The Music of Jacques Brel
August 6, 2010 1:48 AM   Subscribe

The Music of Jacques Brel is an article by music journalist Amy Hanson about the career of pop music legend Jacques Brel and his effect on popular music in the English language. A lot of songs and covers are mentioned in the article, below the cut are links to the songs that I could find videos of online.

Jacques Brel
Amsterdam, 2
Au suivant
Ce gens-là, 2, 3
Don Quichotte (cover of I, Don Quixote from Man of La Mancha)
Fils de...
Il peut pleuvoir
Il nous faut regarder
Il y a
Jef, 2
La chanson de Jacky, 2, 3
La chanson des vieux amants
La colombe
La dame patronesse
La foire
La mort
La quête, 2 (cover of Impossible Dream from Man of La Mancha)
La statue
La valse a mille temps, 2, 3
La ville s'endormait
Le dernier repas, 2
Le diable (ca va), 2
Le lion
Le gaz
Le moribond, 2, 3
Le plat pays, 2, 3
Les biches
Les bonbons, 2, 3
Les f...
Les Marquises
Les singes
Les timides
Les toros, 2
Les vieux, 2
L'homme dans la cité
Litanie pour un retour
Marieke, 2
Mon enfance, 2
Ne me quitte pas, 2, 3
On n'oublie rien
Quand on n'a que l'amour, 2
S'il te faut
Tango Funèbre
Voir un ami pleurer

Marc Almond
If You Go Away, 2
I'm Coming
Jacky, 2
Litany for a Return
My Death
The Bulls
The Devil (OK), 2
The Town Fell Asleep

Scott Walker
Funeral Tango
If You Go Away
Sons of...

Elly Stone
My Childhood
Old Folks
Song of Old Lovers

Rod McKuen
If You Go Away
In the Port of Amsterdam
Seasons in the Sun
The Statue
The Women

Mort Shuman
In the Port of Amsterdam
Taxi Cab

David Bowie
In the Port of Amsterdam, 2
My Death, 2

Judy Collins
La colombe (The Dove)
Sons of...

Don't Leave
See a Friend in Tears

Lucie Dolène
Ode à la nuit
La chanson de Zorino

Terry Jacks
If You Go Away
Seasons in the Sun

Damita Jo
If You Go Away

Glen Campbell
If You Go Away

Frank Sinatra
If You Go Away

Juliette Greco
La chanson des vieux amants

Kingston Trio
Seasons in the Sun

Seasons in the Sun

The Bolshoi
In the Port of Amsterdam

The Dells
If You Go Away/Love Story

The Sensational Alex Harvey Band

The Squirrels
Seasons in the Sun/The Hustle
posted by Kattullus (49 comments total) 76 users marked this as a favorite
Oh, incidentally, the best entrypoint into Brel is probably his phenomenal live album Enregistrement public à l'Olympia 1961. I consider it one of the greatest live albums and one of my favorite albums of all time. You can listen to the whole thing on YouTube.
posted by Kattullus at 2:02 AM on August 6, 2010 [3 favorites]

Outstanding post Kattulus. Thanks for this.

Brel is a performer. Watch the first link, Amsterdam. Just a guy on an unadorned stage, wearing his street clothes, and standing in front of a microphone. No gimmicks. Just his voice and an incredible passion for what he is singing.

I love how he throws the microphone down at the end.
posted by three blind mice at 2:29 AM on August 6, 2010

Fantastic post!

If you like your Brel covers in german, Klaus Hoffmann's translations can't be beat. Musicwise they might be a bit slik, but damn, they make german sound good.

Klaus Hoffmann
Bitte geh nicht fort
Wenn uns nur Liebe bleibt
Mein Flanderland

His best Brel cover is probably his version of La Chanson des Vieux Amants, but that one doesn't seem googleable.
posted by Sourisnoire at 2:36 AM on August 6, 2010

Velhos Amantes, Misia's Fado version of Le chanson des vieux amantes.
posted by Grangousier at 2:50 AM on August 6, 2010

Wow. After reading the first couple of paragraphs of that article, I came in here to make a faintly snarky comment about how overwritten it is, and how liberally salted with misplaced semi-colons. Now I see that I can ignore it completely: the important bit of this post is on the inside. Such riches! Thank you--amazing.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 3:43 AM on August 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you like Brel, by all means avoid the film version of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well..., which plays like a Francophone version of Hair.

