In 1984 the French singer, songwriter, enfant terrible icon Serge Gainsbourg (1928-1991) released Love on the Beat. Recorded in New Jersey with Billy Rush and Larry Fast, it was his penultimate album and combined sexually charged lyrics with a modern American sound, heavy on synths and programmed beats. The album is well known, in France at least, for its provocative single “Lemon Incest”, recorded with his daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg.
Love on the Beat is far from being Gainsbourg’s most celebrated album (away from France, count Histoire de Melody Nelson (1971) as the hipster’s favourite); however there’s much to engage the listener. Jeremy Allen has commented in his book on Gainsbourg “Relax Baby Be Cool” (Jawbone, 2021) that it’s “easy to look at Love on the Beat now, with its feminized sleeve shot by William Klein and songs about homosexuality in the midst of the AIDS crisis and dismiss it as Serge pushing buttons for attention. But a closer look reveals chansons that are more sensitively and empathetically written than one might have given him credit for”.
The [Gainsbourg] album has recently been re-released on vinyl as a picture disc, an opportune moment to review French singer and composer Alex Beaupain’s 2021 recreation of the album released under the same name.
Gainsbourg covers have come thick and fast over the last 20 years: Mick Harvey, guitarist for Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, went to town with Intoxicated Man (1995), Pink Elephants (1997), Derilium Tremens (2016) and Intoxicated Women (2017) as did electronic artists for the 2001 album I ♥ Serge, and some pop trend setters for Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited (2006).
Beaupain first covered Gainsbourg in March 2021 for a special live on-air event where he covered the album in full with the Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra. The experience led him to the studio to record this tribute with Saint DX (Aurélien Hamm) as producer, the French-American “anti-rock” duo Faux Real singing backing vocals and a full string section. The album was “remade” in its entirely and in the same order, with Beaupain on the cover in the same pose as Gainsbourg.
Gainsbourg fans may argue that you can’t improve on the perfect artistic statement of the original album (and perhaps Gainsbarre, Gainsbourg’s wicked alter-ego, would agree), but Beaupain in many respects enhances the original; the suicide note of “Sorry Angel” is intensified by a swirl of violins and “Hmm Hmm Hmm” is positively improved by reducing the jivey backing vocals of the original.
Gainsbourg’s vocals on Love on the Beat are almost exclusively spoken raps, with a focus on the sound of spoken French syllables and crafty puns. Sensibly Beaupain does not attempt a different approach, and gives equal attention to the lyrics without imitating Gainsbourg; Beaupain’s versions of the songs will be immediately recognisable to those who know Gainsbourg’s album. The interpretations re-contextualise Gainsbourg’s album in the present day, an album which itself was modern for its time. Gainsbourg’s intro to Kiss Me Hardy” was almost a precursor to Prince’s 1987 “Sign o’ the Times”, and Beaupain’s version retains this, adding “Melody Nelson” strings with the electronic beat starting and stopping to dramatic effect. The album was arranged by Valentine Duteil, with strings by FAME’S Studio Orchestra conducted by Sasho Tatarchevski. Saint DX co-produced and worked the synths and drum programming, with electronic drums by Louis Delorme and electric bass by Adrian Edeline.
Beaupain was ten when Love On The Beat was released in 1984, and apparently he kept the idea of covering the full album in his mind as he was fully aware of the long-lasting impact the album had on French teenagers at the time – he always had the feeling the songs were “his”. With its controversial content and catchy, modern pop beats, it’s easy to see why the album would appeal to teenagers.
Some of the controversial tracks are perhaps less so now. The English/French crossover of “I’m The Boy”, scandalous in the ‘80s with allusion to back room gay debauchery, today more easily relates to international “invisible” sexual freedom. The song (with an opening melody based on the solo bassoon from Stravinsky’s “The Rite Of Spring”) is transformed from the weirdly upbeat lightweight electro pop original, with saxophone solo, to mournful strings and backing vocals by Faux Real. Beaupain’s version of the provocative content of “sex-slut” “No Comment” hints at trauma due to dense production and more soulful backing vocals by Victor Paimblanc and French actress Fanny Ardant, and is snappier with an abrupt finish suiting the shut-down in the title of the song; Gainsbourg’s original is over two minutes longer due to extended instrumental passages, including bursts of saxophone by Stan Harrison. “Harley David Son Of A Bitch”, as the title suggests, relies on word play over a swear word to entertain; today the song is far from being “politically correct” with its talk of “going to see prostitutes and gays”, and Beaupain’s version attempts to increase sophistication by reducing the rock aspect and adding strings.
Gainbourg’s title track, starting the album as it meant to continue, was certainly a point of reference for concerned parents, an example of Gainsbourg being a “kind of wayward avuncular figure, drunk and shocking and an embarrassment to the grown-ups” (as per Jeremy Allen). “Love On The Beat” works a English/French pun on “beat” (in French “bite” is a slang word for penis); Gainsbourg’s original also uses sadomasochistic screaming in rhythm to further make the point that the love on the beat of the song is literal. Beaupain does not replicate this, but instead zones in on the lyrics, which are starkly emphasised at one section from switching from full orchestral backing to a sole electronic beat.
The most notorious and controversial track on the album is “Lemon Incest”, a song set to Frédéric Chopin’s Étude No. 3 and sung as a duet with his then thirteen year old daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg. The track was released as a single and reached number two on the French chart for four weeks, and an accompanying video featured father and daughter, with the latter provocatively lying on a bed. The song’s title and strangely perky hook-line is a play on words – “un zeste de citron” (“a twist of lemon”), and features a breathless vocal from Charlotte Gainsbourg, with Serge Gainsbourg growling and rasping as lecherous/loving father. To provide some comfort to appalled French parents, the lyrics suggest this particular lemon incest was of a pure nature, a love “we’ll never make together”. It’s undoubtedly a transgressive pop song by wittily tackling a taboo subject, but still rather odd, then and now. Beaupain’s version cuts the busy backing of the original, reducing the songs to a simple string arrangement, at times pizzicato, and shortens the track by almost two minutes. It moves Gainsbourg’s song from a weird and troubled opus to what sounds like a more innocent declaration of love. Larry David has since proven that it’s just about possible to joke about incest (see episode ten of season one of Curb Your Enthusiasm, in which Larry argues sex with a step-father is not included within its definition), but the joke is probably best left to those who want to risk censure.
Label: Because Music
Release Date: 22 OCT 21