Since 1950, Philips Records has put out a bunch of classic albums. We're going to delve into their back catalogue and analyse some of our favorites. This week—Serge Gainsbourg's Histoire de Melody Nelson, a concept album about Serge unintentionally colliding his Rolls Royce Silver Ghost into teenage nymphet Melody Nelson's bicycle.
Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melody Nelson only sold 30,000 copies upon release but everyone who bought a copy became a pervert. It’s a facetious comment, but the album does bear comparison with Brian Eno’s quote about the impact of The Velvet Underground’s first album. The global success and controversy of “Je t’aime… moi non plus” (it was declared offensively erotic by everyone from BBC Radio 1 to the Vatican) has given the song a familiarity which, though it’s a pleasant enough porn soundtrack, makes it difficult to listen to even forty years later.
Melody Nelson may have bombed commercially, even in its native France, but in a sense it had to, in order to become something more interesting. After a collective epiphany, during the French pop renaissance that came with Daft Punk's Homework and Air's Moon Safari, history had to be rewritten; we started paying attention to overlooked European music. Music magazines wrote retrospectives on albums they’d wilfully, jingoistically ignored on release. A-list actors seeking indie credibility performed ham-fisted phonetic cover versions. Musicians became aware that the shortcut to genius was merely a Mirouze, Pelletier, Perrey, or Vannier sample away (to mention just the Jeans).
Gainsbourg had actually pioneered the practise of sampling before there were commercial samplers available; using a snippet of the First Movement of Antonín Dvořák’s "Symphony No. 9 (‘New World’)" for his climatic chorus to "Initial’s B.B." The best of his descendants have been those who have absorbed and transformed his music into something that at least appears new. The eclecticism of those influenced by him (Momus, Portishead, Connan Mockasin, De La Soul, Stereolab, and Beck to name a few) speaks volumes for the eclecticism of Gainsbourg's work.
The way into Histoire de Melody Nelson for English-speakers is, naturally, through the music. Even though the production and atmosphere of the album (hypnotic rhythm section to the fore, ephemeral snatches of orchestra) has been mimicked a thousand times, the original still sounds fresh, to the extent it always seems just a fraction in the future. It can be imitated but only with diminished returns, however able or noble the intentions. This is perhaps because it was the culmination of several years of experiment and soundtrack work with the exceptional Jean-Claude Vannier. This guy:
The pair had to exhaust a mad cacophony of musical ideas before being comfortable to strip it all down and build from the skeleton up. While writing the 33 1/3 book on the album, I found myself interested not in the mechanics of the album or talking heads-style remembrances (which are already plentiful elsewhere), but rather the context around it and its creator. Gainsbourg and Melody Culture did not fit with culture at the time—he wrote about the Holocaust, the influence of Surrealism, poètes maudits and Pop Art and the relationship between cynicism and romance.
It’s entirely possible to enjoy Histoire de Melody Nelson without understanding its lyrics. To some people it might even be preferable, given it’s essentially about a washed-up middle-aged Rolls Royce-driving gentleman of questionable morals, who knocks down an underage girl on her bicycle, falls in love and has his wicked way with her before she dies in the age-old scenario of having her plane, en route to Sunderland, sabotaged by the prayers of a Polynesian Cargo Cult. But if we do, we miss out on so much of Gainsbourg’s talent for narrative, wordplay, and subversion.
On the surface, Histoire de Melody Nelson is all about Jane Birkin, Gainsbourg’s actress-model-singer girlfriend at the time. They met while making the film Slogan together; falling in love as the May ’68 riots were taking hold around them in Paris. Though there were cosmetic differences (Melody’s red hair for example), it would seem Jane was Melody. There was a considerable age difference between the couple, which Gainsbourg extended uncomfortably on the record. This was characteristic—Gainsbourg simply liked fucking with the listener. On the albums that came before this, there are tales of a morbidly depressed ticket-puncher ("Le Poinçonneur des Lilas"), teeny-boppers getting their fingers snapped ("Le Claqueur des Doigts"), a squabbling couple ending up in a car-wreck ("Du Jazz dans le Ravin"), and a pedantic boyfriend correcting spelling mistakes in his lover’s suicide note (‘En Relisant ta Lettre’). All had wit, poetry, and a gallows humor sorely lacking in most popular music at the time.
