Home Rock Music The making of “Melody” by Serge Gainsbourg

The making of “Melody” by Serge Gainsbourg

The making of “Melody” by Serge Gainsbourg


This text initially appeared in Uncut Take 287 (April 2021)

“I believe I known as him Serge Bourguignon,” says Jane Birkin, recalling her first assembly with Gainsbourg on the set of the movie Slogan in 1968. “He was fairly vexed that I didn’t know who he was, so not lengthy after that he gave me a ebook known as Chansons Cruelles, ‘merciless songs’. It was somewhat leather-based quantity with a few of his lyrics, and in it was written, ‘For Jane B, with whom I’ll write Histoire De Melody IE Nelson.’ Proper from the start he knew that he’d write this.”

Launched in March 1971, Histoire De Melody Nelson did little to hassle the charts in France or overseas, however its fame as a shocking and distinctive piece of labor has grown immeasurably within the half-century since. Now, 30 years after Gainsbourg’s dying, the affect of its knotty orchestral funk-rock is stronger than ever.

“The entire poetry of the factor is so unimaginable,” says Birkin, “I assumed individuals could be screaming for it and that it could be successful instantly. It wasn’t the case, we needed to wait. Serge handed the gold file over 20 years later and mentioned, ‘Nicely, ultimately we bought it.’ However it took a very long time.”

To file this Lolita-inspired idea album a couple of younger woman from Sunderland and the Parisian man she meets, Gainsbourg and arranger/co-writer Jean-Claude Vannier tapped up their favorite London session musicians, notably guitarist Alan Parker and Dave Richmond, veterans of earlier hits equivalent to “Je T’Aime… Moi Non Plus” and “69 Année Erotique”.

“He recorded within the UK due to how we might work,” explains Parker, “what we have been able to. Serge mentioned British musicians have been one of the best, and that’s why there’s generally been a little bit of disgruntlement in Paris with him not utilizing French musicians. He was perpetually smoking after I knew him, and he drank fairly a bit and he loved it, but it surely didn’t make him nasty or aggressive, he simply carried on as he was – the laid-back Serge, as we known as him.”

The album begins with “Melody”, seven and a half minutes of hallucinatory grooving rock, a special take of which shaped the bedrock for the LP’s closing monitor, “Cargo Culte”. The work of the British musicians is enhanced by Jean-Claude Vannier’s Paris-tracked orchestral work, whereas Gainsbourg and Birkin’s spoken phrase outlines the tragic story of Melody, the narrator, his Rolls-Royce and all.

“In Melody Nelson there aren’t any tunes, not like a traditional pop track,” says Jean-Claude Vannier. “On ‘Melody’, the melody is simply [from the] orchestra.”

“It was inspiring stuff,” says Birkin, “and it was a divine time – [Birkin’s first daughter] Kate was tiny, I used to be having Charlotte and all was nicely with the world, it appeared to me. My dad and mom and Serge had kicked it off so terribly nicely after such a disastrous marriage with John Barry, and I’d fallen in love with Paris and this extraordinary man… Russian, Jewish, humorous, unhappy, a poet. It was unimaginable. And such good enjoyable!

“It’s 30 years since he died this yr, and Charlotte’s lastly opening up his home as a museum. It’s like sleeping magnificence, nothing has moved for the reason that night time he died – I don’t know anybody who doesn’t wish to get in there.”


JANE BIRKIN (vocals): I used to movie various garbage, and Serge thought doing movies was a harmful metier, so he would come alongside at all times and take a collection in stunning motels, in the event that they have been stunning, or get actually offended if he was in a squalid resort, which was extra usually the case. He used to say it was too stunning to put in writing at dwelling within the Rue de Verneuil. On the finish of his life he was writing a track an evening, however in Melody Nelson days he took his time. The piano and the themes and the music he did with Vannier.

JEAN-CLAUDE VANNIER (association, orchestra path): We have been very shut mates. We might work on a regular basis. I first met him in London. He lived in Chelsea at the moment – in Cadogan Lodge, a giant resort the place Oscar Wilde spent his final night time earlier than going to jail – and we started to work collectively doing the music for a French film, [1970’s] Hashish.

