Sometimes, for whatever reason, great art slips past audiences and remains woefully underappreciated. Which is why we’ve created an essay series called Fossil Records, devoted to helping people discover work that never got its due.
Go deep enough in crate digging culture and eventually you’ll encounter the mysterious world of music libraries. Essentially a service for music supervisors for film, television and radio, music libraries offered packages of music that could be purchased and then used as needed. The idea was to make it cheap for productions to fill out the background, so instead of having to navigate the murky terrain of licensing music from a number of artists all wanting different cuts and fees with restrictions on how the music could be used for rereleases, music libraries provided a one stop shop where there no renegotiations or squabbles over how much of the song could be used or whether it would be allowed on the soundtrack or any of the other things that make music supervision such a nightmare. This was especially useful for low budget productions looking to avoid any licensed music altogether, like BBC documentaries, where anonymous, electronic-tinged music is as much a signature trait as bland narration. But over the past few decades music library releases have become fetishized by hip hop producers, quirky music supervisors on shows like Ren & Stimpy and even hip indie labels like Asthmatic Kitty, who created a long running series paying tribute to the “genre.” The music may have been intended to be basically anonymous, but crate diggers embraced the weirdness of music library recordings, particularly the work of music library mad scientists like Jean Pierre Decerf.
Like so many other music library figures, Decerf is a bit of a mystery, but the official copy on Space Oddities, Born Bad’s new compilation of his work, says he was “born in the Paris suburb Neuilly-sur-Seine in 1948, lived in Paris until 2003, and now lives as a hermit in a remote village in the Touraine.” The mystery of music library artists is at least somewhat by design, since the music was meant to reflect contemporary sounds just enough to be a suitable stand-in in the scenes where it was used but since it was sold in bulk it wasn’t intended to necessarily stand out. Nonetheless, Decerf is one of the most celebrated music library figures, with “Secret Music” blogger Flash Strap saying Decerf is a “figure whose name begins to call attention to itself through repetition and excellence” and “once his name is in your head as ‘one to look out for,’ his ouvre reveals a pattern of distinguished and sublime works.”
Born Bad is by no means a household name as far as labels go, but Space Oddities is probably the only way most music fans will be able to hear Decerf’s work these days, as it’s the first comprehensive collection of his rare and out of print ‘70s music library material. The compilation begins with the spacy instrumental synth track “Surrounding Seas,” but in truth it starts with “Light Flight,” a song pretty accurately described by Flash Strap as sounding like “someone shot Uriah Heep through a wormhole and just recorded whatever doppelgangers came back out again.” “Light Flight” serves as an excellent introduction to Decerf and a great example of why his work still stands out, not just amongst his music library peers but from pop music in general—haunting, unflinchingly weird, coated with eerie synth sounds and elevated by a near hallucinogenic vocal monologue, it’s unlike anything you’ll ever hear. There are all the touchstones of music library work, the connection to the then popular prog and synth scenes, but Decerf takes it further, creating something daring and forward thinking.
That is immediately continued with “Blazing Skyline,” where John Carpenter style synth bass joins up with the kind of avant-disco arrangements Arthur Russell and August Darnell would be exploring across the ocean not long after. Decerf didn’t just stick to ominous space prog, though; the playful organ driven “The Cool Brain” and chirpy synth pop number “Rainbow Rays” both show off Decerf’s cheerier side, while “Touch as Much” even hints at a sort of electro-fun Barry White aspect of Decerf’s musical personality. “Panorama” even has the sound of a Sonic the Hedgehog level theme, with a bubbling synth bass providing a rollicking rhythm as warbly synth leads move in and out of the mix.
Decerf deserves modern appreciation as an early synth innovator, but songs like “Gates of Pop” also make the case for Decerf as a 21st century musical thinker, a creator who was all too happy to combine genres that had no reason to cross pollinate previously. Merging a post-punk bassline, electro-pop synths and bossanova guitars, “Gates of Pop” even indicates from its title that the intention was to open the pop fences and let things mix and match at their leisure. That carries through all the way to album closer “Litha” and its twee and psych collision, but its apex is earlier via “Strange Form,” a sort of alternate dimension spin on “Baba O’Reilly,” where Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno co-lead The Who instead of Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend. It’s an epic track in length and scope, and Decerf fills every conceivable inch of sonic space with some kind of trickery, whether it be the thunderstorm and narration at the start or the neverending arpeggiating synth that bridges the creepy intro with the more operatic rock that makes up the bulk of the song.
“Strange Form” is a testament to the care and passion Decerf put into what was perceived to be basically disposable, unknown music. It’s a lovingly constructed miniature masterpiece that provides the closest thing there is to a defining Decerf statement, with the maestro asking that you “Embrace the fantasy/Accept the ecstasy/Let me be your guide.” The fantasy here is the illusion of Decerf as a number of figures, like the league of Supermen Grant Morrison brought to the pages of All-Star Superman, or the climactic battle in Time Bandits featuring any number of time lost heroes. Decerf wasn’t just adept at emulating a number of styles, he believed that the walls between different genres needed to be broken down in order to create more perfect art, and it didn’t really matter who heard it or under what circumstances. Maybe the music library format inspired Decerf further, granting him a kind of artistic freedom you are less likely to achieve when you have charts to worry about topping and audiences to satisfy. Hidden in a world the general public didn’t even know about, Jean Pierre Decerf could pursue his artistry in whatever form he wanted and still have a career, and now that the future his music predicted is coming true thanks to that other wall breaking platform the internet, Decerf can be newly appreciated as a true innovator and pioneer.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover