Origin of Song: Serge Gainsbourg Meets Bardot and the Barrow Gang

Music Features Serge Gainsbourg
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Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow have captured imaginations since the Great Depression, when their historic string of Midwestern bank robberies, shooting sprees, and a stash of film and poems found in their hideout made them among the first media-created celebrity criminals. But leave it to a Parisian, Serge Gainsbourg, songwriter and artistic provocateur extraordinaire, to turn their epic tragedy into a love song for the ages.

“There’s lots of untruths to these write-ups; they’re not as ruthless as that,” wrote Parker in the 1930s, but I’ve not come to set the record straight on the duo’s legend here; rather, it’s l’historie of Gainsbourg’s song and an homage to how he lived and died that follows.

Translating the poem, “The Trail’s End,” into French, loading it up with an orchestral score and a loop that sounds like a sample from a James Brown track (about 25 years before anyone thought of doing anything like that), Gainsbourg placed pin-up girl Brigitte Bardot in a co-starring role and delivered “Bonnie and Clyde.” The Bardot liaison was one in a long line of affairs Gainsbourg had with beautiful women that also included Juliette Gréco and Jane Birkin, who would become his wife and with whom he would record “Je t’aime moi non plus” (“I Love You, Me Neither”), which was originally written and recorded as an ode to Bardot, AKA B.B. (or bébé, as in baby), though it was unreleased at the time.

In the book Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes, author Sylvie Simmons recounts the meetings that turned the French entertainers from friends to lovers. Following what he thought was a blown first-date with the actress, Gainsbourg poured out his heart in a song named for her: “Initials B.B.” Surprised when “…she phoned the next day and demanded as a penance he write her ‘the most beautiful love song you can imagine,” he came up with not only “Bonnie and Clyde,” but managed a second act, “Je t’aime moi non plus,” which remains the playboy’s most internationally famous song of them all. Though the initial recording of “Je t’aime…” by Gainsbourg and B.B. was deemed too steamy to release at the time (Bardot’s husband in particular objected), it preserved the pair’s brief affair on record; alongside “Bonnie and Clyde,” both songs take their place on the shortlist of enduring classics. The work from Gainsbourg’s Bardot/Birkin period remains regularly covered by everyone from gravelly-voiced men and femme fatales alike, to indie-rock and pop’s finest: Currently it’s Gainsbourg’s son Lulu and Scarlett Johansson who’ve resuscitated “Bonnie and Clyde” for a new generation.

The origin of Gainsbourg’s “Bonnie and Clyde” goes back to 1967, when director Arthur Penn’s Oscar-winning film Bonnie and Clyde, starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, was a runaway sensation, not unlike the bandits themselves (the Bonnie and Clyde craze inspired another song from that time, Georgie Fame’s “The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde”). Though not necessarily a historically accurate depiction of the events in the lives of Parker and Barrow, the film took its cues from early-’60s French New Wave cinema that framed social ills in a fresh context; it also sparked magazine spreads and fashion trends. Bonnie and Clyde was also among the first films to depict shocking, hyper-violence; its theme of lawlessness resonated with the youthful counterculture, growing more skeptical of the institutions it was raised with as the Vietnam war consumed the lives of a generation.

None of this was lost on Gainsbourg, an artist whose specialty was anti-authoritarianism and agitation: He twisted ideas, words and imagery and generally made people uncomfortable. This year’s hyper-real biopic based on a graphic novel, Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, gets to the root of his edginess. Played with precision by Eric Elmosnino, some of Gainsbourg’s most controversial creative flashpoints are reenacted in the film: A reggae version of the French national anthem, his string of sexually-charged hits penned for pop Lolitas; the making of his conceptual L’Historie du Melody Nelson, and of course, the Bardot moment.

Though she was considerably less gifted vocally than she was visually, Bardot became a perfect foil for Gainsbourg’s song vignettes. Performing “Bonnie and Clyde” in costume, the pair wielded firearms in a segment for French television’s Le Bardot Show. His compositions for her, some of them duets, were issued in 1968 as Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot: Bonnie and Clyde. The set also includes “Comic Strip” (with its quirky “bangs” and “pops” provided by Bardot) and her take on the Gainsbourg standard, “La Javanaise.” With the end of their affair, the songwriter issued his own album, Initials B.B. In addition to the title cut, some songs that overlapped with the B.B. sessions and some other assorted Gainsbourg bits (produced by Giorgio Gomelsky), the album turned out to mark only the beginning of the stories of “Je t’aime moi non plus” and “Bonnie and Clyde.”

