Graded on a Curve:
Serge Gainsbourg,
Rock Around the Bunker

I know, Francoise, I know. If you’re going to buy an album by the late French Chanson singer Serge Gainsbourg, you would have to be crazy not to buy 1968’s Bonnie & Clyde, his collaboration with Brigitte Bardot, or 1969’s Jane Birkin/Serge Gainsbourg, which includes the notoriously salacious (as in hubba hubba) “Je t’aime… moi non plus,” which was so orgasmic the Vatican actually felt compelled to issue a public statement declaring it offensive.

But I am crazy, certifiably so, and I heartily recommend that while you get your hands on the aforementioned LPs as fast as possible, you also pick up a copy of 1975’s extraordinarily surreal Rock Around the Bunker. Where else are you going to find songs like “Nazi Rock,” “Rock Around the Bunker,” and “S.S. in Uruguay”? Nowhere, that’s where.

Rock Around the Bunker purportedly looks back at Gainsbourg’s experiences as a Jewish youth growing up in Nazi-occupied France. But I’ve read that Gainsbourg’s real intent in releasing Rock Around the Bunker was to mock both the “Nazi chic” of the era, as personified by the film “The Night Porter” and David Bowie’s outrageous statements about wanting to become a fascist dictator, as well as the fifties rock’n’roll revival. Nazism and “Rock Around the Clock” may be an odd couple to satirize, but Gainsbourg was an odd guy. And in creating Rock Around the Bunker, the singer managed to produce an LP whose only real antecedents are The Rocky Horror Picture Show and the imaginary play Springtime for Hitler from Mel Brooks’ The Producers.

Rock Around the Bunker was far from Gainsbourg’s only brush with scandal and outrage. During his long career, Gainsbourg—who died in 1991 after a lifetime of heroic womanizing, smoking, and drinking—was a kind of musical provocateur, and beloved by his legions of fans as a result. He was the target of death threats and virulent anti-Semitic criticism by veterans of the Algerian War after he recorded a reggae version of the French national anthem, and frequently appeared on stage both drunken and unshaven. If that’s not enough for you, he recorded the song “Lemon Incest” with his own daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and once, on a French TV program with Whitney Houston, flatly announced he wanted to fuck her. And then got pissed when the show’s host, attempting to prevent a controversy, translated this to Whitney as “He says you are great…”

The savage sarcasm exhibited in Rock Around the Bunker’s opening track—the piano-centered “Nazi Rock,” which includes some female backup singers happily chirping, “Nazi rock/Nazi Nazi Nazi rock/Nazi”—makes Gainsbourg’s intent clear. The subject matter of “Nazi Rock” veers from here to there; at one point he pokes fun at the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, when Hitler eliminated the heads of the paramilitary SA, some of whose leaders were known homosexuals. (Not that Hitler gave a whit about their sexual orientation. He simply decided to exterminate what he saw as a threat to his power.) The song begins, “Here comes the Night of the Long Knives/Put on your black stockings, guys/Adjust your petticoats well/Your stockings and your corsets/Come on it’s going to get tougher.”

Not so outrageous is the fast-paced “Tata Teutonne,” on which Gainsbourg spits out the verses like a machine gun and the female vocalists repeat the chorus, while Alan Hawkshaw and Alan Parker contribute on piano and guitar respectively to give the song that retro Eisenhower-era feel. As for “J’Entends des Voix Off,” it’s sung from Hitler’s point of view, and opens with some ab fab guitar licks by Parker before Gainsbourg enters singing in an overly dramatic fifties style. Gainsbourg’s Hitler sings, “I hear that voice that says to me: Adolf you’re heading for a big disaster/But I say blah, all this is a bluff.” Meanwhile Hawkshaw plays fantastic piano, Parker tosses in a great solo, and the female vocalists do their melodramatic thing before Gainsbourg closes the song down with an “Oh yawwhhhahh.”

