It began with a POP. Richard Hamilton’s 1956 collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? was both a protest against and a twisted celebration of modern consumerist culture. Here we have all the trappings of modernity as promised to us in advertising. There is the male figure with his enviable bodybuilder physique. His wife is a pinup too. There’s a television, plush furnishings, a vacuum cleaner which reaches twice as far as ordinary cleaners. This is the utopia of the American Dream. What is it that is quite so nightmarish about the picture? It is the horror of the person who reaches heaven and is sickened by it. The much more human instinct is to think like Adam who gazed on the wilderness outside the Garden of Eden and thought, ‘What if?’ In Hamilton’s collage, there is no escaping. The whole world seems to be aspiring to this. The figures have achieved perfection and it is monstrous. The Übermensch that Nietzsche prophesized turns out to be a muscle-bound infantilized imbecile wielding a giant lollipop. Pop goes civilization.
The best Pop Art always had this inner tension. It employed the styles and palettes of advertising to voice a satirical disgust at the type of existence that advertising encouraged. It condemned what it celebrated and vice versa. Even when it contained a political message, as in James Rosenquist’s F-111 (created against the backdrop of the war in Vietnam), it was rarely as straightforward as it might seem. The act of forging an icon was indecipherable from an act of iconoclasm. It was an art, in attitude if not aesthetic, that Serge Gainsbourg would appreciate.
For many years, Gainsbourg had laboured beneath the radar of critical opinion. In commercial terms, he was practically subterranean. He had created four albums of frequently exceptional, lyrically sophisticated and tentatively experimental jazz-tinged chanson to little avail. His unconventional looks and crippling stage fright had been greeted by audiences with sadistic disdain. Aside from astute supporters such as the writer Boris Vian (who suffered and courted public derision himself), his records were ignored or ridiculed by those keen to focus more on his appearance than his songs. Gainsbourg had always wanted to be a painter but had stumbled into a musical career, following in his father’s wake and having a marriage to support. He struggled for years as a piano-player in late-night clubs and god-forsaken holiday resorts. Although he had come to the attention of Phillips record company, having written for a series of chanteuses, his own albums made little impact. He seemed destined for obscurity. Filled lamentably as it is by imbeciles, the world was not ready for him.
In a sense, his background in art saved him. Although he regarded popular music as an inferior form of expression, he approached it with the conceptual eye of an artist. Later, he would incorporate elements of Surrealism, Dada, Les Poètes maudits and so on into his music, but for now, at this turning point, the answer lay in a more apparently disposable shared interest he held with the Pop Artists: the comic book. Pop art was, to a degree, the American comic blown up into high art: Roy Lichtenstein with his exploding fighter planes – Whaam! (1963) – and fretting 1950s spouses – Oh, Jeff... I Love You, Too... But... (1964) – being its most obvious proponent. In his youth, Gainsbourg had been a comics, or bandes dessinées, fanatic, beginning with Pim, Pam et Poum also known as The Katzenjammer Kids (from the German, significantly, for hangover, literally ‘cat’s wail’). He remained a keen comic book reader at a time when it was neither fashionable nor profitable for a grown man to be one. We shouldn’t underestimate the formative influence of comics on Gainsbourg or the long shadow they cast. They encouraged a flair for storytelling, a healthy sense of the ridiculous and most importantly a childlike delight in subversion, disguises, theft and pranks. In The Katzenjammer Kids, nothing was sacred, identities were continually shifting and the appearance of innocence enabled the young trio to wage war on authority figures.
Having taken his particular form of Left Bank chanson as far as it could conceivably go, Gainsbourg turned his attention to the frivolous but effervescent teen pop of the yé-yé scene. Having gleaned from comics the skill of exaggerating and simplifying personalities into archetypes, combined with his now calcified misanthropy after a decade with little recognition, he began to produce songs as ambiguous, subversive and striking as any Pop Art painting. He wrote about the sacred relics of American cultural hegemony and its by-product the teenager, from the jukebox and blue jeans of ‘Le claquer de doights’ (‘The Snapper of Fingers’) onwards. Focusing on the adolescent market, Gainsbourg would write the finest songs of the yé-yé scene whilst drawing attention to its absurdity. He would craft infectiously optimistic melodies for young singers like France Gall, a precocious starlet groomed for fame by her lyricist father, yet with pointed vacuity or disarmingly world-weary lyrics. The energetic brilliance of ‘Laisser tomber les filles’ (‘Ditch the Girls’), ‘N’écoute pas les idoles’ (‘Don’t Listen to the Idols’), ‘Dents de lait, dents de loup’ (‘Milk Teeth, Wolf Teeth’) and the Eurovision-winning ‘Poupée de cire, poupée de son’ (‘Doll of Wax, Doll of Sawdust’) is undeniable but they were much more clever and ironic than they sounded. Gainsbourg was smuggling ideas into the innocuous. Cynicism into the mouths of nymphs. This ventriloquism fostered in him a dislocation: an attraction and repellence to the figure of the ‘Lolita’ that would fuel Histoire de Melody Nelson. Commissioned to write ‘sweet nothings’, he did precisely that with a studied emphasis on the nothing element. Crucially, at last, he had achieved enough success to turn his attentions back to what he saw as real art. This would require a darker turn.
There was one character of comics and pulp fiction who would influence Gainsbourg more than any other: Fantômas. Whisper the name. The Emperor of Crime. The Lord of Terror. The Genius of Evil. The Corpse Who Kills. The United States have Superman, a clean-cut do-gooding Jimmy Stewart on steroids or Batman whose mortality haunted darkness is somewhat lessened by the fact that he’s a billionaire CEO. France has Fantômas. Not so much an anti-hero as the archest of villains. For the culture that gave us Existentialism, simple heroism is passé. Grand villainy, however, has a certain style. And there are none more stylish. Immaculately attired, Fantômas commits a litany of appalling acts that send shockwaves rippling through French high society. Such is his charm, impeccable manners and the elegance with which he terrorizes the establishment, he quickly became a folk-hero of the people and the avant-garde. He is Holmes and Moriarty combined. His crimes are inventive, extravagant and legion: incinerating zeppelins, guillotining archdukes, filling department store perfume bottles with sulphuric acid, unleashing bubonic vermin onto luxury cruise liners. There he is in the shadows of masked balls with a hollow walking stick filled with poison. ‘Enfantomastic!’ exclaimed James Joyce in celebration of this infernal scourge of the bourgeoisie.
For all the diabolical charisma of the character, Fantômas is more shadow than man, appearing ‘nowhere and everywhere at once,’ always one step out of reach of the authorities. Bar the signature refined barbarism of his deeds, there is little to define him as an individual. There’s nothing beneath the trademark costume of white tie, tuxedo with tails, top hat, cane and mask. Pure malevolence that has been conjured into life like a golem. Written by two journalists, Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre, the dastardly villain was often written into contemporary news events. It gave the effect of blurring the lines between fact and fiction, a border which a character with enough nefarious cunning might smuggle himself across.
In 1962, Gainsbourg performed ‘Les petits pavés’ (‘The Cobblestones’) on French television, a song written by the fin de siècle composer Paul Delmet of the infamous Le Chat Noir cabaret. The set was an elegant aristocratic ballroom. As the song began, it became clear that it was not a traditional love song. The cuckolded lover (or stalker) issued threats of murderous violence towards his muse. He warned that he would execute her other lovers and pulverise her skull if she did not change her ways. Then he casually reaffirmed his love. All sung in a debonair manner to an audience silent in apathy, bemusement or shock. Descending the staircase, top hat in one hand, walking stick in the other, wearing a black mask, this was Fantômas serenading his victims.
The Fantômas spirit remained alive in Gainsbourg. Having pissed his pants with fear after watching a screen adaptation as a boy, he knew the power the image commanded, the depths the mask concealed and perhaps even the price it might exact. The first edition of Fantômas had the figure looming over Paris, bloodied knife behind his back, bearing a quizzical almost bored expression as if his sinister mastery over the entire metropolis was no big thing. We see the bridges over the Seine, the cathedrals, the Eiffel Tower on the horizon. It was this city that Gainsbourg would call home and find his fame and fortune. It was also the city he would be forced to flee for his life from. In time, he would end up creating his own alter-ego version of Fantômas, a character he would fatefully come to underestimate.
If Gainsbourg had his origin where pulp meets life, so too would Melody Nelson. Introduced at the close of the sublime slow burn symphony ‘Melody’, the character is first serenaded in the delicate pastoral ‘Ballade de Melody Nelson’. The narrator is smitten but his emotions are characteristically confused. He’s both weak and predatory. Melody is enchanting and idiotic but has a power over him. She is his everything, which in any other love song might be a trite platitude. With Gainsbourg, it’s much more threatening and psychosexual. Casually, having lured the listener into the story, he slips in the disconcerting admission that she is only either 14 or 15 and, given he speaks of her in the past tense, she is doomed. Having already learned the potency of outrage, Serge toys with the listener. His descriptions tread a thin line between purity and obscenity. In such moments, the listener’s own imagination does the dirty work for him. As with the unnerving paintings of the artist Balthus, they reflect the gaze and intent back upon the viewer. The degenerate and the censor come to see the world in the same way. Perversion is in the eye of the beholder.
