[14 May 2009]
Serge Gainsbourg was born in France to Russian parents. His classic album Histoire De Melody Nelson is an ode to the lure of virgin beauty, similar in focus to a work of another Russian, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. The record made little waves at the time of its original 1971 release, but fulfilled a creative promise Gainsbourg had made to Jane Birkin.
Gainsbourg’s reputation as pop music agent provocateur and effortless womanizer will be familiar to anyone who has heard any of his classic singles such as “Je t’aime”, “Bonnie and Clyde”, and “Soixant’neuf année érotique”. He and Birkin met on the set of the movie Slogan and initially didn’t hit it off. Gainsbourg was fresh from a break-up with Brigitte Bardot. Birkin, playing the role for which he had recommended another, detested what she thought was his sarcastic arrogance. After a frank meeting, a slight thaw began but her feelings did not turn toward affection until he asked her to dance and trod all over her feet. She realized that he wasn’t Mr. Cool but was actually shy and humorous. The story goes that they booked into his usual hotel room but he fell asleep and she slipped out, bought the 45 record they’d been dancing to, and left it between his upturned toes. Whether two tracks from Histoire De Melody Nelson (“Valse de Melody” and “Le Hotel Particular”) reference that particular incident, only Gainsbourg will know for sure. What is clear is that Gainsbourg promised Birkin this music and apparently pondered for two years before writing it in eight days.
There are several factors which together make this an album of extraordinarily masterful music. The use of some legendary UK session musicians is one integral piece. We all know the term “legend” is overused, and to some extent Vic Flick, Big Jim Sullivan, and Herbie Flowers remain invisible heroes. So, from their vast credits let’s consider just a few examples. As a member of the John Barry Seven (along with Melody Nelson drummer Douglas Wright) Flick’s guitar dominates the original James Bond theme. Similarly, it isn’t a stretch to say that Herbie Flowers’ bass playing makes Lou Reed’s “Walk On the Wild Side” and Bowie’s “Space Oddity”. Big Jim Sullivan played rhythm guitar on literally thousands of hit records, everything from the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” to Marianne Faithful’s “As Tears Go By” and still found time to give guitar lessons to Jimmy Page and Steve Howe. These are the guys who could play whatever was required, with no fuss or ego, and their individual skill and collaborative inspiration gives Histoire de Melody Nelson a safety net of total conviction.
But there’s more going on here than super-tight musicianship. There is the significant matter of the orchestral and choral elements, superbly and sparingly placed for stunning contrast and power. The man responsible, Jean-Claude Vannier, arranged much of Serge Gainsbourg’s music and also to be highly recommended is his own release L’Enfant Assassin des Mouches from these same sessions: a wordless psychedelic masterpiece inspired by something Gainsbourg wrote about a child killing flies. In 2006, Vannier and the session boys re-collaborated on several performances of Histoire de Melody Nelson with vocal help from Jarvis Cocker, Laetitia Sadler, and others.
Serge Gainsbourg was the missing ingredient in the recent concert performances, and without him all the arrangements and superb playing on this album would be for naught. His vocals on Melody Nelson evoke feverish, brooding lechery, but are also adroit and romantic. In short: this is the most consistently convincing work of his life, conveying fluctuating moods against a breadth of style with outbreaks of fuzz guitar, one or two bars of blues piano, briefly sweeping strings, light-headed pop bliss, funky eroticism, and a sense of impending doom.
Two extraordinary seven-minute tracks open and close the record. In a sense they are mirror images, but whereas “Melody” sets a mood of sexual obsession to suitably lustful groove, “Culte Cargo” is somehow mournful and haunted, with Gainsbourg sounding as if he’s condemned to be a worshipful slave to the rhythm of the memory of Melody. Both pieces are as close as we’ll ever get to hearing “Serge Runs the Voodoo Down” and together they make up half the album’s 28-minute running time. That might seem short change by today’s overextended standards, whereby artists with little to say nevertheless take 78 minutes to do so. But since this is the story of a brief unforgettable encounter, the economy is a perfect fit and I’m hard pushed to think of a half hour of more consistently thrilling listening. The tale itself is of life-changing accidents, “the spirit of ecstasy” and the joy and mental turmoil of love. Jane Birkin is on the cover dressed only in blue jeans holding a cuddly toy she would later place in Gainsbourg’s coffin; it makes my back ache just watching her dance in the accompanying videos. When her underrated voice occasionally punctuates the music, it conveys freshness and innocence as only she can. She responds perfectly to Gainsbourg’s questioning calls and her brief giggles and squeals are almost as perfect as the “Owwws!” on many a James Brown cut!
This is a first US release of Histoire de Melody Nelson, re-mastered from the original tapes, complete with a 40-page booklet containing an interview with Serge Gainsbourg and lyric translations. This is genre-defying music, but anyone with an interest in hearing a blueprint for trip hop or a master class in the depiction of desire in pop music, should be sure to listen to this mysterious, timeless, contradictory album. Je t’aime …me neither.