Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The stylish sleaze of Serge Gainsbourg

The cover of Serge Gainsbourg's album Histoire de Melody Nelson is enough to make even some of my heterosexual male friends blush just a little, with a semi-naked young woman clutching a rag doll, looking at you with an expression far beyond her clearly tender years. But this is early 70s France and standards, and age checks, were pretty relaxed then and, in any event, the cover is nothing compared to the lurid ride that we are about to take on this mesmerisingly seedy album.

The ride in fact begins in a Rolls Royce, as Serge Gainsbourg begins to narrate his story in his pornographically sleazy voice against a slow funky bass, a dirty, squalid electric guitar and, eventually a string orchestra that injects strange, twisted phrases, and gives the music a sense of dramatic, maybe even epic, grandeur. Clearly this is sleaze with style.

The story, like the music, creeps and crawls along dark streets, where a driver, distracted by his daydreams, crashes into a bicycle ridden by a teenage girl named Melody Nelson. He whisks her away, dances a slow waltz with her as seductive strings entwine themselves around his whispering, half-singing, half-speaking voice. He teaches her about love in shady hotels with mirrors on the ceiling. And when, in the end, she is killed in a plane crash, he prays for her body to be returned to him, for it to be washed up on shore by the sea, as the haunting twists of the strings are joined by ominous drum beats and a wordless, other-worldly, choir.

It's hot and steamy, icy and chilling, all at once. But from the moment the album starts with those dark and dingy notes from the bass, you are enveloped by this world, you are fascinated by it, you are part of it. The music is sensual, grimy; and yet somehow it manages to loom bigger than the morality that still makes you to shudder at it. The way in which its blues-like rhythms dance with the lush strings creates a sound world that is as irresistible as it is menacing.

To be honest, there is a lot that is pretty unsettling about this album, especially knowing that Serge Gainsbourg was painting his own portrait here. It is, after all, ultimately about a dirty old man and a very abusive relationship with a 15 year old girl. Clearly that's bad, even when it's done to music which, coming at you from its smoky world of red lights and shadows, is undeniably alluring. Histoire de Melody Nelson is, I guess, the ultimate proof that even the devil can write fantastic music.

Thank you Mirek for introducing me to this unique album - this incredible gem of 1970s French sleaze!


  1. only song missing off that album....Bonnie and Clyde..duet with Brigette Bardot...one of the great mismatch duets of all time

  2. ...at least the french can build good cars!

    google accounts suck big time!!!