When I was six, my mom had the Off-Broadway Cast Album of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and liked it enough to make a shortened tape of it to play in the car. She had to take off all the songs about longshoremen and prostitutes. This left us with something like five songs. Still, the English translation of "Madeline" was a big singalong on long car rides.
posted by pxe2000 at 3:51 AM on August 6, 2010

I just saw a production of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario. Apparently they've made it significantly less flaky, but to me it still felt like An Extremely Earnest Revue of Jacques Brel Songs, Mostly in English!

I think it was partly the translation that threw me off (I went not knowing much about the show, and thinking it would be a little more about Brel), but there was also almost no sense of the cynicism and darkness that you find in even his more sentimental songs.

Nevertheless, I do love some Jacques Brel, and this is a fantastic post.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 4:38 AM on August 6, 2010

very well done, thanks. Proudly admitting I'm a Rod McKuen fan (and, there aren't many of us willing to admit to that!), I found Brel through McKuen's covers. Port of Amsterdam is far and away my favorite.
posted by HuronBob at 4:58 AM on August 6, 2010

Amsterdam was on my last MeFi mix exchange, oddly enough. Le Moribond and Ne Me Quitte Pas are standards around my house -- love me some Brel. Thanks for this post!
posted by Shepherd at 5:39 AM on August 6, 2010

I could watch that Sensational Alex Harvey Band cover of Next all day long! It's creepily perfect.
posted by ericthegardener at 6:00 AM on August 6, 2010

I remember hearing Scott Walker's version of "Jackie" for the first time and later telling the guy at the record store that recommended it how wonderfully weird it was. He then insisted that I had to not only hear the Brel version, but also needed to hear the whole album. And then in a matter of seconds he had a list of five or six Brel albums that I MUST hear. He was right on all counts. It's sad to see that kind of face-to-face music enthusiasm and interaction between clerk and customer getting rarer and rarer.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 6:19 AM on August 6, 2010

This is a fantastic post, Kattullus, and I'm looking forward to really digging through it. I didn't notice a like to Brel performing Madeleine but it's worth a link -- he's at his hangdog hopeful best on this one.
posted by .kobayashi. at 6:23 AM on August 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, Les Bourgeois.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 6:29 AM on August 6, 2010

I used to collect Brel covers in as many languages as possible, so here are a few more:

Tommy Körberg made an album with Brel covers in swedish. A bit more of an aquired taste maybe, and some of the translations are a bit jarring, but he does do a good job of trying to match Brel's passion.

Tommy Körberg
Det doftar öl

Dutch is a bit of a special case. The artist most famous for his brel covers would be

Herman van Veen
Liefde van later
Een Vriend Zien Huilen

...but the Brel himself also sang some of his repertoire in (a rather adorable accented) dutch. Kattullus linked to a few, here are some more:

Laat me niet alleen
Mijn vlakke land
posted by Sourisnoire at 6:31 AM on August 6, 2010

Nice Post! He's buried in French Polynesia in the same cemetery as Paul Gauguin, fact fans.
posted by jontyjago at 6:37 AM on August 6, 2010

Truly, this is best of the web.
posted by quarsan at 6:45 AM on August 6, 2010

posted by Locative at 6:49 AM on August 6, 2010

Yesss. I LOVE Jacques Brel. La Valse and Madeleine are amazing. Everyone needs to know about him.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 6:55 AM on August 6, 2010

I discovered Brel the hard way, in the old, pre-web days. Here's how it worked. I was listening to the radio and heard the end of the song "Marieke," and the melody totally captivated me. I scribbled down the words I could identify, though of course I didn't know how to spell it, so I had to approximate: "Marique" is what I guessed, and i had caught the words "summer wind." I went to the music library at my college and spent a truly significant amount of time combing the card catalog and then the index of popular song to which it led me, finally finding the song title and artist under the proper spelling. I then requested the LP from the stacks ("Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris"), took it back to the phono listening room, and sat there for a couple hours playing through the album. I had no way to make a recording of it in that library, and I had no money to buy the record, so I just played the song over and over and over and over until I had memorized it and could play it in my head, at will. A vivid memory and I still love the song. Great post, thanks.
posted by Miko at 7:00 AM on August 6, 2010 [4 favorites]

Years ago, I borrowed the album "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris" from a friend without asking. I meant to return it. Never did.

