Ooh, this one got a lot of people hot under the collars!
Nowadays she’s more likely to be associated with the ridiculously expensive Hermès bag that bears her name but in 1969 Jane Birkin was famous for duetting on what has been considered one of the sexiest songs of all time.
Written by the often scandalous artist Serge Gainsbourg, J’taime…Moi Non Plus was banned in several countries due to its ‘erotic’ content but the UK obviously found it very attractive, sending it to number one. Even Ireland was open-minded enough to get it to number two.
Gainsbourg (who, according to Wikipedia, is regarded as ‘one of the most important figures in French popular music’) actually wrote the song for him to sing with his secret girlfriend of the time, Brigitte Bardot. They recorded it – according to some, the windows of the recording studio got pretty steamed up while the two were in there - but Bardot’s husband (that’s why Bardot was a secret girlfriend, see?) was pretty peeved when he found out about it and Bardot asked Gainsbourg to keep the song under wraps.
So the song remained unreleased until Gainsbourg met Jane Birkin while they were filming a movie together (although, according to Marianne Faithfull, Gainsbourg had actually asked several other women, including her, to record it before this). They started going out and he asked Birkin if she would record J’taime with him. Having heard the Bardot version and declaring it ‘hot’ she decided that she would duet with him so that he wouldn’t find somebody else to sing it with (i.e. ‘get in a tiny recording booth with’).
J’taime…moi non plus is a mix of breathless whispering (fairly sexy), Gainsbourg singing lyrics about waves coming and going (quite sexy) and Birkin’s high pitched singing (not at all sexy and actually quite off-putting). Listening to the background moans and groans it’s easy to understand why rumours abounded about what exactly the two of them were actually up to during the recording although Gainsbourg’s quote ‘Thank goodness it wasn’t, otherwise I hope it would have been a long-playing record’ seemed to put paid to too much realism being involved.
Like much of Gainsbourg’s output, J’taime was written to provoke a reaction – and provoke it did. The gasps and moans that are scattered throughout the song shocked a lot of people: despite the end of the 1960s signalling social revolutions across countries of the western world, the song’s message of sex without love was still offensive to many when it was released in 1969.
The – ahem – climax of the song led to it being banned from the radio in countries such as Brazil, Spain, Sweden and copious stations in the U.S. and even France would only permit it to be played after 11pm. The Pope at the time denounced it too – something which Gainsbourg was obviously grateful for, calling him ‘our greatest PR man’. In the UK it reached number 2 before being banned (somebody wasn’t really paying attention at first, I’m guessing?); Gainsbourg had to change record labels, from Fontana to Minor Records before it got re-released. The subsequent publicity then took J’taime…moi non plus to the top of the charts, the first foreign language single to do so, where it remained for more than 30 weeks. Despite receiving extremely limited airplay in the U.S. it still made the Top 100 there and was also a success throughout more liberal countries in Europe.
The song might have been sexy at the time but it’s now considered a bit too cheesy to be truly romantic. Plus the fact the recognisable intro and riff, as well as the gaspy moany bits make it ripe for parody – and there have been many over the years. Gainsbourg, unsurprisingly, was the first to write one, for Bourvil (a comedy actor and singer) and Jacqueline Maillan (an actor).
Frankie Howerd and June Whitfield also did one (disturbing in itself until you remember this was in 1971, when she wasn’t 112 and he was still alive): a Carry On-esque version with Whitfield feeling up for it while Howard would rather play golf. I just about made it through that but couldn’t face another version by ‘Allo ‘Allo’s René and Yvette (Gordon Kaye and Vicki Michelle). *Shudders*
The original J’taime…moi non plus also produced plenty of other (non-nausea inducing) covers (including ones by Nick Cave, Malcolm McClaren and Sam Taylor-Wood & Pet Shop Boys) and as an influence for Love to Love You Baby by Donna Summer. The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain has had a bash too – well worth a listen!
In summary then: sexy in 1969: pretty naff now. Only sexy when sung in French between two attractive people: definitely not sexy when sung by people who are pretending to be French in a rubbish sitcom.
P.S. I’ve just realised what Birkin’s pained vocals remind me of: Susan, the manager of I’m Alan Partridge’s Travel Tavern! The scene where she tries to join in with Alan’s rendition of Wuthering Heights… ‘Dear, oh dear, oh dear. That is extraordinary. I mean, to look at you, you’d think you’d sing like an angel, but in actual fact you sound like a trapped boy.’