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Sep 06

SERGE GAINSBOURG AND JANE BIRKIN – “Je T’Aime…Moi Non Plus”

FT + Popular • 9,968 views

#277, 11th October 1969

Within Gainsbourg’s career this sounds to me like a stopping point between the sharp pop songs he was writing for himself and others in the 60s and the more drawn-out, high-concept records he made in the 70s: “Je T’Aime”s bass-heavy langour could be a practise run for bits of 1971′s terrific Histoire De Melody Nelson. If it wasn’t for the bass, in fact, “Je T’Aime” would be a pretty dire record – neither the somewhat prissy string arrangement or the soft-focus blur of the organ have aged that well, but the bass makes the song work as an insistent slow dance.

Precious few of its ’69 listeners would have worried much about Gainsbourg’s career (though rather more would have cared about slow dances) – in the wider pop world he was just an archetypal filthy Frenchman, one enthusiastically living up to that archetype by debauching a fluttering English rose. Actually Birkin’s performance is much better than Serge’s – he is on gravelly seducer autopilot, whereas she gets the harder job of coming on record while still carrying the tune (her stabbed “viens!” and “reines!” at the end show how well she does it).

Few foreign language songs get to number one in Britain – this one was helped by radio ban controversy and a bottleneck in the single’s availability. But foreign language hits in general weren’t unheard of in the 1960s – Eurovision winners in whatever language tended to do alright, for instance. In the case of “Je T’Aime”, the language barrier must have helped sales by making the track more viable as a romantic record, as well as preserving its porno mystique.

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Comments

  1. 1
    blount on 25 Sep 2006 #

    o you’re nuts – this is at minimum an 8!

  2. 2
    rosie on 25 Sep 2006 #

    Was this the first record to get to number one largely through tabloid notoriety? Not that I don’t think this has any other merits – I too would give it a higher mark. It’s a good smoocher and it’s genuinely teetering on the fine edge between eroticism and pornography (and manages to stay just on the right side), so it’;s exactly right for the teenager on tghe brink of discovering sex for the first time.

    The BBC didn’t play it of course – although I recall that they did play an expurgated version without the naughty bits – but Radio Luxembourg did. (Have we had a discursion on the importance of Radio Luxembourg, especially earlier in the decade?)

  3. 3
    Tom on 25 Sep 2006 #

    Probably yes, Rosie! There had been records banned before but I don’t think a huge fuss was made over them.

    The BBC probably played the instrumental version by the magnificently named Sounds Nice Orchestra.

    I love pretty much every other Gainsbourg record from this period – “Sous Le Soleil Exactement” and “69 Annee Erotique” are both (I think) much better than this.

  4. 4
    Marcello Carlin on 25 Sep 2006 #

    As is the original ’68 “Je T’Aime” with Brigitte Bardot, which didn’t get released for 20 years since Bardot was understandably worried about jealousy on the part of her then husband; everything in this version is magnified, echoed and refracted so that it sounds like a hymn (and the real precursor to “Moments In Love”). Bardot is experienced, Birkin the ingenue.

    But I do like the Birkin version because there is a vulnerability which goes beyond the raincoat brigade who undoubtedly helped take the record to number one…it is worth noting that Philips didn’t even consider giving any other Gainsbourg record a British release at this stage.

    That having been said, Philips (or, strictly speaking, Fontana) got cold feet after the Whitehouse brigade had their say, and quickly sold the UK rights to indie label Major Minor (the Dubliners, Karen “Nobody’s Child” Young). Availability overlapped, which meant that the same recording on two different labels appeared in the chart simultaneously in separate positions (the Fontana one dropped from 2 to 16, and the Major Minor one went straight in at 3, and topped the chart the following week).

    “Je T’Aime” is if I’m not mistaken the first foreign language single to top the UK singles chart. And also Serge’s only British hit of any size (it returned to the Top 40 on reissue in 1974, and let’s not mention the regrettable “comedy” versions by Frankie Howerd & June Whitfield, or by the dreaded Judge Dread, the latter going top ten in the summer of ’75).

    That having been said, the Birkin version is still absolutely gorgeous, and has never sounded dirty to my ears. Because of the Bardot version and the weeks I could only give it one mark – 9 1/2.

  5. 5
    Tom on 25 Sep 2006 #

    The list of cover versions on Wikipedia is a gateway into a land of nightmare – BRIAN MOLKO???!!!

  6. 6
    Marcello Carlin on 25 Sep 2006 #

    Yeah, that was on the Trash Palace album from about three years ago. Not a bad record, but Molko’s version was ill-advised.

  7. 7

    maybe skidmore and i shd do this in karaoke instead of tatu

  8. 8
    Marcello Carlin on 25 Sep 2006 #

    Possibly not in the Rene And Yvette Out Of Allo Allo style.

