‘We found ourselves working with a sort of UFO. We were building something completely unprecedented, without knowing how people were going to react to it. We weren’t in the process of interpreting a song or an existing score, nor was it merely a simple album with a series of songs.’ Says Jean-Claude Vannier in the extensive liner-notes to the superb reissue of 1971’s Histoire de Melody Nelson. Unprecedented, sure: the music was there before the lyrics. But the music and the lyrics weren’t made up from scratch. Arranger/producer Jean-Claude Vannier admitted to listening to a lot of Frank Zappa prior to the Melody Nelson recordings. He was autodidactic, taught himself by listening to Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky and a lot of jazz (Evans, Monk). Serge, who devoured classic poetry, Russian classical music and jazz-standards (he said to Vannier: ‘You’re Cole, I’m Porter’) had trouble writing the lyrics. A case is made about the first appearance of Melody Nelson (=Jane Mallory Birkin), the nymphet in songs like l’Eau à la bouche and Une petite tasse d’anxiété (his duet with Gillian Hills). It is revealed (to me, at least) that music from Valse de Melody was used in a series of adverts for Martini (see here).
Melody was initially planned as a series of short stories, similar to children’s books. He explored this earlier with the series Marie-Mathematique, a comic strip on tv, for which Serge composed the music (only guitar and double bass) and recites the texts. You can see 3 episodes of Marie-Math here. Also influential was L’histoire du soldat, a musical story from 1917 by Swiss poet Ramuz and Russian composer Stravinsky. In the 80s, Serge played a role in a tv-adaptation of this piece (as the devil), but he sure was familiair with it from a young age. The lyrics in the piece aren’t sung, more spoken. You can see versions of the piece on Youtube here.
Andy Votel, mastermind behind the brilliant Finders Keepers label, wrote a big piece on who played on Histoire de Melody Nelson. For on the original album, no musicians were mentioned. Vannier was unsure. No notes were left, apparantly. But Tony Frank, who shot the album cover, discovered some pictures. By magifying some of the shots, bassplayer Dave Richmond was identified. When Votel contacted him, he said that he ‘never heard that album before’. ‘But there’s no doubt at all that that is me on all the tracks’. Richmond, who played on various KPM-library music records and sessions for many big name artists like Elton John, had a Burns bass guitar. ‘The Black Bison bass’ as he calls it, has a longer neck which helped the technique for getting that plopping or clicking sound that is so distinctive in the Melody Nelson-tracks. The sound is specific for his 60 watt Fender Bassman valve amp, and he flexible clean Rotosound bass strings. Votel cites Richmonds composition Confunktion (from a KPM album) as a good example of this technique. By the way, Richmond worked with Gainsbourg earlier, that’s his bass on 69 Annee Erotique.
The guitarplayer on the album is another session hand used before (and after) by Gainsbourg: Alan Parker. But who’s the drummer? No-one knows. Not Dougie Wright, according to his diary he was at another studio during the three April dates in 1970. Not Terry Cox, who was in America with Pentangle. Barry Morgan maybe? Brian Bennett? Ronnie Verell? It will remain a mystery.
Another fun fact from the liner notes: the Hotel Particulier was based on the Parisian hotel where Oscar Wilde died. And on an actual brothel, visited by Vannier and Gainsbourg when they were recording Michèle Mercier’s La fille qui fait tchic ta tchic. The bronzes statues that are mentioned in the lyrics of L’Hôtel Particulier, were in that brothel. The laughing girl you hear is Jane, who’s tickled by Serge.
Finally: on the extra album, called Les Sessions Melody Nelson that features longer and alternative versions, a track appears that wasn’t used on the official release. It’s called Melody lit Babar, Jane says in the liner-notes that this song was written to emphasize how young Melody was. And it’s a reference to the Babar-doll and -books that Jane’s first daughter Kate had. You can see that doll in the picture.
And that’s just a few of the discoveries and background provided by this fantastic reissue. You need this, trust me.
Dave Richmond – Confunktion
Michele Mercier – La fille qui fait tchic ta tchic
Serge Gainsbourg – Melody lit Babar