Est-ce est-ce si bon?

Gainsbourg in the Culture Bunker

I: 1967

By early 1967, the French singer and songwriter Serge Gainsbourg had been a professional performer for nearly a decade. At 38, he had not quite perfected his image of himself – it would take the worldwide infamy of ‘Je t’aime . . . moi non plus’ two years later to achieve that – but he was never short of a paying date. In later life, he would be celebrated for his heroic drinking, womanising and serial Gitane-smoking, but during the ’60s Gainsbourg seemed addicted only to work. His output as a chansonnier, pop star, producer, actor and writer-for-hire was so prolific – so profligate – it is still being catalogued forty years later.

In January, Gainsbourg co-starred with nouvelle vague pin-up Anna Karina in the television film Anna, a pop musical written in collaboration with Michel Colombier, a landmark colour TV broadcast and successful spinoff LP. During the course of the year, he and Colombier would produce three further film scores – Toutes Folles de Lui, Si j’étais un espion and L’Horizon – and Gainsbourg would also provide incidental music for obscurities like L’une et l’autre and L’inconnu de Shangidor. He appeared in the TV series Vidocq and – naturally – contributed a number to that too, the Dylanesque ‘Chanson du forçat’. While Britain and the USA baked in the summer of love, Gainsbourg prepared for and filmed a substantial role in director Jacques Poitrenaud’s Ce Sacré Grand-père; he also made several other onscreen appearances, most notably as the Marquis de Sade in Abel Gance’s three-part historical television extravaganza Valmy.

Elsewhere, in his role as cultural mischiefmaker, Gainsbourg attempted to remount one of his greatest coups de foudre. In 1965, the barely disguised piss-take ‘Poupée de cire, poupée de son’ had won the Eurovision Song Contest on behalf of Luxembourg and become a major hit all over Europe for its singer, the yé-yé poppet France Gall. Now the tiny but very rich nation of Monaco had hired Gainsbourg to repeat the trick for them. On 8 April the winsome Minouche Barelli took to the stage of the Hofburg Imperial Palace in Vienna to deliver a new Gainsbourg composition entitled ‘Boum Badaboum’. To deafening orchestral accompaniment, Barelli clip-clops her way through a lyric which equates the singer’s burgeoning sexual awakening with imminent global nuclear apocalypse: ‘When I’ve tried everything – Boum boum! – I can leave without regret – Badaboum!’ (At this juncture, disbelieving readers may find a visit to YouTube useful.) The judging panels preferred the rather less bombastic UK entry, ‘Puppet on a String’ by Sandie Shaw1, and ‘Boum Badaboum’ finished in fifth place. But, in a popular phrase of the era, what a way to go.