I regret to this day having stolen the album. Perhaps my friend, wherever she is, is reading this and will finally know what happened to her Brel.

Thanks, Kattullus, for this excellent post.
posted by governale at 7:28 AM on August 6, 2010

I've been listening to this all afternoon and I just want to say again that this is a tremendous post.

Thanks Kattullus.
posted by three blind mice at 8:12 AM on August 6, 2010

Wow, killer post, K.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:13 AM on August 6, 2010

Amsterdam - AJ Roach

If it were possible to get a tattoo of a particular version of a song, I would get this one. I discovered Brel when AJ performed Amsterdam at the Sunset in Seattle. Blew my fucking mind. Brel's songwriting holds up for me both in translation and in French, which I do not speak. I don't understand quite how that works. How had I not heard of this guy before?

My wife, with whom I attended that show and who had spent a year in Belgium, was aghast at my ignorance.

Bonus AJ: Ghost by NMH
posted by stet at 8:47 AM on August 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I first heard Ne me quitte pas during a clown act in Cirque du Soleil's Varekai (although they used Nina Simone's cover of the song I think). That led me to discover Jaques Brel, and now I love this post.
posted by Kabanos at 8:47 AM on August 6, 2010

lapsangsouchang: After reading the first couple of paragraphs of that article, I came in here to make a faintly snarky comment

If you continue you'll find a good overview of Brel's career and how his music was taken up by Anglophone artists in the UK and the US. I was fairly well acquainted with the story of Jacques Brel but there were things in there, especially when it comes to his influence on English-language pop music, that I didn't know. But I did link to that article partly to give myself a frame for building a Brel post. I could collect links to Brel originals and cover versions for weeks without reaching bottom.
posted by Kattullus at 9:04 AM on August 6, 2010

If you go away - Neil Diamond

Like others above, I mostly know Brel through Scott Walker. I've been meaning to go back to the originals - guess I know what I'm listening to today.
posted by cRamsay at 9:41 AM on August 6, 2010

If you like Jacques Brel, I cannot recommend Cali enough. That is all.
posted by dame at 9:53 AM on August 6, 2010

Love, love, love the Scott Walker versions of his songs. I first heard 'Next' on WFMU years ago and freaked out.

I really enjoy the originals as well, but my French is rarely up to the task. Plus, I love Scott Walker, so it's kind of like a perfect storm for me.

If you've ever been a fan of Nick Cave, I highly recommend 'Scott Walker Sings Jacques Brel'. It's like a warm bath.
posted by lumpenprole at 10:26 AM on August 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm trying to figure out what quality Brel has that makes him such an enthralling performer. While it doesn't hurt that he was one of century's greatest songwriters, he was also the supreme interpreter of his own songs. He somehow combines immense projection with looking like he's singing to himself in the mirror.
posted by Kattullus at 10:31 AM on August 6, 2010

lumpenprole: I really enjoy the originals as well, but my French is rarely up to the task.

I linked to versions subtitled in English when the audio was up to snuff. Here, for example, are Le moribond, La statue, La chanson de Jacky, Marieke and La dame patronesse.
posted by Kattullus at 10:39 AM on August 6, 2010

I love Brel. I especially love watching him perform his own songs. He's so intense and expressive and awkwardly sincere. He looks into to the camera and it's almost too much sometimes. The emotion is so raw and unpolished.

