Here’s the muckiest, filthiest number 1 by far we’ve had up to this point. Je t’aime… moi non plus by French Lothario Serge Gainsbourg and his lover, English actress Jane Birkin shocked our stuffy nation and was banned by the BBC… but as is often the case with such singles, whatever the decade, its notoriety only helped its sales. It was also the first foreign language chart-topper.
One of the most important figures in 20th-century French culture, Serge Gainsbourg had been born Lucien Ginsburg in Paris on 2 April 1928. He was the son of Jewish Russian migrants who had fled to the city after the Russian Revolution in 1917. His father Joseph taught Lucien and his twin sister Liliane to play the piano.
The young Ginsberg was deeply affected by Germany’s occupation of France during World War Two, and it would come out in his work in later years. Travelling under false papers, the Ginsburgs escaped to Limoges, which although safer, was still a dangerous place for French Jews.
Nonetheless they survived, and when the war is over, he found work teaching music and drawing in a school set up by rabbis for the orphaned children of murdered deportees. The stories he heard stayed with the horrified teacher for the rest of his life.
By the time he was in his early twenties, he changed his name to Serge Gainsbourg. He liked his new forename because it reminded him of his Russian heritage (and Lucien made him sound like a hairdresser’s assistant), and Gainsbourg in homage to the English painter Thomas Gainsborough.
Fast forward to the late 50s, and Gainsbourg, now married, was a shy, struggling songwriter, who felt the songs he was starting to develop would be too provocative for chansons. Singer Michèle Arnaud took him under her wing and offered to record his songs, and buoyed by her patronage, he released his debut album Du chant à la une!… in 1958.
Gainsbourg was too obsessed with sex and death to be famous just yet. But he became friends with legendary Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel and French singer Juliette Greco, with who he collaborated over the next few years.
In 1965 Gainsbourg, now on to his second marriage, finally found some mainstream success by writing Luxembourg’ entry into the Eurovision Song Contest. Poupée de cire, poupée de son, sung by French teen France Gall, won the competition. However, his next song for her, Les Sucettes, caused uproar. Turns out it wasn’t about lollipops, which is what the title translates into, but oral sex. Gainsbourg, who had once been ridiculed by audiences and critics for his looks, likely enjoyed pissing people off, and despite Gall’s career suffering for a while afterwards, Gainsbourg was onto something.
In 1967 Gainsbourg, divorced for the second time, began an affair with actress, singer and iconic sex symbol Brigitte Bardot. She asked him to write the most beautiful love song he could imagine, and he went home that night and wrote two of his most famous tracks. Bonnie and Clyde, which was released as a duet in 1968, and Je t’aime… moi non plus.
The title for the latter translates as ‘I love you… me neither’, which was inspired by a Salvador Dali quote: ‘Picasso is Spanish, me too. Picasso is a genius, me too. Picasso is a communist, me neither’. Gainsbourg would over the years describe it as ‘the ultimate love song’, or an ‘anti-fuck song’.
The secret lovers recorded the first version, and indulged in heavy petting when doing so, according to engineer William Flageollet. When word got out, Bardot’s husband was furious and Bardot pleaded with Gainsbourg not to release the recording. I looked forward to hearing this version, eventually released in the 80s, purely for research purposes and not for finding Bardot gorgeous you understand… it’s actually a disappointment. The arrangement is different, with more strings, and less organ, but the main problem is, Bardot’s performance is more reserved than Jane Birkin’s.
Birkin was born on 14 December 1946 in Marylebone, London. Her mother Judy Campbell was a stage actress and her father David Birkin a World War Two spy. Her brother Andrew is a successful screenwriter and director. Birkin was raised in Chelsea, and aged 17 she met her future husband John Barry, the James Bond composer and former collaborator with Adam Faith on his number 1s What Do You Want? (1959) and Poor Me (1960). They married in 1965, and she became famous herself through her roles in counterculture films Blowup and Kaleidoscope, both in 1966, and Wonderwall in 1968. That year, she and Barry divorced.
