Confession time. Leaving aside the ubiquitous and brilliant Je t’aime (moi non plus), until last weekend I had never heard a single Serge Gainsbourg record. I had been reading an article about his daughter Charlotte and how she had been working with Beck. The article mentioned that Beck’s Sea Change album (a favourite of mine) was heavily influenced by Histoire de Melody Nelson, Gainsbourg’s accepted masterpiece. Knowing that other favourites of mine like Jarvis Cocker, St Etienne and Stereolab were fans, it seemed obvious and (long overdue) that I should pay a visit a la maison de Serge and I duly got myself a copy of Histoire de Melody Nelson. I’m glad I did.
Where has this music been all my life?! I had expected Gainsbourg to come across like some Gallic garlic-breathed, Gitanes rasping Tom Waits on heat. Which, when I think about it, sounds pretty brilliant actually. But no! Sure, with his droopy eyes and beaky nose he might look like a particularly pervy old turtle (what did the ladies see in him?), but close your eyes and he sounds fantastic. Histoire de Melody Nelson is all street walking, hip thrusting bass and funk guitar. The vocals are practically spoken and drip with what I assume to be lust – my French isn’t as good as it used to be but given Serge’s track record I must assume that this is the case. After all, the guy has history….
Hee hee! The album is (whisper it again – see Sopht Rock post below) a concept album. A Rolls Royce driving Serge knocks a pretty young girl off her bike. As he runs to her aid his thoughts turn not to how badly injured she is, but how beautiful she looks. Naturellement. Sleazy? You bet. Think Marvin Gaye dressed not in a modish mohair suit but in a dirty raincoat. How come he got away with stuff like this and R Kelly ended up in the jail? Well, to answer my own question, R Kelly’s music is clearly criminal enough…
Histoire de Melody Nelson is equal part Funkadelic and equal part Jacques Brel. Given the combination of music and subject matter, Prince must surely be a fan. The playing on it is outstanding. Not surprising given the calibre of the musicians. No household names, but the individuals involved have impressive form.
On guitars, Big Jim Sullivan and Vic Flick. Big Jim was an in demand sessioneer in the 60s (He was ‘Big’ Jim so as not to confuse him with Little Jim(my) Page), he played with Tom Jones in his 70s Vegas Golden Era, befriending Elvis in the process, and appears, allegedly and un-credited, on almost 1000 hit singles. Vic Flick was part of the John Barry Seven. You’ve heard his guitar playing a million times before – it’s his distinctive twang that plays the James Bond Theme. As well as playing in assorted musical line ups in the 70s, keyboardist Alan Hawkshaw wrote much music for adverts, composed a ton of BBC library music and came up with Chicken Man, better known to most of you here as the Grange Hill theme. Most impressively of all, he wrote the music you hear on Countdown as the clock ticks down to zero. Bassman Herbie Flowers has many strings to his bass/bow. He is known to many as bassist in 70s classic/prog/rock fusion ensemble Sky and he is known to 80s kids as the writer of novelty pop hit Grandad, but he is perhaps best known for playing that bassline on Lou Reed’s Walk On The Wild Side. But, hey boy, you knew that already, didn’t you?
Serge et Jane B. Lucky B.
Histoire de Melody Nelson is a short album, less than half an hour long, and sounds like one continuous piece of music. This is the best way to listen to it. I’ve posted a track below (listen out for the way he croons “merde”), but really, to get the full experience, you should allow yourself half an hour to enjoy the album as a whole. While you do, have a perv at the cover. That’s Jane Birkin on the front. And I don’t think she’s wearing much more than that pair of jeans…..
Serge Gainsbourg Melody
Following on from this week’s epiphany, my search for Serge has led me to a wonderful album called Les Annees Psychedelique. It contains every bit of French freak-out funk and jazz you could ever possibly need. One track stood out above all. Requiem Pour Un Con reminded me of an old track by The Folk Implosion. Playing the 2 tracks back to back I realised that The Folk Implosion had sampled and looped the opening drum track and fashioned it into a fantastic instrumental tribute to Gainsbourg named ‘Serge‘.
Also on Les Annees Psychedelique is Bonnie & Clyde, Serge’s 1968 duet with Brigitte Bardot. Not as famous as Je t’aime, but equally as good. I’m now off to find Serge’s original version of said track, featuring Bardot instead of Birkin on vocals. À beintôt!