Serge Gainsbourg - Histoire de Melody Nelson

Serge Gainsbourg
Histoire de Melody Nelson

Released 1971 on Philips
Reviewed by Lord Lucan, 04/01/2001ce

“I wanna fuck you.”
Serge Gainsbourg to Whitney Houston on live French TV.

“For me provocation is oxygen.”
Serge Gainsbourg

Gainsbourg (né Ginzberg, aka Gainsbarre) loved courting very public controversy and outraging the establishment with a decades-early punk-as-fuck attitude married to poetic sleaze. His lyrics brim over with glorious, salacious tales of drugged-up, drunken debauchery, graphic sex (in all its permutations), suicide, crime and political scandal. The expression ‘Bête Noire’ seems tailor-made. He got away with it all because his lyrics were poetry, glorying in effortless word play (‘Harley Davidson of a Bitch’) and mastery of double-entendre. And they were often very funny. Musically he was a gifted magpie who could effortlessly incorporate jazz, samba, classical, funk, disco and reggae into his louche lounge-lizard pop. Despite the mythic stature he attained in France, the French lyrics as well as the unfortunate and lazy connection with easy-listening have generally restricted English interest to francophiles and musicians. Jarvis Cocker was still in nappies when this was all happening in France, but would later find his musical feet when liberally using ideas first committed to vinyl by this man. Stereolab shot-gunned Gainsbourg into a marriage with Neu!, Gainsbourg samples rear their sleazy heads in tracks by (amongst others) Renegade Soundwave and David Holmes. Blur’s ‘To The End’ and Nick Cave’s duet with Kylie would never have happened without the precedent Gainsbourg. However, first prize for Gainsbourg-philia goes to the another Bad Seed, Mick Harvey who, with his two volumes of surprisingly musically faithful, if occasionally clumsy English translations, has belatedly opened Gainsbourg to anglophone ears.

Gainsbourg’s recordings are pretty consistently good, but this album is a stand-out in Gainsbourg’s work, as it demonstrates best how he could perfectly fuse diverse influences into a short set of songs. It’s a concept album which by-passes prog-rock utterly (it’s only 28 minutes long for a start). The songs play like a suite of deliciously groovy eclectica, each song effortlessly leading to the next. The concept is no Wives-of-Henry-IIX-on-ice monstrosity either. Serge narrates in a nice ’n’ sleazy whisper that Jarvis would kill for, the tale of his seduction of English teenager Melody Nelson (huskily played by his wife Jane Birkin) after knocking her off her bicycle with his Rolls Royce.

The album begins with a sleazy street-walking funky bass and drums groove overture. Serge whispers lustfully about recklessly driving his Rolls Royce, as rocking electric guitar and big orchestral strings soundtrack Serge’s increasing lack of control over the car. He crashes into Melody who is unhurt. He introduces himself and instead of showing concern for her health notices her hair is a natural red. The instrumentation on this and all the subsequent tracks is exquisite in its simplicity. All instruments have totally rounded clarity and hang together perfectly. ‘Ballade de Melody Nelson’ provides the main theme of this soundtrack without a film. The bass funk is high in the mix and leads as Serge sings of his instant lust for this fifteen year old girl. Acoustic guitar picking and string arrangements sweep over the listener in precise and beautiful waves. The strings segue this track into the 1.32 minutes of ‘Valse de Melody’ where lush waltzing strings alone accompany Serge crooning his first attempt at verbal seduction. ‘Ah! Melodie’ smoothly follows through with an orchestral twist Björk would later use on ‘Post’. The acoustic guitar is back, as are the bass and drums. A beautiful, muted trumpet is added as Serge ups the stakes with his smooth seduction. ‘L’Hotel Particulier’ increases the sleaze-funk as electric guitar appears again and an organ sound so round you could roll it across the floor joins in. It’s like all these instruments want to get into bed with Melody too, as Serge leads Melody to a sleazy hotel filled with bronze busts of Aphodite and Salomé, gold angels and mirrors over the beds. The instrumental ‘En Melody’ (‘In Melody’) follows with in-and-out brazen hip-thrusting funk. All the instruments are finally getting their wicked way as clothes fly and Melody laughs and cavorts with total abandon. This is the most Austin Powers this album gets! ‘Cargo Culte’ reprises the first track as Serge tells us in his amplified whisper how after her close shave with death Melody decides to pay a visit to her home town of Sunderland (Cocker-ism!). Choirs of ghostly voices flutter in as we hear how the Boeing she flies on suddenly goes out of control and crashes. The track builds to an orchestral and choral crescendo finally leaving Serge reminiscing about how they met.

The consistent production on this album makes it sound like the whole thing was played through in one go. And that’s the way it should be heard. Even if you don’t understand French the sheer integrity of the sound carries you along in the same way Scott Walker does. Although the seduction-through-Gitane-smoke atmosphere occasionally brings Scott to mind, he never got quite this libidinous or down-right funky. Gainsbourg is finally starting to get recognition outside France (particularly this album, which is quite rightly being name-checked by all-and-sundry). Though ‘Comic Strip’ is probably the best place to start for a great collection of his skewed pop gems, this album is his best as a sheer conceptual tour de force.

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