Like Fantômas, Melody Nelson herself is a cipher. She partly originated in a feminine icon of the time. It’s no surprise Gainsbourg was intrigued by the space-age Barbarella, given his tastes and the activities of her screen incarnation (played by Jane Fonda): undressing in zero gravity or being orgasmatronically pleasured to near-death in the Excessive Machine. His interest was not entirely prurient. The character had first appeared as a best-selling French comic by Jean-Claude Forest. Although on a surface level she appeared to be an ingénue like the yé-yé singers, her supposed naivety was used to great effect to expose sexism rather than condone it. Impressed by the creation, Gainsbourg collaborated with Forest and the science fiction writer André Ruellan on a six-part cartoon series, Marie Mathématique, in 1965. Marie was the little sister of Barbarella and the series was aimed at a younger audience, although Marie still falls for a robot at the end of the first episode (it’s not unnoticed he has the heavy lidded eyes and prominent ears of a certain familiar figure). Gainsbourg provided an acoustic near-lullaby soundtrack to what stands now as a charming piece of 1960s retro-futurism. It was hardly Oz Magazine or the San Franciscan Comix Underground but Marie Mathématique did touch on subjects that were modestly brave for their time. Serge planned a series of narrated stories for an older version of Marie Mathématique but struggled to decide in what form it would appear. As his recognition grew, the idea was sidelined, although he would later go on to create, and star in, the one-off comic Blackout with Jacques Armand (based on a film script Serge had written prospectively for David Bowie).
Occasionally, the idea would resurface, if in somewhat fragmentary forms. The interstellar Barbarella side clearly influenced his single ‘Contact’ with Brigitte Bardot playing a futuristic space-age pharaoh. In his duet ‘Comic Strip’, he amplified the Pop Art influence with Bardot as a comic book super-hero who’s burst out of the panels. The song revels in gleefully deranged onomatopoeia, like a punch-up in the original Batman television series, with the disclaimer that it’s presumably not fighting the pair are conducting. Although Melody Nelson would eventually come back down to Earth, she would always remain a character with speech and thought bubbles written by someone else. Yet the role was eventually written for a real person: Jane Mallory Birkin.
In May 1968, with student riots and occupations being joined by widespread strikes, the French state was teetering on the brink of collapse. President de Gaulle had fled to Germany by helicopter. The Left Bank of Paris was strewn with graffiti of such inspirational verve it would keep the careers of advertising hacks going for decades. ‘Boredom is counter-revolutionary!’ ‘Be realistic; demand the impossible!’ ‘To forbid is forbidden.’ ‘Beneath the paving stones, the beach!’ We need only borrow one for our purpose, which hailed from the Paris Conservatoire: ‘We want a wild and ephemeral music.’ It’s a supremely poetic phrase, one that embodies the album Jane Birkin and Gainsbourg will make, when they finally stop hating each other.
With an air of aloof self-preservation, Gainsbourg paid little attention to the revolution building in Paris. For a once relatively poor Jewish lad with delusions of princely grandeur, it was all beneath him. As ever, he was more interested in his career and his love-life. He’d signed up for the lead acting role in the film Slogan, directed by Pierre Grimblat, a poet turned filmmaker who’d narrowly escaped being executed by the Fascists as a member of the French Resistance. Birkin had travelled to Paris to audition for the role of female lead. She was the daughter of the actress Judy Campbell (famous for her work with Noël Coward) and David Birkin, a Royal Navy lieutenant-commander who’d been decorated for death-defying espionage activities against the Nazis. Jane had had a privileged, vaguely aristocratic, upbringing including a boarding school education on the Isle of Wight. She’d first come to prominence as a fashion model, photographed by David Bailey for Vogue. Her instant fame was matched by daring, appearing in Antonioni’s Blow-Up in the first full-frontal nudity scene in British cinema. The film would openly defy and help break the moralistic Production Code, paving the way for greater free expression in motion pictures. At 19, Birkin married the composer John Barry, most famous for scoring the James Bond films. He cast her in his musical adaptation of the lightly erotic bildungsroman Passion Flower Hotel. Birkin and Barry had a daughter, Kate, before divorcing after three years together. The talented Birkin had been expected to be a housewife and, understandably, wanted more.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s tempting to suggest Jane and Serge were somehow destined to be together. She had an intrepid taste for notoriety and originality (starring in the curious, if not quite successful, psychedelic film Wonderwall). She was as much a Francophile as Gainsbourg was an Anglophile. The script of Slogan seemed so close to life: an aging increasingly washed-up professional distracted from his creative impulses falls for and is rejuvenated by a much younger actress and they begin a torrid romance. Yet such assumptions are wishful determinism made after the fact, and predictably their relationship got off to a derisory beginning. Gainsbourg had his sights set on the American actress Marisa Berenson and was irritated when this stunning but somewhat boyish (‘my petite hermaphrodite’ he’d later call her in Lui magazine) English model with her imperfect French got the role. The simmering hostility, and the submerged attraction therein, is evident in the footage of their first screen tests together. Serge treated her with remote condescension and feigned arrogance until the imminent overthrow of the bourgeoisie came along and saved the day. The film’s director, Pierre Grimbalt, had decided to call a halt to filming when he’d narrowly rescued his Porsche from being reinvented as a barricade during the riots. Birkin returned to her home in London but fatefully took a copy of Gainsbourg’s collected lyrics to try and learn more about her unpleasantly enigmatic co-star. She was struck by their ingenuity and how their cynicism seemed a cover. ‘I understood later that what I’d taken for belligerence came from a real shyness’, she told Variances. When she returned, Grimbalt set the pair up for a meal together at Maxim’s (a venue Gainsbourg had earlier enshrined in song) to break the ice. With sufficient quantities of wine, Gainsbourg began to slowly drop the act. Fantômas, it seemed, was the least fraudulent romantic in Paris. His distance was a protective measure. Birkin realized she’d read him right when he clumsily, boyishly stepped on her feet whilst they were slow-dancing. The rest of the night was a drunken champagne-fuelled whirlwind through the jazz bars and drag queen nightclubs where he used to play, before landing back at his room at the Hilton where he passed out, comatose with drink, and she left a favoured 7” record (‘Yummy Yummy Yummy’ by Ohio Express – Gainsbourg was always a sucker for nonsense tunes) slotted between his toes. The lothario had met his match.
Soon they fell in love and eloped to Venice together, where they stayed in the Gritti Palace on the Grand Canal, an old haunt of Ernest Hemingway. They followed the writer’s ghost, festooned with dead birds from shooting on the lagoon, to Harry’s Bar where they drank and caroused by the moonlit canals. When they returned to Paris, they stayed at L’Hôtel on the Rue des Beaux-Arts, in the very room where one of Gainsbourg’s heroes, the Irish writer and dandy Oscar Wilde, had died making scathing putdowns to the wallpaper, on a diet of chloral, opium and champagne. Gainsbourg had learned from Wilde to be his own biographer, to turn life into art, not realizing or perhaps choosing to ignore the perils that that inevitably brought. Having completed filming Slogan, the pair worked on the soundtrack together. A curious cognitive dissonance first arises in ‘La chanson de Slogan’ and is later explored in Melody Nelson. The duet is both seductive and hostile. It contains both the magnetism of their attraction and their eventual repulsion. It’s disarming, even now, to hear love songs from a real relationship that foretell its own destruction. In the soundtrack, there would be signs of the innovations to come: the track ‘Évelyne’ has the same bass-heavy proto-breakbeat with embellishments structure that would make Melody Nelson such a forerunner to hip-hop and its offshoots decades later.
In the summer of 1969, Gainsbourg would begin the laborious process of piecing together his existentialist musical Histoire de Melody Nelson. It would take two years to come into existence, although it had been in some senses in his mind and in glimpses in his songs for a decade. It would be the longest Serge would spend on any album, not counting his first Du chant à la une and the life that proceeded it. While Jane filmed Alba pagana (released in English as May Morning), a campus suspense notable for a tagline superior to the film (‘First comes the wine. Then the wild dancing. Then the love. Then the killing of the sacrificial victim’), Serge stayed in their hotel in England, sketching out ideas and snippets of lyrics, towards what would eventually become sonnets and alexandrines. He kept the ideas with him and added to them continually but with frustrating stops and starts in Paris, Morocco and Kathmandu. The initial idea to base it upon episodic encounters, in the style of the Tintin or Bécassine comics, was dropped for a more singular mature approach. We are left only with the names of songs that might have been: ‘Melody’s Father’, ‘Are you Melody?’ ‘Melody in Space / at the Beach / in the Countryside / and the Astronauts’.
