serge gainsbourg - "vu de l'exterieur"
serge gainsbourg. what does the name mean to you? casual viewers of television programmes such as "eurotrash" will undoubtedly tell you that gainsbourg was that dirty old sod who sang "je t'aime" with jane birkin and groped her backside constantly throughout the video clip. if you're lucky, you may be told that he wrote a few eurovision standards for young girl singers like france gall.
a crying shame that this attitude prevails in the u.k. in
reference to gainsbourg. still relatively unknown outside of his
native paris, serge recorded several wonderful records between
the early 60s and 90s, covering such a range of musical styles
and incorporating so many different influences that 'eclectic'
seems rather a weak term to describe his prolific output.
if you're lucky enough to find a decent review of one of his albums written in english, no doubt it will be of the 1971 "le histoire de melody nelson" album, an ambitious but intimate masterpiece which has enjoyed a renaissance, due to a re-release on philips a few years ago. "vu de l'exterieur" from 1973 is of an equally high standard, but is still criminally overlooked, despite featuring some of his most intimate work.
the album artwork features photos of gainsbourg interspersed with those of monkeys and apes. low self-esteem and a wry sense of humour combined to produce this playful image - insecurity without the whinging, whining and self-pity that usually goes with it. the inside of the gatefold depicts a very suave and confident-looking serge in jeans and pinstripe jacket, collar open. contradictory, but it makes total sense if you've read anything about his character.
the record starts with "je suis venu te dire que je m'en vais" - roughly translated in english, this means "i've come to tell you i'm going". from the outset, the sound is a very upfront small group mood - just the basics of modern electric instrumentation, with gainsbourg's voice to the front, but barely rising above a whisper. this sets the scene for the entire record - where songs about love, farting animals and shaving sit next to each other and actually work together as an album. eclectic to say the least.
there's a certain spontaneity about it all. it's dark like good chocolate, but there's also a dry sense of humour at it's heart which is spread throughout the tracks, like good molten chocolate perhaps. gainsbourg sniggers at points in songs such as "des vents des pets des poums" (the one about farting animals) and on "l'hippopodame", from the start you can tell that he's barely managing to control his cheeky mirth - the song ends in a heap when the entire band can't manage it any longer. every time you listen to this track, you can't help but be completely drawn into it and end up with a grin on your face, the feeling really is that infectious. it isn't osmond-like staged japes, full of fixed, bleached smiles and trite choreographed laughter, this is the sound of a small group really enjoying making an album together. the record closes with "sensuelle et sans suite" which features one of the most beautiful piano melodies ever written.
gainsbourg had access to some of the finest musicians of the time, for this record. the personnel list reads like a who's who of score-writers, session and library musicians of the early 70s - it's enough to make a collector of kpm and de wolfe labels drip with excitement. judd proctor and chris karan were all over roy budd's dramatic score of 'get carter' a couple of years earlier. alan hawkshaw (yes, he really did write the famous 'grange hill' theme tune and 'countdown' and wrote countless albums for just about all the major music libraries in europe) is on keyboards and remains one of the finest exponents of the hammond-groove to this day. his friend alan parker is undoubtedly the best filthy-funk guitarist you'll ever find - his non pretentious, wank-free yet compelling sound flavours this album like a warm, spicy marinade. he's also known for literally hundreds of library albums and scores, from incidental music in 'the sweeney' to his role in pop band 'blue mink' with soul singer madeline bell.
gainsbourg knew how to surprise, excite and entertain people all at the same time. his antics were often subtle, clever and funny - especially compared to the tired, blatant shock tactics used by many artists today. it's all there on "vu de l'exterieur" in abundance and you owe it to yourself to own this record, whether you track down the original vinyl with it's lavish gatefold sleeve or get the cd re-issue. if you're familiar with gainsbourg but haven't heard this material, you will grow to love it. if you haven't heard any gainsbourg apart from the ubiquitous "je t'aime", this is a good place to start - along with "le histoire de melody nelson".
when he died, jane birkin said something along the lines of "serge can't be replaced - no-one can surprise us anymore, no-one can shock us anymore". it's certainly a fact that we will never encounter his particular brand of visionary entertainment ever again.
reviewed by jon brooks (aka king of woolworths).