Jane Birkin & Serge Gainsbourg: The photos that capture a 50-year-old love affair

Serge entertaining Jane and infamous Parisian nightclub owner Régine during a lunch party in 1969 Photography by Andrew Birkin

A new photography exhibition recalls the Swinging Sixties world of the unlikely couple whose romance produced a notorious number one hit condemned by the Vatican and banned in the UK

20 April 2018 | William Cook | Independent

“On a sunny spring afternoon in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Calais, Jane Birkin is talking about the great love of her youth, the great French singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg.

Photos of the happy couple are strewn around the walls: Jane and Serge kissing in the back seat of a car on a rainy day in Paris; Jane and Serge beaming into the camera on a lazy summer’s day, after a long, languid lunch.

Jane looks beautiful, an English rose, the epitome of a carefree era when anything seemed possible. Serge looks incroyable, like a gargoyle or a goblin. No wonder the French press called him l’homme à tête de chou (the man with the head of a cabbage).

From 1968 to 1980, Birkin and Gainsbourg were Europe’s most glamorous creative couple. They could scarcely have been less alike. She was young and lovely, health and innocence personified. He was seedy and dishevelled, yet he oozed Gallic élan. They appeared together in movies and fashion shoots, but the thing that made them famous was the song they sang together, “Je T’Aime… Moi Non Plus” (I love you… neither do I).

Gasinbourg wrote “Je T’Aime” for Brigitte Bardot, with whom he had a brief romance in 1967. In 1969, he released the song with his new love, Jane Birkin. It was a Succès de Scandale, on account of Birkin’s contribution, in which she simulated the sounds of female arousal (20 years before When Harry Met Sally – quelle horreur!).

If you’ve never heard it, it sounds awful – but, remarkably, it was a masterpiece. A conversation between two passionate, nihilistic lovers, it contained poetic pearls like “You are the wave – I am the island”, and Birkin’s heavy breathing, of course.

Driving through Oxfordshire, on the road to Blenheim Palace in 1969

“Je T’Aime” was condemned by the Vatican and banned from the radio in Britain and several Continental countries. France was a bit more enlightened. The song was played on the radio, but only after 11pm, and you had to be over 21 to buy the record.

Even then, it was sold in a plain wrapper, like a porn mag or a blue movie. Naturally, this furore was wonderful exposure. A broadcast ban is fantastic for sales, giving a hit single a rebellious cachet that no amount of advertising can achieve. All these years later, “Je T’Aime” still stands proud in the pantheon of brilliant records banned by the BBC, from “God Save the Queen” by the Sex Pistols to “Relax” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

The record reached number one in Britain, and all across the Continent. Serge told Jane that the Pope was their greatest PR man. “He loved it!” she says, remembering Gainsbourg’s reaction to the controversy. He had a terrific appetite for mischief, and he knew no publicity was bad publicity.

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