Jacques Brel

TrackAlbum
La MortN° 4
Le Plat PaysLes Bourgeois
La Valse À Mille TempsLive At The Olympia 1961
Les BourgeoisLive At The Olympia 1961
Ne Me Quitte PasLive At The Olympia 1961
Le MoribondLive At The Olympia 1961
AmsterdamOlympia 64
La Chanson De JackyCes Gens-Là
La Chanson Des Vieux AmantsJacques Brel 67
JojoLes Marquises
Bonus Track
VesoulJ'Arrive

Jacques Brel photo

 

 

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Brel playlist

 

Contributor: Andrew Shields

Arguably the greatest lyricist to emerge from the French chansonnier tradition, Jacques Brel was also a superb singer and an electric stage performer. His lyrics also managed to combine romanticism and cynicism with a sometimes almost vicious strain of sardonic humour. Along with this, his work also displayed a strong sense of empathy with the vulnerable and dispossessed. He also combined an individual poetic voice with a sense of gritty realism. His own comfortable personal background also gave him a keen insight into the hypocrisies of bourgeois life and this formed a central theme in much of his best work.

Jacques Brel was born in Brussels in Belgium on 8th April 1929. While his family had Flemish origins, he grew up within a largely French-speaking environment. As we shall see later in this piece, throughout his life Brel’s attitudes towards his home country were to be very ambivalent. His father, Romain, was a partner in a very profitable cardboard factory. In consequence, Brel grew up in considerable comfort and received an expensive education at a number of prestigious Catholic schools. After a period of teenage rebellion, however, he quit school and went to work in the family business. At the same time, he also began to perform for the first time at a local youth club, La Franche Cordée. He also started writing his own songs, although these were very much ‘prentice work’ (to use Dick Gaughan’s phrase).

His interest in pursuing a musical career – which also developed at this time – represented in part a rejection of the middle class ideals in which he had been brought up. Brel’s own lifelong anti-militarism and distrust of authority had also been shaped by his experiences during the German occupation of Belgium which lasted from 1940 to 1945. Although Brel later moved away from the devout Catholicism he embraced early in his life, its influence – including his emphasis on themes of guilt, sin and redemption – persisted throughout his life. His abandonment of religious belief also played a role in creating the sense of existential dread which can be found in some of his best work. This is reflected in the emphasis on death and on questions about the meaning of life – or perhaps more accurately the lack of meaning – which run through his finest lyrics.

From the early 1950s onwards, Jacques Brel made several attempts to launch a musical career. These involved several exploratory journeys to Paris; it took him some time to find the musical avenue best suited to his talents. His first break came in 1957 when Quand On N’a Que l’Amour (If We Only Had Love) reached No.3 on the French charts. This was an idealistic and utopian song which was very different in tone from much of his later work. Over the next few years, Brel’s writing reached a new level of excellence. He also began to collaborate with two of the musicians with whom he wrote many of his best songs – Gérard Jouannest and François Rauber. His lyrics also took a turn towards a darker and a more mordant direction.

My first selection, La Mort, is a good example of this shift in tone (English translation here). The song reflects Brel’s fascination with his own mortality (an interest which underlies a number of his other songs). It is also a love song, albeit in a rather strange way (death awaits in the last leaves/ of the coffins that were once trees/ now nailed together by the time that passes). It was one of those songs which marked the emergence of the distinctive ‘Brel voice’ – unsentimental and sometimes scathing but also containing elements of pathos and vulnerability.

The song also attracted some of the best English-language covers of his career – the best of which included this one by David Bowie and Scott Walker’s brilliant rendition.

My next choice Le Plat Pays is a beautifully poetic celebration of his home country. For me, at least, the song is clearly one of the chief sources for Leonard Cohen’s early style. Its celebration of the Belgian landscape also stands in marked contrast to the satirical tone which Brel took towards the country in songs like Les Flamandes. English translations of both songs can be found here and here.

