In the sixties, Britain had the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the United States had the Beach Boys, and France had Serge Gainsbourg. Gainsbourg was as prolific a pop songwriter as his more famous competitors across the Channel, but his music was so distinctively French and idiosyncratic that he was not well known outside France save for of course for his smash hit with Jane Birkin, Je T’aime, … Moi non Plus, the song that literally “spawned” a generation of baby boomers. Gainsbourg was an agent provocateur who wrote songs about Nazis one day, sex acts the next, and even turning the national anthem into reggae dividing the country. He was a bad boy. Hence, it’s no surprise that a former Bad Seed in Mick Harvey has embraced Gainsbourg’s music, and given it his own stamp by translating these highly poetic and punning lyrics into English. And very successful translations they are too.

Mick Harvey. Photo © L.J. Spruyt

The band was expansive consisting of the “gnarly old guys” – Harvey, J.P. Shilo, Dan Luscombe, Glenn Lewis, and Hugo Cran, singers Sophia Brous and Xanthe White, and a four-piece string section of Robyn, Naomi, Karen and Bron. Unfortunately, the sound was muffled somewhat, where clarity of the lyrics is all important, and a rogue bass amplifier caused ongoing interference. I suspect that time may have been limited, or eliminated the opportunity for a sound check beforehand that could have addressed the problem. However, the 90 minute set of around two dozen songs was generous and I liked the way that Harvey got on with the show, focused on the music and didn’t kill time with anecdotes or self-promotion. He also didn’t shy from the saucy material opening with Requiem Pour Un Con and including 69 année érotique and Les Sucettes (a song supposedly about a girl addicted to lollipops that Gainsbourg conned the teen-aged yé-yé singer France Gall into singing without her knowing the true meaning of its lyrics).

Harvey’s voice is melodic but thin, and the presence of the stronger voices of Brous and White on classics like Bonnie and Clyde, Ford Mustang and Eyes to Cry (Les yeux pour pleurer), written especially for Nana Mouskouri, was welcome, although they were far more subdued on stage than their French compatriots Brigitte Bardot, the mesmeric Jane Birkin, or Françoise Hardy would have been, if given the chance. By far the highlight was The Initials (Initials B.B.), where the string section emphasised Gainsbourg’s ingenious quotation from Dvorak’s New World Symphony as counterpoint in the song’s chorus.

Harvey conceded that things had “been perilous” at the show’s conclusion, but the ship floated and motored well enough and for long enough, that no one particularly cared. We’re lucky that we have an Australian performer with the taste, skill and panache, to keep the Gainsbourg legend alive.

Sunday March 31 – Castlemaine State Festival, VIC 

Wednesday April 3 – Spiegeltent, Canberra 

Friday April 5 – Melbourne Museum, VIC