BIRKIN: Serge at all times discovered nice orchestras, he had Michel Colombier for the primary model of “Je T’Aime…”, and that was fairly implausible, and he did lots with him, and he had Arthur Greenslade, after which it moved to Vannier after that, and to Alan Hawkshaw an terrible lot in England [later]. Vannier was essential for Serge, as a result of his orchestrations supplied an oriental color that has by no means dated.

VANNIER: After Hashish, Serge mentioned, “We’ve got a brand new challenge, it’s known as Melody Nelson.” I mentioned, “What’s it?” He mentioned, “I solely have the title. I don’t know what it’s but.”

BIRKIN: As he was in London [with Birkin’s family] for all Christmases and Easter, and summer season holidays on the Isle Of Wight, [the name] Nelson was fairly regular for him [by then].

VANNIER: He mentioned, “Have you ever some music in your drawer?” And I gave him some music for songs. I wrote the orchestra, elements of melodies, and a few concepts. He would sing the melody to me, after which play chords on the piano.

ALAN PARKER (guitar): They have been nice days. I did the unique “Je T’aime…” with Brigitte Bardot. That was my first encounter with Serge, and as we bought on so nicely he booked me for this and for that.

It was so charming to see Alan and Serge collectively, they complimented one another terribly and he was such a comforting determine for Serge. He cherished working with these musicians.

PARKER: So many huge hits have been carried out on the Phillips studio: The Walker Brothers, Dusty Springfield and so forth. I’ve recorded there while you couldn’t put a pin between musicians. In these days all of it went down in a single, so there was a number of strain on everybody, significantly the engineer – you can remix it, however there was a lot spill you couldn’t do a lot.

DAVE RICHMOND (bass): It was underground, you went down stone steps to get there, like a cellar actually. However while you bought down there it was very plush.

PARKER: We created that Melody Nelson sound? Sure, in a means. It was by no means a case of “I need this sound” or “I need that sound”, he wasn’t like that, Serge. He would say, “I need it rougher, or very sympathetique”… We have been used to it – you’d must be a semi-mindreader and provide you with issues till it was excellent.

RICHMOND: I believe it was Barry Morgan on drums, however no-one is aware of for positive. We didn’t use a click on monitor a lot then, aside from for movie scores, and Barry’s timing was extraordinarily good.

VANNIER: I wrote out detailed preparations. I like improvisation in jazz, Monk, Miles Davis and so forth. However in my periods, I’m very afraid that if I let musicians improvise they’ll play like they’re on one other file. And I don’t wish to have issues with that. So I write very significantly… In Melody Nelson, there may be an quantity of improvisation, however very gentle.

PARKER: With Serge a number of it was improvisation. Vannier mentioned he wrote all of it, that’s absolute bunkum, after all he didn’t – he gave us steerage, in the event you like, on behalf of Serge, however then Serge additionally chipped in, in his means.

RICHMOND: Are you able to think about all of it written out?! If we’d had an element written like that I wouldn’t have been in a position to learn it to play it! With all of the bends, it could have been horrendous to learn.

PARKER: There may need been one bar of an instance type after which simply chords – you see what they’re getting it, and then you definately adapt it.

RICHMOND: They simply left us, me and Alan, improvising on this steady drumbeat till they instructed us to cease. They could have indicated once they wished a fill, or to carry it up or down a bit.

PARKER: More often than not Vannier stayed within the management room, and it was Serge within the studio getting throughout what he wished. The best way Serge would describe issues was emotion: “I need stress right here, lust there.” Concerning the orchestration, we didn’t have a clue as a result of that was being placed on later. What we delivered might have interfered with a few of Vannier’s orchestral traces – but it surely wasn’t our fault as a result of we didn’t know what these traces have been. I used a Gibson Les Paul Commonplace – I’ve nonetheless bought it – and my Fender Deluxe Reverb with somewhat preamp constructed into it, feeding into the principle amp. The suggestions on “Melody” was managed by how shut I used to be to the amp, which means I used to be dealing with. Sure, it’s onerous to regulate – you discover a place and it’s not comfy to play or sit in, however you tolerate it simply to take care of the suggestions.

