When Brigitte Bardot fell for a peculiarly charming songwriter known as Serge Gainsbourg, the summer of love had only just passed. The timing could not have been more perfect. Although Bardot’s marriage to the millionaire art collector Gunter Sachs had been heralded as one of the most glamorous unions in France, Sachs was already on the tail of another woman. At this time, Bardot was one of France’s most celebrated icons and had begun side-stepping into a career in music. When she met Gainsbourg the second time in 1962, the composer took the opportunity to sign her to his record company, Phillips.
By 1967, Bardot had had a string of hits and was invited onto Sacha Distel’s primetime Saturday night TV show, where she was joined by Gainsbourg once again. Serge, who by that time was one of France’s most important composers, quickly became infatuated with Bardot. For the actor herself, this understated man represented a fresh start. He seemed to foreshadow something more profound than the superficial affair she’d experienced with Sachs. In stark contrast to that cabbage-headed playboy, Gainsbourg was a true artist, a writer, a composer, provocateur, sentimentalist, romantic, clown, intellectual, and renowned lover. And, although neither of them knew it at the time, the pair’s romantic relationship would birth one of the most controversial songs in French history.
Following their first date, Gainsbourg stumbled home feeling as if he’d blown it. The night had started well, but he’d drunk too much and became uncommonly nervous. He was surprised, then, to receive a call from Bardot the following day. She asked him that she’d meet him again under one condition: that he wrote her the “the most beautiful love song he could imagine”. Serge put down the phone, paused for a moment to gather his thoughts, and then moved towards the piano in the middle of his apartment. There, he wrote ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ and ‘Je t’aime… moi non plus’. On hearing ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, Bardot was swept away by its lush beauty — but lyrically, the track didn’t strike the right chord. However, the second of Serge’s romantic offerings, ‘Je t’aime… moi non plus’, captured all the desperation and tenderness the ever-restless Bardot had hoped for.
By the winter of 1967, Bardot and Gainsbourg were lovers and decided to meet in Paris to record ‘Je t’aime… moi non plus’. The two singers arrived at the recording studio and were squashed together for an intimate two-hour session, during which they recorded Michel Colombier’s lush arrangement. According to the studio engineer William Flageollet, the session was characterised by a fair amount of “heavy petting”. He then spoke to the press, suggesting that the track was a seedy “audio vérité” recording. Flageollet’s loose lips led numerous journalists to claim that the couple had recorded themselves making love and stamped the audio capture onto wax. In the eyes of the public, “Bardot’s little cries of pleasure,” in combination with the mellow organ accompaniment, sounded like brazen blasphemy and represented an inconceivable corruption of catholic moral values. The idea of listening to a couple making love proved a little too rich for French tastes, and Bardot began to worry that the track might negatively affect her career. She pleaded with Gainsbourg not to release the recording, who obliged, bewildered by Bardot’s sudden change of heart.
It wouldn’t be until Gainsbourg met the British actor Jane Birkin that ‘Je t’aime… moi non plus’ would be heard by the public. When they first met, the couple didn’t get on at all well, so to break the ice before going into the studio to re-record the track, Gainsbourg suggested an evening out in Paris. As Birkin once recalled: “We were at Regine’s nightclub for a long time, and I asked Gainsbourg to dance. And he stepped on my feet! I was so surprised. I thought, ‘So this sophisticated, arrogant, seemingly confident man doesn’t know how to dance’ – and I realised it was because he’s in fact shy. He seemed so worldly-wise, but at the same time he was very childlike.”
On release, ‘Je t’aime… moi non plus’ caused a huge amount of controversy and was banned by everyone from the BBC to the Vatican. Once again, Gainsbourg batted away claims that the song had been recorded audio vérité, coming up with the classic line: “Thank goodness it wasn’t, otherwise I hope it would have been a long-playing record.” In the UK, much of the more explicit lyrical content in ‘Je t’aime… moi non plus’ was lost in translation and became both a nationwide hit and disco-snogging standard in one fell swoop. The song proved to be an enduring hit, inspiring an array of parodies and cover versions by the likes of Pet Shop Boys and Donner Summer. ‘Je t’aime… moi non plus’ is one of the most instantly recognisable songs in French pop music, and continues to shock audiences to this day.