Simon Price on Jane Birkin: Jane reignites her flame for Serge Gainsbourg

The inimitable Monsieur Gainsbourg, 'France's finest poet', has been dead 20 years. But his ex-lover and muse sings on at London's Cadogan Hall

When Serge Gainsbourg photographed Jane Birkin nude for Lui magazine, he described her in its pages as "my little hermaphrodite". At 66, Birkin is ever the androgyne. It isn't just that her current tour involves singing Gainsbourg's none-more-male oeuvre (without altering the gender of his lyrics), notably including "Ballade de Johnny Jane", taken from a film in which, she reminds us, she effectively "played a boy". Slouching around in white shirt, black slacks and martial arts slippers, it's almost as if she's channelling Serge.

Gainsbourg, who died in 1991, was, Birkin tells an overwhelmingly Francophone auditorium, "France's finest poet, and the one they miss the most". She, meanwhile, was his muse, the Faithfull to his Jagger. When, aged 21, she met Gainsbourg on the set of Slogan, she'd already been a teenage bride to John Barry and the first full-frontal nude shown in British cinemas (in Antonioni's Blow-Up). At first, Serge feigned disinterest, but before long they were shacked up in Oscar Wilde's old Parisian hotel room and recording the track for which, outside France, she is still most famous.

The duet "Je t'aime (moi non plus)", featuring Birkin faking an orgasm in what Gainsbourg called "her choirgirl voice", was banned by the BBC, denounced by the Vatican, and scandalised the world, guaranteeing that it sold by the million. She considered, she says, translating it into English to perform on this tour, until she realised it came out as "I come and go in between your kidneys". Perhaps there's another reason it didn't make the cut: which part would she play?

The long ironed hair of 1969 is now a bouncy shoulder-length, but she's otherwise instantly recognisable: that iconic dentition, those cheekbones which, were they any higher, would be her eyebrows, and not a gram of fat on her bones. You can see why Hermès named a handbag after her. And if anyone has a right to sing Gainsbourg, she does. "L'Amour des feintes" was written for her, "Jane B" – based on Chopin's Prelude No 4 –was about her, and as for "Ah Melody", from his revered, Lolita-inspired concept album Histoire de Melody Nelson? Jane Birkin was Melody Nelson.

Her all-Japanese band are superb, in particular violinist Hoshiko Yamane, who gleefully squeals Brigitte Bardot's bits on "Comic Strip", her "shebam, pow, blop, whizz!" threatening to shatter the skylights. And Serge's versatility – from hard bebop to sentimental chanson to light reggae – is a challenge from which they do not shrink.

Rita Ora describes "Hot Right Now", the chipmunk-cheeked, Kosovo-born singer's chart-topping collaboration with DJ Fresh, as "the song that changed my life". To illustrate how much her life has changed, she shows a video montage of weeping fans having their T-shirts signed. And there's the rub. They've changed her life. She'll never change theirs.

Rita Ora, you see, could be anyone. Sure, she has a big, ball-busting Taylor Dayne voice when she wants to. And she's got the big, thumping, dancefloor-ready pop anthems to match (not that she wrote any of them). But the Sylvia Young-schooled former Eurovision entrant has no special charisma. If it wasn't her on stage at the Manchester Academy, it'd be someone else.

There's something a bit Poundland about the presentation. She enters in a plywood radiation-hazard "quarantine" crate, surrounded by silver barrels (of uranium ora?), that looks like it was knocked up by an am-dram group. The impression that she's Gaga on a budget isn't helped by the Bacofoil space suit, or indeed the full-face T-shirt on the merch stall.

Every box is dutifully ticked. There's rose-petal confetti. There's some stand-up drumming. There's the most hateful moment of every pop concert – the acoustic interlude – featuring a cover of "Hey Ya" which seems to miss the entire point of the song, and the obligatory fan-plucked-from-the-crowd. And, bafflingly, there's a tribute to Biggie Smalls, who died when Ora was six.

It has to be said that the kids are going crazy. But the kids' hysteria is all their own work, their own admirable determination to have fun. Rita Ora just happens to be the excuse for it. She'll do for now, till the next one comes along.

Critic's choice

Elegantly besuited synth duo Hurts begin their comeback at Heaven, London (Thu). Meanwhile, this year's NME Awards tour, featuring Django Django, Miles Kane, Palma Violets and Peace, starts rolling at the Academy, Newcastle (Thu); Academy, Manchester (Fri) and Academy, Leeds (Sat).

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star