In the first bloom of infatuation with Jane, Serge was blighted with the curse of happiness. The poet needs heartbreak at least as much as he or she needs love. The couple appeared in Pierre Koralnik’s revenge thriller Cannabis, an attempt to cash in on their real-life love affair. They then flew to Yugoslavia together to star as partisans in Milutin Kosovac’s Le Traître and resistance figures of sorts alongside Yul Brynner (who would become a godfather to their daughter Charlotte) in Romance of a Horse Thief. With the former having at least the pleasure of seeing Serge machine-gun Nazis, both films are minor B-movies but their aftermath will be eventful. Aside from using his salary to buy the 1928 Rolls-Royce that will feature so prominently in Melody Nelson, Gainsbourg manages to initiate a controversy that will see him escorted from the country. While arguing over dinner with the director Kosovac, Serge decides to make a theatrical point by setting fire to 100 dinars; Antun Augustinčić’s Peace statue on the bank-note crumbling and igniting in front of horrified restaurant-goers. We could frame the incident as an artistic statement years before the K Foundation’s more grandiose currency immolation or just a drunken moment of madness. Unwisely, Serge had gained the attention of the police in what was essentially a police state. After much diplomatic wrangling, he was allowed to stay in the country for a fortnight to finish the film before being unceremoniously exiled. Remarkably, it was not the first time that this had happened. Whilst filming Estouffade à la Caraïbe in Colombia in 1967, he had lit his cigarette and absent-mindedly thrown the smouldering match over his shoulder. It proceeded to burn the beach-hut restaurant he had been sitting in to the ground. He was arrested and kept in the cells for a day, all the while professing that he didn’t smoke, all the while dying for a cigarette (a trademark addiction since barely a teen). It would not be the last time his talent for arson would spell trouble.
In the end, there were two factors which motivated Gainsbourg to finally take the ethereal Melody Nelson project seriously. The first was his insecurity. Thanks to the prevailing wretched cultural narrative of positivity and self-help, we’re taught that optimism is the key to creativity. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is a viewpoint that critically underestimates the power of negative thinking. Envy, vanity, avarice, to name just a few, are incredible dynamos to the creative process, provided they are made to work in the right way. Although Gainsbourg had fallen deeply in love with Birkin, he was quietly aware and insecure that she had previously been married to John Barry, an internationally successful and respected composer of exceptional soundtracks like The Ipcress File, Midnight Cowboy and You Only Live Twice. Although, even at this stage, Gainsbourg had built up an impressive body of work, Barry’s by its nature was cinematic, epic and, at its best, progressive. He did not have to deal in frolicsome pop songs. He was a heavyweight. Yet Barry’s work was always tied to the scripts of others. Competing with his girlfriend’s former love, Gainsbourg would go one better. Having finally achieved success writing hit singles for the likes of Gall, Bardot, Françoise Hardy (‘Comment te dire adieu?’ – ‘How to Tell You Goodbye?’ and ‘L’anamour’ – ‘Non-love’) and Petula Clark (‘La gadoue’ [‘The Mud’]), he would write his own story and dedicate it to Jane. He would recast her as a Lolita, craftily airbrushing her first love and ex-husband out of history. It would be the soundtrack for an imaginary film. A ‘symphonic musical’ according to Serge’s mad ambition. Taking the form of a dream-like reverie meant it did not matter that the story itself might be seen as ludicrous (besides we should never wish for popular music to cease being ludicrous – that way lies Coldplay). Earlier, he had shown Birkin his work and told her that they were incomplete until he wrote his songs for her. Previously he had written for those he saw as distant formidable divas or, at his cruellest, lamentable puppets. Now he had a muse.
The other breakthrough was combining his talents with those of a young Parisian by the name of Jean-Claude Vannier. As a teenager, Vannier had taught himself piano and then composition, by astutely listening to records, studying notation and the hard work of trial and error. By his mid-twenties, when he met Gainsbourg, he had already worked with Christine Sèvres, Johnny Hallyday and Brigitte Fontaine (the latter a forerunner of the spoken word over orchestration-style of Melody Nelson). Having been taught music at home by his father, Gainsbourg instantly empathized with Vannier and, although initially he pulled rank and instilled a degree of seniority, he recognized in Vannier a unique talent. Perhaps because of his lack of a traditional conservatoire background, Vannier did not have to unlearn the traditions and clichés of a musical education, whether classical or chanson, and had found his own unique voice on his own terms. He could recognize the new because he had still retained the fresh eyes, enthusiasm and appetite for exploration of the auto-didact.
The sound of Melody Nelson has a great deal to do with Vannier’s method of arranging. He was not interested in traditional kitsch Mantovani backing or even Spector’s ecstatic totalitarian walls of sound. Vannier had developed a style of layering the sound, which gave a, then quite unique, sense of space to the recording (‘the colour of Melody’ as Birkin put it). Several basic tracks of bass, drums and guitar (the latter either occasional or lower in the mix) created a minimalist groove: almost funk music, albeit funk that is being slowly stretched through an event horizon. This foundation is a near-languid loop on which layers of orchestration are not simply built but are interspersed. The strings and choirs come in and dissipate just as quickly. You become aware of silence, negative space, echo. It gives the music a ghostly atmosphere and depth and also an element of unpredictability in contrast to the hypnotic helix of bass, guitar and drums. Although it is a concept album, it’s less than half an hour long, opting for a subject matter that was neither medieval fantasy nor space opera but real, heartfelt, controversial yet otherworldly matters of the soul, sex and morality. There are no ludicrous time signatures or grandiose solos. It was the kind of unique album that exposed music journalism’s Manichean view of prog and punk as utterly redundant. It was way beyond both.
Vannier’s trademark sound was accentuated by Gainsbourg’s preferred style of recording. For several years, he had chosen to work with English session musicians, tapping into a musically vibrant scene and crucially taking French music out of its hermetically sealed comfort zone. His solo work had undergone discernible bursts of energy when he recorded his EPs Vilaine filles, mauvais garcons (Bad Girls, Bad Boys) and Qui est in, qui est out (Who Is In? Who Is Out?) in London. The basic backing tracks for Melody Nelson were thus recorded at the Marble Arch studios, London in April 1970 then augmented with the orchestra and choir in Studio des Dames in Paris. Thanks to the sterling research of Andy Votel, it’s possible to piece together the musicians who laid down the foundation and whose names had went bizarrely and criminally unrecorded on the original LP. From a series of blurred photographs, it was just about possible to determine Dave Richmond had played bass and Alan Parker guitar. Neither were aware of the masterpiece they’d performed on. The drummer remains unknown. While a shame that such work goes unaccredited, there is a certain attractive mystery to not knowing. The fact the rock and the classical sections were recorded at separate times in separate countries by separate engineers (masterfully recorded by Peter J. Olliff, Jean-Claude Charvier and Rémy Aucharles and produced by Jean-Claude Desmarty) only adds to the curious but intriguing sense of dislocation to the album. For all its mesmeric qualities, it never settles into background ambient music. It commands attention. The strings sometimes answer guitar feedback, occasionally they intertwine, sometimes the dynamic is in opposition, in tension as well as harmony. Sometimes claustrophobic, sometimes voluminous. A dream always on the brink of turning into nightmare. The rock trio were encouraged to improvise within a prearranged structure, adding the almost jazz-style drum-fills, grace notes, guitar arpeggios and sinuous bass runs. Vannier gave the musicians a degree of freedom to roam within certain parameters and following a pre-arranged direction, like the freedom of currents in a river. ‘Here is the mood and destination, now get us there.’ ‘Quite often in those days’, Richmond would tell Votel, ‘we were handed out chord sheets and told to make up some of our own parts. The musical director indicated where he wanted it to build up and quieten down.’ Over and beneath this were weaved the orchestral elements. In Sébastien Merlet’s excellent documentary on the album, Vannier admits it was a previously ‘unexplored combination’ with the implication that it might conceivably not have worked. More intriguingly, he uses the arcane word ‘antinomian’ in relation to making the album. The word means there were no rules other than ultimate faith as the means of salvation, a comment on their unorthodox but confident method and also on the sacred and profane undercurrents that ran through the work.
There is no other album in Gainsbourg’s back catalogue, or anyone else’s, musically quite like Histoire de Melody Nelson. It’s thus tempting to surmise that it arrived somehow fully formed and inexplicable: ‘a kind of UFO’ in Vannier’s words. In actual fact, there had been preludes, although they had not quite reached the same heights. The combination of lush string arrangements with rock group backing is evident in Gainsbourg’s 1966 duet with Michèle Arnaud ‘Les papillons noirs’ (‘The Black Butterflies’) and her version of ‘Rêves et caravelles’ (‘Dreams and Caravels’). In both, there is the growing sense that Gainsbourg is using the string section not simply to carry the melody or complement it (as he had with the likes of Marie Blanche Vergne’s ‘Au risqué de te deplaire’ [‘At the Risk of Displeasing You’]) but as a separate entity that might exist in itself, wind around or even contradict the central structure of the song. While he remained too in thrall to the attraction of melody and the security of a tonal centre to disappear into avant-garde atonality, Gainsbourg had learned enough from his father’s love of Stravinsky to tentatively incorporate the suggestion of dissonance. In Michele Mercier’s ‘La fille qui fait tchic ti tchic’ (‘The Girl Who Made Tchic Ti Tchic, [the latter being the sound her metallic dress makes and a play on the word chic]), the string section gives an impersonation of something beyond Western harmonics, not quite the double harmonic ‘Arabic’ scale or Oriental polyphonies, but something roaming and anomalous enough to suggest so. It was this vaguely arabesque style that gave the album the feel of in Birkin’s words (as told to Gilles Verlant), ‘something mysterious, mystical, oriental, something pure and perverted at the same time’. It sounded like the music of an opium den, drifting nebulous moments of bliss then sudden sharp moments of hyper-clarity. Music as narcotic. The most successful of these Melody Nelson precedents was the shimmering Birkin duet ‘69 Année érotique’ (‘69 Erotic Years’), which sounds effectively like the album in embryonic form, a preface to the main work.
