Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Serge Gainsbourg - L'Homme à Tête de Chou

Serge Gainsbourg
L'Homme à Tête de Chou

Released 1976 on Mercury France
Reviewed by Robin Tripp, 25/06/2006ce

1. L'homme à Tête de Chou (2:59)
2. Chez Max Coiffeur Pour Homme (1:57)
3. Marilou Reggae (2:08)
4. Transit à Marilou (1:30)
5. Flash Forward (2:35)
6. Aéroplanes (2:35)
7. Premiers Symptomes (1:12)
8. Ma Lou Marilou (2:39)
9. Variations sur Marilou (7:39)
10. Meurtre à l'extincteur (0:47)
11. Marilou sous la neige (2:23)
12. Lunatic Asylum (3:20)

All compositions by Serge Gainsbourg.

There's much more to Gainsbourg than Melody Nelson, and this album proves it. Like Melody, L'homme à Tête de Chou is a short album that manages to continue Gainsbourg's seemingly life-long obsession with the immoral anti-hero caught up in an over-sexed metaphor; all wrapped up in the format of that most dreaded of beasts, the concept album. As a result, the story at the heart of L'homme..." is perhaps the most absurd thing on record. Forget such conceptual hallmarks as S.F. Sorrow, Tommy, The Wall, and Tales from the Topographic Oceans, "L'homme..." takes it's abstract imagery to previously unexplored levels of musical excess; spinning a dense, intense and often darkly comic little parable involving sex, jealously, infidelity, murder and madness. I suppose that's the narrative scope of the record distilled to the level of a sound bite, and in doing so, the album kind of make sense. However, a full breakdown of the "plot" (or whatever you want to call it?) literally beggars belief...

Here, Gainsbourg adopts the perspective of an alcoholic journalist, who one days pops into his local hair salon for a short-back-and-sides and is immediately seduced by the exotic young stylist, Marilou. The two characters begin a relationship, and for a while, all seems well... that is, until our hero discovers Marilou's penchant for sex on the side. Enraged, he takes to stalking; gradually slipping further and further into the pits of despair - observing his mistress sleeping with long-haired musicians (and doing a lot of absinthe) - and eventually, taking to beating her face in with a fire extinguisher when the despair gives way to insanity. From here things get sketchy, with Gainsbourg flipping through perspectives to relate the story from a number of different viewpoints in a way that left me hopelessly grasping for my old copy of "the A-Level guide to French"!! However, going off various reviews and discussions posted on the net, it is clear that Gainsbourg is playing with the notions of sex and comedy (or sex as comedy?), melodrama, existentialism and full blown surrealism, as the second half of the album has the narrator serenading the bludgeoned corpse of Marilou rising from the chemical foam of the busted extinguisher that cracked her skull - before his own head turns into a cabbage, which thus... allows the spirit of Marilou, reincarnated as a bunny rabbit, to return to earth to eat his face in sweet revenge.

This is 'The Hairdresser's Husband' as directed by David Lynch (from a script by Almodóvar) - with the album slipping into Eraserhead territory on a number of occasions - though still managing to retain the mordant wit that Gainsbourg brought to all of his work (not just the music, but also his films and literary work, too). Don't let the fact that the narrative is in French put you off the experience. My French is hardly great, but the intent and the meaning behind the songs are still clear to me through the use of the arrangements and the choice of instrumentation. The same thing can be said of all of Gainsbourg's musical work (we don't need to be fluent in French to know that Je T'aime Moi Non Plus is as filthy as fuck!!), with the artist crafting a writhing and intoxicating melange of musical styles to help further convey the ideas at work within his lyrics.

