Friday, June 5, 2015

Songs of Summer: "Innocence"

Serge Gainsbourg, also the subject of last week's song of summer, was frighteningly clever. Was he anything more than that? No. Just very, very clever.

On the one hand, that's nothing to sneer at. 9999 out of 10,000 pop artists are just clever. On the other hand, there is no real depth here.

The joke, for those of you who don't speak French, is that after several scandals caused by his sneaking sexual content into seemingly innocent songs, here Gainsbourg has produced a song that seems overtly sexual but has lyrics that say that sex is not love. It's a love song of a sort.

Except that Jane Birkin is simulating orgasm in the background and that tends to contradict the lyrics in the foreground.

Birkin had been married to John Barry, of James Bond fame, before hooking up with Gainsbourg. As such, you might say that this song represents the pivot point between the sixties and the seventies. There is an undeniable change of attitude that comes with it.

It wasn't a pivot for the kiddie set but for adults. The adults had made it through the sixties still making updated versions of the easy swinging style that Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra had established in the 1950s but the clock had run out on that. Some sort of compromise with rock music had to be made and this showed the way.

Gainsbourg's pop career is pretty much an extended commentary on pop music by a man who simultaneously a) made a lot of money out of it while b) hating it. The opening riff, for example, is obviously derived from The lineage of Louie Louie but Gainsbourg can't help improving it as he steals it. He's married that to an organ line clearly inspired by Whiter Shade of Pale.

(For any purists reading this, it's not quite the Louie Louie Chord progression. That one goes I-IV-v-IV and this, like Hang on Sloopy, is a more straightforward I-IV-V-IV. Most listeners couldn't tell the difference and there is no good reason to care.)

On top of all that there is Gainsbourg's almost spoken vocal and Jane Birkin's inimitable contribution. His vocal is almost a cliché of French chanson but, for obvious reasons, no one was going to notice. Birkin did a full frontal nude in the movie Blow Up that I'm told was the first in British film history. She was, and is, extremely beautiful, talented and rich, so she didn't have to worry about shame much.

Donna Summer later did a version of this which is rather a shame as it seems a little too much, sort of like Caitlyn Jenner doing a sex tape.

In any case, this really set the style for what was to come as we'll see. 

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