Of any celebrated recording artist of the past 60 years, there is no stylistic phase more neglected than Serge Gainsbourg’s first four records. This could be for a variety of reasons, each one posing as a serious stumbling block both for casual listeners and dedicated Serge cultists alike. For starters, these records have nothing in common with the whisky-and-Gitanes-ravaged spoken word musings of the “Bonnie & Clyde” era Gainsbourg everyone knows and adores. They also lack the cocksure grace Serge somehow achieved in his late 30s and 40s, the stylishly rumpled silver haired dandy with Bardot or Birkin on his arm who could toss off ennui-infused classic love ballads in five minutes flat. But the most damning aspect about Serge’s first forays into the LP form is that they lack the sense of exploration and innovation that mid-period stone cold classics like Histoire de Melody Nelson and L’Homme à tête de chou oozed from every groove. Serge himself claimed to never listen to his early stuff, and they have thus been relegated to mere footnote status in The Master’s expansive catalog.
In many ways it’s tough to believe that these records even exist or that they were made by the same compelling lech who drunkenly propositioned Whitney Houston on live French television decades later. And yet there they sit in Serge’s Spotify list and streaming on Youtube. Each of these four albums has been dutifully reissued on vinyl over the years as well. These aren’t some lost albums you have to search years to get your hands on. You can reach out and touch them anytime you like, a high school yearbook showing a suave, sophisticated friend during his geeked-out teenage years, only this one left open on the table at all times.
What you find if you choose to explore these records is surprising. Here we have a clean-shaven Serge rocking late-50s square detective suits and a crop-top that fails to cover those adorable pointy bat ears. On two of the covers he almost appears handsome, non-traditionally so mind you, but definitely closer to angelic than you would ever have expected Serge to be. The lack of worry-lines and sleep-deprived eye baggage is shocking for Serge disciples more accustomed to the proudly haggard composer of his prime time years. On the others he seems downright macabre, goth even, in a way his more loveable older self easily sidestepped even with his darkest material. And then there’s the singing voice. Yes, Serge is actually singing on these records. He isn’t talking his way through these songs. His vocal chords are not yet ravaged into the seductive whisper you think of when you imagine Serge Gainsbourg. No, he is real deal crooning here in a lilting, versatile but unstudied voice that can drop from near-falsetto to seductively-growled syllables in the same line or sometimes within a single word. The self-reverence of his later years is nowhere in sight. Serge sounds cautious and guarded much of the time, as if he’s just dipping his toes into this whole singing thing. The all-knowing confidence of his later years is nowhere in sight. The young Serge is icy as opposed to engagingly eccentric, fully withdrawn instead of casually aloof, seemingly a thousand light years away from the modernist master who would come into full focus just five years after these records were laid down.
So what of the music then? Well, it’s fantastic. While Serge’s overall persona may be in development and these records may not sound like anything in his later catalog, I still prefer them to anything he did from 65 onward. If I’m going to put on Serge Gainsbourg album, it isn’t going to be Melody Nelson or the Birkin duet record. It’s going to be his debut, Du chant à la une!, hands down. But before you start shooting, please allow me to explain.
The first striking thing about Du chant à la une! is the cover. This is NOT one of the “oh my god Serge was almost handsome” early record covers. Here he looks like a malevolent young count with pursed lips and possibly the coldest glare ever mustered for any album cover in the history of recorded music. Serge hates you, the listener. This much is clear from before you’ve even put on his very first record. If the guy doesn’t get enough punk credit, then consider this shot gracing a debut album in 1958 and please give Serge the points he is so clearly due. Or don’t. He clearly doesn’t give a fuck either way.
It isn’t often that an artist kicks off the very first track of their very first album with the very finest song of their career, but I truly believe this to be the case with Monsieur Gainsbourg. “Le Poinçonneur des Lilas” gallops right out the gate with a boppy swing Sinatra would have admired but been reluctant to subject his fanbase to. Do you think Frank ever heard this song? It’s a savage deconstruction of everything he and his fellow dinosaur crooners stood for, but it obviously comes from a man who studied and admired the music they created. It’s as if Serge started out trying to pay homage to a genre but got bored and lit it on fire instead. The upright bass snaps harder than it has any right to, the piano in controlled overdrive, and the strings swooping in and out like flocks of drunken birds. Serge spits his words out venomously, stuffing so many syllables into each line it makes Dylan seem like a master of lyrical minimalism. From time-to-time he trips over his own words but dusts himself off and keeps going, smashing verses into choruses and back into verses like he can’t quite keep up with the rhythm but doesn’t really care. Even if you don’t know a lick of French, somehow it just seems so right that this song is about a ticket puncher on the Paris Metro who ends up punching a hole in his own head because he just can’t take it anymore. You can feel that the song is about something macabre and specific even if you don’t know exactly what it is. Serge drives such a blackened vibe into the track that it goes beyond language. It connects. You just know. In his later days he may have been more innovative, but he never wrote a song quite as sharp as “Le Poinçonneur des Lilas” ever again.
