People always look surprised when they learn about my taste for the chanson française and they usually ask me to name the most popular French song, and my answer is always the same: La Marseillaise. It’s not usual to find an adult who has never heard the French national anthem, and often without even knowing the name, people immediately recognize the song when I hum the melody.
Certainly the Beatles are not entirely to blame for the popularity of this song, but the French national anthem is possibly the world’s most popular anthem, and its appearance in the introduction of one of the most famous songs by one of the most popular bands in history, helped spread the Marseillaise around the globe. I read, here in this very interesting article, that the responsible for putting the Marseillaise in the introduction of All you need is love was the man known as the fifth Beatle, producer George Martin.
Apparently, the choice was random (if that exists) and he decided to mix La Marseillaise with a melody by Bach (German), “In the Mood” by Glenn Miller (American), and “Greensleeves”, traditional English folk song supposedly composed by Henry VIII, to create the texture of the background of All you need is love. Of course, this mix of tunes from different parts of the planet in a song that was supposed to sing about world peace was not random at all and, even unconsciously, Martin was putting together the songs he wanted to represent an idea of peace and love.
Rumour has it that in 1979, Gainsbourg was flipping through an encyclopedia and accidently found the article about the Marseillaise. Curious, Serge decided to explore the text and soon realized that, around the tenth verse, the transcription of the anthem was summarized with a simple “aux armes et Caetera.”
I prefer to rely more on my own interpretation and believe that Gainsbourg – always very rebellious and probably a little tired of his own country -, decided to mess with the thing he knew would be the most untouchable: the national anthem. The contemptuous manner in which he sings, the mocking tone in his voice, and the images of the official video, all make me believe that Gainsbourg was making fun of the bloody and absurd lyrics of the Marseillaise. And he sang “aux armes et Caetera” as if he meant “to arms, and all that bullshit.”
Obviously, a reggae version of the national anthem wasn’t going to please everyone but, although Gainsbourg was accused of many things at the time, the bad critics didn’t prevent the song to be a hit and the album turned out to be the firt Golden Record of his career.
Another great appearance of the Marseillaise is in the classic Hollywood movie Casablanca . The scene where the Victor Laszlo demands the band in Rick’s bar to play the French national anthem in order to silence the voices of the German soldiers is incredibly beautiful and it gives me shivers every time I watch it. The rebellion power that the French national anthem represents, paired with sad expressions in the expatriates’s faces transport us to the horrors of World War II.
Recently, La Marseillaise was also used in Édith Piaf’s biopic. The scene shows Piaf, still a poor and orphan little girl, singing in the streets.
And now I end this article in celebration of the Bastille Day with one of my favorite versions of La Marsaillaise, played beautifully in the guitar by genious Django Reinhardt.
Happy Bastille Day to all of you!