Another reason the album seemed immaculately constructed with barely a second of excess or wrong-turning was due to Gainsbourg having the room to experiment previously. He had learned not only what to do but what not to do. In the early 1960s, Gainsbourg had composed relatively conventional if distinctly sensual jazz soundtracks for Les Loups dans la bergerie (The Wolf in the Sheepfold) and L’eau à la bouche (Mouthwatering) (the latter notable for its excellent vaguely noir or spy movie title track). With time and confidence, Gainsbourg became more adventurous. At Madame Arthur’s cabaret, one of his earliest jobs, he had had to compose and play soundtracks for weightlifters, jugglers, tightrope walkers, trapeze artists and burlesque dancers. Luckily, his father and mentor Joseph had instilled eclectic tastes from Chopin to Prokofiev, Debussy to Gershwin. Gainsbourg thus had a vast repertoire to choose from. He crucially never forgot or abandoned the innovations of the past and used them ingenuously to his advantage. In The Act of Creation (1964), the writer Arthur Koestler formulated that the creative process involved ‘bisociation’, combining seemingly disparate, even oppositional, elements to produce something new. It was a chemist or alchemist’s view of inspiration; throw together elements that did not seem to go together and see what new compound is formed. Through trail and error, disasters and eventual visionary discoveries, creativity is dialectically pushed forward. ‘It’s not the rhythms that are new’, Gainsbourg admitted on Discorama, ‘the combination is new’.
Ironically, it was the limits of his father’s open-mindedness that guided Gainsbourg towards his most inventive work. Though his father had written with childlike excitement and pride at his son’s achievements, documenting his sales figures and filing newspaper clippings, Serge could not escape the feeling that popular music was insignificant compared to the music he had grown up with. He began to incorporate elements of classical music, particularly those favoured by his father to establish a direct lineage. After all, this might have been the music Ravel, Debussy or Satie would be composing if they were alive today. Gainsbourg kept a photo of Chopin, his father’s most cherished composer, on his piano for a decade and name-checked the pianist in ‘La recette de l’amour fou’ (‘The Recipe of Crazed Love’). With time, he went further and began setting lyrics to Chopin’s melodies. The warped homage ‘Jane B.’ was based on Chopin’s funeral song ‘Prelude in E Minor, Op. 28, No. 4’ while his infamous ‘Lemon Incest’ was transposed on ‘Etudes Op.10 no 3 in E Major’ or ‘Tristesse’ (‘Sadness’) as it was known. Both interpretations are love songs very tellingly based on Chopin’s mournful farewells. His smooth vibraphone jazz track ‘Some Small Chance’ was based around the mysterious ‘Adagio in G Minor’ by Tomaso Albinoni, supposedly found on a scrap of paper in the ruins of a bombed-out Dresden library. Offenbach’s ‘Boule de neige’ became ‘Mambo Miam Miam.’ Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’ became ‘Ma lou Marilou’. Arguably Gainsbourg’s greatest artistic triumph prior to Melody Nelson, was his lyrically-decimated but musically-thrilling ‘Initials B.B.’. By using a brief vivacious snippet of Antonín Dvo ř ák’s’ 9th ‘New World’ symphony during the chorus, Gainsbourg was, for the first time, creating a genuine musical synthesis rather than appropriation. It shouldn’t work but it does, magnificently so. Years before samplers were involved it’s barely believable that Gainsbourg was using entire orchestras for the same purpose. He was not predicting the future, he was creating it.
One particularly fertile ground for musical inspiration and innovation has been the points where cultures meet and indeed clash. Histoire de Melody Nelson may have an enchanting sound reminiscent in the vaguest orientalist terms of, say, Bedouin night music but it is manifestly what two white Frenchmen thought such music sounds like and not the real thing. There is of course nothing wrong with this; the exotic has always been a rich source for the imagination and everywhere is exotic to someone. Gainsbourg’s endeavours in musical anthropology elsewhere, however, have been more questionable. Having found after four albums that chanson was increasingly a dead-end, Gainsbourg sought to break out. He did so initially through the exceptionally perceptive realization that the future of music lay in percussion (hence the name of his sixth album, Percussions). Gainsbourg had always accepted Antoni Gaudí’s admission that ‘Man does not create, he discovers’. This was evident in the painters he had admired as a youth. Edvard Munch’s The Scream was based on the death-pose of a Peruvian mummy at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris. Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was rumoured to be inspired by African tribal masks he’d seen at Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro. Picasso was once said to have left the Lascaux caves, having viewed the prehistoric wall paintings there, muttering, ‘We have invented nothing.’ All artists exist within the echo-chamber of influence and are subject to its insights and anxieties. It was one thing, however, to rewrite the work of a long-dead composer and another to poach from the living. Gainsbourg’s album Percussions was an enthralling lively combination of French lyricism, Brazilian samba, South African chants, Afro-Caribbean and Nigerian tribal rhythms. The problem was that it had already partially been done with the music of ‘New York, USA’, ‘Joanna’ and ‘Marabout’ being lifted from Babatunde Olatunji’s 1959 Drums of Passion. Although he was certainly years ahead of purveyors of that contemptible term ‘world music’, Gainsbourg’s achievements pale in comparison to Olatunji who, uncredited by Serge, had got there five years earlier.
Having pioneered sampling, Gainsbourg was now discovering its inevitable ownership controversies and the law suits that follow just as hip-hop and electronic acts would in the decades to follow. Whether he was an intrepid musical explorer or a voyeuristic colonialist (there was likely an element of both), Gainsbourg would refine his focus on percussion but it would remain of crucial importance. Rather than simply keeping time, it leads Melody Nelson, although by this stage he has moved away from Afro-Caribbean polyrhythms. Since the early 1960s, Gainsbourg had been praising the vitality of James Brown and his Orchestra and you can hear in the prominence of the drums and bass in Gainsbourg’s work around the time of Melody Nelson a distinct influence. It’s as if he takes the now much-sampled drum breaks of Brown’s drummer Clyde Stubblefield (best demonstrated in the likes of ‘Funky Drummer’) and slows them down until they become gloriously opiatic. The funk element is still there and still drives the songs but it’s soothing enough to fit a lullaby, at least while the tension builds to release. He would add a classic minimalist drum loop of his own to the canon in the form of the impossibly cool and eternally ahead of its time ‘Requiem pour un con’ from the cop film La Pacha (1968). Similarly, the bass in Melody Nelson is at the forefront as the main melodic component of the songs, much in the manner of dub music, which was then still largely underground. From the sound of the echo, the bassline and production of his track with Bardot ‘Contact’, Gainsbourg was well aware, even in those early days, what dancehall producers were doing at mixing desks in Jamaica. He had his ear to the ground and could hear the rumblings.
The ‘less is more’ aesthetic of Melody Nelson was only possible because in their earlier soundtrack work together Gainsbourg and Vannier had done precisely the opposite. The period marks Gainsbourg’s most experimental mad scientist phase, and films were his laboratory. He had worked on the Strip-Tease soundtrack with a pre-Velvet Underground Nico but he found her voice too flat and Teutonic and the results went unreleased. It was worthwhile for the title track with Juliette Gréco but also the challenge laid down by the director Jacques Poitrenaud for Serge to compose vastly different styles of songs for the various nightclubs in the film. There were auguries of Melody Nelson in other work. His soundtrack for Anna Karina’s TV show Anna contained not only the gorgeous ‘Sous le Soleil Exactement’ (‘Right Under the Sun’) and cyclical classical elements, but also contained signs that Gainsbourg was becoming expert in layering mood and withholding melodic resolution, so the climactic effects and narrative tension were more pronounced. His haunting embittered lament ‘Manon’ from the film Manon 70 even gives us perhaps the first glimpse of Melody Nelson’s tortured narrator.
