Back in 1979, French musical giant Serge Gainsbourg travels to Jamaica, meets up with hugely influential dub producers Sly and Robbie, then proceeds to create this controversial 30-odd minutes of “freggae” featuring Rita Marley’s erotic background vocals. It’s a scene that so thoroughly infuriated his own critics, and through one controversial song, infuriated all sorts of right-wing French nationalists (the same old National Front). Released, after a three-year respite, Aux Armes Et Cætera finds Jamaican riddims rejuvenating a career on the brink of petering out by remaking its formula through a different brew.
Exactly, what you least expect to come from Serge’s mind comes out in Aux Armes Et Cætera. Forget the rock or funky vibes you’ve come to hear in albums like L’Histoire de Melody Nelson or the dreamy, heady soundscapes of an album like “L’Homme À Tête De Chou”, this is Serge returning back to his roots as worldly provocateur. For Serge, it was a Gainsbourg Percussions for a new French generation, with new global influences.
“Aux Armes Et Caetera”, the title track, might get all the attention — remaking “La Marseillaise” as a roots workout was more controversial of a move than even Serge expected (death threats included) — but the tracks that hold up, even after all these years, are the ones where Serge tries to find a sweet spot between the French word and the spacious laid-back stylings of Jamaican music. History has been littered with truly whack attempts by “white” musicians trying to mix rock with roots, but Serge and company figure out that special balance. Songs like “Daisy Temple” and “Lola Rastaquouére” speak to that.
Very little in Aux Armes Et Cætera sounds like appropriation. It’s that reason, I believe, that keeps building the stature of this release. Most of the album hits as hard as “authentic” dub being made anywhere else, on the island, at this time. I’ve included the original album and its later reimagining Dub Style to better paint a picture of this critical time in French music. Dub Style, which includes unreleased tracks from the same sessions alongside dub versions of the original, goes even further showing how much needed mischief French music had yet to create. It’s only good stuff that would happen if it left itself open to other, outside influences.