On Books

On Philippe Gonin, Serge Gainsbourg

Serge Gainsbourg, Histoire de Melody Nelson (Philippe Gonin, éditions Densité, 2021)

Ça vous étonne, mais c’est comme ça

In 1971, one of the pioneers of electronic media in France, director Jean-Christophe Averty, made a television adaptation of an entire album by singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg. Histoire de Melody Nelson was an ode to his  iconic British wife, Jane Birkin, who sings with him on the album and appears at his side in Averty’s piece. Gainsbourg portrays Birkin as Melody, a girl in her teens whom he accidentally hits with his Rolls Royce while she’s riding her bike. It’s love at first sight, he picks her up , brings her to his car (Gainsbourg had a Rolls but never learned how to drive) and love finds a way. In hindsight, it was fortunate that Birkin had already been married, to famed composer John Barry, and had a daughter.  

Yet Gainsbourg dared to explore this territory further in the eighties when he directed the music video Inceste de Citron, in which he was performing in bed with his own teen daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg who sang lines such as ‘l’amour que nous ne ferons jamais ensemble est le plus pur le plus troublant… (the love we’ll never make together is the purest, the most unsettling). Gainsbourg as Gainsbarre was in full provocation mode during that decade and did have a teen mistress who would go on to write her recollection of that period. Melody Nelson is haunted by this, it announces it using a form that revolutionized popular music in France.

There was a time when getting hold of the Averty video proved surprisingly difficult, and as might be expected, it is now on youtube. The director had been close to the Surrealist painters and writers and makes extensive use of Paul Delvaux and René Magritte’s paintings as electronic backdrops in which Gainsbourg and Birkin would stroll, sing, and try to dance throughout all the songs of the album, the first concept album made in France.

It would acquire over the years both a cult reputation for its kinship with the obvious themes found in Balthus and Nabokov. It would also become an intensely influential work, praised for its narrative and its groundbreaking use of strings. It went on to be sampled by a number of rap artists as well as revered by British dandys of intellect such as Jarvis Cocker from Pulp. It would also become a staple in countless cafés and bars across Japan, from Kumamoto to Kyoto to Osaka to Karuizawa to Tokyo and on to Sapporo. From the late sixties throughout the nineties, Gainsbourg and Birkin were revered in Japan and to this day, Melody Nelson remains a cultural signpost for generations who shared an affinity for all cultural things French. By the turn of the century, Melody wasn’t reaching new audiences, but since  much of Japan’s population is made up of a … very adult audience, she still has a voice and has spawned countless lolicon iterations.

And for those lovers of France, Gainsbourg and Birkin, an independent publisher from Rouen, les éditions densité, whose collection Discogonie examines one seminal recording at a time, has just released one such essay, by Philippe Gonin. The collection is cleverly and elegantly conceived; the writer provides the background to the album, the artist’s positioning at the time -Gainsbourg was a celebrated songwriter who had penned major hits for a number of stars, including for his previous partner Brigitte Bardot, for whom he wrote Je t’aime moi non plus, later re-recorded with Birkin- and a discussion of the album’s virtues and innovations. 

Among these were the use of strings and Gainsbourg’s encounter with Jean-Claude Vannier, one of the few French producers and arrangers accustomed to working in England. P. Gonin summarizes that history which has become the stuff of legend within France’s history of modern music. Gainsbourg’s biographer, the irreplaceable Gilles Verlant, discussed this at length in his seminal book on the artist.

P. Gonin also comments on Gainsbourg’s lyrics, occasionally relying on narratologist Gérard Genette’s works. It goes on to describes the sleeve, its cover art with its color photograph of a barefoot nymph-like Jane Birkin and its inside with Gainsbourg in b&w against an outside wall on rue Verneuil, where they both lived. Finally, P. Gonin offers a reading of each track before asking us whether or not it’s a cult recording.

It is one of those rare records from that French pop era to have transcended that moment and crossed several borders. Yet the writer reminds us that it was deemed a failure upon its release in France and would only reach sales making it a gold record in 1979, after Gainsbourg’s reggae version of La Marseillaise became a hit and audiences returned to his discography. Histoire de Melody Nelson has also been the subject of a similar book in the UK,  published by Bloomsbury in their 33 1/3 collection, and appears in books on Gainsbourg by Japanese writiers.

Philippe Gonin’s essay is a welcomed object to grace the shelves of Serge Gainsbourg fans in Japan.

S.

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