Throughout his career, Brel was an extraordinary live performer. On stage, he was passionate and committed. As Edith Piaf put it in the programme notes for his concert at the Olympia in October 1961 he brought to the stage “all he … [had] inside him. The man goes to the end of his strength because chanson is how he tells of his reason for living and each sentence [in his songs] hits you right in the face and leaves you a bit dazed.” Indeed, it was in live performance that his songs really came to life. Although French chansonniers are often seen as cool, chic and sophisticated, on stage Brel was the polar opposite of all of these things. He was kinetic and physical and completely absorbed in putting across the message of the song. For that reason, my next five selections come from the two superb live albums recorded at the Olympia in 1961 and 1964 (now reissued as one CD on the DRG record label). The first pick, La Valse À Mille Temps, is an unusually upbeat song for Brel. Its slow/fast accelerated quality also means that it acts as a superb vehicle for his brilliant phrasing (English translation here).

By contrast, Les Bourgeois – the next selection – is one of Brel’s finest satirical songs about bourgeois life (it also includes a sly dig at both himself and his friends). There is also a touch of a Brechtian influence here as well, especially from his work with Kurt Weill. Both Brel and Brecht used their insider knowledge of middle-class life to skewer it even more effectively.

An English-language version can be found here. Tom Robinson later recorded a jokey version of the song under the title Yuppie Scum.

 

Ne Me Quitte Pas is not only one of Brel’s greatest songs but it is also one of the best love songs ever written. The lyric also reaches a standard of excellence which even he was rarely ever to match again. As in Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall, virtually every line is superbly crafted. The poetic quality in each has an intensity which few songwriters have ever matched:

I will give to you
Pearls made of rain
From countries
Where it never rains

Along with this haunting beauty, the song also has an obsessional quality which gives it an added edge. In his biography of Brel, Alan Clayson refers to its “desperate, entreating suitor” – who is mad with “fevered love” – making “desperate, irrational promises to one [who is] beloved to the point of veneration”. His self-debasement reaches its peak at the end of the song in the famous lines:

Let me become
The shadow of your shadow
The shadow of your hand
The shadow of your dog

The extraordinary intensity which Brel displayed as a stage performer can also be seen in this great live version of the song:

In Rod McKuen’s translation (If You Go Away) the song quickly became Brel’s best-known one outside France. Unfortunately, this translation lacked the supremely poetic quality of Brel’s original one. It did, however, attract several notable cover versions. The best of these included those by Frank Sinatra and Glen Campbell. Also a number of fine recent recordings, including those by Marc Almond and Emilíana Torrini. Nina Simone also recorded an excellent rendition of the song in French:

 

Although Amsterdam ranks among Brel’s best known songs, he never recorded a studio version of it. The rendition of it I have chosen comes from his brilliant concert at the Olympia in 1964. As the Irish singer Gavin Friday has put it, it is a song about the “broken dreams of tramps and whores and alcoholics and murderers”. In this respect, it follows in a French tradition of poetry that runs through from Villon to Rimbaud and which celebrates the lives of people who, in Bob Dylan’s words, “live outside the law”. This live version again shows the extraordinary kinetic quality which Brel had on stage:

Its celebration of the ‘underworld’ – as it were – may also be part of the reason why it appealed so much to both David Bowie and Scott Walker.

Le Moribond is another brilliant Jacques Brel song. The critic and biographer, Graeme Thomson, has described it as “a bitter, briskly cynical farewell from a dying man to his unfaithful wife and hypocritical friends”.

This sarcastic vein is entirely missing from Rod McKuen’s English language version, Seasons In The Sun, which became a major hit for Terry Jacks in 1974. Beside Brel’s original, however, it is pallid and lifeless. Nevertheless, for those of us who grew up in the 1970s, it is an irritating earworm that will never go away.

My remaining selections here come from the albums which Brel made between the release of Ces Gens-Là in 1966 and his untimely death in October 1978. Le Chanson De Jacky features Brel imagining alternative futures for himself, most of them not particularly attractive. Despite this, he remains aware that he has had the opportunity – which most people do not have – to express himself through his work

Again, Scott Walker recorded one of the finest English-language versions of the song, while Marc Almond’s rendition is also well worth checking out.

While not without a few characteristically well-placed barbs, La Chanson Des Vieux Amants is one of Brel’s most tender love songs. It also displays his capacity to the walk the fine line between pathos and sentimentality (English translation here).

