❉ A subtle examination of Gainsbourg’s career, reviewed by Andy Murray for We Are Cult.
For someone who’s become such a towering, fascinating pop culture figure, you might expect the shelves to be bulging with Serge Gainsbourg biographies already. In fact, there are plenty in French, but precious few in English. There’s definitely a gap in the market, then, but the question is, does this particular book fill it?
New from Jawbone Press, Jeremy Allen’s Relax Baby Be Cool: The Artistry and Audacity of Serge Gainsbourg carves up the man’s album discography over thirteen chunky chapters and uses each part as the jumping-off point for an exploration of any relevant matters, so in some ways it’s as much structured thematically as chronologically. Gainsbourg’s birth is eventually covered on page 59, halfway through the second chapter, just before an account of his parents meeting. It’s not exactly scattershot, but it’s certainly not conventional. So does this amount to counter-intuitive elegance or counter-productive buggering about?
At times it is touch and go, but ultimately what emerges here is a subtle examination of Gainsbourg’s career, written in a breezy, informal, often rather personal tone. Allen proves to be a well-informed guide to the relevant idiosyncrasies of French culture. He demonstrates admirable good taste and the reader is likely to stop every few pages and scurry off to unearth another intriguing-sounding Serge curio, not least the huge number of songs he sang on television and never officially released (Gainsbourg covering Sex Machine? Oooft, yes please!).
At points the narrative can head off on tangents that leave you wondering quite how and why you got there, and it’s definitely a book that beds in after a slightly bumpy start. It becomes much substantial as it goes on, developing threads about Gainsbourg’s love of lyrical games and his regular stylistic shifts. Allen has a pleasing line in dry humour, too, such as when remarking of a 1961 LP that ‘there would be many a Gainsbourg album that would deserve the epithet L’étonnant [‘astonishing’] in the future, though L’étonnant Serge Gainsbourg isn’t one of them’, or that the indifferently-received 1963 album Gainsbourg Confidentiel ‘remained largely confidential, given that nobody really bought it’.
Arguably this is more like a labyrinthine series of interconnected articles than a straight-ahead biography, and the emphasis is very much on insights into the music rather than the man, though sometimes there’s a feeling that it just can’t make up its mind. Nevertheless, for all its baffling, somewhat frustrating flourishes, Allen doesn’t let Gainsbourg off the hook on thorny matters such as his Lolita obsession, his ham-fisted ‘Gainsbarre’ persona and his penchant for grabbing creative credits he didn’t entirely deserve. Plus it has surprises up its sleeve, revealing that Gainsbourg was generally a non-voter (and by no means a Socialist), and that when Sid Vicious performed My Way at the Paris Olympia, Serge was standing at the back clicking his fingers approvingly.
On balance, then, you couldn’t call Relax Baby Be Cool a thorough, nuts-and-bolts entry-level Gainsbourg biography. To be fair, though, it isn’t really trying to be, and besides, in its own subtle, witty, mildly eccentric way, it goes a good distance towards capturing Serge’s wayward spirit, probably more satisfyingly than a conventional job could
❉ ‘Relax Baby Be Cool: The Artistry And Audacity Of Serge Gainsbourg’ By Jeremy Allen. 296pp softcover edition published February 12th, 2021. ISBN 978-1-911036-65-4. RRP £14.95 UK/$22.95 US/$29.95 CAN.
❉ Andy Murray is Film Editor for Northern Soul and a regular contributor to We Are Cult. He’s also the author of the Nigel Kneale biography Into the Unknown and co-author (with Dr Mark Aldridge) of the Russell T Davies biography T is for Television. He’s not the tennis guy, obviously. But he did once receive a publicity photograph of him to sign by mistake.