So you're asking what Balkans via Bohemia is doing here in the land of French psychedelic orchestral rock, on the trail of one of the strangest (and sampled and influential) concept records in, ahem, histoire.
Well, there are Yugoslav dinars at the very foundation of the tale of Serge Gainsbourg's 1971 record, Histoire de Melody Nelson. How's that?
First, the quick synopsis for absolute beginners. Serge Gainsbourg (1928-1991) -- son of Russian Jewish immigrants, survivor of the Nazi occupation of France -- was one of the most incredibly talented musicians in Western pop. He started out as a painter who played piano in bars, and in pop music terms, was a late bloomer. He was 30 years old -- and really the last great figure to emerge from the French chanson tradition -- when his first record, Du chant à la une appeared in 1958. He quickly veered into jazz, and his records from 1959 to 1964 remain classics of suave and syncopated lounge. (The most readily available collections of this amazing music in the US are 1997's Du Jazz dans la Ravin and Couleur Café. The former record, in particular, is stunning.)
Gainsbourg's mid-60s work also pushed from jazz into world music (especially Africa and Cuba), but then he made one of the most stunning reversals that any artist has ever pulled off -- and started writing straight-up pop songs for idolettes in the yé-yé movement. He wrote brilliant songs for Françoise Hardy and -- most notoriously -- France Gall. His songs for Gall ranged from the sublimely sweet ("Attend ou va t'en") to brusquely mod ("Laisse tomber les filles" -- check out the video) to the mass-pleasing mindlessness of "Poupée de cire poupée de son"-- winner of the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest for Luxembourg! (Gall was also the victim of Gainsbourg's cruelest prank: He wrote a song for her in 1996 called "Les Sucettes" -- "Lollipops" -- which was essentially a paean to fellatio. The video of the two of them singing it together really says it all. Gall eventually got the joke and stopped singing any Gainsbourg songs.)
By that time, Gainsbourg had moved on to an affair -- and musical collaboration -- with Brigitte Bardot. Gainsbourg's songs for Bardot were daffy (the mod-mad "Comic Strip"), delightful ("Harley Davidson") and downright brilliant (the much-sampled duet "Bonnie & Clyde"). Together they also recorded a version -- which remained unreleased until 1986 -- of Gainsbourg's most notorious record, "Je t'aime... moi non plus." (Bardot refused to allow the release of this version at the time.)
Which brings us to Jane Birkin -- the young English actress who eventually did sing "Je t'aime... moi non plus" on the version which became a chart-topping scandal in 1969 -- and served as Gainsbourg's muse for Histoire de Melody Nelson. (Birkin also served as the muse for Hermès CEO Jean-Louis Dumas -- creator of the "Birkin bag.")
Birkin met Gainsbourg in 1968 on the set of a film that Gainsbourg was making. After an initial culture clash, they became lovers and collaborators on songs such as "69 année érotique." (It's only every 100 years that you can write a song called "'69 Erotic Year!")
Then came Melody Nelson, which has just been released for the first time in the United States by Light in the Attic Records. The label won acclaim a few years ago for its tremendous batch of re-releases from 70s funk/soul queen Betty Davis -- and this edition of Melody Nelson is crammed to the gills with comprehensive liner notes by Andy Beta and Andy Votel, an interview with Gainsbourg from 1971, detailed studio information and the lyrics.
Before this new release, Melody Nelson has only ever been available in the US as an import, but its influence can be heard in genres from indie rock (Beck, Mick Harvey, Pulp) to hip hop and trip hop (De La Soul and Massive Attack both sampled it.) I've found, however, that for friends whom I've given this record it's often an acquired taste at first. Stylistically, the record effortlessly straddles surreal prog-rock and symphonic lyricism -- and those coming to it from a classic rock background usually detect a certain lack of fluidity in the rocker side of it. (The arrangements by Jean-Claude Vannier -- another important figure in the history of French pop -- are delightful and delectable all at once.) But after a couple listens, Melody Nelson becomes more compelling, as the record reveals how it is stitched together elegantly with Gainsbourg's spoken word poems and sullen ache of a croon.
And what's Gainsbourg on about with those words? Melody Nelson is a concept record. Breaking it down to plot is as reductive as doing so with, say, The Who's Tommy, but it goes roughly like this: Jaded lecher drives heedlessly and daydreaming into a dead end, accidentally knocks a teenaged girl off her bike. ("Melody") The story pulls back to reveal itself in its tender and tragic entirety ("La Ballade de Melody Nelson"), then zooms into an almost microscopic dissection of the bliss of the instant connection between Melody and narrator ("Valse de Melody") and the erotic bewilderment and passion of middle-aged man ("Ah! Melody"). The illicit relationship is consummated in a mansion ("L'Hotel Particulier") and just as quickly Melody flees back to Sunderland (yes, quite an unexpected turn there in "En Melody") and dies in a plane crash, leaving the narrator to weave an intricate web of metaphor about cargo cults and the cruelty of the godless universe. (This video of "Cargo Culte, and the others linked above, are from videos Gainsbourg made in 1971. And very much of their time.)
Accounts of the record's conception agree that Melody Nelson draws from Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, Gainsbourg's own weird associative logic, and a considerable amount of time spent in a parked Silver Ghost Rolls Royce -- staring at its hood ornament. And the latter element is where the Balkans enters the picture.
Gainsbourg earned the money for the Rolls Royce by making two movies in Yugoslavia. In Sylvie Simmons biography of Gainsbourg, A Fistful of Gitanes, she notes that Gainsbourg was ejected from the country because he burned a Yugoslav banknote during an argument at dinner one night and was charged with being a "capitalist provocateur." Tito's government did let him finish the final movie, but escorted him to the airport the moment it wrapped.
So Gainsbourg arrived back in Paris with a suitcase full of Yugoslav dinars and bought an old Rolls Royce Silver Ghost. Lacking a driver's license, Gainsbourg simply sat in the car -- smoking and dreaming up Melody Nelson.
Diving deep into the record as I've been writing this, I'm as entranced as ever by it. The spindly bass lines spiking and plunging, the crazed guitars weaving and scratching and wailing in and out of orchestral sweeps and powerful choruses. Above all, it's Gainsbourg's mastery of tempo -- in music and words -- and ability to encompass dissolution, tenderness, lust and the ache of loss.
In a career as long as Gainsbourg's (and he went on to explore reggae, rockabilly and disco pop , as well as set fire to more money and tell Whitney Houston he wanted to "ferk her" on live television in France), it's hard to say whether Melody Nelson is his best record. (Pitchfork just gave this re-release a perfect 10 of 10.)
You could make an argument, for instance, that 1964's Gainsbourg Confidentiel and its string of jazz pop gems might be even more coherent and sparkling -- if not quite as audacious. You could even argue that Gainsbourg is best considered as a "singles artist" -- and that even at the end of his career he still managed records that were scandals and successes.
But for my money, for an artist that trafficked in songs about lust, there isn't another moment in his career that touches "L'Hotel Particulier." The throbbing bass and lazy snap of the snare under Gainsbourg's whispered vocal evoke the druggy feeling of anticipated desire, with bits of piano and strings and then a pulsing insistent organ riff foreshadowing the song's stunning climax in a wash of stings propelled into a tug of sensual to-and-fro. It's as perfect as pop sex ever gets. Even more perfect than the famous Je t'aime... moi non plus. And the song cycle in which it is embedded is pretty amazing too.
You can buy Melody Nelson direct from Light in Attic here.