By the time, he came to work with Vannier on film scores, Gainsbourg was ready to combine his ideas of restraint with a certain flourish for excess. The furthest out there he had gone previously was the Martian lounge music of ‘Bye, Bye Mister Spy’ from the soundtrack L’Inconnu de Shandigor (The Unknown of Shandigor). He would far surpass this with Vannier. Their soundtrack to Cannibis was filled with magnificently portentous guitar wig-outs like the title track and ‘Premiere blessure’. Their soundtrack for Paris n’existe pas (Paris Does Not Exist) and tracks like ‘Danger’, ‘Psychastenie’ and ‘New Delire’ were attempts at lysergic 60s beat-music replete with sitars, Hammond and Farfisa organs. The epic ‘Breakdown Suite’ from Si j’étais un espion (If I Were a Spy) was Gainsbourg confronting the work of John Barry head-on; Moriarty wrestling Holmes at the top of the Reichenbach Falls. Best of all is the disgustingly brilliant ‘La Horse’ in which, by means of witchcraft or time travel, the pair create what will be called cutting edge 30 years later; nasty harpsichord heavy soul, hip-hop drum breaks, even a hillbilly banjo breakdown just to underline the absurdity of it all. Occasionally, Serge’s experiments missed the target unless, as with the pioneering electronic track ‘Moogy Woogy’, he fully intended to score deranged imaginary children’s television shows.
Without clearing out this frenetic sprawl of ideas, Gainsbourg and Vannier may not have settled on the near-Zen simplicity of Melody Nelson. By the time they came to record it, they had the combined trust and nerve to embark on an album with no choruses or hooks. They had also built a telepathy that led Serge to admit fraternally to his junior partner, ‘You are Cole, I am Porter.’ The only point of contention between Vannier and Gainsbourg during the sessions for Melody Nelson would come with perfecting the overarching mood of the album as a whole. Gainsbourg had written the song ‘Melody lit Babar’ with its lolloping bass and triumphal trumpet fanfares and trills. It had been inspired by a talking elephant Babar toy, owned by Jane’s daughter Kate. It would be controversial in highlighting how much of a child Melody was, but more pressing for Gainsbourg was that its inclusion seemed to knock the album out of sync. The first five tracks on the album build a sense of mood and tension, moving and climbing towards the climaxes of the final two songs. Being light in subject matter and tone, ‘Melody lit Babar’ would disrupt this growing pressure. It would’ve added a certain level of intertextuality; Babar is a more pessimistic children’s story than superficially thought (his mother is shot, the king poisoned, etc.) and it would foretell to a degree the colonial element of the story that would unfold. Vannier argued for its inclusion: sensible given the brevity of the album. Gainsbourg had realized, however, there was a fine art to sequencing through his soundtrack work. With Melody Nelson he was seeing the macrocosm. If it derailed the momentum or switched the mood from tragic to comic, the song would have to be sacrificed. He had sacrificed artistic integrity in the past with segmented singles and radio-friendly edits. ‘I’m going to try to do a musical based on a character. Instead of splitting the songs up into 2 minute 30 second packages cut by applause, we’re going to try something continuous.’ This was art. It had to exist in and of itself. It also, if it was done right, had to shock.
Those of us who lack the decency and taste to be Parisian think crudely of the capital as a city of romance and art. We embarrass ourselves. Like any city, Paris is an infinitude of lives and perspectives, many of them contradictions. The picture postcard impressionism of the La Ville-Lumière (The City of Light) is a lie by omission. It is thing of space, time and motion. A multitude of cities existing under the same name. To get a truly realistic portrait of Paris would require nothing less than an exact replica of the city on the same spot, for the same length of time, filled with the same people, like some horrendous Borgesian nightmare. Yet the artists did come and the clichés are a truism we’ve grown ashamed of. Growing up Gainsbourg obsessed over their work and that, by accident of birth, he had been cruelly denied a place among them. He had been born too late.
Who were these people to whom Gainsbourg regarded himself a solitary descendant? There was the pataphysicist and playwright Alfred Jarry who would cycle absinthe-sodden through the streets using a revolver as a bell. Arthur Cravan who printed his literary journal on butcher’s wrapping paper and declared himself the finest pugilist in Europe, turning up drunk to be knocked out by the heavyweight Jack Johnson before disappearing forever. Amedeo Modigliani disguising the fact he was dying of tuberculosis with debaucheries of wine, opium and sex. Marc Chagall painting ghosts floating over the Eiffel Tower. Many gathered around La Ruche (The Beehive), Marie Vassilieff’s canteen and Le Bateau-Lavoir (The Laundry Boat), the latter a squat so run-down it creaked in the wind like a ship in a storm. Some came for the decadent glory and were incinerated by it, like Pascin the doomed ‘Prince of Montparnasse’ who was such a reveller that the streets were lined with bartenders, prostitutes and waiters at his funeral. Gainsbourg sought to emulate their greatness, no matter what the cost.
History tells the half-lie that art flourished in the city in the first decades of the twentieth century. It may have done but it did so only by battling. Gainsbourg read the poetry and the banned erotica of Apollinaire, who had been arrested with his friend Picasso for the theft of the ‘Mona Lisa’, largely because they were foreigners. When Apollinaire’s play The Breasts of Tiresias was first shown, the eccentric dandy Jacques Vaché stood up wearing an English pilot’s uniform and a monocle, and pulling out a pistol, declared that he was more than willing to kill everyone in the audience.
When Stravinsky and Nijinsky’s The Rite of Spring premiered at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, the composer Camille Saint-Saëns stormed out over ‘mis-use of a bassoon’ initiating a full-blown riot. When Luis Buñuel screened his short film Un Chien Andalou, he waited in the wings with his pockets filled with stones for the anticipated barrage to come. Picabia’s Manifeste cannibale (Cannibal Manifesto) was greeted with a hail of rotten fruit. Tzara’s The Gas-operated Heart ended in fisticuffs between rival artistic factions resulting in an actor breaking his arm and the owner openly weeping at what was left of his theatre. A riot erupted at Jarry’s Ubu Roi (Ubu the King) after the very first word: ‘merdre’ [sic]. It was a time of manifestos and absurd proclamations, when art not just courted controversy but was fuelled by it. These were not the barbarians at the gates but the custodians of culture, waltzing at the edge of an abyss between the wars. A play was not a play unless it sparked a riot, a painting not a painting unless attacked. Art became synonymous with outrage. Gainsbourg would look back on such times with envy. The outrage back then was a sign that art had once mattered.
As a teenager, Serge, or rather Lucien Ginsburg as he was known, took up painting. He studied under the Cubist Fernand Léger, André Lhote and the Fauvists (the ‘Wild Beasts’) Charles Camoin and Jean Puy. He tried to live as a Bohemian in a garret. He fell in love with and married fellow artist Elisabeth Levitsky. She worked for the Surrealist artist-poet Georges Hugnet, whose sinister transformations of belle époque erotic postcards had a mix of the hypnagogic and the carnal that appealed to Gainsbourg. Through Hugnet, Levitsky was able to obtain keys to Dalí’s apartment when he was out of town and she and Lucien fucked on Dalí’s floor, sofa, bed, surrounded by artistic masterpieces. Serge was captivated by the room as a work of art itself, filled with curios and draped in plush curtains and carpets, and stole a vintage Sapphic picture as a memento. The artist would have a lasting influence on Gainsbourg; his sense of iconoclasm, his wilful charlatanism, his eye for the weird and penchant for taboo breaking, his knowing self-reverential desire for fame and exposure and moulding himself into almost a fictional character. After that night, art and sex were forever intertwined in Serge’s head. He would model his home on Dalí’s and collected the artist’s work, notably the amorphous erotic-horror sketch La Chasse Au Papillons (The Butterfly Chase). As late as 1989, Gainsbourg was photographed paying tribute to Dali wearing the trademark waxed moustache and manic stare in a Roberto Battistini photo shoot. Sadly a once-rumoured dance collaboration between the two remained unrealized, a tantalising ‘what if?’ given both artists’ gift for the surreal and the salacious.
For a while, Gainsbourg tried passionately to become an artist. He painted dozens of canvases. He adopted the pseudonym Julien Grix: Julien after a character in Stendhal’s The Red and the Black who rises up from poor origins to the heights of society before ending disappointingly with his head being detached from his body and Grix after the Spanish Cubist and antagonist of Picasso’s Juan Gris. Eventually, he changed this to Serge Gainsbourg as a reference to his Russian roots and Thomas Gainsborough, the English painter. Something went wrong though. Whether it was the vertigo of success or the terrifying prospect that he might just be mediocre, Gainsbourg vowed never to paint again. He burned all his paintings. If it wasn’t genius what was the point? He became a piano-player in a nightclub. His marriage fell to pieces. As it turned out, his artistic temperament and love of grand self-destructive gestures were genetically inherited: his father had been a gifted painter too but renounced it forever when a painting of his muse was stolen from him as he dozed on the trans-Siberian railway.
