When you think of France's national idol Serge Gainsbourg, it is very unlikely that you think of reggae. In fact, until very recently, I was not aware he had recorded a reggae album. But the man best known for his popular late 60's duet 'Je t'aime moi non plus' with Jane Birkin, was a reggae pioneer in the truest sense of the word.
In fact, Gainsbourg's 'Aux armes et cætera,' album is responsible for breaking reggae in France and throughout the French speaking world. The album, which took less than a week to record, was released in April 1979 and was recorded in Jamaica with the cream of the crop of Jamaican musicians including Sly Dunbar, Robbie Shakespeare and The I Threes.
While the album is an overlooked reggae gem (its definitely worth picking up if you have not heard it), what got the most attention was the title track, a sarcastic reggae version of the French national anthem La Marseillaise, causing Gainsbourg to receive death threats from many on the political right in France. In fact, the song was so controversial, that when Gainsbourg toured France with Sly & Robbie and the band that backed him on the album, the shows were plagued with bomb threats, cancellations and protests. Nevertheless, Gainsbourg's new album proved to be both critically and commercially successful. Indeed, it sold over 300,000 copies in the space of a few months and produced two hit singles, a new reggae version of "La javanaise" and "Aux armes et caetera".
Despite the controversy, Gainsbourg kept touring and stood up to an audience full of angry French paratroopers at a show in Strasbourg:
Encouraged by this success, Gainsbourg embarked upon an extensive French tour, the most memorable night of which was a concert in Strasbourg. Gainsbourg was heckled by a parachute regiment who attempted to boo the singer off the stage when he launched into his new reggae version of "La Marseillaise". Never for a moment losing his cool, Gainsbourg dropped the reggae beat and sang a classic version of the French national anthem. (The singer always claimed he had never intended to shock or offend anybody with his reggae adaptation and he was deeply hurt by the vitriolic attacks which followed the release of "Aux armes et caetera").However, in true Gainsbourg style, the controversy was manipulated to work to his advantage, and the album eventually became one of his fastest sellers. Aux Armes Et Caetera sold more than 600,000 copies in France and is considered to be one of the earliest albums to have brought reggae to the mainstream.
Have a listen to a sample of tracks from the album including 'Aux Armes Et Caetera,' 'Des Laids, Des Laids' and a kicking live version of 'Les locataires' from the 1980 tour.