Birkin auditioned for a role in Slogan in France in 1968. She became the female lead and co-starred with Gainsbourg, and together they performed the film’s theme song, La Chanson de Slogan. They fell in love, and what better way to commemorate than by recording a sexually explicit song? Was this also a slap in the face to Bardot? Possibly, but Birkin was definitely keen. She had heard the original and found it ‘hot’ and insisted they bring it out as a single, because she was jealous of his ex-lover.
With the organ taking centre stage and more prominent bass under a new arrangement by Arthur Greenslade, Gainsbourg and Birkin went in to record their vocals in a studio in Marble Arch. He told her to sing it an octave higher than Bardot, so she would sound ‘like a little boy’.
A typically shocking thing for Gainsbourg to say, but the shift in pitch between their two vocals does add to the contrast and highly charged erotic content. It’s difficult to imagine now just how shocking Je t’aime… moi non plus must have sounded 50 years ago, and its been used, covered and spoofed so many times, but if you overlook the slightly cheesy organ (so to speak), the explicit performance from Birkin is still pretty out there.
Put it this way, I couldn’t and didn’t play it out loud in front of the kids like I easily could any other number 1 before it. It brought to mind L’il Louis & the World’s 1989 house classic French Kiss. Featuring similarly orgasmic moans, it once came on at random in my kitchen and my eldest, then around five, asked why the lady was groaning. At a loss for an answer, I said she had a headache.
There are rumours out there that Birkin and Gainsbourg were actually having sex while recording this. I don’t believe that personally, but it makes for a good story. Birkin certainly puts in an effective performance though, totally letting go and making Gainsbourg’s cool detached replies in the chorus all the more effective too.
There’s a great translation and essay on the meaning of the lyrics of Je t’aime… moi non plus here, which proves it’s more than just two horny people getting it on. Some people consider Birkin is wildly in love with Gainsbourg in the song, and his ‘me neither’ means it’s purely about sex for him. But the site considers the possibility that Birkin doesn’t love Gainsbourg, that she’s just into the sex, and he knows this full well, hence his reply.
It also suggests that, and the rest of the vocals back this up, that if it is just about sex, than Gainsbourg is making sure she has the best time he can give her. Several times he says ‘Je vail et je viens/Entre ten reins/Et je me retiens’, which translates as ‘I come and I go/Inside of you/And I hold myself back’. The song’s ending is a literal climax, with Birkin demanding ‘Non! Maintenant! Viens!’ (No! Come now!)… Stirring stuff, really, and more sophisticated than most record buyers would have realised, especially in 1969. And I’d bet that the average British man at the time would have been astounded at the idea of such selfless sex.
It’s another quantum leap in pop music. We’ve gone from songs about love to seven inches of the hard stuff just like that, and although it proved too shocking to open the floodgates to many similar songs at the time, pop was never the same again. Je t’aime… moi non plus may have been filth, but it’s deep too.
Je t’aime… moi non plus sent shockwaves through the charts. In addition to being banned on many radio stations, Fontana, the label that released it, withdrew it from sale when it reached number two. Fortunately, Gainsbourg arranged a deal with Major Minor Records, and the combination of two different versions only helped its sales. An unusual occurrence in the charts, and I’m not sure if it’s happened before or since.
It wasn’t just deemed offensive in the UK though. It was banned from the radio in Spain, Sweden, Brazil and Italy. It was denounced by the Vatican. In France, it couldn’t be played before 11pm. And yet there have been countless covers and spoof versions over the years, by Giorgio Moroder & Donna Summer, Malcolm McLaren and Pet Shop Boys. The two versions I want to hear the most have to be by Frankie Howerd & June Whitfield and René & Yvette from ‘Allo! ‘Allo!. Just imagine…
Two years after the success of their sole number 1 single (and the album of the same name), Gainsbourg released the concept album Histoire de Melody Nelson, about a middle-aged man accidentally crashing his car into a teenage cyclist, and subsequently falling in love with her. Despite, or maybe because of its Lolita-esque story, it’s considered a landmark in French pop. Birkin provided the vocals for Melody and also featured on the provocative artwork.
