Serge Gainsbourg and his Dangerous Version of La Marseillaise
The voice that has become synonymous with Paris (as much as Edith Piaf), had a curious encounter towards the end of the 1970s.
Serge Gainsbourg is still spreading joy with his songs (some even turn to his music to spice things up in the bedroom), but we must also mention that he managed to anger many French citizens. This is because in 1979 he re-wrote La Marseillaise, the French National Anthem, to the rhythm of reggae and gave it a new title: Aux armes et caetera.
The song was recorded in Kingston, Jamaica, and released in a homonymous album. But Gainsbourg did not expect his fellow countrymen’s haughty reactions. After the song was released, the singer received several death threats from individuals and nationalist groups, as well as soldiers who swore they would silence him if he dared to sing it publicly.
That was, more or less, what happened in the year 1980 during one of Gainsbourg’s concerts, in Strasbourg. A group of legionaries broke into the concert, threatening him (he was, after all, in the city where la Marseillaise was written). In an act that can only be described as amazing ingenuity and unique courage, Gainsbourg sang the original hymn a capella, chorused by the concert-goers and the legionaries.
As a matter of fact, the French Embassy’s website still mentions the controversy, as well as other cases in which the sacred anthem has been desacralized. Once, for example, President Giscard d’Estraing tried to give it his own “twist” by having it performed at a slower tempo, endowing it with greater solemnity. After a storm of protests, he was forced to return to the original orchestration by Hector Berlioz.
Gainsbourg, however, still had a trick up his sleeve.
A year after the Strasbourg incident, he partook in an auction in which he bought the original manuscript with the lyrics for the Marseillaise, written by Rouget de Lisle. In this manner, Gainsbourg publicly proved that his version was, in fact, closer to any other version that had ever been performed. In the original hymn of the barricades of the French Revolution, De Lisle did not repeatedly write the choruses of the song, instead he wrote: “et caetera, et caetera, et caetera”, which is Latin for “etcetera”.
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