1. Le poinçonneur des Lilas
In 1958 Serge Gainsbourg hit paydirt with the first song from his first album. It was not your usual chart fodder – especially in the 1950s – recounting the quotidian existence of a Metro inspector who spends his days punching holes in ticket stubs; existential angst from all “les petit trous” leads him to contemplate putting a hole in his own head. Fast-paced, catchy and witty, Le poinçonneur des Lilas was a strong debut, though following the relatively auspicious welcome from critics and the public, he’d soon be cast into the dark again and forced to eke out a living and career that would stutter and stop/start for another decade.
2. La Chanson de Prévert
The titular Prévert was an absurdist French poet whose poem Les feuilles mortes Gainsbourg borrowed liberally from in the making of the tune (as he also did with Paul Verlaine‘s Chanson d’automne). To his credit, Gainsbourg approached Prévert to ask permission to steal his words, and the two were said to have shared a rollickingly good-natured bottle of breakfast champagne together. Not knowing who the poet is shouldn’t spoil your enjoyment of the song, however; it is a beautiful, elegiac waltz with pretty Spanish guitars duelling with Gainsbourg’s dulcet croon; it has a hymnal, funereal feel and is unsurprisingly chosen for plenty of wakes across la Manche. Be sure of this: it’ll leave a better lasting impression than You’re Beautiful by James Blunt as they lower your casket into the ground.
3. La Javanaise
By 1963 Gainsbourg’s career as a frontman was floundering. His star quality was in doubt, with critics cruelly rounding on his looks, paying particular attention to his ears. The writing for others was going well though, especially songs for Juliette Gréco, darling of the Rive Gauche and venerated as the thinking person’s alternative to all the throwaway pop that was suddenly prevalent (much of it written by one S Gainsbourg). Her rendition of La Javanaise (a pun on a forgotten Javanese dancing craze that doesn’t really translate, inspired by his mentor Boris Vian) was well received, though it is Gainsbourg’s version of the moving and poetic hymn to love that has endured. Even after becoming a household name, Gainsbourg continued to write for other artists, nearly always younger women. He wrote Comment te dire adieu for Françoise Hardy and latterly a whole album for Vanessa Paradis and a Bowie tribute with a feeble franglais pun (Beau oui comme Bowie) for Isabelle Adjani. Punning is an incurable illness, and Gainsbourg’s became more frequent and more deranged as his career progressed, sagging under the weight of his alcoholism.