Gainsbourg had almost given up and settled for a life as a working stiff, playing requests for obnoxious drunkards in casinos and hotels he worked in but couldn’t afford to drink in. And then he chanced on a figure of unquantifiable acrimony, anti-charisma and genius. He was everything a performer should not be. It was a revelation. His name was Boris Vian. An immensely talented dissolute renaissance man, he wrote novels such as the magnificent L’Écume des Fours (Froth on the Daydream), which Michel Gondry has adapted into Mood Indigo. He sang songs like Le déserteur (The Deserter), against the French war in Indo-China, which was instantly banned and his performances often ended in heckling and insults. Vian was bullet-proof. Invincible. Except for his heart, which had been damaged by rheumatic fever as a child and gave out at the mere age of 39, whilst railing against his own film in the cinema. Gainsbourg learned from Vian if you didn’t appear to care, no-one could touch you. In turn, Vian was among the first to celebrate the fledgling songwriting talents of Gainsbourg in his Le Canard enchaîné (The Chained Duck). Vian had identified an admirable scything clarity against ‘fake songs’ and ‘phoney people’ in his work. Gainsbourg also learned from Vian that popular song was not necessarily the easily dismissed art he’d taken it for. It had just been treated that way by its practitioners. There was no reason that artistic, literary and cinematic concepts could not be smuggled into it, provided you were smart and brave enough.
The tyranny of the love song was a nightmare from which popular music needed to awake. The horror of ‘boy meets girl’ and ‘boy meets girl, boy loses girl’ (and vice versa) had reduced song to drivel. They would call Gainsbourg a cynic, as they had Vian, because he chose to sing of reality, to acknowledge that every aspect of human affairs, especially love and sex, are ludicrous, messy and duplicitous. He was called a cynic when he was really the only honest one left. Sincerity was the most dishonest emotion of all. His view was either incredibly fresh or jaded depending on your perspective. The traditional narratives held little currency with the songwriter. He was in the business of subversion. He would build what looked like a love song, what sounded like a love song but what was actually a steel trap or an incendiary device. He was in the business of telling uncomfortable devastating truths. And he did so with devilish élan. Love is an irresistible folly that will lead to misery and disaster. Even at its sweetest, it was often a struggle of dominance and coercion, rife with ulterior motives and self-interest. There are no happy ever afters, which is a matter for bitter humour as much as despair. So he wrote a series of anti-love songs. In ‘La recette de l’amour fou’ (‘The Recipe of True Love’), he dictated a cynical blueprint for seduction. ‘Mes P’tites Odalisques’ (‘My Little Concubines’) offered not a tale of concubines and harems as the title might promise (an inversion of Ingres’ erotic painting La Grande Odalisque [The Great Concubine]) but a salutary lesson on the inevitability of passion dimming with familiarity. In ‘Du jazz dans le ravin’ (‘Jazz in the Ravine’), he narrated the story of a bickering couple driving in a Jaguar along the coast of the French Riviera. It ends with the squabbling pair going off a cliff, related with malevolent merriment. ‘En Relisant Ta Lettre’ (‘In Rereading Your Letter’) has the heartless narrator chastise his dead lover on the spelling and grammar mistakes in her suicide note. In ‘Douze belles dans la peau’ (‘Twelve Beauties in the Flesh’), he continues his fatalism, equating chasing girls with putting a bullet in your skull.
Where a lesser lyricist might compare the subject of their love to a red rose, Gainsbourg only half-mockingly compares his to seaweed (‘Les goémons’). He subverts the traditional conventions of the love song by inserting previously alien or forbidden features; wilful inarticulacy in ‘Machins choses’ (an untranslatable word along the lines of ‘Thingamabob’), scenes of cuckolding in ‘La femme des uns sous l’corps des autres’ (‘The Wife of One Under the Bodies of Others’), brute jealousy in the bebop ‘Le claqueur des doigts’ (‘The Finger Snapper’) and sadism in ‘Hold-up’. Gainsbourg may reveal glimpses of his own callous delight in pain and devastation but he does open up the beautiful lie of romance to reality. Was he really a pessimist or just someone smart, mature and perceptive enough to see the mechanics behind the spectacle of love? ‘Beneath the paving stones, the beach.’ ‘Beneath the romance, the horror.’ Our concept of romance in the West was a medieval invention tied to chivalry and the feudal order of knights, kings, land-barons and serfs, damsels in distress and the crusades. Valentine’s Day was a reinvention of a Christian feast by an unholy trinity of Victorian confectioners, stationers and ad-men. The diamond wedding ring and the tradition of men proposing by surprise was a creation by the mining company De Beers and the ad agency N. W. Ayer & Son who found that women and couples spend less on rings than men buying them on their own. Temporary madness or fraud it may well be, love nevertheless remained a theme to which Gainsbourg would return again and again, not least in Melody Nelson, but it is a complicated, multifaceted love. It contains within it questions of submission and dominance, desire and distress and the causes of its own demise. In his exquisite waltz ‘La Javanaise’, there is a doubt but also a heart-rending pensive realism towards the fleeting impermanence of perfection. The couple are together only for as long as the song and dance last.
It was perhaps inevitable than such a view of human relations would take Gainsbourg into the territory of sex. It also placed him as an unlikely heir to literary modernism. When Joyce, Miller, Lawrence, Nin, Ginsberg and co. wrote about what we actually think and what we actually do sexually as opposed to the prescribed roles of what we ought to think and do, their books were banned by the state and condemned by the Church. Battles were fought not just for free-thought but our innate right to be who we really are. It was not just a question of censorship, it was a question of life-negation and honesty. ‘If “ Ulysses” isn’t worth reading’, Joyce once said, ‘then life isn’t worth living.’ Although the battle had been won in literature, temporarily at least, it had not even been attempted in modern popular music. Gainsbourg had played in Milord l’Arsouille, which had once employed blind musicians due to the illicit activities of the audience. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. He had provided the music for the licentious transvestite cabaret at Madame Arthur’s, where taboos were challenged with good humour, artistic panache and an invigorating lack of judgement. He had decided as Toulouse Lautrec had, immersed in the Moulin Rouge performances and the intrigues backstage, ‘to try to do what is true and not ideal’. In the underground, the truth was revealed, as in all art, through the telling of lies. By stark contrast, the mainstream charts were still filled with preening paramours and disingenuous coquettes, all singing infantile versions of the same romantic lie for the purpose of concealing the truth. The drag queens were more honest than the role models. Whoever first broke this spell and sang what people were really thinking would bring religious and political disapproval down on their heads. Yet there was also the possibility that people were tired of maintaining the lie. Amazingly, no-one had already tried it in France. Like any good immoralist, Serge could not resist.
There had been erotic songs since the beginning of recorded music with early blues and jazz being particularly prolific and explicit sources. Artists such as Jelly Roll Morton, even rock ‘n’ roll itself, were named after sexual analogies. By the tiresomely wholesome 1950s, these rich strains of music had been censored and airbrushed from history. Records like ‘Shave ‘em Dry’ by Lucille Bogan and ‘Press My Button (Ring My Bell)’ by Lil Johnson would be more controversial 30 years after recording than when conceived, demonstrating how far backwards sexual permissiveness, particularly women’s, had been forced. Gainsbourg returned to the source. Yet none of his predecessors were quite as explicit as this. Before, there were songs about sex. This was sex.
The idea came from Dali, ‘Picasso is a painter, so am I; Picasso is Spanish, so am I; Picasso is a communist, neither am I.’ ‘Je t’aime ... moi non-plus’ was ostensibly an intensely erotic love song, albeit one with Gainsbourg’s trademark rakish scepticism. ‘I love you’ begins the title, ‘Me neither’ comes the reply. The fact that neither party care of the genuineness of their union, where it is leading and the spell of abject abandon still continues only adds to the wonderfully sordid nature of it. Again, accusations of cynicism were levelled against the male narrator who is simply an absolutist for the truth like Meursault in Camus’ L’Étranger (The Stranger). It is the world that insists on lying. He knows that his partner, in the throes of passion, will say anything. To paraphrase the Marquis de Sade, who Gainsbourg would read and even play in a television show, ‘Every man at the point of orgasm is a tyrant.’ Gainsbourg would imply the dubious backhanded compliment that at the same point, every woman was a liar. These are the casual deceptions we engage in; the key is, for those minutes, seconds, neither party may care. For its moral complexity, it’s one of the most authentic examples of abandon in art. Gainsbourg had recorded a more empyreal but no less sensual version with Bardot, which had been suppressed. In the famous Birkin single, the celestial violins have been replaced with a Wurlitzer organ and more of a rhythmic punch. Gainsbourg asked her to sing an octave higher to accentuate what he saw as her androgyny and sounding more like a choir boy to suggest the corruption of innocence. Rumours abounded that Birkin’s breathy gasps and orgasmic groans were the result of the couple recording it in flagrante delicto. Gainsbourg insisted if that were the case they would have gotten a full album out of it. The question as to whether her orgasm was real must have entered a few listeners’ heads, to say nothing of those who played the song as the soundtrack for their own seductions, unaware of the duplicities in the lyrics. The more popular the song got, the more meta it became.
