LE POINÇONNEUR DES LILAS opens Gainsbourg’s first album Du chant à la une!… (1958) and doesn’t leave any doubts about the musician’s ability to play with words.
In the early 1950s, after art studies and the military service, newly wed Serge Gainsbourg (born Lucien Ginsburg) was working in a school for children of Holocaust survivors, while cultivating his skills as a painter and playing piano and guitar at parties and nightclubs. His own witty twisted compositions began to be appreciated by artists, such as Michèle Arnaud and by the bohemian scene gathering at the Parisian cabaret Milord l’Arsouille. Arnaud started performing his songs and this was brought to the attention of Denis Bourgeois, producer of Philips record company, who offered him a contract.
Gainsbourg deposited LE POINÇONNEUR DES LILAS, together with a bunch of his first songs at SACEM (the French copyright society) in June 1957 and licensed it to Les Frères Jacques a year later. The vocal group used the song as the highlight of their shows and recorded a 7” of it, released a few months before Gainsbourg’s own version, which opens Gainsbourg’s debut 10″ album Du chant á la une!… In the same months, also singer Hugues Aufray used the song at a contest organised by TV channel Europe 1.
Porte de Lilas is a station of the Paris metro, for the lines 11 and 3 in the 19th arrondissement of the French capital. The song by Gainsbourg gives a cynical portrayal of the life of a poinçonneur, a ticket puncher and its phantasies, aspirations and fears, as he sits all day in his little counter, piercing little holes into tickets.
The song is a bitter reflection on the anonymity, boredom and speed of modern urban life, especially in nodes of transportation as a metro station and in professional positions where repetition was the norm. LE POINÇONNEUR DES LILAS has chaplinesque elements in its critique to the Fordist organization of work, on its effects on the individual, verging them towards the comical. There is definitely some Schadenfreude that the listener experiences in listening to the song or in watching it performed by Gainsbourg on TV with a laconic neurotic stare.
Gainsbourg affirms himself as powerful author, able to juggle effortlessly with words.
The song is a fast swing number at 160 bpm lasting barely 2:42 in its recorded version. Gainsbourg’s voice is accompanied by guitar, piano, double bass, drums, saxophone and other winds (including a flute and clarinet).
It starts with a simple bass movement, which Gainsbourg himself confessed of having nicked from the James Bond Theme.
The song has a simple structure of three verses followed each time by the chorus. The rhythm is carried by the guitar, as typical of French swing, and reinforced by the brushed drums, while saxophone and flute alternate in giving small variations or accenting some chord changes with the piano. The feel is exactly the one of the French 1950s, where the chanson and the cabaret traditions where combining with jazz and swing patterns, in small musical ensemble.
The lyrics are delivered in a clear cabaret-like way; Gainsbourg has not yet adopted his confessional crooning mumbling of later albums and plays a lot with accents, rhymes and alliterations.
The refrain is very simple, based on the rhythmic repetition of the word “petits trous” (small holes) that the puncher puts in metro tickets of ‘first and second class’. The small variations in the delivery and its nearly neurotic ostinato with the double-time ending communicates very well the repetitive and mechanical features of such a job.
The verses on the contrary are dream-like and offer free-form images rising from the alienated mind of the RATP (Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens) worker. They all start with the protagonist stating its profession: ‘I am the ticket puncher of Lilas’. Thanks to Reader’s Digest, he can fantasize of exotic places such as Miami; he has an explosion of confetti in his head, but he is also physically covered in them (as in the residual paper left on his clothes after each ticket punching); he also dreams of wide open spaces in nature, of the sea where to escape, of the sky he cannot see, but the “petits trous” always bring him back to his grim underground reality. Lilas in French also means lilacs and the reference to these flowers could also be understood as an element of escapism. The song closes with a darker fantasy, where the final trou would be a bullet in his head, followed by his burial in a big trou (the grave), all to get rid of the petits trous.
Gainsbourg’s song-writing talent is already evident in this song. Despite the minor success that the album achieved, the song itself would become a classic of the French chanson.
A future station of the line 11 of the Paris metro (to be completed in 2020) in the municipality of Lilas, will be named Serge Gainsbourg in honour of the song.
There are several covers of the song apart from the above-mentioned. Jean-Claude Pascal recorded it in 1959. Reggae-ska band Tryo recorded it for their album Sous les Étoilles (2000). Les Croquants recorded it on Ca sent la Bière (2001) and British punk-funk band The Rakes did a version in English called “A Man with a Job” (on the tribute compilation Monsieur Gainsbourg revisited, 2006). Guitarist Lulu Gainsbourg, son of Serge Gainsbourg, performs it instrumentally in his album From Lulu to Gainsbourg (2011).
Vocals and Compostion: Serge Gainsbourg
Orchestra (arrangement/conducting): Alain Goraguer
- Serge Gainsbourg. “Le Poinçonneur des Lilas”, 1958, Philips, 432.307 BE, France (7”, EP).
- Serge Gainsbourg. “Le Poinçonneur des Lilas”. On: Du chant à la une!…, 1958, Philips, B 76.447 R, (10”, Album).
- Serge Gainsbourg. Du chant à la une!…, 2001, Philips / Mercury, 548 421-2, France (CD, Album, RM, Dig).
- Dicale, Betrand: Gainsbourg en dix Leçons. Paris: Arthème Fayard 2009.
- Simmons, Sylvie: Serge Gainsbourg: A Fistful of Gitanes. Boston: Da Capo 2002.
Artist homepage: http://www.sergegainsbourg.com/ [15.05.2017].
About the Author
All contributions by Giacomo Bottà
Giacomo Bottà: “Le Poinçonneur des Lilas (Serge Gainsbourg)”. In: Songlexikon. Encyclopedia of Songs. Ed. by Michael Fischer, Fernand Hörner and Christofer Jost, http://www.songlexikon.de/songs/lepoinconneurdeslilas, 06/2017.Print