Although it must be said that it is not as iconic as the much more celebrated Histoire de Melody Nelson, "L'homme..." remains, to my ears at least, an absolute joy of an album. Here, Gainsbourg retains the more delicate elements of Melody, and lays them alongside the gleeful provocation of Rock Around the Bunker. He also offers up a real concept that allows his muse to follow previously unexplored areas of lyrical and musical excess. It's a testament to Gainsbourg as an artist that he wasn't standing still. Even after more than a decade of success across Europe, and even a cult notoriety and a certain level in critical respect in the UK, he was still pushing himself further as an artiste, with "L'homme..." building on elements of his previous work, but also branching out to incorporate elements of baroque pop, new wave, lounge-jazz, progressive rock, disco and funk. The use of keyboards and synthesisers very much ties in with the late 70's obsession for all things "Kraut", with the success of Kraftwerk bringing electronic music and dance beats into the pop hemisphere, whilst the following year would see the likes of the Bee Gees and ABBA re-establishing themselves through the medium of late 70's disco chic. As a result, L'homme à Tête de Chou could also be seen as being nearer to Bowie's work of the same period, with Gainsbourg taking a darker, more contemporary (for the mid-to-late 1970's) sound and employing it alongside his trademark quirks and characteristics, as Bowie would eventually do with his "Berlin Trilogy".

The first half of the album flows seamlessly, with Gainsbourg and his collaborators (including backing vocalists from Dark Side of the Moon) playing around with repetitive themes and motifs. For example, the first two tracks, L'homme à Tête de Chou and Chez Max Coiffeur Pour Homme have the exact same chord structure and melody... the only difference between the two are the arrangement and the lyrics. The first song opens with tinkling bells to set the scene before the synthesisers of arranger/keyboardist Alan Hawkshaw kick in to give the song a more eerie and ominous vibe. The second song goes for a more funk orientated arrangement with great lead guitar work from Alan Parker (not the film director... or at least, I don't think it is?) and a great rhythm section featuring Brian Odgers on bass and Dougie Wright on drums. Serge is at his most seductive and deranged when it comes to vocal delivery, bringing that trademark whisper (that only really works in French... sorry Jarvis!!), and even managing to make the most ordinary of lyrics sound heart-stoppingly beautiful... (for example, the seven and half minute joy of Variations Sur Marilou, in which Gainsbourg reels off a list of different objects, places and people - including references to pop culture figures like The Rolling Stones, Elvis, Hendrix and, most interestingly, Lewis Carroll - in a way that sounds absolutely riveting).

Much of the album employs a baroque/disco style, with the funk heavy rhythm section and a hint of new wave creeping in - a sound that is most apparent on the opening tracks, as well as the abovementioned Variations Sur Marilou - but there are also a couple of sweet little pop songs too. Both Marilou Reggae (which, unsurprisingly enough, finds the reggae element beginning to permeate the porno funk veneer) and the penultimate track Marilou sous la neige (which featured on the great Gainsbourg compilation Initials S.G. from a few years ago) have a nice finger picked acoustic guitar sound and a great sense of rhythm. Admittedly, they don't make you want to get up and shake your rump or anything, but they're certainly "toe-tappers", and juxtapose nicely when compared to some of the darker songs found elsewhere (such as that bizarre closing track, Lunatic Asylum). Here, Gainsbourg predates an album like The Dreaming by Kate Bush (or specifically, the title track from that particular album) as well as several post-punk acts (amongst them, Public Image Ltd). The musical backing-track is minimal... built around a distorted electronic pulse that sounds like an African tribal chant; while various elements of percussion and what sounds like a didgeridoo all drift into the mix. The song becomes more and more frenzied but the tempo remains the same. Similarly, Gainsbourg never break out of that hushed whisper... keeping his cool while the ghost of his lover gnaws on his cabbage-patch skull!

The great cover-art ties it all together, with Gainsbourg's own photography of a statue that resides in his garden... a surreal recreation of the artist rendered in marble by his good friend Claude Lalanne. It stands as a testament to the central character, left to bounce off the walls of a padded cell... a victim of his own carnal desires. With it's bizarre and absurd central concept, and its schizophrenic approach to musical styles, arrangements and instrumentation, L'Homme à Tête de Chou will obviously be a hard sell... even to those entranced by Gainsbourg's more iconic early pop work, in particular, Histoire de Melody Nelson. Melody Nelson is an album to listen to on a veranda; preferable whilst wearing a turtleneck and quoting poetry in an attempt to seduce your best friend's daughter. "L'homme..." is a darker beast indeed. An album to wake up screaming to; whilst Gainsbourg laughs and throws a wink in your direction.

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