Things I am a fan of: Serge Gainsbourg, Darran Anderson, and the 33 1/3 series. The 33 1/3 imprint focuses on specific albums, and the results are usually far more engaging than standard biographical fare. Histoire de Melody Nelson is the series’s latest entry; here, Darran Anderson takes on Serge Gainsbourg’s dark, moody, sexy, weird album (listen to it/see it here). I still remember the first time I heard Melody, back in college. Gainsbourg’s track with a breathy, orgasmic Brigitte Bardot “Je t’aime… moi non plus” was pretty much a party standard for my friends and me, and “Bonnie & Clyde” found its way onto plenty of mixtapes in the late ’90s. These bubblegum vamps didn’t really prepare me for Melody. I remember going to a friend’s apartment; he had just bought the album and had it playing on repeat. Dark, spacious, very short and full of strange shifts, from orchestral bombast to odd moments of quiet, the album made me feel weird. Such a weird album is a worthy topic for a book, and Anderson’s entry is a marvelous description and analysis of the artistic, cultural, and philosophical sources that Gainsbourg synthesized in Melody. Check out some of Anderson’s blog entries; they provide a compelling overview of his book:
The Origins of Melody – Nabokov’s Lolita, Barbarella, Boris Vian, Sibelius, Mondo Cane.
The Avant Garde or Nothing – Gainsbourg and Vannier as innovators and a focus on their lost classics.
Initials O.G. – Serge Gainsbourg’s Hip-hop afterlife.
Connan Mockasin – Kiwi Psychedelia and the Ghost of Melody Nelson.
The book’s blurb:
Outside his native France, the view of Serge Gainsbourg was once of a one-hit wonder lothario. This has been slowly replaced by an awareness of how talented and innovative a songwriter he was. Gainsbourg was an eclectic, protean figure; a Dadaist, poète maudit, Pop-Artist, libertine and anti-hero. An icon and iconoclast.
His masterpiece is arguably Histoire de Melody Nelson, an album suite combining many of his signature themes; sex, taboo, provocation, humour, exoticism and ultimately tragedy. Composed and arranged with the great Jean-Claude Vannier, its score of lush cinematic strings and proto-hip hop beats, combined with Serge’s spoken-word poetry, has become remarkably influential across a vast musical spectrum; inspiring soundtracks, indie groups and electronic artists. In recent years, the album’s reputation has grown from cult status to that of a modern classic with the likes of Beck, Portishead, Mike Patton, Air and Pulp paying tribute.
How did the son of Jewish Russian immigrants, hounded during the Nazi Occupation, rise to such notoriety and acclaim, being celebrated by President François Mitterand as “our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire”? How did the early chanson singer evolve into a musical visionary incorporating samples, breakbeats and dub into his music, decades ahead of the curve? And what are the roots and legacy of a concept album about a Rolls Royce, a red-haired Lolita muse, otherworldly mansions, plane crashes and Cargo Cults?