Alain Bashung is a tough enigma to crack. There’s little of the playfulness of Gainsbourg, the directness of Brel, or the universality of French Touch that we rosbifs can hang on to. Despite his apparent abstruseness, he’s revered by French artists and the public alike, although the parts they like can be wildly divergent.
Bashung spent much of the 1970s releasing singles that bombed, writing chansons for Dick Rivers and playing the murderous revolutionary Robespierre in a rock opera. It was the early 80s while in his mid-30s that he made his breakthrough, with the Dylanesque ‘Gaby Oh! Gaby’ and a follow-up Number One album called ‘Pizza’. Bashung realised after many years in the wilderness that fame wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, and decided to take a left-field turn.
On its 1982 release, ‘Play Blessures’ was regarded as an act of self-sabotage. ‘C’est Comment Qu’on Freine’ and ‘Scènes De Manager’ would certainly sound odd to casual record buyers hoping for more AOR. Moreover, Bushung wrote it with his drinking pal Serge Gainsbourg, right at the peak of the latter’s hell raising days. Lyrically, there are fewer of the jeu de mots one might expect, making for a dark, often abstract listen, accentuated by the Breton-born singer’s gravelly delivery.
Latterly ‘Play Blessures’ has been reclaimed as a cult classic, making many all-time lists across the Channel, and it sounds magnificent to receptive ears some 40 years into the future. Originally it was meant to be called ‘Apocalypso’, but Bashung was beaten to the title by The Motels. Therefore ‘Play Blessures’ (‘Playing Injuries’) was lifted from a lyric in the song ‘Lavabo’, which complements the artwork that had already been shot, featuring the generously-coiffed singer beating bongos as flames lick up the sides.
It was this image that caught my eye while rifling through crates at Superfly Records in the 3rd arrondissement in Paris a few years back. Bashung, who died in 2009 from lung cancer, largely remains an enigma to me but what makes ‘Play Blessures’ such a joy is that it’s an album that glorifies in being misunderstood. If you can find a way in then you’re behind Bashung’s own proverbial velvet rope, a place he hoped not everybody would follow.