This section is a case study, reflecting on labels, the industry and cover versions via detailed examination of just one song.
Adultery warning: this article embraces several word plays in extremely poor taste.
Je t’aime … moi non plus is that rarity; a French hit in Britain (albeit with an English singer in Jane Birkin). There are 120 cover versions around the world, ranging from Ray Conniff to The Lothian and Borders Police Band.
It was written by French composer Serge Gainsbourg for his then lover, Brigitte Bardot in 1967. They recorded it in a steamy two-hour session squashed together in a recording booth. Bardot begged him not to release it as she was married (to Gunter Sachs). Her letter to Philips of 21 December 1967 was auctioned in 2014.
Bardot I am counting on you to stop this song immediately and I am prepared to refund any costs which you might incur by making this change
Gainsbourg then tried to persuade Marianne Faithful to record it, followed by actress Valerie LaGrange, then Mireille Darc. Faithful has claimed that he asked every woman he met.
Gainsbourg eventually re-recorded it with his new girlfriend, actress Jane Birkin, and had it arranged by Art Greenslade who played the hypnotic organ part. The organ sounds slowed down, slurred behind the vocals as if playing an rpm or five too slow. Birkin had been one of the naked models in Antonioni’s Blow Up famed for the first flash of pubic hair on screen, and was married to John Barry from 1965 to 1968. She met Gainsbourg when she auditioned for the film Slogan. Their daughter is the actress Charlotte Gainsbourg.
Jane Birkin I only sang it because I didn’t want anybody else to sing it. So when Serge heard me singing rather brightly in the bath, he said ‘I’m going to write Jane B and then on the other side, perhaps you’d like to sing Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus, but in an octave higher than the Bardot version so you’ll sound like a little boy’. I said yes immediately.
The title translates as “I Love you … me neither” according to most, though a friend from Quebec prefers “I love you … me not much.” The title was inspired by a Salvador Dalí comment: “Picasso is Spanish, me too. Picasso is a genius, me too. Picasso is a communist, me neither”
Mostly the record sleeves and labels put Jane Birkin’s name larger than Serge Gainsbourg’s, but on the 1974 re-issue on Antic, he comes first, his name is first on the centre label. Birkin says:
Jane Birkin I got a bit carried away with the heavy breathing, so much so, that I was told to calm down, which meant that at one point I stopped breathing altogether. If you listen to the record now, you can still hear that little gap. It was banned immediately in Italy by the Pope, but Serge just called him “Our greatest PR man.” Serge put it on in a busy restaurant and as it began to play all you could hear were the knives and forks being put down. “I think we have a hit record.” he said.
She killed the persistent story that they were actually having sex:
Jane Birkin We’d done it (in a studio) at Marble Arch, with Serge with his arms in the air, and putting them down when I should stop the heavy breathing and hit the high notes. (Uncut, Feb. 2013)
The record was released on Fontana in Britain and the USA, with early sleeves proclaiming 69 anee erotique (sic). This mild joke wasn’t mild at the time. I remember a gig at Bournemouth Pavilion on New Year’s Eve 1968, where the band, Tetrad (featuring John Wetton and Richard Palmer-James), wished the audience a happy nineteen soixante-neuf and were banned from playing there ever or any Bournemouth Corporation venue again. ‘Ere, I understood that!’ exclaimed the manager. They simply changed their name to Ginger Man and were playing there again weeks later.
The record was a runaway success, climbing to number two in the chart on 27th September 1969. At that point, the wife of the Philips / Fontana managing director heard it, was disgusted by the sounds of a simulated orgasm over the airwaves, and then horrified to hear the credit to Fontana afterwards. One phone call to her husband, and it was prematurely withdrawn. An alternative story has it that Queen Juliana of The Netherlands, who was a part-owner of Philips, believed that withdrawal was the best method. Hang on, let’s re-phrase that, the record should be withdrawn.
Phil Solomons at Major Minor leapt into the breach, and did a deal with Gainsbourg. On October 4th, the Major Minor pressing (done in record time) entered the chart at number three, while the Fontana pressing was still at number sixteen, due to stock already in shops being sold after Fontana killed it. The Major Minor pressing hit the right spot, number one, the next week, on October 11th 1969 (with the Fontana one at #33).
By then it had been banned from airplay in Britain, Sweden, Italy, Spain, Poland and Portugal. Judging by the number of French and German pressings around in Britain (I’ve seen a dozen), there was a fair bit of importing going on. The Vatican denounced it. It became a hit throughout Europe, but failed to make the American Top 50, stalling at … guess what? #69, which the New York Times called ‘a poetic fluke.’ It didn’t make number one in France, where presumably sexy whispering in French had a lower novelty value.
