277. Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg – Je t’aime… moi non plus (1969)

The all-new, spectacular seven-sided 50p coin was introduced on 14 October. 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, as we’ll find out shortly.

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.

And ruling the charts was the muckiest, filthiest number 1 by far at that 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 2, 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 2 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 2 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)

Births:

Actor Dominic West – 15 October

100. Anthony Newley – Do You Mind (1960)

On 3 May, Burnley FC won the Football League First Division title. They defeated Manchester City 2-1, meaning that FA Cup finalists Wolverhampton Wanderers missed out on becoming the first team of the 20th century to win both the league title and the FA Cup.

Earlier that week, Anthony Newley scored his second and final number 1, and Do You Mind became the 100th chart-topping single. It was the second number 1 to be written by Lionel Bart, following the best-selling single of 1959, Cliff Richard and The Drifters’ Living Doll. Bart was only a month away from the opening of his musical, Oliver!, which premiered at the New Theatre in the West End on 30 June. The original cast featured Australian comedian Barry Humphries, later to be better known as Dame Edna Everage.

Do You Mind is superior to Newley’s first number 1, Why, but that’s not saying much. Featuring finger clicking and a style that’s not dissimilar from Living Doll, it’s better suited to the cheeky cockney stylings of Newley than the sickly previous single, and once more, you can’t help but imagine the young David Bowie having a go at it. Which is probably what Bowie was trying to achieve with Love You Till Tuesday (and that’s certainly superior to this track). It’s another love song, basically Newley telling his love  how he’s going to shower her with kisses, make an idol of her etc, but with the added bonus of actually checking she’s alright with all that first. So at least he’s more of a gentleman than Cliff Richard, who prefers to lock his girl up in a trunk so no big hunk can steal her away from him.

These two number 1s were only early stages in the start of a very successful career for Newley. This was the last in a series of chart-toppers by cockneys in early 1960, but Newley began working with several figures from this brief ‘scene’. He formed a very successful songwriting partnership Leslie Bricusse, who had helped write Lonnie Donegan’s awful My Old Man’s a Dustman (Ballad of a Refuse Disposal Officer). The material the duo came up with far surpasses anything they had made up to this point. Their first musical, Stop the World – I Want to Get Off (1961) featured the multi-award-winning What Kind of Fool Am I? and they became the first British duo to win the Grammy for Song of the Year. In 1964 they wrote the lyrics for Goldfinger, sang by Shirley Bassey for the James Bond film of the same name. John Barry, who had arranged Adam Faith’s two number 1s, What Do You Want? and Poor Me, composed the music. The same year, they also wrote Feeling Good, which became legendary thanks to Nina Simone in 1965. In 1963 he had married Joan Collins, having already had two wives. They had a son together but split in 1970, remaining friends, and he married again a year later.

In 1971, Newley and Bricusse wrote the music for Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, starring the brilliant Gene Wilder. As I’ve stated here before, I’m not much of a fan of musicals, but I’ve always loved this, and if I’m feeling particularly sentimental and I’m watching it with my daughters, Pure Imagination can almost move me to tears, particularly since the death of Gene Wilder. The Candy Man was also later a big hit for Sammy Davis Jr.

Newley had already married twice before his wedding to Joan CA distinctly British character, Newley couldn’t quite repeat his success abroad, but he did appear on game shows and chat shows in the 1970s. Always versatile, he continued to do well with music, film, TV and theatre, but his star did begin to wane. In 1e992 he took the title role in Scrooge: The Musical. This musical was a stage version of the 1970 film featuring Albert Finney as the miser, with the music by Bricusse. Say what you like but I won’t have anyone tell me that this isn’t the definitive version of A Christmas Carol. There you go, that’s two musicals I’ve admitted loving in one blog. The show ran until 1997, with fellow 50s cockney star Tommy Steele (who had a 1957 number 1 with Singing the Blues) later taking his place.

