SERGE WEEK: ‘The avant garde or nothing’ – Gainsbourg and Vannier as innovators

Happy day 3 of Serge Week, celebrating the release of the 87th volume in the 33 1/3 series: Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melody Nelson. Author Darran Anderson here with the second of three posts.

‘The avant garde or nothing’ – Gainsbourg and Vannier as innovators
By Darran Anderson

Jean-Claude Vannier

“If you hadn’t been you, who would you have liked to have been?” Serge Gainsbourg was asked on the sleeve of his first album. “The Marquis de Sade. Robinson Crusoe.” he replied. The debauched libertine and the shipwrecked castaway might seem like very different individuals but they had one thing in common; solitude. Gainsbourg cultivated a myth of aloofness his whole career, a way of protecting himself as much as snobbery. Even with his famous love afairs, he projected an image of casual disdain and distance, hidden behind plumes of cigarette smoke or a cynical half-smile. Yet a great deal of Gainsbourg’s finest work came in collaboration with relatively-unsung arrangers such as Michel Colombier, Alain Goraguer, Alan Hawkshaw and not least the exceptionally-talented Jean Claude Vannier. Here are several lesser-known collaborations that show off the ingenuity of the Gainsbourg-Vannier partnership, one which sadly lasted only four years but remain with us thanks to the casual miracle of recorded sound.


“When he hooked up with the young exceptionally-talented, self-taught composer Jean Claude Vannier, Gainsbourg’s work gained an edge it had lacked, possibly because of his formative years in fairly refined chanson and Brubeck-style cool jazz.”

La Horse.

In the years just prior to Histoire de Melody Nelson, Gainsbourg embarked on a series of soundtracks and experimental recordings, the brilliance and obscurity of which make him an eternal attraction for crate-digging scum like myself. He created shimmering pop songs like ’69 année erotique’, sophisicated scores like ‘Breakdown Suite’ and a combination of the two in his soundtrack for Anna Karina’s self-titled film. Even ‘Je t’aime…’ began as incidental music for a drama. You get the sense of a musician on the periphery, edging onto uncharted territory. In France, at that stage, he was probably closest to left-field composers like Jean-Pierre Massiera and Nino Ferrer, and outside of France someone like the great David Axelrod.

When he hooked up with the young exceptionally-talented, self-taught composer Jean Claude Vannier, Gainsbourg’s work gained an edge it had lacked, possibly because of his formative years in fairly refined chanson and Brubeck-style cool jazz. This happened in two contradictory ways, which would be combined in Melody Nelson. The grooves in tracks like ‘Évelyne’ and ‘Danger’ became much heavier and funkier, with a concentration on loops and a rhythm section high in the mix. In terms of strings and overlaying instruments, the music became a lot more expansive, as shown by a vaguely interstellar-sounding piece like ‘‘Avant de Mourir’ (video NSFW).

Made jarringly for Pierre Granier-Deferre’s ‘farmer finds drugs, mafia finds farmer’ film, ‘La Horse’ feels like all Gainsbourg and Vanier’s ideas and methods condensed into one song. It’s as if they had to try everything at once before they could have the confidence to strip it all away for Melody Nelson. Though overloaded, it’s an incredible track and decades ahead of its time. It’s got a banjo break for Christ’s sake. We still haven’t caught up with it. I’m not sure we should.


Michele Mercier – ‘La Fille Qui Fait Tchic Ti Tchic’.

Gainsbourg was no slouch in terms of composing particularly for the female artists he wrote for; Mireille Darc’s ‘Drapeau noir’ and Michèle Arnaud’s ‘Les papillons noir’ still sound sublime. When he worked with Jean Claude Vannier, you notice a real leap forward though in terms of the complexity of the arrangements. His songs become much more layered and concerned with space, the violins become almost arabesque and the percussion leads. There’s an odd cognitive dissonance going on, the combination of orchestral with a funk rhythm section shouldn’t work on paper but it does magnificently and was immensely influential especially to hip-hop and electronic artists. The arrangement of this track sung by Michele Mercier is just twisted.


Le chanson de Slogan.

There’s a ménage à trois element to the Slogan soundtrack between Jane Birkin, Gainsbourg and Vannier, metaphorically speaking of course. The film was where Birkin and Gainsbourg first met. It was being put together as the May ’68 riots and occupations were taking place in Paris; the students had tried to use the director’s sports car as a barricade at one stage. I like the idea of Gainsbourg and Birkin falling in love, blissfully aloof, with the capital erupting around them. They’d work with Vannier on Birkin’s Di Doo Dah album but the template was set with Slogan. Critics get much too reductive about music and come up with ridiculous names like trip-hop or chamber pop to pigeon-hole but you can still hear traces of the soundtrack in Belle and Sebastian, Stereolab, Portishead, Blonde Redhead.


L’Enfant Assassin des Mouches.

If Histoire de Melody Nelson is Paradiso (or rather Purgatorio masquerading as Paradiso), it’s strange sister album L’Enfant Assassin des Mouches is the Inferno. Though their song-writing collaboration had come to an end (somewhat understandably given Gainsbourg’s reluctance to have Vannier’s name rightfully alongside his on the cover), the pair remained friends and Gainsbourg supplied the narrative for Vannier’s solo album about a boy who descends into the underworld to lay waste, and meet his fate, in the Kindgom of Flies. It’s a sinister genuinely-unnerving tale and the album captures this acutely with a soundscape of dark psychedelia, music concrete effects and celestial choirs. Having disappeared upon (limited) release, the album and other pioneering works by Vannier have been resurrected by Andy Votel’s Finders Keepers label, whose catalogue I wholeheartedly recommend you to dive face-first into.


Melody lit Babar.

Returning to Melody Nelson, ‘Melody lit Babar’ is a slight but interesting out-take from the album that shows a glimpse of what might have been. In his original Tintin and Marie Mathématique-inspired plans for Melody, Gainsbourg had envisaged the character undertaking a different adventure with each new song – Melody in space, Melody in the jungle and so on. This storybook picaresque element was partly behind this song about Melody’s toy elephant Babar. The song was dropped, not because of the fact it underlined a bit too stridently the perverted nature of the relationship involved and the youth of the ‘muse’ but because stylistically it was too jaunty and broke the flow of the album. Still, it’s a glimpse of Histoire de Melody Nelson in a parallel world and an indication that a raid on the Gainsbourg archives is long long overdue.


La noyée.

One last song from the vaults and one that happens to be amongst Gainsbourg’s finest. The music of ‘La noyée’ was written for a minor Yul Brynner film Gainsbourg and Birkin had acted in called Romance of a Horse Thief. He’d later offered it to Yves Montand, who had turned it down due to its melancholic bordering on morbid lyrics. The song forms the basis for a section in the book, as do all these songs in a way. Who is ‘the drowned’ of the title? Some mythical lady of the Seine? Or the Gainsbourg of the future drowning himself one drink at a time? It’s an exquisitely beautiful song and a devastating one; an indication that Gainsbourg knew what was to come. He performs it here on French television with Vannier on piano. They would work together on a scattering of songs – the single ‘La décadanse’, the soundtrack Sex Shop, the curious France Gall b-side ‘Les petits ballons’ – before parting ways. It was a shame for both of them, and more so for us, that the combination of their talents did not continue and we could lament the records that went unmade. We will however always have the records they did make, glorious and worthy of rediscovery as they are. ‘Better to have loved and lost…’ as the saying goes.
Follow Darran and the book on Twitter: @33_melody

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