Histoire De Melody Nelson is the great Serge Gainsbourg’s sexy Lolita-esque melodrama told in the form of a funky psychedelic rock opera, an album many (raises hand) consider to be his masterpiece.
The middle-aged narrator (Gainsbourg, doing that “talk singing” thing he was so good at) tells the tale of hitting a bike-riding British teenager, Melody Nelson (a role sung by his muse, Jane Birkin), with his Rolls Royce, and of their subsequent affair. In the end, Melody meets an untimely death in a plane crash and the despondent narrator sings of cargo cults and waiting for the return of the lost body of the “little animal” he was so in love with.
Not to white-wash it, the poetry, while lovely and oh so sad (En France, Gainsbourg is considered the equal of Bob Dylan in the lyrics department) is still describing statutory rape, with characteristic Gainsbourgian provocation (In 1985, he recorded a song called “Lemon Incest” with his then 12-year-old daughter, Charlotte).
Histoire De Melody Nelson has an amazing—and utterly unique—sound. It’s pretty much still to this day the cutting edge of what you can do with a rock group and an orchestra (no matter what The Moody Blues or Deep Purple might think). The way Gainsbourg and arranger Jean-Claude Vannier use the strings here is simply uncanny, providing a big influence on Pulp, Air and Beck (who later famously worked with Charlotte Gainsbourg). This innovative 1971 album is easily in the same class as Anglo-American contemporaries like Bitches Brew or Sticky Fingers. (Pitchfork named it #21 in the top 100 albums of the 1970s).
In 2011, Universal Music Group in France put out a box set of Histoire De Melody Nelson where the discs came in a hardback book about the album. I didn’t know about this until recently (my pal Adam Starr, a bigwig marketing exec at UMe told me about it), but when I found out that there was a DVD in the package containing a 5.1 surround disc of one of my favorite, favorite albums of all time, I had to have that sucker and I watched the mail like a hawk until it finally arrived on Tuesday. I was not disappointed. If ever there was an album tailor-made for the expanded sonic palette that 5.1 can offer, it’s Histoire de Melody Nelson, here remixed masterfully by Sebastien Merlet. I’ve probably already played it 30 times since I got it.
Oui, oui, Merlet did quite a good job with the multi-channel audio mix. The album’s slow-starting, languidly paced, seven and a half minute-long opening number “Melody” starts with just the bass and Serge “talk singing” in the center front channel. Gainsbourg’s deep voice is prominent in practically every song he ever recorded, but here it sounds like he’s standing in the room with you or sitting on your lap. Then the guitars start up in the right and left front speakers. The drums come in. It’s almost like they started recording and then the rest of the musicians sat down and started filling in as the music builds and builds. The mix takes its cue from the music and when the orchestra kicks in in full, it does so in the rear speakers, which had been reserved for, and waiting on, that moment.
It’s goddamned glorious... If you like 5.1 surround stuff, this is truly in the first ranks of that kind of release.
What is still somewhat little-known, even to fans of the album, is Melody, the half hour, shot on videotape visualization of the album created by Gainsbourg and director Jean-Christophe Averty, and starring himself and Jane Birkin. It was included in the career-spanning Gainsbourg DVD box set, Serge Gainsbourg: D’autres nouvelles des etoiles that came out in 2005. Now, of course, it’s turned up online.
Melody is quite something, a visual feast. First off, how do you go wrong with a soundtrack like this one? You don’t. And secondly, who was cooler and more elegantly wasted than Mister Serge Gainsbourg, hisself, circa 1971? (Keith Richards…? Maybe?). And my third point, Birkin was so freakishly beautiful then (and still is) that I could look at a still photo of her for 30 minutes, so when she’s actually moving onscreen, it’s just a bonus.
Trust me, this one is worth your time, rock snobs. If you’re not already a fan of Histoire de Melody Nelson, you will be…