RICHMOND: I used to be utilizing my Burns Bison bass. I had performed double bass in Manfred Mann, however somebody instructed me there was work for electrical bass gamers, so I went to purchase an electrical bass from Denmark Road. My spouse mentioned, “Oh, that appears a pleasant one”, as a result of it was very impressive-looking, and that was that. However luckily it turned out I used to be the one session musician utilizing a Bison, everybody was on Fenders of assorted sorts. It was superb for that ‘click on sound’ – everybody was asking for a click on bass then and I turned recognized for it. As soon as we’d recorded, Serge would take the tracks again to France and end them there with Vannier.

VANNIER: After the music was recorded, he wrote the lyrics. He at all times noticed it as a movie. A movie with out photos. A movie within the head.

BIRKIN: Melody is a 14-year-old woman on a motorcycle, and he’s in his Rolls-Royce – Serge did have a Rolls-Royce, he purchased one after we did two movies in Yugoslavia, simply earlier than I had Charlotte. We did Romance Of A Horse Thief, and having carried out that, we did one other movie [Ballade à Sarajevo], the place Serge was purported to be the pinnacle of a resistance military in Yugoslavia, in the event you can think about, and I used to be enjoying a nurse. We held up the entire Nazi military by me popping out of a frozen lake and Serge gunning them down with a machine gun from behind. Serge bought paid in money, and after we bought again to Paris it gave him a kick to suppose that with cash from a communist nation he was going to purchase himself a Rolls-Royce. So off he went to Rolls-Royce in Paris and he discovered one with one of many Rs in crimson. It was very uncommon, it appeared like a automotive from The Avengers. We would have liked a chauffeur to drive it as a result of Serge didn’t have a license – so he unscrewed the radiator faucet the place it had the ‘spirit of ecstasy’ on it, and he put it on his mantelpiece. In fact, “Melody” mentions “Silver Ghost” and “spirit of ecstasy”, so he was most likely fascinated about it whereas we have been in Yugoslavia and simply after.

VANNIER: Melody Nelson is a dream, . However I don’t suppose it was an excellent factor to place photos on the music [in the short film Melody, made to accompany the album]. Should you see the woman, it’s useless. The movie shouldn’t be superb, I believe, and I imagine that Serge felt the identical means as me.

BIRKIN: In Tony Frank’s pretty picture for the quilt, Serge made me put on a crimson wig and paint on freckles on my nostril. I had crimson hair as a result of my greatest good friend Gabrielle Crawford’s daughter Lucy had crimson hair, and so he wished Melody to have crimson hair and freckles – I believe he was terribly influenced by Lolita by Nabokov. I held up my monkey so that you wouldn’t see that I’d opened my denims as a result of I used to be 4 months pregnant.

VANNIER: The album may be very far out. On the time, within the Seventies, the LP was not a hit, and we handed on to different issues. I don’t know what occurred. It’s unusual for me. I preferred to play, to work with Serge, he was a really shut good friend, and we had the pleasure of penning this album.

PARKER: Serge and I bought on very nicely, definitely. Once I lived in Surrey I had a studio at dwelling, and that’s the place we recorded a few of that final album we did with Jane [1990’s Amours Des Feintes]. Once we recorded the music for that album it was within the winter and I lived very excessive up on the North Downs then, there was snow and every part, and Serge arrived in his trademark no-socks and these little white leather-based plimsolls. “Aren’t you chilly?” “No, no…” You would see, poor sod, he was shivering! However he bought into his Pernod and his Gauloises, and he was okay.

RICHMOND: Till a couple of years in the past I’d forgotten all about Histoire De Melody Nelson. I had no thought it was a cult file, I’d by no means purchased it, by no means heard it till a couple of years in the past. Now I believe it’s sensible!

BIRKIN: In these days, songs that have been primary have been by no means ours. Serge was immensely standard, however on the similar time he wasn’t primary, primary was individuals like Claude Francois, so [it was typical] that he would write this opus and it needs to be recognised however not be the bestseller. He was at all times 20 years forward of his time. The consolation to me is that by the point he died he knew that he was the most well-liked man in France.



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