Originally written by French pop music legend Serge Gainsbourg in 1967 in response to a request from Brigitte Bardot to write 'the most romantic song that [Gainsbourg] could imagine', 'Je T'aime (Moi Non Plus)' went on to become a worldwide hit and create considerable scandal.
Although Gainsbourg did record the song with Bardot in 1968, she considered it too outrageous and refused to let their version be released1. It was not until the following year that he recorded the now infamous version that BBC radio, among many others, would ban from their playlists. In the intervening period he had split with Bardot and begun a relationship with young British actress Jane Birkin2, who he had met when they worked together on the film Slogan. In November he recorded a number of tracks with her and the record was released early in 1969.
Released at the peak of the sexual revolution of the swinging sixties, the song is a kind of conversation between two lovers as they do what lovers do and gradually bring one another towards a climax. It opens with Birkin moaning sensuously and whispering, 'Je t'aime'3, to which Gainsbourg rather cryptically replies, 'Moi non plus!'4 After further sensuous groaning from Jane B, he then croons 'Je vais et je viens, entre tes reins'5, 'et je, me re-tiens!' 6. As the song/lovemaking goes on, he describes himself as, 'la vague irresolue' 7, while later she identifies herself as 'l'ile nue' 8. After a final bout of still more intense groaning, the climax comes as Birkin breathlessly beckons (when Serge says again that he is holding himself back), 'Non! Maintenant - viens! 9 Yes, it's racy stuff all right!
In August, at the height of the 'Summer of Love' the risqué moan-a-thon hit number one in the UK charts and had similar success in other European countries. The erotic 'panting' caused moral indignation, particularly in Italy and Catholic circles generally. Perhaps unsurprisingly in those heady days of hippy permissiveness and promiscuity, this did nothing to reduce (indeed, may well have increased) sales and following a second pressing, sales in France topped the million mark. When the official Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore, denounced the song as obscene, though, it was banned from radio or television across Italy and in September other countries including Sweden, Spain and the UK followed Italy's lead. But the horse had already bolted; the record continued to sell all over Europe.
Interestingly, the single's progress to the number one spot in the British charts seems to have been helped rather than hindered by the moral outcry. It was originally released in Britain on the Fontana label, but after it reached number two Fontana withdrew the record from sale, presumably in response to all the scandal surrounding it. Gainsbourg hurriedly struck a deal with a leading independent label of the day, Major Minor, and 'Je T'Aime' was quickly re-issued - whereupon the demand caused by its temporary unavailability took it straight to number one.
It has always been difficult for any French song to break through the one-way musical language-barrier that is The Channel. The massive French hit of the 1950s 'Comme d'habitude' was only successful in America and the UK when given new lyrics and an English-speaking singer - you might have heard the result, known to millions of English-speakers as 'My Way'... Anyway, the very same year that 'Je T'Aime...' was originally released, there was already a second version of the tune in the UK Top 40, credited to Sounds Nice featuring Tim Mycroft. But 'tune' really is the operative word here; entirely instrumental and with the title changed to 'Love At First Sight (Je T'Aime Moi Non Plus)', it peaked at number 18 in the UK chart. Later, British reggae act Judge Dread reached number nine in the UK chart in 1975 with a rather silly comedy version, which was not nearly as silly as Frankie Howerd's take on it. More recently Misty Oldland took the instrumental track as the basis of her funky soul number 'A Fair Affair (Je T'aime)' in 1994, with some chart success. Perhaps the most unlikely version is from Mick Harvey (better known as the guitarist with semi-goth rock combo The Bad Seeds10), who as a solo artist released not one but two LPs of Gainsbourg covers, the second of which, Pink Elephants, included 'I Love You... Nor do I', with Anita Lane in the Birkin role.
Something of an anglophile, Gainsbourg may have been disappointed to think that 'Je T'aime (Moi Non Plus)' was probably the only one of his songs that ever achieved widespread recognition among English-speakers - and perhaps somewhat exasperated that most would be hard-pressed to put a name to it, still less name the artist. Nonetheless, the sound of the first few bars, surely the Wurlitzer organ's most erotic moment, made their mark on the musical landscape and will long be associated with the free sexuality of the sixties and seventies.