Released with the cover warning forbidding anyone under 21 from buying it, ‘Je t’aime ... moi non-plus’ encountered a vast wave of fury. It was denounced by the Vatican and banned on the radio in Franco’s Spain, Britain, Italy, Brazil, Sweden, Portugal and Poland. The distributor in Italy was arrested, fined and received a suspended sentence. The head of the record label was excommunicated. In Italian cities, it was sold as samizdat under the counter or in the sleeves of more wholesome artists. In other words, it was monumentally successful. Gainsbourg was castigated for having the audacity to transpose the filth that we have in our heads and delight in doing to each other onto vinyl. The critics and censors, in their reliable time-ordered fashion, succeeded in giving the record vastly more publicity with their condemnations than they could have summoned themselves. It sold in the millions. The sound of the Wurlitzer that once echoed through cathedrals now filled bedrooms in a delightful added sedition (it’s often overlooked how closely the melody resembles a classical piece or even a ceremonial hymn). As Buñuel once claimed, ‘Sex without religion is like cooking an egg without salt. Sin gives more chances to desire.’ What was it about the sound of pleasure, particularly female pleasure and the act of procreation that appalled so many? Was it fear? Disgust? Ulterior motives of power? The projection of personal neurosis onto the entire of humanity? Or perhaps, it was simply as the barbed-tongued Baltimore journalist H. L. Mencken once put it, ‘Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.’ Neither Gainsbourg or Birkin would admit it but there was something almost heroic about ‘Je t’aime.’
For Melody Nelson, Gainsbourg was keen to continue the exploration of sexuality, getting ever deeper, ever darker. He had become fixated with the writing of Vladimir Nabokov, who was obsessed, like him, with what freedom really meant. He was a fellow Russian émigré and escapee from totalitarianism in Soviet Russia and Nazi occupied Europe. His father Vladimir Dmitrievich, killed by a fascist whilst saving the life of his friend, and his brother Sergei, apprehended in France and murdered in a Nazi death-camp for being gay, were not so lucky. Having become fascinated by Nabokov’s Lolita, Gainsbourg had approached the writer’s estate several years earlier to purchase the rights to make musical versions of the poems by the predatory narrator Humbert Humbert, which feature in the book. He would read Humbert’s ‘Wanted’ poem, a masterpiece of wounded narcissistic self-deception, on television. Gainsbourg would later reconstruct the poem in his ‘Jane B.’ satire on ‘Je t’aime’, addressing Jane not in the form of a romantic tribute but as a police murder report. At the time, Nabokov was working on the screen adaptation of Lolita with Stanley Kubrick and legal wrangles meant Gainsbourg had to shelve the plans, but the idea would not go away. In hindsight, if permission had been granted there may have been one or two Nabokovian songs on an EP perhaps rather than the full-blown concept album it mutated into. We owe the existence of Melody Nelson to this disappointment.
It’s difficult to recall, given that Nabokov is now a critically revered high modernist writer, how controversial and bold the book was when it came out, with no mainstream publisher willing to print it. Here is a reminder. In 2013, self-declared ‘St Petersburg Cossacks’ vandalised the Nabokov museum there, threatening to bring ‘God’s wrath’ down on anyone celebrating this literary paedophile, which suggests a profound and cretinous misreading of the book. The controversy of Histoire de Melody Nelson has grown ever since its conception, being perhaps more reviled and misunderstood in some quarters than ever. We can point out that Gainsbourg was, like Nabokov, exploring issues of morality and culpability. We can identify his use of unreliable narrators and the illusory aspect to the work, as if it exists in some murky Freudian subconscious. We could assume he’s playing a character, that it’s fictional and that a story is not automatically an endorsement. We can even suggest that his deliberate courting of outrage was just an ongoing part of his efforts to expose us to who we are in all its unpleasant but undeniable forms: Gainsbourg as scapegoat or sin-eater. This is art, not life. We will see how costly it will be for Gainsbourg when he blurs the lines between the two, we need not do the same. There will always remain the fact that this is an album about a middle-aged man seducing an adolescent girl into love or Stockholm syndrome and committing statutory rape. ‘I fall in love with her or fall on her’ he admitted on Discorama. Was Gainsbourg, like Nabokov, luring us in, to the point we began to empathize with a monster and have us question ourselves? Or was he exploiting with uncomfortable titillation the undeclared unspeakable attractions we possess in the chasms of the subconscious, yet nearer the surface than we would like to think? Or were these men of high intelligence and talent genuinely lecherous perverts? Double bluff, treble bluff or no bluff at all? To adopt the knee-jerk response against Gainsbourg seems to be to adopt the mindset of the ‘St Petersburg Cossacks’. It is also to engage in the outrage Gainsbourg was counting on. He knew precisely what he was doing, as did Nabokov, tapping into the electricity of ambiguity. Was the album an ode to perversion or a moral exploration? Does the question need to be simply either/or?
In fact, Histoire de Melody Nelson is not the story of Melody Nelson at all. It is the story of the unnamed obsessive male narrator. Melody remains a cipher, a projection of his fantasies and hang-ups. We learn little to nothing about her. She barely speaks. She is objectified to nothingness. The cover shot by Tony Franks portrays her as a seductive doe-eyed nymph, a mix of purity and wantonness, fear and curiosity. Her head is tilted down but her eyes upwards, submissive but intrigued. She is topless and barefoot, clutching a teddy, her jeans suggestively unbuttoned. In reality, Birkin was four months pregnant, hence the undone buttons and strategically placed toy to cover her bump. The ragged doll itself, ‘Monkey’, was Jane’s; she’d slept with it since she was a child. In another image from the shoot, Jane presents a very different version of Melody. Her face is painted white with rosy cheeks, like some garish imitation of beauty, a pastiche of innocence. In a certain light, she resembles Pris Stratton the deadly ‘basic pleasure model’ replicant in the film Bladerunner, possessing a psychopathic uncanny valley blankness. Behind the image of the Lolita, she might be a siren or a succubus. All of these are female archetypes. All were constructed by men. None are reality. Despite Serge’s claims that Birkin is Melody, and the laughs in ‘En Melody’ that really were her being tickled and recorded on cassette, Melody is not remotely representative of Jane. Serge will write later much more complex and fitting songs about her. ‘She sees me like a little girl of the light sees a man of the shadows. A dangerous man ... dangerous and somewhat depraved, somewhat twisted and two-faced.’ Perhaps the Lolita is a figment of his imagination. Less a representation of femininity than of man’s pathology. ‘It’s Humbert Humbert who fascinates me’, Gainsbourg admitted, ‘not Lolita. Lolita is just a silly little girl.’ Does she even exist beyond an hallucination or apparition? Melody Nelson is the portrait of man’s desire and delusions as well as his inability to truly empathize with another, just as in Nabokov’s book. What the narrator sees as his salvation is actually his damnation. In the sense of the tragic tradition, he leads himself to his undoing as surely as Doctor Faustus or Macbeth did. This applies not only to a degenerate with a taste for young girls but any of us obsessively pursuing objects of our desire. Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it. It’s there even when he sings her name, ‘Mel’ –‘o’ –‘dy’. Always the same three cascading notes in the songs about her. ‘Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.’ Three descending notes of sorrow, delusion and ruin.
From the beginning of his career, accusations of misogyny were always possible to level at Gainsbourg. His refusal to idealize or sentimentalize love, yet his fixation with all its aspects, including its under-explored adversarial and unsavoury sides, invariably meant he seemed cruel, even sexist, towards the women in his songs. He addressed ‘Adieu Créature’ (‘Farewell Creature’) on the sultry Chet Baker-style jazz of the same name. In ‘Sois belle et tais-toi’ (‘Be Beautiful and Shut Up’), he described a menagerie of animals and their calls before suggesting his partner’s call be silence. Even if you’re Rubens, the song ‘L’hippodame’ (a scathing portmanteau of hippopotamus and madame) is presumably not complimentary. There was a continual impish delight in offending sensibilities, but on occasion it concealed a rather sinister sneer. ‘Women love misogynists’, he was fond of claiming with sweeping dismissive grandiosity. In ‘Sait-on jamais où va une femme quand elle vous quitte’ (‘You Never Know Where a Woman Goes When She Leaves You’), he evoked the infamy of Henri Désiré Landru, a serial killer of widows who was depicted in sensational tabloids as a real-life embodiment of the mythic figure Bluebeard (who murdered his wives and hid them in a forbidden locked chamber). With ‘Judith’, Gainsbourg concluded a tale of frustration and doubt with a more personalized threat of murder. It could well be argued that Gainsbourg was a misanthrope and the reason his venom was directed almost entirely towards women is that men do not even warrant a mention. ‘[Songs] have to please women. It’s women who applaud and their boyfriends follow.’ When men do appear, they’re inevitably pathetic slaves to their desires like the telephone sex-pest of ‘Raccrochez, cest une horreur’ (‘Hang Up, It’s a Horror’), recalling Socrates’ line about the male libido being akin to being ‘chained to a lunatic’. They are punished eventually for it, whether by having their heads transformed into a cabbage or trapped in some endless purgatory or just left with themselves, the worst horror of all.
