France, it has to be said, basically taught the British how to be cool. Having been the intellectual and artistic centre of Europe throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, France has long been the strangely sexy, coffee-drinking, cigarette smoking older cousin of the British Isles. Perhaps its that the nations are so close to one another, or that we’ve got a history of fighting over the same strips of land that goes back into the 1100s, but we sure as hell like nothing more than comparing ourselves to one another.
Perhaps that is why Jane Birkin, the distinctly English-sounding but French-speaking actress and eventual wife of Serge Gainsbourg captured the imagination of both France and Britain so readily in the 1960s, and why she still stands out as one of the definitive icons of that era. Half English rose, half bohemian rabble-rouser, she was the perfect embodiment of the cross-cultural dialogue that we have been engaging in for centuries – oh, and she had a knockout singing voice.
After appearing in some of the most important films of the counterculture era, including Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, Birkin met the French singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, with whom she went on to collaborate with for ‘Je t’aime… moi non plus’, the controversial pop hit that served as the snogging soundtrack to many a ’70s school disco in Britain despite nobody being able to translate the lyrics – aside from a few buttock-clenched french teachers, that is.
The glamour and romance their relationship evoked has come to define the essence of modern Parisian chic and nowhere is that essence better felt than in the world of French music. But where to start? Well, if you’re new to the likes of Jacque Dutronc, Serge Gainsbourg and Francois Hardy, fear not – here are some of Jane Birkin’s favourite french songs to whet your appetite.
Jane Birkin’s favourite French music:
Françoise Hardy – ‘Tous Les Garçons et les Filles’
First up, Françoise Hardy, one of France’s most glamerous and intoxicating singers. Her adolescent charm and playful performance style gave her this, her first hit, in 1962. This evocative track was in the charts the year Birkin moved to Paris and, so, is intimately bound to her memories of the city in its ’60s heyday.
“I was living in Boulevard Lannes, Birkin once recalled. “In the same house as Edith Piaf and when she died there was an enormous queue on the pavement to see her, because that’s what the French do. I think Serge was there, amongst the others. But it meant that when I pushed my way through and showed my card to the policemen and was let through, the crowd whispered as one man, ‘C’est Françoise Hardy!’. I was so happy to be that distinguished singer that I shut my trap and said nothing.”
Serge Gainsbourg & Jane Birkin- ‘Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus’
Originally written for Brigitte Bardot, this song caused quite the stir on release. Indeed, Bardot, with all her talk of sexual liberation, backed out of recording the track with Gainsbourg out of fear that it would ruin her reputation. Birkin, however, had no such fear.
Birkin later recalled how Gainsbourg asked her to contribute her vocals to the track. “He said to me, ‘Would you like to sing it?’ and of course I said yes. First of all, prudently, he said he was going to write a song for me which was on the Prelude to Chopin, and I thought, ‘Ooh! How sweet! How flattering!'”.
Wrong. ‘Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus’ would take everyone by surprise. And it still does.
Léo Ferré – ‘Avec Le Temps’
Written in 1970 for his Amour Anarchie album, ‘Avec Le Temps’ is one of the most tender offerings from one of France’s most tender songwriters and poets.
Tragic, beautifully orchestrated, and enchantingly melancholic, this track is probably one of the greatest breakup songs of all time, a meditation on romantic disillusionment. On release, it quickly became a hit and has been widely covered by a whole host of French and international artists, including the legendary Juliette Greco.
‘Message personnel’ by Françoise Hardy
Another Françoise Hardy track now. ‘Message Personnel’ sits in stark contrast to ‘Tous les garçons et les filles’. This moody, elegiac love song demonstrated that Hardy was more than a girl in a baker boy hat and that she was far from a one-trick pony.
Released as the title track of her 1973 studio album, this Chanson begins with an extended spoken-word section before shifting gear entirely to reveal Hardy’s vocal dexterity. “Without the melody, there can be no words, but I also need this sonority, this poetic sound that the words make when they combine with the melody, she once said of her craft,” she said. “This has always been my obsession.”
Alain Bashung – ‘La Nuit Je Mens’
Let’s end on something a little more contemporary. This 1998 track by Alain Bashung, the title of which translates as ‘At Night I Lie’, was inspired by stories of France’s resistance fighters during the Nazi occupation. Evoking the distrust and moral complexity that characterised the occupation,
It has been argued that Bashung was inspired to write the song after hearing of the Bousquet and Papon cases, in which two French government officials were accused of collaborating with the Nazi’s during the occupation, with Papon being found responsible for the deportation of Bordeaux Jews.