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Music Review: Serge Gainsbourg – Histoire de Melody Nelson (Re-Release, US only)

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The album Histoire de Melody Nelson ranks among the most influential works ever released by the late French singer, poet, writer, actor, and director Serge Gainsbourg. This U.S. only re-release by Light In The Attic Records, pays homage to one of France’s legendary figures with a superbly produced and beautifully packaged album.

To measure the continuing esteem in which he is held within his homeland it pays to visit the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris. Whilst Jim Morrison’s grave in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery is one of Paris’s most visited sites, the resting place of Gainsbourg also attracts huge numbers. His house on Rue de Verneuil in Paris has become something of a shrine for fans and admirers alike.

He was born Lucien Ginsburg in Paris in 1928. His parents were of Russian Jewish stock and his teenage years were profoundly effected by the German occupation of France during the Second World War.

His musical career can be roughly divided into decades. The fifties saw him in the role of an old fashioned chanson before delving into jazz. The sixties saw his pop breakthrough. The seventies saw him periodically explore reggae themes, before moving on to electronica in the eighties.

His music would often explore the dark side of Parisian life. It would also sometimes contain barely disguised sexual themes. As a result, some of his work was regarded as highly controversial as he deliberately nudged back the boundaries of acceptability. For example, “Les Sucettes”, a 1965 song written for singer France Gall, caused uproar in France with its thinly veiled sexual innuendo.

In 1968 he met and fell in love with the beautiful French actress Jane Birkin. The following year saw their single “Je t’aime… Moi, Non Plus”. Whilst Gainsbourg described it as the ‘ultimate love song’ the media saw it otherwise and it was widely banned. During the song Jane simulates orgasm so convincingly that it remains one of the most erotic songs ever written.

Histoire de Melody Nelson was originally released in 1971. Again the Lolita-style subject matter caused concern but it remains a hugely influential and inspirational album that secured his legendary status. In the story, Gainsbourg accidentally knocks a beautiful young girl from her bicycle whilst driving his Rolls Royce Silver Ghost.

Immediately, just from that sentence alone, numerous powerful visual images are created. A breathless Jane Birkin appears as the beautiful English girl Melody Nelson. With deep string and choral arrangements set behind Gainsbourg’s often spoken, half whispered narration in French, it is again highly erotic, romantic, dramatic, and powerfully seductive.

Serge and Jane actually met on the set of their 1968 film Slogan. It was an often volatile relationship. Their intimate, yet artistic intensity is portrayed within this exceptional album. There is no language in the world that is quite as romantic as French. Captivated by her beauty the aging driver of the Rolls Royce uses that power to help seduce the young Melody Nelson.

Each step, the meeting, the eventual romance, and tragic finale are all told in such an intimate atmosphere it possesses a near visual intensity.

Produced by Jean-Claude Vannier Histoire de Melody Nelson has influenced many later musicians. Such is it’s lasting status that when Vannier performed the album live at London’s Barbican Theatre in 2006 he was joined by Paris based ex-Pulp singer Jarvis Cocker, Badly Drawn Boy (Damon Gough), Mick Harvey from the Bad Seeds, and Gruff Rhys from the Super Furry Animals.

Placebo are another band who have been heavily influenced by Histoire and even included “Ballade de Melody Nelson” on the bonus disc section of their 2003 album Sleeping With Ghosts.

‘Ainsi je déconnais avant que je ne perde, le contrôle de la Rolls. J'avançais lentement ma voiture dériva et un heurt violent me tira soudain de ma rêverie. Merde!’ whispers Gainsbourg as his Rolls catches Melody’s bicycle tipping her off balance and causing her to fall to the ground. It is the start of a magical journey, a chance, and yet, life changing encounter that leads to the ultimate seduction that occurs within the track “L’Hotel Particulier”.

The album radiates such atmosphere that you simply do not need to speak French to become immersed within its spell. This may seem a strange comment for a largely narrated work but the story unfolds all the same and its utter Frenchness ultimately adds the touches of mystique for which this album is particularly respected for.

Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin separated after thirteen dramatic years together. He continued to provoke controversy and famously burnt a five hundred French Franc note live on television as a protest against high taxes. It was at a time when it was illegal to do so.

His television appearances were now sadly affected by his heavy drinking and his behavior and comments became ever more erratic and controversial. A clip of one such incident with Whitney Houston, which occurred during a live French television show, can be seen on the Daily Motion website but does contain strong language that may offend. His legendary drinking finally took its toll and he died in 1991 aged sixty-two.

None of this should detract from his memory and he should instead be remembered for his vast contribution to film, music, and indeed France itself. There is no better place to start than with this classic album.

Despite, or maybe partly because of, his controversial reputation he remains an iconic figure in his homeland. His impact on French music in particular is immeasurable. This fascinating story is told eloquently in the beautifully presented album notes with this release.

His funeral brought Paris to a standstill and the then French President Francois Mitterand said of him, ‘he was our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire, he elevated the song to the level of art’. In 2003 English star Petula Clark wrote and recorded “La Chanson de Gainsbourg” in his memory. He was, after all, the composer of several of her biggest hit records.

Serge still has an official website (in French). There is also a short film of the album created by Serge which can be seen by visiting Light In The Attic Records website.

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