By his own admission, Gainsbourg harboured ill-feelings towards the great mass of humanity, including himself. When he appeared on the cover of his album Vu de l’extérieur (Seen from the Exterior) alongside snapshots of apes, he claimed it was a family scrapbook. A Darwinian reminder that man is just the most pompous of the primates. ‘Give a monkey a brain and he’ll swear he’s the centre of the universe’, as the Principia Discordia has it. There was nearly always a tongue-in-cheek humour to Gainsbourg’s slights. Take the message on his second album N° 2, explaining its guns and roses cover, ‘If they like my music, they get the flowers. If not, the gunpowder.’ As Birkin, Bardot and Deneuve would later attest, Gainsbourg’s sardonic bravado was a front for vulnerability. ‘I’m not a cynic as others maintain’, he revealed to the acutely cultured and articulate television presenter Denise Glaser in May 1971, ‘I’m a romantic. I always have been. As a boy I was shy and romantic. I became cynical through contact with others, who attacked me for my ugliness and my candour. They confused candour with cynicism.’ It was also a reason he drank increasingly towards self-destruction. Of course, one can have the narcissism of entitlement and sensitivity, and not extend it to others. Yet it doesn’t quite fit.
‘Everyone has three lives: a public life, a private life, and a secret life’, according to Gabriel García Márquez. That is the real moral test; what we will do when we are unseen. Behind closed doors, Gainsbourg was reputedly a loving if troubled family man, dedicated to his daughters. Within his skull, we can only hypothesize. He deliberately exaggerated the age difference between he and Birkin to the point it would arouse emotions. Having been shown old Super 8 footage of Jane as a child by her brother Andrew, he exaggerated the menacing roleplay further. He did, however, genuinely empathize with the Melody Nelson narrator’s feeling of growing old, ‘He is on the decline. He’s desperate, he’s a mess, he’s worn out. I’m worn out as well,’ he laughed in footage from the time replayed in Merlet’s documentary (the same name as the album), ‘but I’m still in use.’ Can a man who wrote ‘Je t’aime’ and ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ for Bardot as a gesture for forgiveness and to consecrate their love be a cynic? Or can one who wrote ‘La Javanaise’ for Juliette Gréco to mark a night they spent drinking and dancing together be a misogynist? Who framed portraits of all the women he had written songs for on his wall? Gainsbourg wrote almost exclusively for and about women. Has there ever been a songwriter more obsessed with every aspect of the other sex? Perhaps he was a misogynist in the sense he hated how much he was infatuated with women, the power they wielded over him, in which case his songs are really all about him, his frustrations, desires, his hatreds, fetishes, all the weaknesses that better men and women would never dare publicly admit. We can judge him if we see fit but we will never know for sure; that would require finding the key to Bluebeard’s chamber as the myth goes, whilst simultaneously hiding the key to our own.
Gainsbourg’s obsession with the image of the Lolita stretched back through his songs long before Histoire de Melody Nelson. In his duet with Gillian Hills, ‘Une petit tasse d’anxiété’ (‘A Little Cup of Anxiety’), he played a lecherous opportunist, picking up a girl who’s late for school. ‘L’Eau à la bouche’ (‘Water by Mouth’) presented a deceptively reassuring predator while in ‘Cha cha cha du loup’ the mask slipped and, in a nod to Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf underneath was exposed. Often it was interchangeable with another problematic, indeed offensive, image of the female as a painted doll or puppet. It’s a recurring trope mentioned in songs like ‘La plus belle femme’ (‘The Most Beautiful Woman’) and ‘Negative Blues’. The person most associated with this contrived image was France Gall, the youngest of his interpreters (until Vanessa Paradis), and one frequently cited as evidence of Gainsbourg’s heartlessness. Embittered that the record-buying public had neglected him and that Édith Piaf had the inconsideracy to die before recording his songs, Gainsbourg was bemused to find he had hit the big time writing disposable gibberish for teenyboppers. After a series of hits with Gall, his irritation began to show. In the video for ‘Pauvre Lola’ (‘Poor Lola’), he leers over the giggling naïve Gall, except he isn’t so much leering as watching her with faintly amused contempt. Intentionally or not, Gainsbourg sabotaged their collaborative partnership by giving her ‘Les sucettes’, a seemingly innocent song about a girl’s love of sucking lollipops. Even the giant dancing phalluses in the video were not enough to alert Gall or any of her entourage to the Freudian analogy therein. When she found out what she’d been singing about, Gall was mortified, locked herself away from the public for a month and vowed never to speak to Gainsbourg again.
While there’s no doubting Serge’s impertinence, the betrayal of trust and the horrendous embarrassment it caused, the Gainsbourg–Gall partnership was not quite as exploitative as might seem. He did, in fact, continue to write for her, working with Vannier on the seasick bubblegum pop of ‘Les petits balloons’, for example. Beyond a surface reading, the songs he wrote for her are not the ‘puppet on a string’ (it’s intriguing to note that Gainsbourg came to collect puppets of himself in later life) or mindless Lolita indictments or inducements they appear. ‘Attends ou va-t’en’ (‘Wait or Go Away’) and ‘Laisse tomber les filles’ (‘Leave the Girls Alone’) are feisty assertive songs from a female perspective to the extent of being threatening. In ‘Dents de lait, Dents de loup’ (‘Baby Teeth, Wolf Teeth’) she admits to being a wolf cub but she still can bite. Even ‘Poupée de cire, poupée de son,’ which momentarily distracted Europe from the prospect of Soviet nuclear bombs raining down on their cities, is not as passive as the title – ‘Doll of Wax, Doll of Sawdust’ – might suggest. She turns the attention from herself as a performing puppet for their amusement onto the audience who are no better than empty-headed dancing dolls themselves. It’s not often a song mocks its audience, its singer, its songwriter and the entire music industry. It’s even less often such a song wins the Eurovision Song Contest.
Indeed his meanness seems more directed towards the inanity of the yé-yé scene than Gall personally. Having recently been invented, the sociological concept of the teenager had become big business. It was also being fetishized as a cult of youth. Gainsbourg was as appalled as he was intrigued. He began to openly mock youth fashions, most openly the dance crazes and the idiots in the charts propagating them, the kind Humbert Humbert raged against in Lolita, ‘vacationists, goons in luxurious cars, maroon morons near blued pools’. In ‘Requiem pour un twisteur’ (‘Requiem for a Twister’), an aficionado of Chubby Checker’s Twist dances so much that his heart gives out. In the hilariously unsettling video for ‘Chez les yé-yé’, Jean-Pierre Cassel (father of Vincent) dances frenziedly while Serge in the foreground brandishes a flick-knife. His ‘Le Claquer de doights’ (‘The Finger Snapper’) is similarly less an anthem to the jukebox than to casual delinquent violence, when the clicking of fingers becomes the snapping of bones. Both the genius and problem with Gainsbourg’s yé-yé parodies were they were better than the songs they ridiculed. It should also be remembered even at his most caustic there was always a black humour prevalent. He began to change his mind as he admitted to Denise Glaser who presented him with a previous quote of his regarding yé-yé singers, ‘Why don’t they just go play on the swings?’ ‘I’ve turned my coat [...] because I’ve noticed the lining is mink. And I think the influx has done French music a lot of good because it has led to the elimination of some very tiresome things.’
Gainsbourg’s own attempt to create a dance craze ‘La Décadanse’ (‘The Decadance’) failed to ignite when he found revellers were less keen to simulate anal sex on the dancefloor to a travesty of the Lord’s Prayer (‘forgive us our trespasses’) than he had expected. Europe had been haunted by dance hysterias since at least the Dark Ages, beginning with crazed villagers dancing the Tarantella or St Vitus’ Dance, poisoned by hallucinatory ergot bread mould or Streptococcus bacteria. Then there were ritual dances, fertility rites, bacchanalian mating rituals. The Nazis in Das Schwarze Korps had lambasted ‘music to which one can only dance with the upper body bent back and the abdomen pressed forward against someone else’s, while wiggling one’s hips like a lustful homosexual’, which was a fairly accurate prophecy, if not endorsement, of ‘La Décadanse’. For Birkin, he wrote ‘18–39’ giving a rundown of various extinct dance crazes and the one which never goes out of fashion – the danse macabre (the dance of death). This is at the root of Serge’s mockery; the young are ludicrous because they vainly imagine they will be young forever. Innocence is an insult to those who have lost it. His throwaway Gall confection ‘Baby Pop’ contains a similar memento mori that seems aimed at the burgeoning cult of youth. Dance all you like but you’re going to die.
The French have a phrase for orgasm: ‘La petite mort’ – ‘the little death’. It implies the loss of self involved in the brief abandon or transcendence of those seconds or minutes of pleasure, when nothing in the universe seems to matter or everything does. It is a phrase that seems made for Melody Nelson, a reminder of the two primeval forces that Freud believed worked deeply on every one of us: eros – the drive for love, sex, pleasure and creativity – and thanatos – the drive for death.