The first time I’d even heard of Jacques Brel was when a certain Mr. David Bowie sang Amsterdam (B-side of the single “Sorrow” in October 1973, it finally made it onto the Rare LP in 1982). I was immediately intrigued as this was not a ‘Bowie’ type song yet it captured my imagination. I looked up the writing credits and Brel came up. Now in those days the internet hadn’t been invented, Brel records were not in the record shops I visited, so research was practically impossible.
Then in March 1982 I watch the BBC paly adaption of Bertold Brecht’s (who he?) play Baal, purely because David Bowie was in it. Once again the style and tales in the songs drew me in. I immediately went and bought the EP, and came across another name Kurt Weill. But again no internet! Time passed.
I next came across another Bowie Brel cover – “My Death” on the Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture album in 1983. Wow! It still haunts me whenever I hear it. It will also be played at my funeral – one day in the dim distant future!
I can’t actually remember when, but eventually I managed to research Jacques Brel. Blimey who’d have known he was a singer, songwriter and actor and had written so many songs – not me that’s for sure! He was exceedingly popular in his adopted country of France, and had bucket loads of famous artists covering his songs. Now being Belgium by birth, and a pain in the ass he totally refused to sing any of his lovely songs in English. This in turn led to many artists relying upon the skills of various translators (Rod McKuen, Eric Blau, Mort Shuman) to give life to his songs in English. Therefore you will find there are subtle differences in interpretations of his songs, depending upon who did the translations.
His songs told stories, some funny, some sad, some rude but all literate, theatrical and thoroughly engaging. A cabaret style that I have fallen in love with. Beautifully sculptured cinematic and poetic songs of cynicism, life, emotion, passion all of which are open to interpretation – was it his wife or his lover?
Version of his songs by David Bowie, Alex Harvey, Leonard Cohen, Marc Almond, Rod McKuen, Camille O’Sullivan, Scott Walker, Neil Hannon being amongst my favourites. Check these albums out!
- Camille sings Brel – live
- Various Artists – Next Brel
- Rod Mckuen – Sings Jacques Brel
- Scott Walker – Sings Jacques Brel
- Marc Almond – Jacques
It might surprise you that you probably already know some of his songs e.g. Terry Jacks “Season in the Sun” (yes a bloody awful cover version) or Dionne Warwick “If We Only Have Love” or Scott Walker’s “Jackie” or simply the best ever cover version “Next” by the Sensational Alex Harvey Band (SAHB) – check out their version on The Old Grey Whistle Test – stunning!
Jacques Brel (8 April 1929 – 9 October 1978) was buried in Calvary Cemetery, in Atuona on Hiva-Oa island (part of the Marquesas Islands – French Polynesia). But his legacy lives on!!
For more information just look at Jacques Brel Foundation or Wikipedia..
The man was a true genius.