Often touted as one of the greatest albums ever, yet amazingly so many people don’t know of it’s existence or have never listened to it! At only 28 minutes it’s also one of the shortest essential albums ever. I first heard it in the early nineties at an early morning afterparty where it completely blew me away. Whenever I’m asked about my favourite all-time albums it always makes the list and it remains a turning point in the way I listen to music. It also sparked a curious obsession with Gainsbourg. He remains for me, the absolute essence of gallic cool and Histoire De Melody Nelson is his masterwork. Released in 1971, to this day it’s like nothing else and it’s influence can be heard, heart on sleeve in the music of Beck, Jarvis Cocker, Air and Broadcast who are all obvious fanatics of this album.
Firstly, the sleeve artwork is without doubt the most thought provoking I’d ever seen. That deep, sky blue background and Serge’s lover and muse Jane Birkin standing there with a curly mop in patched up denim bellbottoms, topless and clutching a rag doll to protect her modesty. It’s a powerful and unforgettable image. Surely one of the most iconic record sleeves ever, non? When you learn that this LP is a concept record based around the story of a middle aged man running over an under-aged girl in his Rolls Royce Silver Ghost and his ensuing dark obsession with her, the photo takes on an even more potent resonance.
So to the music. It begins with ‘Melody’, an elastic, gloopy funk bass intro joined by an impossibly light, laid-back but super-tight drum shuffle as Gainsbourg begins to describe the scene in the first person as the male character of our story. His voice, all spoken word and of course in French is a deep sleazy almost whisper. It has the effect of pulling you in. You don’t even have to understand the language, you’re locked. As the story unfolds a freeform electric guitar joins the fray, jamming along between the lines until the final essential piece to the overall sound arrives in the form of Jean-Claude Vannier and his huge and dramatic orchestral punctuation. What a sound! I have to thank Andy Votel for the lowdown on the band in session. Stunning UK players Dave Richmond on bass, Alan Parker on guitar and an ongoing mystery surrounding the identity of the drummer. Mr. Votel reckons it’s the late, great Barry Morgan and as far as I’m concerned, his guess is as good as anyone’s. The combination of these British musicians, Vannier’s orchestra and Serge’s vision and vocal stylings is completely irresistible. The track rises in intensity until suddenly it stops dead, the orchestra selling us a false ending and Gainsbourg asks “Tu t’apelle comment?” and Jane Birkin as our young dazed heroine replies;
Then we’re gently back into the obtuse groove we heard at the beginning, and it fades.
Ballade De Melody Nelson lifts us up to a melancholic daydream via a prettily picked acoustic guitar and finally something that resembles singing from Serge and Birkin. It’s so beautiful and evocative it literally sends shivers over your skin while at the same time warms your insides.
Valse De Melody plays a chanson française as the strings follow Serge’s voice in a kind of short reflective interlude. Ah Melody finds our hero illicitly in love and returns to the funky drums and picked acoustic once more shadowed by the drama Vannier’s simple yet massive string arrangement L’Hôtel Particulier’s gentle funk rock charts a slightly darker mindset before En Melody is a funked up perverted bout of illegal slap and tickle. Birkin’s manic giggle suggesting all manner of naughtiness taking place. Alan Parker’s wild electric riffing at centre stage and the strings make another false stop with a howling wind allowing Gainsbourg’s dirty whisper to summarise. Cargo Culte returns to the bass, drums and guitar theme adding a deep kettle drum, spooky, uncomfortable notes and finally a heavenly choir to accompany the erotic mutterings of Serge’s demented soul. He asks again “Tu t’apelle comment?” and she replies;
And it’s over.
It’s been a revelation to re-visit what is quite simply a work of wild, sensual, dark and sexual genius. Literally, every home should have one.