It took only 40 years to catch on
It’s rare that an act of sexual aggression gets celebrated in American culture. But when the Hollywood Bowl’s tribute concert to the late French singer-actor-director-composer-provocateur Serge Gainsbourg takes place Sunday night as part of KCRW’s World Festival series, its finale will celebrate just that.
In honoring the 20th anniversary of Gainsbourg’s death (from natural causes in 1991), the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, L.A. singer, songwriter and producer Beck Hansen and his backing band as well as guest vocalists including Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste, Beach House’s Victoria Legrand and Gainsbourg’s son Lulu will pay tribute to Gainsbourg’s immense songbook, which spans four decades and includes dalliances with Afro-Cuban jazz, folk, French bubble gum pop, progressive rock, even reggae.
Capping the night will be the re-creation of Gainsbourg’s most notorious work, 1971’s “Histoire de Melody Nelson.” “I remember hearing ‘Harley David Son of a Bitch’ on KROQ in the early ‘80s,” recalled Beck by telephone during rehearsals. “But I didn’t really get too deep into him until Steve Shelley (of Sonic Youth) handed me a cassette dub of ‘Melody Nelson’ in 1995. I listened to it incessantly after that.”
Originally recorded in a London studio with a crack session band and the masterful arrangements of French composer Jean-Claude Vannier (who will be on hand to conduct the album’s live performance), the album remains a touchstone for musicians the world over.
“Rather than sound like the height of a band’s pomposity,” said Beck, “ ‘Melody’ was this perfect marriage of orchestra and rock band.”
A seven-song suite in the style of progressive rock that clocks in at just under 30 minutes, the album recounts -- via Gainsbourg’s deep, Gauloises-tinged croak -- the story of a lecherous old man in a Rolls-Royce who runs over a teenage girl on her bike. He then ravishes the underage girl in a hotel room and subsequently falls for her, only to have her die in a plane crash at album’s end, leaving him to ruminate on mortality.
For English speakers who cannot glean the X-rated subject matter, the music itself is stimulation enough: a heady blend of heaving symphonic strings, slinking bass lines, thunder-crack drums and roiling rock guitar that soundtrack Gainsbourg’s sing-speak.
Beck and producer Nigel Godrich approximated Vannier’s orchestral arrangements on Beck’s 1999 album, “Sea Change,” with the song “Paper Tigers” specifically quoting “Melody Nelson’s” orchestration. “It started as a pastiche, a sonic experiment,” said Beck, who said he almost scrapped the song before deciding it worked as direct homage. “I had been talking about Gainsbourg for years, but he remained unacceptable to a certain audience. Add another element to it though and then suddenly people appreciate it.”
Yet it took decades for the original to be appreciated. Despite Gainsbourg’s having an international hit with wife Jane Birkin in 1969 with the heavy-breathing “Je T’Aime ... Moi Non Plus,” “Melody Nelson” didn’t titillate listeners in France or beyond. “When the album went to the public, it did not work,” said Vannier, via telephone from Paris. “Nobody bought it.” Its legacy grew slowly, mostly among musicians.
Beck isn’t the only one to take a page from “Melody Nelson’s” sonic blueprint. Former Faith No More/Mr. Bungle vocalist Mike Patton remembers encountering Gainsbourg’s music one night on the radio and “was immediately awe-struck by the elegance, variety and detail of Serge’s ‘pop’ forms. It made me think that I had a lot to learn.”
Bands like Air, Pulp, Cibo Matto and Stereolab have cited the album as a favorite, and it’s even been sampled by hip-hop acts like De La Soul. Trip-hop progenitors Portishead built a career out of mixing such orchestrations with dusty drums. There was even a close American approximation the year after “Melody’s” release as session bassist Herbie Flowers laid down a similarly pliant groove for yet another sordid pop song: Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.”
Beck hopes the celebration will spur the audience to seek out the original: “I put it up there in my Top 10 albums.” And Vannier is glad the work has finally received its due: “Forty years after, I’m really happy that ‘Melody Nelson’ became a success.”
Serge Gainsbourg Tribute
Where: Hollywood Bowl
When: 7 p.m., Sunday
Info: (323) 850-2000; www.hollywoodbowl.com