How Serge Gainsbourg became the only artist banned from Top of the Pops
It seems incomprehensible for a song to get banned because of its erotic subtext in the age of ‘WAP‘, a track which would have undoubtedly given executives at the BBC in the 1960s a heart attack. However, when ‘Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus’, the titillating French language love song by Serge Gainsbourg and actress Jane Birkin topped the chart in 1969, the institution that was Top of the Pops were so incensed by the hit that they refused to play it.
It was an unprecedented move, the institution had made it a deserved right of whichever artist topped the chart to have their song played on Top Of The Pops no matter what, but the criticism that Gainsbourg was receiving from the media only led people to buy the track so they could hear his taboo-breaking effort. It remains remarkable that a French-language song can offend so easily but, in truth, it wasn’t the lyrical content that angered the BBC bosses, instead it was the now-iconic sexual panting noises that Birkin recorded on the track, a move which stopped ‘Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus’ from receiving any airplay by the broadcaster.
It wasn’t just the stiff-upper-lipped conservative Britons that got their knickers in a twist over the liberal nature of the track. When the original version with Brigitte Bardot panting rather than Birkin was recorded, the French press reported that it was an “audio vérité”. France Dimanche said the “groans, sighs, and Bardot’s little cries of pleasure [give] the impression you’re listening to two people making love”.
The first time Gainsbourg played the song in public arrived during a show in a Paris restaurant literally hours after they nailed it down in the studio and Birkin later recalled that “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.”
The legendary song was also banned Spain, Sweden, Brazil, Italy, Portugal and not allowed to be played before 11pm in France. However, the most remarkable thing that came from the whole facade was that the Vatican deemed it appropriate to denounce the track. One report even claimed the Vatican excommunicated the record executive who released it in Italy which made Gainsbourg hilariously say to Birkin that the Pope “our greatest PR man”.
Gainsbourg was frustrated by the furore surrounding the song. “The music is very pure. For the first time in my life I write a love song and it’s taken badly,” he lamented. In his eyes, it was a pure love song that captured his relationship with Birkin who he met in 1968 on the set of the French film Slogan. The pair quickly fell for each other and Gainsbourg asked Birkin to re-record his risque song with him. At first, she said no. “The Bardot version was too impressive, and I was jealous,” she would later admit.
After the media backlash from all quarters in Britain towards the track, criticism was thrown towards the direction of the record label, Fontana, who dropped the number from their books despite it sitting at being at number two on the charts. This, of course, would turn out to be a massive error after the small Irish record company, Major Minor, then bought the rights and saw the song climb to the top of the charts which became the first French language song to ever do so.