  9. 9
    Martin Skidmore on 25 Sep 2006 #

    I’m on for that, Mark – who gets to be Jane?

  10. 10
    Chris Brown on 25 Sep 2006 #

    The Sounds Nice Orchestra called their version ‘Love At First Sight’, which is not the most accurate translation I’ve ever seen.

    I really don’t know what I think of this record any more, so while I’m deciding who knows what the connection is between Serge Gainsbourg and Osama Bin Laden? Ha.

  11. 11
    Doctor Mod on 26 Sep 2006 #

    All of this is very interesting, as I’ve never seen an intelligent discussion of this disc. As far as I know, it was never NEVER played on US radio, at least not in 1969. Strange thing about the US–the American public is simultaneously obsessed with sex and frightened of it. Add the French language to it and, well, surely it must be a threat to our “cultural purity.”

    I knew that there was a lot of controversy in the UK about “Je T’Amie,” but I didn’t hear it myself until several decades later. At this late date, it strikes me as nothing to get upset about, even if it seems rather redolent of the soundtracks from those “soft porn” films from the early 70s that, by today’s standards, are rather quaint and hardly pornographic.

  12. 12
    CarsmileSteve on 26 Sep 2006 #

    Chris, i imagine Whitney Houston would be the connection.

  13. 13

    je t’aime… macgyver non plus

  14. 14
    DavidM on 26 Sep 2006 #

    9

  15. 15
    Mark Grout on 27 Sep 2006 #

    The Birkin version was way better than the Bardot version.

    English Translations: The Anita / nick cave translation (well pronounced), and the recent Chan Marshall (lesbo) one.

  16. 16

    the skidmore/sinker version will be better still mark! oh yes!! yes I said yes I will yes

  17. 17
    Marcello Carlin on 27 Sep 2006 #

    not in my name

  18. 18
    Chris Brown on 30 Sep 2006 #

    Full marks for spotting the connection, Steve. If I may call you that.

    Incidentally, this record also points up one of the distinctions between the UK & US charts – because of the way the American chart (at least, the Hot 100) is calculated something like this that wasn’t on the radio could never get to the very top. Presumably this is also part of the reason why ‘The Ballad Of John & Yoko’ wasn’t a US Number One. This is also something of a victory for low educational standards, I suppose, because I presume most of the people who bought this bought into the supposed sexiness and didn’t pick up on the sarcasm in the lyrics.
    Also, I remember about 15 years ago Radio 1 thought it would be a good idea to get a series of well-known comedians to record hour-long shows for Saturday afternoons. Angus Deayton’s effort included a skit where he offered a supposed running translation of the track in self-consciously stuffy English “I should like to permeate you… between your fetlocks”

  19. 19
    Thierry Follain on 11 Oct 2006 #

    Well, well, an interesting and expert point of view about the world sexual revolution’s hymn (4 millions copies sold, I guess)- but not in the States -. I agree it’s some kind of a frontier in Gainsbourg’s career, altogether with the great “Melody nelson” album. It’s probably the heaviest success in both Gainsbourg and Birkin’s career, as they were only at the dawn of their relationship and their common work about movies, photos and songs, the latest only ending with Gainsbourg’s death in 1992. This song is still known all over the world. It was probably more accurate for Gainsbourg to sing it with the “ingenue” Birkin than with Bardot. I think in France, we have a different connection with this song, as for us, this couple’s story, which artistically ran after their break-up, is very popular. We know and often like the following albums and songs written and sung by Gainsbourg and/or Birkin (still on international tour with her show “Arabesque”). In fact, Jane Birkin is a strange case of a “foreign-born-national icon”. If you would made any poll in the streets of France about her, you would get incredible love-rates. So, for us, frenchmen and women, “Je t’aime moi non plus” is just the beginning of an intense (even if media-conscious) and endly nostalgic passion. So french, so romantic !!!

  20. 20
    Billy Smart on 13 Sep 2007 #

    As part of the BBC Radio 4 ‘Sexual Landmarks’ season, Paul Gambaccini was talking about this record on Front Row last night, if any Popular readers are interested in listening.

    He suggested that Americans had to wait until 1973 for their first controversial orgasm hit – ‘Pillow Talk’ by Sylvia. I’ve never heard that, but instict tells me that it probably isn’t as good as Je T’Aime’ – or Donna Summer or Lil’ Louis, come to that.

  21. 21
    Marcello Carlin on 14 Sep 2007 #

    It’s rather good, actually (and the Sylvia was the same Sylvia Robinson of Sylvia and Mickey who subsequently went on to found Sugarhill Records, and DEFINITELY not the Sylvia who tormented us for most of 1974 with “Y Viva Es Bleeding Pana”), and not at all tacky. However, that didn’t stop Radio 1 banning it, in tandem with the collected works of Judge Dread.

    Where does this leave “Wild Thing,” though?

  22. 22
    César M. González on 18 Sep 2007 #

    Je t’aime sure brings back memories of my college French class at East Los Angeles College in 1971. A beautiful work of violins, and organ, not just the sexual stuff. But everyone in French class wanted to know what they were saying !

  23. 23
    Matthew on 16 Jan 2009 #

    This is way more apocalyptic than the either of the last two chart-toppers. Pop loses its virginity! It’s Lady Chatterley all over again.

  24. 24
    Waldo on 26 Aug 2009 #

    I vividly recall when this hit the top. TOTP back then used to begin with the presiding jock hailing “Yes, it’s number one. It’s Top of the Pops!” and then the number one being played from the start, whilst the chart (in fact the artists thereon) was displayed by numbered cards counting back for thirty to one. Not surprisingly, on this week it was different. The intro started and then dipped into the melody…sans Serge and Jane. Despite the fact that the Sounds Nice instrumental version “Love at First Sight” had also charted, the Beeb did in fact play the Gainsbourg arrangement, merely omitting all the early goings on from Jane, which were really quite tame. I remember this distinctly, as I loved the Sounds Nice version and when this new number one started up on TOTP that night, my older brother turned to me and said “It’s not your one!” And he was right. It wasn’t. Confusion reigned, as I wasn’t then privy to what had happened (I was eight). When somebody told me that the number one record was “naughty”, things pieced together and then a school friend played the record (which his older brother had bought) to me and I obligingly giggled all the way through it, whilst asking myself what all the fuss was about. Many years later and being no longer an innocent child, I finally obtained a translation of it and once again shrugged at how odd rather than steamy it all was. We should have all guessed by simply translating the title, which comes out as “I Love You…Me Neither”, not loving at all, just bloody cynical. For me, the reason for the ban centred entirely on Jane unmistakeably climaxing, whilst Gainsbourg’s untroubled shrug of the shoulder reaction to the whole episode was a study of comic brillance.

  25. 25
    Jimmy the Swede on 13 May 2010 #

    I don’t suppose that I will be the first to suggest that a new version of this is forthcoming courtesy of Dave and Nick. Or is that just too ghastly a thought?

  26. 26
    weej on 13 May 2010 #

    Aside from the obvious saucyness I’ve always found this song to be terribly sad – and the clumsy use of it as faux-porn music in comedy scenes seems to show a complete misunderstanding of its meaning. Genuine porn music should surely communicate *ahem* rising interest, rather than a world-weary disillusionment with the activity.

  27. 27
    richard thompson on 15 May 2010 #

    Jimmy Savile was hosting the show that night, it was the powers that be that banned it said he on a 1969 programme 30 years later,presumably they could speak fluent French, I was seven then and I didn’t start watching TOTP until The Archies and Rolf were number one.

  28. 28
    swanstep on 15 May 2010 #

    This is definitely some sort of masterpiece (I agree with the first two comments). That middle section (1 min 20 secs in) where Birkin’s piccolo voice rises up ‘Tu va…’ always manages to surprise me. I always think of Je t’aime as being a slow groover, and then just when I’ve got the song re-pegged after not hearing it for a while, out pops this quick delicious melody from nowhere that I’d forgotten was in there. That’s genius – it’s almost *too* sweet, it *is* a slip of a girl you’re going to get lucky with is the basic vibe. Very naughty – I can see exactly why it drove moralists mad at the time. It still sounds risque today, and shockingly intimate. I assume Je t’aime was a big influence on Moroder and Summer’s Love to love you baby in the mid ’70s. At any rate, the sleaze/sex-club side of disco (great backgrounder here) doesn’t decode properly without Gainsbourg’s cultured, sexy eurotrash in one corner.

    I think this is at least a 7 (and in any case significantly more than Tiffany’s lame-o ‘I think we’re alone now’ cover – the immediate spur for this note!)

  29. 29
    mapman132 on 21 Feb 2014 #

    I was aware of this record before, but had never actually heard it until I saw the official video on Youtube tonight. It was pretty much what I expected. It should be noted that this record wasn’t entirely unknown in the US despite lack of airplay – according to Wikipedia, it peaked at #58, and a much older co-worker of mine even commented on its scandalous nature once (it should be noted that he himself was far more amused than scandalized).

    On an entirely different note, I find it surprising it took this long for a foreign language song to top the UK chart with the continent just across the channel. In provincial America, we had already managed three: “Volare” (Italian), “Sukiyaki” (Japanese, not its original title it should be noted), and “Dominique” (French, a VERY different record from this one!).

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