The erotic songs lost in translation

When asked if he’d like to perform more he ponders for a while before replying, “I’d have to understand them a bit more. I don’t know. Now that you’re mentioning it to me I’m thinking ‘yeah, maybe that’s a good idea.’” He is intrigued to hear of Birkin’s intentions as at one time he was trying to get Faber to do a translation of the lyrics. “Maybe I should talk to her,” he muses. “It’s very dependent on getting the right person to do it but I think it would be worthwhile.”

A Birkin/Cocker collaboration is certainly something that appeals to Bob Stanley, Saint Etienne’s songwriter and pop expert par excellence, but when considering how one might go about covering Gainsbourg’s songs he also emphasises the integral nature of the musical arrangements, particularly those of Jean-Claude Vannier. “If you take that away, the songs just don’t sound as strong.” Although he hasn’t heard Birkin’s albums he believes her approach is the way to go. For any alternative version to work and not sound derivative, “you’d have to have someone of equal stature doing their own arrangements.”

He also thinks playing up the Gallic nature of the music would be a huge mistake. “If someone took the Frenchness out of a cover that could make it work. Melody Nelson was from Sunderland after all.” 

It is clear that if ever Cocker is to be persuaded to be Gainsbourg’s Scott Walker not only will his Mort Shuman need to be found but also a stunning contemporary arranger to do the compositions justice. Let’s hope they can be, for as Birkin says, “Serge would have been so flattered to be sung in English.”

The album is out now on Parlophone France.

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