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When Tokyo, London and New York adopted Gainsbourg

Text by Priscille LAFITTE

Latest update : 2008-12-14

Author, composer and singer Serge Gainsbourg receives a foreign tribute at the Cité de la Musique retrospective in Paris. The bands include Japan’s Kenzo Saeki, John the Dog, and John Zorn from the US. Gainsbourg is no longer just French.


"I am a man with a head of sushi,” said the imperturbable Kenzo Saeki, showing up for the FRANCE 24 interview with a plush toy sushi on his head. Half rice, half man? Half serious, half kidding. That’s his way of celebrating Serge Gainsbourg, who’d once called himself a man with a head of cabbage. The Japanese pop singer’s homage balances fascination and farce.


Kaeki heard his first refrains of the French icon’s work at the time of the latter’s death. Starting in 1991, Japanese DJs began sampling Gainsbourg songs like “69, année érotique” (69, Erotic Year) and “L'eau à la bouche” (Mouth-Watering).


The sushi-headed man was heavily influenced by the sounds he heard. He added Japanese riffs to Gainsbourg songs, but kept the melodies intact. The result ? “Le Ponçonneur des Lilas” (“The Ticket-Puncher of Lilacs”) sounds Far Eastern, but is completely recognisable. “I do my own music, it’s totally Japanese,” said Saeki.


“One has to explain Gainsbourg in order to appreciate his music, because it’s so different,” he said. His friends tried to show him the double entendres and barbs that are part of Gainsbourg’s style. “But I’ve given up on translating it into Japanese,” he admitted.



Kenzo Saeki, Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, album "L'homme à la tête de sushi" (Sawasdee Productions)






A Japanese France Gall


John the Dog was also invited to the Cité de la Musique to represent Japanese Gainsbourgmania. She performs Gainsbourg-like "animal and sensual" riffs on the harmonica, clad in the costume of a German Shepherd.



John the Dog was initiated to Gainsbourg by John Zorn, a New York jazz-rock guru. She did a version of "Les Sucettes" as part of a compilation disc recorded by Zorn in 1997. “I was kind of Zorn’s France Gall,” said the young Japanese singer, “but I do share Gainsbourg’s taste for alcohol and tobacco.” Zorn was one of the first Americans to appreciate the composer of the song "Bonnie and Clyde".


Alex Dutilh, editor of the monthly publication Jazzman and a John Zorn fan, said, “I think Zorn was influenced by the evidence of melody in Gainsbourg. And of course, the provocative, asocial aspects must have appealed too.”


It would take years for rock legends like Beck, Sonic Youth, Mick Harvey and Blond Redhead to discover the "History of Melody Nelson", and for the trend to take off in the US.  



Mick Harvey, The Ballad of Melody Nelson. Album "Pink Elephants" (Mute U.S.)





“An icon for all that is cool”


 It’s after his death that Gainsbourg has achieved his great wish: to broaden his appeal outside France.  For most of Gainsbourg’s career, American and British critics preferred young “sexy and trendy” muses, in the words of Sylvie Simmons. Simmons is a California-based British music journalist and author of “For A Fistful of Gypsies”, published in 2001. “Gainsbourg – more than being French and thus uninteresting musically – didn’t care about the critics. Especially seeming like an intellectual… which literally scared Anglo-Saxon artists !”


The turnaround occurred in the UK in the early 90s, when the Britpop movement unearthed all that had seemed kitschy about the cabbage-headed man. Jimmy Somerville and David Holmes swore by him and by the bizarre Melody Nelson. “Not a single American or British journal today ignores Gainsbourg,” said Simmons. “It’s become a holistic symbol in the media, an icon for all that is cool, eclectic, and European.”


Gainsbourg’s success overseas is sometimes indecipherable.  Last spring, Hollywood producer/director Brett Ratner bought the rights to Sylvie Simmons’ book for a film version. But the 2006 album "Gainsbourg Revisisted" - which included contributions by such luminaries as Cat Power, Franz Ferdinand, Marianne Faithfull, Gonzales and Feist – did only moderately well in sales. “Gainsbourg had a sort of not very down-to-earth quality,” admits Simmons. But for someone who suffered the indignity of recording ten albums in London without any recognition save for “Je t’aime moi non plus” – which reached the ears of the Queen of England herself – it’s still an honour. 

Date created : 2008-11-01