We continue our series looking at banned songs and videos with one of the most famous examples of all and one of the most sexually liberated records of the 1960’s.
So when I started this series I knew that there were certain ‘elephants in the room’ so to speak. In other words, when you start digging through the history of songs and videos that have been banned by someone, somewhere, for whatever reason there are some candidates that are too famous, too notorious to ignore. This is one of those.
When I was growing up that was what I knew about this song that it was very rude and utterly banned by the BBC. A ban by a single broadcaster might not seem that much to some of you but in Britain in the 70’s and 80’s there were only 3, and later 4 televison channels and the BBC owned 2 of them. Likewise with radio, sure there were independent radio stations but BBC Radio 1 had audiences of some 10 million. It dominated cultural life and as such a ban mattered.
As a result it was actually many years until I heard ‘Je t’aime…’ properly. I could say that I couldn’t see the fuss, as is so often the case when looking back at such things but actually I kind of could. This was quite clearly a highly erotic record. It oozes Gallic sexual charisma and hot, sweaty, lascivious charm. Plus it’s an almost ineffably cool piece of music. I thought it was fabulous and still do but I could see why a stuffy, deeply conservative organisation like the BBC would ban it.
Serge Gainsbourg was an established artist when he first recorded the song with the actress, and at the time also his lover, Brigitte Bardot in 1967. The lyrics, with their carnal images (“You are the wave, I’m the naked island… you go and you come between my back”) Unfortunately Bardot happened to be married at the time and as a result refused to consent to its release despite attempts to persuade her otherwise. Gainsbourg was unhappy saying “The music is very pure. For the first time in my life, I write a love song and it’s taken badly”. The Bardot version would remain unreleased until the 1980’s.
Never one to hang around when it came to the ladies, Gainsbourg would the next year find himself dating the English actress Jane Birkin whom he met on the set of a film called Slogan and shortly after asked her to re-record the song with him to which she instantly agreed, although as she would later admit the newly-love struck 21-year old’s decision was fueled by jealousy as much as anything. “I only sang it because I didn’t want anybody else to sing it” she claimed, although once ensconced in the recording booth in London’s Marble Arch studio she threw herself in to it almost a bit too much saying “I got a bit carried away with the heavy breathing – so much so, in fact, 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.”
Upon it’s release it was banned not only in the UK but Spain, Italy, Brazil, Poland, Sweden, Portugal and even in France itself it was not allowed to be broadcast before 11pm. Even in the 60’s, a decade which had witnessed some kind of sexual revolution,
this was deemed to risque for general public consumption. Birkin herself would later decry all the fuss: “It wasn’t a rude song at all,’ she says now. ‘I don’t know what all the fuss was about. The English just didn’t understand it. I’m still not sure they know what it means.”
I’d have to agree with her, it isn’t a rude song by which I mean it’s not cheap or smutty or even explicit. The lyrics are actually quite subtle and whilst Birkin’s performance is undeniably full of sexual charge the overall effect is actually quite innocent with everything hinted at and intimated. The song gives the listener enough to fill in whatever blanks they please with their own imagination. The record itself has an erotic air but any perceived rudeness or smut exists firmly in the listener’s mind.
As I said I can understand why an organisation like the BBC would censor such a record, but it has nothing to do with the song itself and everything to do with their audience. Ultimately they tried to protect listeners from themselves, as if to say ‘we won’t have you thinking smutty thoughts now, stop that’. By banning ‘Je t’aime…’ they tried to censor and control people’s thoughts, actions fueled by an innate need to keep all things relating to s-e-x off the airwaves. The English didn’t understand it because they knew little about expressing sexuality so freely and boldly. Serge Gainsbourg knew everything about such things, and as a result was able to create a record as bold and memorable as any of that heady period, and in many ways a record far more revolutionary than most.