For many Anglophones, the idea that the recording career of Lucien Ginsberg, or Serge Gainbourg – the man who burned money, told Whitney Houston he wanted to fuck her and, ah yes, made the critically acclaimed Melody Nelson album in the 70s – spanned 30 years must come as something of a surprise. Few artists (well maybe Robert Pollard) can claim to have such a vast quantity of material, songs that vary wildly in terms of genre and yet all display Gainsbourg’s incredible knack for penning a decent tune. I mean, he was producing so much he could even afford to give some away to various film soundtracks and fellow artists: a sort of French Jay-Z perhaps.
And Du Chant A La Une, recorded with Alain Goraguer’s orchestra, is where it all starts. While none of it is downright bad, you do get the impression that Gainsbourg is still in awe of his musical icons such as Boris Vial and never quite stamps his own personality on the album. Sticking to classical French chansons with a cabaret twist, these are songs which are primarily designed to be sung in the background while the Parisian bourgeois talk and eat noisily.
The album is notably for one song in particular, Le Poinçoinneur Des Lilas, which describes a ticket-puncher on the Paris Metro. The song describes a man who, not seeing the sun all day, tries to distract himself with the thought of making a new life for himself overseas and, erm, the Reader’s Digest but ends up going mad through his repetitive task of making “p’tits trous” (little holes) in the tickets, which is repeated ad nauseum in the chorus to emphasise how boring it is. The punchline comes at the end of the song: the only way of escaping his life is when They will put me in “un grand trou”; in other words, his grave. It’s fairly basic stuff, but displays Gainsbourg’s sharp wit and proves that, for a few years at least, he had a fine singing voice.
The remainder of the LP starts off nicely with La Recette De L’Amour Fou, which features a nice piano and a great part where Serge breaks off from all the tinkling to “jouer Chopin / Avec dédain” (disdain). The song stops and starts all over the place, and while the lack of structure is somewhat offputting, it’s pretty good. Douze Belles Dans Le Peau is a formula he would reprise with later efforts like Elisa and 18-39 – here, however, something is lacking just as with the LP’s closer, Charleston. Keeping with the theme of great Gainsbourg songs about boredom however, Ce Mortal Ennui hits the spot, and although it drifts into the dangerous territory of elevator music, it’s saved by some nice jazzy touches.
Gainsbourg often gets called a misogynist, so it’s ironic that the only song where the lyrics are not written by him, Ronsard 58, are the most daring (“You will never be anything but a little whore”). If you can read French, it’s worth checking out the interview with the man who did write the song, Serge Barthélemy. Musically, it’s not bad, but nothing special, pretty standard jazz-lounge stuff. Better is Alcool, which paints some stunning lyrical pictures like prostitutes who chew gum while they’re getting down to it, and the fictitious Spanish castles and Duchesses that his favourite drink invokes.
Du Chant A La Une is not particularly ground-breaking or inspired, but those with a liking for jazz-lounge may want to snap it up. As with a lot of Gainsbourg’s very early stuff, it’s more reliant on lyrical trickery than anything else, and therefore listeners who don’t speak the language of Baudelaire and Ronsard may find some of this heavy going.