In 1998 he featured in BBC1’s flagship soap opera EastEnders. He was to become a regular, but ill health took hold. He finally succumbed to cancer in April 1999, aged 67.   So his two number 1s are a poor yardstick to measure Newley with, really, and there was much more to him than the David Bowie comparison. Hopefully though, not as much as Newley’s own son, Sacha, recently claimed. He made news headlines in late 2017 when he said that his father loved young girls and this is what caused the split between him and Joan Collins. But how young? Sacha called his father a paedophile, causing Collins to issue a public statement strongly denying he ever had any involvement with underage girls.

Written by: Lionel Bart

Producer: Ray Horricks

Weeks at number 1: 1 (28 April-4 May)

Births:

Author Ian Rankin – 28 April

Deaths:

Architect Charles Holden – 1 May

97. Adam Faith – Poor Me (1960)

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As stated in my last blog, the Official Charts Company recognises Record Retailer‘s top 50 singles chart from 10 March 1960 through until Feb 1969 as canon, replacing the New Musical Express, which despite this continued with its own chart. The trade publication, later known as Music Week, had turned weekly as of that date, and their chart covered 50 placings.

The first number 1 via this method was Adam Faith’s second, and it knocked fellow cockney Anthony Newley’s Why from the top after a four-week stint. Recorded while his first chart-topper, What Do You Want? was still doing well, Poor Me came from the same team, with string arranger John Barry now taking a writing credit alongside Johnny Worth, who was now able to be credited under his own name.

Poor Me is What Do You Want? all over again, but with a more lovelorn lyric. This time Faith is wallowing in misery as he’s been cheated on. All the ingredients are the same. Faith copies Buddy Holly’s vocal tics, which is a bit embarrassing (at least his vocal style isn’t as random as it was on his last hit), and John Barry’s pizzicato strings are once more the highlight. Matching the more downbeat lyrics, the arrangement swirls around once more, but with a more woozy feel. In fact, the ominous backing strings actually sound like an early attempt at the James Bond theme. Like What Do You Want?, it also clocks in at well under two minutes long. You’ve got to admire the chutzpah really. After all, if Cliff Richard can follow up Living Doll with another number one that’s almost exactly the same (Travellin’ Light), why not adopt the same approach?

Despite not achieving number 1 again, Faith was still a regular name in the upper reaches of the charts for some time, including Christmas song Lonely Pup (In a Christmas Shop) at the end of 1960. In 1963 he tried to ape the Beatles, recording with backing group The Roulettes, but their debut single The First Time was the last time he reached the top five. Ever attempting to emulate the sound of the time, he tried psychedelia, recording the marvellously named Cowman, Milk Your Cow by Barry and Robin Gibb in 1967.

In 1968, Faith chose to concentrate on his acting career, which had ran concurrently with his chart success, and starred mainly in theatres, alongside some film work. He also had a notable role as the lead character in TV series Budgie. A serious accident almost cost him a leg, but he returned to star as David Essex’s dodgy manager in music film Stardust (1974).

That same decade, he went into music management, and diminutive ego-maniac Leo Sayer was among his stable. Sayer later claimed that Faith wasn’t entirely honest with him when it came to money. I’m guessing Sayer chose not to ask him for assistance when Faith moved into investment and financial advice in the 80s. Big acting roles continued to come in, including the 1980 film McVicar alongside Roger Daltrey, and a part in Minder on the Orient Express, the 1985 Christmas special. His most notable role in his later years was in BBC comedy drama series Love Hurts, alongside Zoë Wanamaker. His reputation as a money expert was in tatters in 2002 when his TV station Money Channel closed, and Faith was declared bankrupt, owing a whopping £32 million. The irony of the opening lines of that first number 1, ‘What do you want if you don’t want money?’ must not have escaped him at this point. Another celebrity, film producer Michael Winner, also complained of how Faith’s unsound advice had cost him. All this information can’t help but create the image in my mind of Faith as a real-life Del-Boy Trotter or Arthur Daley.