“Eva,” about Eva Braun, Hitler’s steady and history’s most feckless girlfriend (it’s every girl’s dream to have her fiancé say, as Russian shells fall overhead, “I have a grand idea! Let’s tie the knot and then kill ourselves!”) is a slow and bluesy number, with Parker throwing in some great guitar riffs while Hawkshaw shows off his ability on the 88s. Meanwhile the female vocalists repeat the line “smoke gets in your eyes,” which song Gainsbourg covers, at a leisurely tempo, in English on the following track. Talk about your black humor; Gainsbourg—whose vocals on this one remind me of Bryan Ferry—likens the smoke of love in the beloved 1933 show tune to the smoke that poured from the chimneys of Nazi Germany’s death camp crematoriums.

As for the contagious “Zig zig avec toi,” a critic noted that the words can easily be misheard as “Sieg sieg avec toi,” and that makes sense. The song has a wonderful melody, and if Gainsbourg is mocking the fifties rock revival, it’s obvious he has some affection for the music of the period. This is one cool song, the theme song for a French “Happy Days,” and its lyrics (so far as I can tell with my pidgin French) are purest nonsense. Why there’s even a cool little sax solo that comes in at the end, and it has sock hop written all over it.

“Est-ce Est-ce Si Bon” is another play with words, because it sounds like the female vocalists are singing “SS sie bon sie bon.” Again Parker and Hawkshaw provide excellent musical backing, with the former playing some frenetic guitar while Hawkshaw backs him with some tres chic piano riffs. Meanwhile Gainsbourg delivers his lyrics in a staccato, percussive manner, and quickly as if he’s in a real hurry to get them all out. “Yellow Star” is the one clearly autobiographical song on the LP, as well as the most absurd, as the singers repeat “Yellow star, yellow star” while Gainsbourg sings about those dark years when he had to walk the streets of France wearing that yellow stigma on his breast. He sings that the star was “difficult for a Jew” and “the law of the struggle for life,” but recalls looking upon it as a child as if it were a sheriff’s badge from an American Western, and not a death sentence.

As for the title track, with its busy piano and female singers frequently repeating the title, it’s almost Monty Python worthy. Meanwhile Gainsbourg free associates, painting an impressionistic picture of a flaming and sublime abyss, and a tomb where all trembles and falls into ruin. To close the album there’s “S.S. in Uruguay,” about a Nazi who has escaped to South America, and who stands to remind us, as if the rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National were not proof enough, that the death of Hitler in his bunker was not the end of Nazism. I love the song’s melody, and Gainsbourg’s vocals, and the way the female singers deliver the chorus. The “wop wop wop wops” in the background take the song right over the top, and I can see how Gainsbourg could be taking the piss on rock revivalism, as characterized by Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock” and a thousand other backwards-looking tunes.

Rock Around the Bunker is a triumph of black humor as well as a great pastiche of fifties rock and roll, and on it Gainsbourg clearly demonstrates that he’s more, much more, than a singer of sultry duets with delectable women. It may not include a song as brilliant as “Bonnie and Clyde,” but I consider Rock Around the Bunker a masterpiece: intelligent, bleakly humorous, and catchy in turns. He may have been satirizing the fifties rock revival on Rock Around the Bunker, but the songs are all great, and I’ve been playing the album for days now and haven’t tired of it yet. Backwards looking—both to Hitler and Elvis—Rock Around the Bunker is one of those most hackneyed and rarest of things—a triumph of the human spirit. The Final Solution fully intended to kill Serge Gainsbourg, but he lived to get a form of revenge Nazism’s other famous Jewish survivors never even considered getting: the last laugh.

Note: I would like to thank Martijn de Vries for his assistance on this review.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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  • blamblamman

    I am a big Serge fan and this one is a stand out in his discography. Thanks for the thoughtful review!

    • Michael Little

      Thanks! I appreciate it! And love the LP to death!

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