The BBC were in a quandary. They always played the number one single on Top of The Pops but had banned Je t’aime. They got round the problem by playing a cover version. Gus Dudgeon and Tony Hall engaged Paul Buckmaster as arranger, put Tim Mycroft behind a Hammond organ, and cut Love At First Sight, as an instrumental version on Parlophone, which they credited to Sounds Nice featuring Tim Mycroft. Legend has it that Paul McCartney heard them recording it at Abbey Road, and said ‘Sounds Nice,’ which became the group name on the record. Tim Mycroft had started out in Bournemouth band The Freewheelers, playing electric versions of early Dylan before The Byrds did so, and adding organ before Al Kooper added it to Like A Rolling Stone . The Freewheelers would have been inspired by Alan Price on House of The Rising Sun. The Freewheelers replaced the trad bands who played every Saturday at the end of Bournemouth pier (and I saw them and they were brilliant). Mycroft was also in The Gun and had a hit with Race With The Devil.
The Sounds Nice version meant that pub organists had a version they could play for the next twenty years without resorting to heavy breathing in a smoky atmosphere. It was released in September 1969, while the original was still climbing the chart, and eventually got to number eighteen.
Interestingly though the sheet music lists both the Sounds Nice version and a cover by The Baker St. Philharmonic on Pye. It gives the original Philips catalogue number, TF1042 (though the disc is Fontana, but the number is correct). It also has the instrumental version title, Love At First Sight, which suggests the other versions existed before Philips withdrew the disc, and it went to Major Minor. However, rock myth persists in saying they were recorded as a response to the fuss.
The song was reissued on Atlantic’s Antic label in 1974, directly licensed from Gainsbourg, and was a #31 hit again. It came in picture sleeves, but more were in stock sleeves because some stores (notably W.H. Smith) had policies on nudity.
Gainsbourg and Birkin returned to the song in 1976, and made a feature film of the same title starring Birkin, the story confirming the view of French-speaking listeners that the lyric involved anal sex. The earlier 1968 version with Brigitte Bardot and Serge Gainsbourg finally saw the light of day in 1986, and is the most sought-after collectors item nowadays. Bardot agreed to the release so as to raise money for her animal shelter and for Greenpeace. It’s a full orchestral arrangement, more complex than the subsequent Jane Birkin version, and the lyrics are much clearer. Birkin did it sexier. The original version had sold over four million copies by 1986.
In 1990, they were still at it. It was released again on the Old Gold series.
Under the covers …
The appetite for cover versions of Je t’aime … has been unceasing. They’ve kept it up. (sorry). The Artie Scott Orchestra did Love At First Sight as the B-side to March of The Skinheads in 1970, and that was on Major Minor.
Frank Pourcel recorded an instrumental version in 1971, and Hot Butter did the same in 1972, both using the same title. Covers of a cover? Paul Mauriat, Ray Conniff and 101 Strings all followed this well-trodden path.
Comedians are drawn to the song, and in 1971 Frankie Howard (never a man to spare the double entendre, titter ye not) teamed up with June Whitfield for Up je t’aime, the title taken from his Up Pompeii sitcom. He plays a golfer reluctant to tango at 3 a.m. despite his wife’s passionate entreaties. The line about doing a round of “89” sounds like an uncharacteristic last minute loss of nerve on Howard’s part.
In 1973, a cover by Australian soap opera star Abigail made #6 in the Australian chart. The Australians were next after the British in their affection for the song, and also had their dedicated novelty version by Les Dutronc in 1996, Je ne t’aime pas … moi Aussi.
In 1974 the original was reissued on Antic, and a year later, in July 1975, Judge Dread (a dozen hits with no radio play) reached #9 with his tediously unfunny reggae version (the zip she loudly undoes turns out to be the zip on his Beatle boots). Donna Summer had a hit with her version in Brazil in 1978, and her 1975 hit Love To Love You Baby had been heavily influenced by the song.
In 1986 Gordon Kaye and Vicki Michelle recorded a version in their appropriately randy characters from the Allo Allo sitcom, René Artois and Yvette Carte-Blanche, and scored a modest 57th (chart) position. With all the double entendres flowing, twelve places lower would have been funnier. In the sitcom, people supposedly speaking in French are speaking English with a French accent. So when Yvette says ‘Je t’aime’, René has to say ‘Say it in French,’ and it becomes a very Gallic ‘I love you.’
In 1994, British singer Misty Oldland retitled it A Fair Affair (Je T’aime) and got to #49 on Columbia.
Brian Molko and Asia Argento switched the gender roles in 2003.
Bob Downe and Julian Clary did the two-male version in 1998.
Among the 120 versions, other interesting ones include Malcolm McLaren in 1994, Nick Cave and Anita Lane in 1995 (I Love You … Nor Do I), The Pet Shop Boys with Sam Taylor-Wood in 1998, Cat Power & Karen Elson, on a 2005 Serge Gainsbourg tribute album, and Kylie Minogue, who did it live on her 2003 tour. An unreleased studio version exists. In 2007 Michael Moore used it his film Sicko. Madonna sang it at a concert in Paris in 2012.
Today the melody features heavily in Top 20 Ringtone charts across the world.
On collecting manias, some people really do seek every version of a song ever recorded, and Je t’aime … is one of the popular examples. Discogs lists 173 different international pressings of the original, including one from Iran. Add the 120 plus cover versions.
None of them are especially valuable, but the original Fontana, and the Antic reissue in picture sleeve are both worth a tenner mint. The Major Minor, or the Antic in a stock sleeve are worth half that.