Gallic Drunk

The Wire Magazine Number 140, October, 1995

by ???
Transcribed by Anna

Anne notes:
There seems to be a dearth of Mick Harvey Interviews, and this is quite a good one. The last few paragraphs are especially interesting. Its from the October 1995 issue of the Wire (issue 140, with Jah Wobble on the cover, go to for ordering info for back issues) and it's a double page spread with two good photos...a small one of Serge Gainsbourg in full make up and a full page one of Harvey himself.

Mick Harvey, best known for his work with Nick Cave and director Wim Wenders, is now entering the moist world of taboo sexuality by reconstructing the songs of the notorious French singer Serge Gainsbourg. Report by Louise Grey.

Ask most English people to free-associate around the name of the French singer/songwriter and svengali Serge Gainsbourg and the chance are that only one piece of information will come up. We remember "Je T'Aime...Moi Non Plus", a song Gainsbourg recorded first with Brigitte Bardot, and later with Jane Birkin. Banned and then unbanned, it became a number one single in Britain in 1969, its slippery pace and breathy, rasping vocals confirming what most English Francophobes had long suspected: that Gainsbourg, now four years dead, was the epitome of Gallic sleaze and depravity.

The quality of such recollections persist. French TV viewers nominate as Gainsbourg's finest moment of notoriety an occasion when he leered over Whitney Houston, telling her and a startled audience on live TV, "I want to fuck you". Others, no doubt, have equally salacious anecdotes which jostle for position against the Houston episode. A reggae version of the "Marseillaise", for instance, which so outraged a platoon of french paratroopers they felt compelled to riot. Alternatively, upstanding family types might nominate "Inceste Du Citron" ("Lemon Incest") a duet Gainsbourge recorded with his then 13 year old daughter, as the songwriter's most provactive moment, non appareil.

"Certainly [Gainsbourg] did nothing to dispel his image [as archetypal lecher]," says Mick Harvey down a static-filled phone line from Australia, in the course of discussing his latest album, Intoxicated Man, a collection of 16 Gainsbourg songs which are as much homage as they are reinterpretation. "He built it up as much as possible. It got him a lot of attention which he used to his own ends."

Harvey's own career has also prospered by exposing some of the darker spaces of the human condition via work with the Birthday Party, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and his own group, the defunct Crime and the City Solution, as well as some much acclaimed soundtrack work (Ghosts of the Civil Dead, Wim Wender's Wings of Desire, Altea Maria and Vaterland). Given all this, the interest that Guitarist/Composer Harvey has with Gainsbourg begins to make some kind of sense.

Nick Cave's leading role with the Birthday Party and the Bad Seeds meant that the work of those groups was dominated by imagery smeared with psychotic darkness and mordant humour, a process which, to some extent, characterised Harvey's five studio albums with Crime and the City Solution. So it is refreshing when Harvey points out that his interest in Gainsbourg has precious little to do with any specific fantasies about Paris or the Demi-Monde. Likewise, considerations over London's present fascination with Easy Listening - as albums like EMI's recent Sound Gallery testify - do not figure in the equation. ("James Last," sighs Harvey, "I mean, honestly...")

Long fascinated by Gainsbourg's stylistic range - carribbean influences rub shoulders with 60s Britpop, jazz with the curious lightness of vintage Europop - Harvey set about reclaiming and revising the writer's originals for a specifically English speaking 90's audience. THe choice of songs was governed, he says, by purely personal motives: the shape of a melody, a lyric, or the possibilities suggested therein. There are jaunty, arch songs about suicide (The Barrel Of My 45, Chatterton), pure camp songs (Harly Davidson), songs with glorious stirring propulsion (Bonnie and Clyde, Initials BB) and one song (I Have Come To Tell You I'm Going) which reveals itself as the source of all Pulp's ideas. Je T'Aime, incidentally, appears not here, but on Anita Lane's The World's A Girl single, translated as I Love You... Nor Do I.

On Intoxicated Man, the presence of vocalist Lane, a former Birthday Party goer, complements Harvey's material perfectly. (The album features a core group that includes ex-Orange Juice bassist Davis McClymont and string arranger Bertrand Bergalat.) If this is a tribute record, its parallels line with Scott Walker's, rather than Marc Almond's, re-readings of Jacques Brel. Harvey himself has translated many of the lyrics and dealt with the musical material with an edifying mixture of leniency and restraint. "Musically, it was much more of an open season", he writes in the accompanying sleeve notes, "I felt no qualms about simply recreating the original arrangement in some cases or completely reworking it in others... The objective was to present these songs sung in English."

The results of Harvey's exercise in cultural shift are triumphant. In English, Lemon Incest may lose the bad pun - Un Zest/Inceste Du Citron - suggested by Gainsbourg's original, but the result is somehow all the more shocking. "To do this song as a duet with anyone, I would have had to have someone appropriate, or it wouldn't have had the same impact," he says on his decision to take on the song solo. "I find it a bold honest blast, it approaches a taboo and there's no black and white."

Harvey, whose present work includes another soundtrack, with Cave and Blixa Bargeld, for a forthcoming film by Ghosts of the Civil Dead director John Hillcoat, is thoughtful about the process of working through someone else's original material. "It's quite odd to talk about it, because it's Gainsbourg's too. It was liberating to use someone else's text. I could just stick my neck out, do something on my own and still hide behind someone else. Next time I'll stick my neck out completely.

"That's actually a joke on myself. It was really quite a conscious decision to foreground myself, and its something that I haven't deliberately done for a long time. There are interesting psychological aspects behind whether people do it or don't do it and why I haven't or why I have now.

"So why have I done it now? I don't know. Am I starting to regret it? Maybe. I don't really care. But I do like the level of anonymity which I do have. I can walk down the street anywhere and not get bothered. Nick [Cave] can't. He has to live with it and I hope that I won't have to. I hope that this record's a big enough failure for me to retain my anonymity." A sardonic laugh follows. "I didn't really mean that."


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