Serge Gainsbourg offended many of his patriotic countrymen in 1979 when he rewrote the French national anthem “La Marseillaise” as a reggae number, “Aux armes et caetera.” The song was the title track from his 13th album, recorded in Kingston, Jamaica, giving him the distinction of being only the second (to Mick Jagger, who dueted with Peter Tosh) major white European performer to record there. Serge did not anticipate the shitstorm that followed the TV premiere of his song, including death threats from nationalists and threats from soldiers to kick his ass if he performed the song in public. The French embassy’s website still has a reference to this controversy:
The French national anthem has had a turbulent past. Every now and then, there is an outcry to have it banned, or at least updated; it has been a long time since the Revolution was endangered by bordering European monarchs. Some people are offended during national ceremonies, when they hear such vengeful verses as “these ferocious soldiers who slaughter our sons and wives” or demanding “that impure blood flow in our fields.” But the majority of French people do not wish to change so much as a comma in their national anthem. Didn’t the members of the Resistance in WWII sing it as a final and supreme challenge to Nazi-occupying forces as they fell beneath the bullets of the firing squad?
The extent of the attachment of the French to their national anthem was revealed in the 1970s, when President Giscard d’Estaing attempted to impose “his” Marseillaise by having it played to a slower tempo in order to give it greater solemnity. The President’s initiative raised a storm of protest and Hector Berlioz’s orchestration was maintained. Late controversial singer and composer Serge Gainsbourg tried to rewrite the Marseillaise his own way in 1979 by having the national anthem played by a reggae band. The reception was less than stellar: A group of legionnaires threatened to give him a hard time if he performed his new version in public. Gainsbourg did sing the Marseillaise, but a cappella. One cannot tamper with that which is sacred!
A little gallows humor on the cover of Hara Kiri magazine
When a group of paratroopers caused a 1980 concert in Strasbourg (where “La Marseillaise” was written) to be shut down, Gainsbourg defiantly sang an a capella traditional version instead of “Aux armes et caetera” and was joined by the paratroopers! A year later in a defiant but classy move he bought an original manuscript of the anthem’s lyrics by Rouget de Lisle at an auction in France. Gainsbourg then proved to the public that his version—and the controversial “et caetera” of the title—was in fact, more faithful to the original than any other version: de Lisle, in fact, did not write out repeated verses by hand, but merely wrote “et caetera, et caetera, et caetera”!
Serge Gainsbourg, “Aux armes et caetera”:
Serge Gainsbourg sings the original “La Marseillaise” to calm everyone down, and at 2:09 the auction for the lyrics’ manuscript begins: