout’) from Drums Of Passion, a 1959 album by Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji, and a fourth, ‘Pauvre Lola’, from Miriam Makeba’s ‘Umqokozo’.
For Gainsbourg, this particular move perhaps marked the beginning of his transformation into iconoclastic shape-shifter. Hiding in plain sight, it now seems no less audacious than casually burning a 500 franc note live on telly (as he did, in 1984), or getting France Gall to sing the innuendo-laden ‘Les Sucettes’ in 1966 — a typically perverse way to celebrate his long-awaited mainstream acceptance.
Serge knew how to provoke people in order to promote his genius, and, in this case, the musical appropriation points both back and forward — to rock’n’roll’s African roots and Paul Simon’s later sojourn in South Africa. It also set the template for another of Gainsbourg’s controversies: getting Sly & Robbie and Rita Marley to help him turn the French national anthem into the flippantly delivered ‘Aux Armes Et Cætera’ in 1979, simultaneously dragging reggae into the French mainstream while turning himself into a target for death threats.
Purchase Gainsbourg Percussions here.
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