Just the fact that there are other tracks on this record that manage to come close to “Le Poinçonneur des Lilas” is testament to just how packed with gems this nine cannon shot really is. If it’s more pitch black ennui you’re after, then “L’alcool” should be your fix with its loping, sinister rhythm and icy, decadent resolve. Again there is no need for an understanding of the French language to feel the setting here, the oak bar stained with the dregs of spilled apéritifs, patrons sitting alone musing about unobtainable women, the Gitanes smoke enveloping the scene like a comforting blanket, the jazz from the jukebox, the bored barkeep yawning with his elbows on the bar, keeping his eyes out for trouble, the hour passing from a manageable 2 AM to a more desperate 3 AM and on into the desolate predawn. These are the scenes the then-unknown piano player and singer would sit in after his gigs, often with no place to go, the places where the devil first blessed him with his defining tastes for booze, smokes, infinite longings, and the feeling bleeds through the grooves of this record in an effortless sweep.
Du chant à la une! isn’t all ennui and noire black, and this is one of the more confusing aspects about Gainsbourg’s early output. You’ve just never heard Serge do this kind of jaunty material before. On “La Recette de l’Amour Fou” he sounds as light and airy as the twinkling keys and schmaltzy strings in the background, giddy even, and when he messes up the very last line and the song collapses in a fit of giggling you realize that this is as loose and non-perfectionist as Serge would ever allow himself to be on record, and if you’re anything like me you will find it very refreshing. The same goes for “Charleston les Déménageurs de Piano” where serge bangs so hard on the piano it causes the thing to go out of tune like one of the crescendos on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or something. It isn’t an aggressive song. Serge isn’t attacking the instrument. It’s a happy track and he’s clearly having fun. It may even be a first take. First takes and fun were not something this meticulous and ennui-infused composer was well known for in his prime period. Of course he was often funny, but did he ever sound like he was actually having fun? In order to experience this, you have to go all the way back to some of these more upbeat tracks in this forgotten early corner of his career.
Stranger still is “La Femme des uns Sous le Corps des Autres” where a vaguely Caribbean feel seeps in out of some perverse crevice in the young singer’s head. If you were to strip the song of its French patois and replace it with, say, the voice of Cab Calloway it wouldn’t sound very far off. So what was Mr. Gainsbourg doing with a track such as this? Was he up to tricks? It certainly doesn’t sound like it. His delivery is straight as an arrow and the backing tracks contain no telltale quirks that would betray them as parody. Did Serge actually play around with the idea of being a traditional late-50s crowd-pleasing dinner club singer? This concept is somehow much more exciting than the deconstructionism theory, and the fact that he almost pulled it off is testament to the young Serge’s versatility. Granted, the lyrics are most likely not your standard pearls and steak dinner material, but who would know anyway? Don’t forget that the young Gainsbourg spent many a year singing standards in piano bars from Paris to Le Touquet and back. This gave him the chops, if not the ability to quell his darker lyrical impulses, to really pull this kind of thing off. With his devious tendencies safely cloaked in a language barrier, Serge could have been the French Dino.
This record is so packed with strange gems it can cause you to overlook some key moments. There’s the off-kilter rhythm of “Douze belles dans la peau” that’s so complicated Serge himself has trouble counting it off. You have the smooth, glazed-sounding “Ce Mortel Ennui” with its tricky guitar fills early Serge at his most expressive throughout. “Ronsard 58” is simply immortal and is delivered in the “spit it out and get out of the studio and get to drinking” style as “Le Poinçonneur des Lilas”, with Serge whispering the last line like a preview of the talk-singing necromancer he would soon blossom into. The slinky, swinging jazz of “Du Jazz Dans le Ravin” is so supremely vibey it only needs 2:10 to make its point. Only “L’alcool” passes the three minute mark, but you will barely notice the song lengths. These tracks are perfect in their delivery and design, not wasting a single moment or overstaying their welcome, giving you the exact fix you need and then getting out of the way as the effects take hold.
With its mix of hard-driving, jazz-tinged deconstructionist standards, off-kilter crooner ballads, and left-field giddy romps, Du chant à la une! is simultaneously the most scattershot and the most through-and-through listenable album of Serge Gainsbourg’s entire catalog. All those years of low paying gigs in transvestite bars in Quarter Pigalle bleed through onto every inch of this album. Already a wizard, Serge effortlessly morphs between genres, tones, and voice styles, delivering an engaging and highly enjoyable record from front to back.
This may not be the Serge Gainsbourg you know and love, but it definitely could be.