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Serge Gainsbourg's Histoire de Melody Nelson (33 1/3) [Paperback]

Darran Anderson
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

19 Dec 2013 33 1/3
Outside his native France, the view of Serge Gainsbourg was once of a one-hit wonder lothario. This has been slowly replaced by an awareness of how talented and innovative a songwriter he was. Gainsbourg was an eclectic, protean figure; a Dadaist, poète maudit, Pop-Artist, libertine and anti-hero. An icon and iconoclast.

His masterpiece is arguably Histoire de Melody Nelson, an album suite combining many of his signature themes; sex, taboo, provocation, humour, exoticism and ultimately tragedy. Composed and arranged with the great Jean-Claude Vannier, its score of lush cinematic strings and proto-hip hop beats, combined with Serge's spoken-word poetry, has become remarkably influential across a vast musical spectrum; inspiring soundtracks, indie groups and electronic artists. In recent years, the album's reputation has grown from cult status to that of a modern classic with the likes of Beck, Portishead, Mike Patton, Air and Pulp paying tribute.

How did the son of Jewish Russian immigrants, hounded during the Nazi Occupation, rise to such notoriety and acclaim, being celebrated by President François Mitterand as "our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire"? How did the early chanson singer evolve into a musical visionary incorporating samples, breakbeats and dub into his music, decades ahead of the curve? And what are the roots and legacy of a concept album about a Rolls Royce, a red-haired Lolita muse, otherworldly mansions, plane crashes and Cargo Cults?

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Product details

  • Paperback: 136 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic (19 Dec 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1623562872
  • ISBN-13: 978-1623562878
  • Product Dimensions: 16.5 x 11.9 x 1.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 185,778 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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This book is intended to be a biography of an album, but due to Darran Anderson's thorough research and skilled prose storytelling, Serge Gainsbourg's Histoire de Melody Nelson morphs into a brilliant (if often dark) illustration of Serge Gainsbourg himself, even more than that of the title character, Melody Nelson. That said, when one knows this much more about the album, the artist and his muse, much like the narrator himself, one will find it almost impossible to avoid falling in love with Melody. -- J.C. Macek III PopMatters

About the Author

Darran Anderson is an Irish writer. He is a co-editor of 3:AM Magazine.

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Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars
3.8 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent! 20 Feb 2014
By annemct
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
A brilliantly written, well researched exploration of Gainsbourg music. First time I've read anything written by Darran Anderson, I will keep looking out for his next publication.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Gainsbourg forever 8 Nov 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Not what I was expecting a book about the album but a mini biography pas mal as Serge would have said.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Transplendent 19 Dec 2013
In "Histoire de Melody Nelson" Darran Anderson brings together historical, cultural and biographical background to fully explore the origins of Gainsbourg's music, transcending typical music journalism and clichés about his work. Exploring the influence of Nabakov, the Holocaust and jazz, and never holding back in pursuing the possibilities and ideas that Gainsbourg hinted at, his book is a work of art in itself, interrogating Gainsbourg's ideas about freedom, censorship, rebellion and control in the most poetic and original manner. It is a brilliant introduction to Anderson's writing, as well as Gainsbourg's music; a meeting of minds.
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2.0 out of 5 stars Scarcely touches upon the album in question! 27 Mar 2014
As a long time admirer of Serge Gainsbourg and especially "Histoire De Melody Nelson", I bought this book hoping for some background information on the LP itself, perhaps a little about the production, the musicians etc. Sadly it turned out to be merely a mini-biography of Gainsbourg, and a fairly poorly written one at that. Most of the content here is covered in greater detail in Sylvie Simmons' excellent "A Fistful Of Gitanes". Anyone looking for a better exploration of "Histoire De Melody Nelson" should seek out the 32 page booklet issued with the deluxe vinyl boxset reissue of the LP...
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 5.0 out of 5 stars  2 reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ah! Melody 10 Mar 2014
By Kevin Killian - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
It’s like it says in Ecclesiastes, “Of the making of books about Serge Gainsbourg there is no end.” This book, newest volume in the famous Bloomsbury 33 1/3 series, is well worth your while, even though it suffers from the most enviable of flaws, too much packed into each sentence. From the beginning, the series always had more excitement than fine writing, but the fan boy (and fan girl) aesthetic holds sway through the years and I’m glad. I learned rather less about Histoire de Melody Nelson than I thought I would, but way more about Serge Gainsbourg (1928-1991), who in the years since his death seems like the most protean and exemplary postmodern talent of the 20th century.