The final pick, Jojo, is Brel’s tribute to his best friend, Georges Pasquier, who died in August 1974. At the time, Brel’s own health was beginning to fail and the song has a haunting elegiac quality to it.

If I had more space, I would also have included the beautiful Voir Un Ami Pleurer. Like Jojo it appears on Brel’s final album, Les Marquises, first released in 1977 (English translation here).

As this list shows, Jacques Brel was a songwriter of the very first rank. As a lyricist he also stands comparison with the very best that the twentieth century produced. Indeed, his work continues to inspire a whole range of performers, including such disparate artists as Jarvis Cocker, Marc Almond, Jack L, Gavin Friday, Barb Jungr and Camille O’Sullivan. In his best work, he managed to combine a deep respect for the tradition of French chansons with the cultivation of an individual poetic voice.

 

Bonus Track

One of the chief attractions of Brel’s work is his distinctive brand of humour. Vesoul is probably my favourite example of this. It also shows his keen powers of observation and ability to sketch a character in a few lines (English translation here).

 

You’ll find most of the selections on this page remastered on this 40 track 2CD set.

 

Jacques Brel poster

 

Jacques Brel (1929–1978)

 

Jacques Brel Foundation – official website

Brelitude: Discography

Covers of Brel Songs

Behind The Brel: Marc Almond’s documentary (BBC 2010)
Part 1: An Introduction and Part 2: The Existentialist

“Jacques Brel: The Biography” by Alan Clayson (1996)

“Je M’Appelle Jacques Brel” (Documentaire France5 1997)

Graeme Thomson interviews for The Guardian (2009)
Gavin Friday, Neil Hannon, Marc Almond on Jacques Brel

Alastair Campbell – Why I Love Jacques Brel (The Guardian 2014)

Jacques Brel biography (AllMusic)

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs. Andrew has written on many musicians for this site including, recently, Charles Aznavour.

TopperPost #938

6 Comments

  1. Ilkka Jauramo
    Feb 28, 2021

    I am familiar with Brel’s music mostly in Swedish. The late singer and actor Rikard Wolff sang his songs with a flamboyant passion. Both men were kinetic and physical on the stage.
    I didn’t know about Brel’s Flemish origins. The most “French” singers are not so French as you think: Gainsbourg from Russia, Aznavour from Armenia, Halliday from Belgium, la petite Anglaise Jane Birkin, Monsieur MC with African origin, Italian Carla Bruni. They are beloved by the people and by the Presidents. Strange, isn’ẗ it? I don’t know about Charles Trenet or Maurice Chevalier – Irish or Finnish maybe . . .
    And yes, ‘Amsterdam’ moves me still.
    Thanks for writing on French chansons. But when will we read about German Schlagers in Toppermost. Max Raabe for instance?

  2. Andrew Shields
    Mar 1, 2021

    Thanks for comment Ilkka. Struck me too when researching this and Aznavour Toppermost that they were both ‘outsiders’ in a way at the start of their musical careers.
    And now I will also have to find out more about Rikard Wolff and Max Raabe.

  3. David Lewis
    Mar 1, 2021

    The outsider often values what the insider has. They can also highlight the problems the insider can’t see. Marvellous toppermost.

  4. Andrew Shields
    Mar 2, 2021

    Interesting – there may be a parallel with the large number of children of Irish emigrants who became prominent rock musicians in UK – Johnny Rotten, Morrissey, Johnny Marr, the Gallagher brothers, Boy George etc would be prominent examples.

  5. Dave Stephens
    Mar 4, 2021

    Thank you for a superb Topper Andrew. If I had one really tiny criticism it would be that you didn’t give very much attention to that gift for melody that Brel had. I say “gift” but I suspect he worked on it just as much as he did in the creation of those very fine lyrics.

  6. Andrew Shields
    Mar 4, 2021

    Thanks for the comment Dave. In a sense, the credit for most of the melodies should go to his collaborators, Gérard Jouannest and François Rauber, who are mentioned early in the piece here. Apparently, the melody for ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’ comes from a piece by Franz Liszt.
    Of course that is not to say that Brel did not have a gift for memorable melodies. This is amply proved by self-penned songs like ‘Le Plat Pays’ and ‘Jojo’ that I chose for inclusion.

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