Faith may have had mixed success with money, but he was certainly an astute TV critic. He died of a heart attack in the early hours of 8 March 2003, aged 62, and his final words made the news as much as memories of his career. They were ‘Channel 5 is all shit, isn’t it? Christ, the crap they put on there. It’s a waste of space.’ Last year Faith made headlines again when former singer-songwriter David Courtney, who Faith had managed, claimed in his book that Faith told him he had been asked by MI6 to spy on Fidel Castro when he visited Cuba in 1997. Apparently Faith was ‘crapping himself with fear’ as he was led into a room to meet the Cuban leader, whereupon Castro stated ‘I know you’ and held up a copy of What Do You Want?. Whether it’s true or not, I find myself wondering whether Faith tried to sell him broken VHS recorders afterwards.

Written by: Johnny Worth & John Barry

Producer: John Burgess

Weeks at number 1: 1 (10-16 March)

Births:

Comedian Jenny Eclair – 16 March 

93. Adam Faith – What Do You Want? (1959)

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December 1959: the decade is drawing to a close, but before it does, two shipping disasters take place within three days of each other in Scotland. At Duncansby Head on 6 December, a severe gale causes Aberdeen trawler George Robb to run aground, killing all 12 crew members. Two days later at Broughty Ferry, the lifeboat Mona capsized, and all eight crew members were lost at sea.

The same week, a new British star was born when Adam Faith went to number 1 for the first time with What Do You Want?. He was to remain one of the biggest UK pop singers of the next five years, and the song also helped producer John Barry make his name.

Faith was born Terence Nelhams-Wright in Acton in June 1940. Despite his rather posh-sounding real name, he grew up in a council house in a working-class area. After leaving school he became an odd-job boy for a silk-screen printers. By 1957 he was working as a film cutter and hoping to make his way into acting. Like so many others, he loved skiffle, and sang with and managed the Worried Men. Faith made his television debut with the group on the BBC’s Six-Five Special. Series producer Jack Good was impressed and with his help, Adam Faith was born and began recording with HMV. However, Faith got nowhere and by 1959 he was working as a film cutter once more. Faith had got to know John Barry, leader of the John Barry Seven, when they appeared in a stage show of Six-Five Special, and suggested Faith audition for new BBC music show Drumbeat. Faith was growing in popularity and recorded for several different labels but was yet to make an impact on the charts. However, he still held ambitions to also be an actor, and after having lessons he won a part in forthcoming rock’n’roll movie Beat Girl (1960). As Barry was working so closely with Faith, the film company asked him to write the score, and there began John Barry’s long, highly-successful career in film soundtrack scores, writing the themes from Jaws and the James Bond films, among so many others.

Faith signed to EMI’s Parlophone, then primarily a label for comedy acts such as the Goons. While working on Drumbeat, he and Barry got to know singer Johnny Worth, who was a member of vocal quartet the Raindrops. Worth aspired to be a songwriter and Faith and Barry saw potential in his song What Do You Want? Worth was worried about his contract stipulations and so adopted the pseudonym Les Vandyke for his writing credit.

What Do You Want? is Britain’s answer to Buddy Holly’s It Doesn’t Matter Anymore. John Burgess’s production of John Barry’s pizzicato string arrangement closely matches Holly’s song, and is by far the best thing about this short but sweet slice of pop (at only 1 minute and 38 seconds long, it’s still the shortest ever UK number 1). It introduces Faith as a cheeky cockney version of Buddy Holly, who is lovelorn and dying to know what it will take to get his girl’s love. Unfortunately Faith’s vocals are far too similar to the recently deceased singer, and although back then it seemed perfectly acceptable for British singers to mimic their US influences, today his hiccuping sounds a bit embarrassing, as does his over-the-top ‘baby’. But it’s over in a flash and the strings stay with you afterwards, and in 1959 this will have all sounded pretty impressive and an exciting signpost to where British pop might end up in the forthcoming decade.

What Do You Want? narrowly missed out on the Christmas number 1 spot. In its third and final week at the top it shared the position with Emile Ford and the Checkmates’ similarly-titled What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For?, which overtook Faith on Christmas Day. Nonetheless, Faith would be a familiar UK chart presence for the next few years.

Written by: Les Vandyke

Producer: John Burgess

Weeks at number 1: 3 (4 -24 December)

Births:

Fashion designer Jasper Conran – 12 December 

Deaths:

Painter Stanley Spencer – 14 December