It used to be that the 33 1/3 series was really decisive and they would publish no more than one record by any artist not matter how many good ones the artist or group had issued. (I wonder if that’s still true, didn’t I hear that a second Beach Boys LP was going to be covered soon?) Anyhow has the selection of “Histoire de Melody Nelson” provoked any cries of “unfair”? To me, it is great, but not that great. Maybe the ideal Gainsbourg record would be a compilation LP of his greatest songs, and he didn’t even sing all of them. But HdMN is a concept album, and Darran Anderson makes sure we understand that.

The individual numbers sometimes suffer from a lack of love I think. He is more interested in treating each of them as a hook or peg onto which he can hang a huge and well-sorted grab-bag of Gainsbourg lore and fact. He’s like a kid who has so much to say he thinks he’ll die if he doesn’t get to say it all, right away. This leads to sentences in which more than one set of parentheses are used, such as this: “While Jane filmed Alba pagana (released in English as May Morning(, a campus suspense notable for a tagline superior to the film (‘First comes the wine. Then the wild dancing. Then the love. Then the killing of the sacrificial victim’), Serge stayed in their hotel in England, sketching out ideas and snippets of lyrics, towards what would eventually become sonnets and alexandrines.” Whew, long sentence, and Anderson still manages to leave out a crucial word in his breathless race to the finish: the phrase “a campus suspense notable for a tagline” seems to be missing a noun, doesn’t it? “A campus suspense thriller,” maybe, “or suspense movie” I’m just speculating on his process, forgive me Darran Anderson if I’ve got it arsebackward!

Psychological insight is acute here, and he doesn’t balk at articulating the worst sides of Gainsbourg. Anderson tells us that, like Joan Fontaine in Rebecca, Gainsbourg was nervous about marrying Jane Birkin because she had previously been married to a towering and domineering figure—in Jane’s case, the genius musician John Barry. Thus we see Gainsbourg apparently trying to outdo and thus slay John Barry. Check that metaphor, as they used to say in the New Yorker. “The epic Breakdown Suite from Si j’etais un espion (If I Were a Spy) was Gainsbourg confronting the work of John Barr head-on; Moriarty wrestling Holmes at the top of the Reichenbach Falls.” Wow! Sheer teen boy power in that comparison. He is good at marking turning points in Gainsbourg’s development, whether or not they relate directly or not to Melody Nelson. For example, he and his first wife manage to sneak into Salvador Dali’s apartment one night to make love among its surrealist appointments. and Anderson tells us matter-of-factly, “After that night, art and sex were forever intertwined in Serge’s head.: I have to say, in my head too, after deep immersion in this splendid, slightly nutty, psychobiography.
5.0 out of 5 stars The Best of the 33 & 1/3 Series 9 April 2014
By Coloratura - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Of those I've read, anyway. I've read about 3/4s of them, and this one beats them all - for its knowledge, for its mastery of language and critical acumen, for its inventive structure. Much more than a book about this one album, EP or whatever it was, this is really the critical biography Gainsbourg has long deserved in English, a book that makes him available to an entirely new listener base in English that may have been attracted to him by his sound, his reputation, and a lot of hearsay. His entire story is here, from his parents onward through a brief but celebrated life whose wick was kept alight by 60 Gitanes per day - the route of his ascent from painting to chanson to experimentation with musical forms and wordplay, the forebears (the poetes maudit, the Surrealists and Situationists) and the muses (Gréco, Bardot, Birkin) who inspired him, the crutches that destroyed him as all Gods do before they make us immortal. And the story is structured in accordance with the album that many hold as central to his career. This is much more than just an entry in a notable series; it stands as a small masterpiece in its own right.
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