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Serge Gainsbourg

  • Historie De Melody Nelson

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    Serge Gainsbourg

    Historie De Melody Nelson 9 ( 1971 )
    Melody / Ballade de Melody Nelson / Valse de Melody / Ah! Melody / L'hôtel particulier / En Melody / Cargo culte

    Jane Birkin poses for the cover art and sings various vocal parts and the plot, essentially a romance that develops after a chance meeting between a middle-age man and a teenage girl that develops into an affair. Following the success of 'Je T'aime', a breathy, sensual number that caused much controversy during the late sixties over the sexual nature of the track, Serge promised Jane Birkin another project or gift and, although 'Histoire De Melody Nelson' has been hugely influential over the years on artists such as Nick Cave, Jarvis Cocker and many more, at the time it only made small waves internationally. Such is the records enduring appeal however that the fictional Melody Nelson even gets her own dictionary entries, these days.

    We have three different bass players credit for musical parts on this album, most recently Dave Richmond has laid claim, previously the wonderful Brian Odgers and then the legendary bass player Herbie Flowers claiming to have recorded the bass parts. I suppose it's possible all three played a part at some stage during the various takes/songs, but I suspect history has lent the tale some confusion over the years. Arranger Jean-Claude Vannier truly collaborates with Gainsbourg across this albums brief sub-30 minute running time with a 30 piece orchestra at some stage, a 70 piece choir at another, and setting arrangements to compliment Gainsbourg's melodies. I forgot to mention something for those not familiar with Serge, he was French and, by the time he recorded this album, 42 years of age. He'd previously been involved not in 'rock and pop' but playing Piano in bars, acting, writing traditional French chanson before moving into experimentation with various genres of music.

    His lyrics have reached legendary status in France, but I can't comment too much on that, I don't speak very much French at all. That could be seen as a handicap to appreciating the work, but I then think of someone like Bob Dylan, also seen as primary a lyrical force yet also appreciated in countries where his native language is not one the fans are familiar with. Seven tracks here last a mere twenty eight minutes, yet the out-takes provided several extended versions. I do prefer the complete version of the lead track 'Melody', otherwise I believe the correct decisions were made. Besides, this is less an album of seven disparate tracks, rather one long, single story. The different styles Serge dealt with are showcased, from ballads to progressive rock and his more famed spoken word over richly orchestrated strings.

    A translation then taken from Alex Chabot for 'L'Hotel Particulier'. I wish I spoke more French, although as the UK sails off into the sunset without her European neighbours, i'm not sure where we'll end up being.

    At fifty six, seven, eight, it doesn't matter
    X street, if you knock on the door
    First one knock, then three others, they let you in
    Alone and sometimes even accompanied.

    A servant, without speaking to you, leads you
    Stairs, hallways with no end one after another
    Decorated with baroque bronzes and gilded angels
    With Aphrodites and Salomés.

    If it's free, say you want forty-four
    It's the room they call here `The Cleopatra'
    Whose bed's rococo columns
    Are negros, carrying torches.

    Among these naked slaves carved from ebony
    Who will be the silent witnesses to this scene,
    While above the mirror reflects us,
    Slowly I embrace Melody

    Also, this end from the lead track, with its improvisational guitars and bass lines that literally seem to appear in front of your eyes as musical scores becoming concrete, 4 or 5 notes at a time, before disappearing for the next selection...

    I saw a bicycle tire up ahead,
    That kept on spinning,
    And like a doll that loses its balance
    Her skirt pulled up on her white underpants

    "What's your name?"
    "Melody what?"
    "Melody Nelson"

    Melody Nelson has red hair
    And it's her natural color.

    He deliberately collides with the lovely Melody and there the fantasy begins. Serge had about 5 partners, children with nearly all of them and when in his latter years something of an alcoholic. Yet, the music across these seven tracks is superb, the bass constantly innovative and the arrangements sometimes huge in execution, witness the 70 piece choir for 'Cargo Culte' yet these orchestrations always compliment, never dominate. The seven and a half minute opening track is quiet, pensive, thoughtfull and, on occasion, seems to threaten the violence, unintended, of the tale - the passion and the lust. 'Le Ballad De Melody Nelson' with soothing, sweet and lovely vocals from Jane Birkin playing Melody, whom Serge refers to as both an adorable little girl and a lovely little idiot is just plain lovely. The strings are romantic, Serge sings softly and Jane coos and entices! 'L'Hotel Particulier' has stabbing, free-flowing guitar parts playing percussion. The closing 'Cargo Culte' is a seven minute mirror to the opening 'Melody' and almost as equally astonishing. We have a classic of the rock era here and the fact it's entirely semi-sung in French should not be the off-putting factor. The enticing factor should be it's an utter classic piece of music and song and words.

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    this page last updated 11/12/11

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