“Je t’aime…” was released as a Jane Birkin single in 1969 by Gainsbourg’s post B.B. love and mother of his beloved daughter Charlotte. At once banned and a smash hit, the song is recognized the world over as a recording milestone (for its recreation of an orgasm). Covered from artists diverse as Donna Summer (who also paid tribute to the idea in her own “Love to Love You Baby”) to Cat Power and Karen Elson who paired up on Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited, a 2005 compilation that featured tributes to the Frenchman’s catalog by Jarvis Cocker, Marianne Faithfull and The Kills, among others. James Iha and Kazu Makino completely de-arranged “Bonnie and Clyde,” though it’s certainly recognizable as a relative to the original.

In 1992, the Dream Syndicate’s Steve Wynn was among the first to recast the Gainsbourg show when he and Concrete Blonde’s Johnette Napolitano cut “Bonnie and Clyde” in English for Wynn’s solo album, Dazzling Display. In 1994, Senegalese rapper MC Solaar sampled “Bonnie and Clyde” for his own “Nouveau Western,” an ode to American outlaw spirit, sung in French. Bad Seed Mick Harvey spoke-sung “Bonnie and Clyde” in English for his 1995 album Intoxicated Man, one of two albums for which he recorded the songs of Gainsbourg, mostly with vocalist and occasional Bad Seed, Anita Lane (1997’s Pink Elephants was his sequel). In 1995, Luna’s Dean Wareham did it the French way (with Laetitia Sadier of Stereolab sitting in) on the band’s 1995 album, Penthouse. All of these versions were incredibly faithful to the original, right down to the lusciousness of the orchestral sounds and the stand-out loop.

Then the Gainsbourg games began in earnest when next-generation heirs like the French duo Air, the aforementioned crooner Cocker and musical shapeshifter Beck made free with their inner Gainsbourgs. Declaring his love for Gainsbourg’s L’Historie du Melody Nelson, Beck sampled “Cargo Culte” on Sea Change, and suddenly, Gainsbourg consciousness was everywhere: If you didn’t know Gainsbourg, you didn’t know merde. In 2007, the Go-Gos’ resident Francophile Belinda Carlisle recorded “Bonnie and Clyde” for her French-language solo album, Voila, (an English version was recorded as a bonus track); she is accompanied by Fiachna Ó Braonáin of the Hothouse Flowers on vocals, and though their version mostly dispenses with the loop, it’s otherwise true to form. By now it’s Gainsbourg for the masses, but the French had known his charms all along: Flags flew at half-mast throughout Gaul when he died in 1991 at age 62, following a life of unrepentant smoking and hard drinking. Singing activist Birkin is alive and well, while B.B., now in her 70s, is largely known for her animal rights work (and anti-people diatribes for which she’s been cited by the French court). Beck, of course, collaborated with Charlotte Gainsbourg for the most excellent IRM in 2009—a thoroughly modern album with resonances of her mom and dad’s classic work.

In summer of 2011, the Hollywood Bowl celebrated the artistry of Gainsbourg with headliners Beck and Sean Lennon, accompanied by arranger Jean-Claude Vannier who had orchestrated some of Gainsbourg’s original tracks. In addition to “Je t’aime…” and “Bonnie and Clyde,” L’Historie du Melody Nelson was performed in its entirety by the ensemble. Which brings us up to date, and to the Scarlett and Lulu’s 2011 “Bonnie and Clyde.” The version starts out sounding like a distinctly different take, slowed down, and skewed, but ultimately settles into the usual groove, with Johansson’s mystifying allure appropriately disassociated as nouveau trickster Lulu upholds his scoundrel end of his family’s legacy. And though papa Gainsbourg—whose spirit was celebrated in the recent biopic Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life—is well gone, it’s safe to say he gets the last word: The 20-CD boxed set Intégrale issued earlier this year to mark 20 years since his death, contains a rare English take of “Bonnie and Clyde.” Sans the familiar “Bonnie et Clyde” refrain, Gainsbourg reciting Parker’s original poem on its own, in English, is among the most compelling of all the versions of this classic song. Je l’aime!

Origin of Song columnist Denise Sullivan is the author of Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music From Blues to Hip-Hop.