Gainsbourg shocked once more in 1975 when his experiences of World War Two inspired the album Rock Around the Bunker, featuring satirically light-hearted songs such as Nazi Rock. His last ‘rock’ album came out the following year, L’Homme à tête de chou (Cabbage-Head Man, which was his nickname).
Gainsbourg moved into reggae, and recorded Aux Armes et cætera, a version of La Marsellaise, with Rita Marley and Sly and Robbie. Many were appalled, and he received death threats. Bob Marley was also disgusted with him for persuading his wife to sing dirty lyrics on his 1981 album, Mauvaises nouvelles des étoiles.
Birkin gave birth to their daughter Charlotte, now a successful actress and singer herself. Following a break in acting, She returned in 1973 to play Brigitte Bardot’s lover in Don Juan, or If Don Juan Were a Woman. Gainsbourg must have loved that. In 1976 she starred in his film, Je t’aime moi non plus, which was banned in the UK. But after 13 years their turbulent, intense relationship finally ended in 1980.
It could be argued that he never really recovered, despite almost immediately beginning a relationship with Caroline Paulus, aka Bambou, which lasted until his death. He recorded two funk and hip-hop-influenced albums, 1984’s Love on the Beat and You’re Under Arrest in 1987, in which much of his wit and playfulness seemed to have been reduced to seeing how far he could go to shock people, even recording the track Lemon Incest with Charlotte, only 13 at the time.
Gainsbourg was becoming increasingly dishevelled, and became best known for his drunken, shambolic chat show appearances. Famously, in 1986 he interrupted a nervous Michel Drucker to announce on his chat show that he wanted ‘to fuck’ an understandably startled Whitney Houston, sat next to him on the sofa. On another show he shouted ‘You’re nothing but a filthy whore, a filthy fucking whore’ at Catherine Ringer, an actress who had also appeared in porn. Understandably, he didn’t appear on TV much after this.
In 1988 while judging a film festival he began to tell the audience an obscene story about Brigitte Bardot and a champagne bottle, which ended in him staggering offstage and collapsing in a seat.
On 2 March 1991 Serge Gainsbourg died of a heart attack, aged 62. Since then most of those final years have been forgotten and he is rightly considered a legendary figure in France for his intelligence and thought-provoking music and film work.
Jane Birkin continued to make music throughout the 70s and 80s, including the albums Ex fan des Sixties in 1978 and Baby Alone in Babylone in 1983. Her film work included in the adaptations of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1978) and Evil Under the Sun (1982), and she co-starred with John Gielgud in Leave All Fair (1985).
Despite finding love again with director Jacques Dollon, with whom she had her third child, Lou in 1982, The Observer reported in 2007 that they separated in the 90s because he ‘could not compete with her grief for Gainsbourg’. In 1998 she starred in Merchant-Ivory’s A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries and saw out the 90s with the album À la légère in 1999.
The 00s saw her awarded an OBE in 2001, plenty more acting work, and three albums – Rendez-Vous (2004), Fictions (2006) and Enfants d’Hiver (2008). Her last album to date, 2017’s Birkin/Gainsbourg: Le Symphonique, featured orchestral reworking of their collaborations. A year previous, she starred in the Academy Award-nominated short film La femme et le TGV, which she announced would be her final acting work.
A multi-talented, multi-award-winning humanitarian and strong role model, Jane Birkin is now 72 and though her career has have slowed down, she has a fine body of work to look back on, and it would be unfair if she was mainly remembered for her number 1 duet – as great as it is.
Written by: Serge Gainsbourg
Producer: Jack Baverstock
Weeks at number 1: 1 (11-17 October)
Actor Dominic West – 15 October
14 October: The all-new, spectacular seven-sided 50p coin was introduced. The replacement for the ten-shilling note was given a rather mixed reaction from the Great British public, with many complaining that it was too similar to the 10p coin. It wasn’t, but there was enough shock of the new to contend with that week I guess…
Also that day, opinion polls were suggesting that, come the next general election, the Conservatives, led by Edward Heath and ahead by up to 24 points, would easily trounce Howard Wilson’s Labour.