For over a decade, Gainsbourg had been writing sophisticated chansons, yet he had bitterly found his greatest fame writing brilliant but throwaway Yé-yé pop music for teenagers. The man had been inspired by the likes of Boris Vian and then found himself winning the Eurovision Song Contest almost by mistake. A torrid affair with the world’s most lusted after woman, Brigitte Bardot, had spurred on his most successful song-writing period, though it was still pop music however accomplished. Having studied painting as a youth before destroying most of his work in a moment of frustration, Gainsbourg still wanted to be an artist. So he resolved to make an art out of this disposable medium, something that would be as weighty as the art or novels he loved. In the process, he might have to use the occasional sweet melody as a Trojan Horse for darker, more substantial purposes.
Histoire de Melody Nelson isn’t really about Jane Birkin at all. No more than Nabokov’s Lolita is about Dolores Haze, the female object of the narrator Humbert Humbert’s obsession. Gainsbourg was fascinated by the book. He read excerpts from it on television and attempted to buy the rights to make a musical adaptation, only to find Stanley Kubrick had secured them for his film. What interested Gainsbourg is the crucial issue and reveals what’s at the heart of the Melody Nelson story. It’s all about the narrator, the male ego and all the obsessive, destructive decadence and delusion therein. Like the book, it is an album about the Beast, masquerading as a study of the Beauty. As revelations of the male psyche, its results aren’t pretty, no matter how seductively they’re presented. On the sleeve of his first album, there’s a revealing hint of what might lie beneath.
“If you hadn’t been you,” Gainsbourg was asked, “Who would you have liked to have been?”
“The Marquis de Sade,” he replied, “Robinson Crusoe.”
Years later, those two characters would merge in the narrator of Histoire de Melody Nelson.
If it is a love story, Melody Nelson is one brave enough to note that there are no happy ever afters and honest enough to admit that love can be a monstrous, treacherous thing. “The books that the world calls immoral,” Oscar Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “Are books that show the world its own shame.” We still have a tendency to attack those who show us such things because they threaten to upset the essential lies and decorum that balance civilisation, public morality and private life.
Like Nabokov and Wilde, Gainsbourg was a provocateur. He was clever and mischievous. He played not just with the narrator’s twisted fantasies and skewed concept of love but also the audience’s. Gainsbourg realized that repulsion and attraction were flip sides of the same coin; hence the prevailing tabloid atmosphere of voyeuristic prurience, in which horrible things are daily lingered over and fixated upon. Gainsbourg knew there was electricity in flirting with taboo but also danger. So he remained slightly elusive. He lets the listener fill in the blanks. It’s your filthy mind doing it. You can be outraged by it or seduced, or both. He doesn’t care. Either way, the audience is implicated.
We could separate the man from the message and underline that to write about perversion is not to justify it, let alone conduct it. Yet, again as with Nabokov and Wilde (two other masters of ambiguity and moral complexity), you’re never entirely sure. Is there a double bluff going on or no bluff at all? To paraphrase Groucho Marx, “He may look like a pervert and talk like a pervert but don’t let that fool you. He really is a pervert.” This is one of the aspects that make Gainsbourg so intriguing and modern, for good and ill. He was a dedicated family man, a libertine, an artist, a timid romantic, a degenerate, a moralist, and none of these things are mutually exclusive, though we’d like them to be. We continually assert, with uncharacteristic naiveté, that life is binary, that humans are good and evil. And we are continually surprised by the contrary. Having narrowly escaped being transported and murdered, in a Holocaust that was aided and abetted by a significant number of his countrymen, Gainsbourg was under no such illusions. He spent his life confronting the guardians of morality because as a boy he had glimpsed beneath and witnessed how rotten the entire artifice was. In a strange way, he spent the rest of his career having his revenge.
In the end, the narrator of Histoire de Melody Nelson is damned to a kind of purgatory for his sins, driving around for all time dreaming of Melody, her ghost “haunting the archipelago where the sirens live.” It is the nature of tragedy from Ancient Greece onwards that the tortured arguably wouldn’t change a thing if they could go back in time. We torment ourselves and delight in it. As a cipher, Melody has to die to complete this unattainable myth of perfect love but in the end, it’s really all about the narrator facing loneliness and mortality. It’s beyond coincidence that the hard-drinking, heavy-smoking Gainsbourg had a near-fatal heart attack shortly after the album’s release and that he and Birkin did not last as a couple as he sank into alcoholism. He knew time was not on his side. Nor is it for the rest of us, you’ll be happy to note. On the plus side, there’s some sublime music to play while we’re wasting it.
Darran Anderson is the author of Serge Gainsbourg's Histoire de Melody Nelson (33 1/3).