And this is also the problem I have with most Brel covers. They are so beautiful and polished and full of grand emotions, but lack the humanity of the original. I'm not saying that there aren't good covers of his songs out there, I just haven't heard many. (I did enjoy the AJ Roach cover of Amsterdam linked above.)
posted by severiina at 10:49 AM on August 6, 2010

I linked to versions subtitled in English when the audio was up to snuff.

Dude, you're awesome.
posted by lumpenprole at 11:03 AM on August 6, 2010

severiina: I'm not saying that there aren't good covers of his songs out there, I just haven't heard many.

I generally agree, but constructing this post showed me different. Marc Almond, who I'd say was the best Anglophone Brel interpreter, does a great Jacky. Kingston Trio go a long way towards rescuing Seasons in the Sun. Judy Collins pulls a Pete Seeger on La colombe. The Sensational Alex Harvey Band's Next is phenomental. And Bowie has a bazillion versions of My Death and they're all great (here's one I didn't link to above).
posted by Kattullus at 11:06 AM on August 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Mathilde est revenue!

Thanks for this, really.
posted by omegar at 11:47 AM on August 6, 2010

Long, long ago, when I was still a kid, I saw Jacques Brel is Alive and Well on stage in Boston, after listening to the LP over and over again with my best friend. I can still sing most of the songs by heart. And one of the best presents my fabulous husband has ever given me was the cassette tape (!! awhile back!!) he made for me of the cast recording.

Thanks so much for this post.
posted by bearwife at 11:54 AM on August 6, 2010

My family grew up with the cast recording of "Alive and Well." I will forward this thread to my mom. Thanks.
posted by Trochanter at 12:01 PM on August 6, 2010

Oh, and if any of the English-subtitled videos is truly essential-to-a-life-well-lived viewing, it's Amsterdam.
posted by Kattullus at 12:05 PM on August 6, 2010

Terry Jacks' #1 Hit version of "Seasons in the Sun" in 1974 (one of the WORST records of the '70s, and that's saying a lot) ruined Jacques Brel for me, and I have been trying to recover ever since.

Still, for the last three decades, I can't think of "If You Go Away" without thinking of "If You Leave Me, Can I Come Too?" which, while absolutely NOT a great song, is so perfectly silly that it never wears out its welcome for me. Does that make me a musical cretin? Of course it does.
posted by oneswellfoop at 12:14 PM on August 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Kattullus, thank you for the links. The original selection was very large and it was nice get some of the better ones highlighted. I think my problem is, that I've heard the originals many times and any cover version is going to get (often unfavourably) compared to the original. I find that I'm most likely to enjoy covers that do something new with the songs, because no-one is going to out-Brel Jacques Brel (and those who try end up sounding silly and melodramatic, where Brel himself appears open and honest.)

I agree that the Alex Harvey Band's Next is great. It's very theatrical, but has an honest edge to it that I enjoy. Marc Almond's Jacky is an interesting take on the song, not bad, just a bit too 90's pop symphony-ish for my taste. I was suprised to like Almond's If you go away quite a bit. It had a cool sophistication that took it sufficiently far from the original. Brel's Ne me quitte pas is so intense, it's a bit hard to watch. He's begging and pleading and almost crying there. Almond is more wistfull and civilized about the whole thing.

Kingston Trio's Seasons in the Sun, on the other hand, is an abomination. They sing it like it's a bad ABBA cover or a campfire song. Le moribond is so good and the English covers of it are so bad that it's a bit diffucult for me to reconcile that it's even the same song.
posted by severiina at 2:04 PM on August 6, 2010

My favourite of Brel is Ces gens-là. I also quite like Noir désir version.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 4:05 PM on August 6, 2010

Excellent post, many thanks.
posted by BozoBurgerBonanza at 9:38 PM on August 6, 2010

Excellent. I "discovered" Brel several years ago, on youtube, by accident. Once exposed, he became one of my all time favorites. His ability to bring convincing theatricality and passion to his songs is almost unparalleled. Simply one of the most moving voices, ever.
posted by Vibrissae at 12:40 AM on August 7, 2010

French Song Pedantry ahoy!

Seasons in the Sun is NOT a cover of Le Moribond, dammit -- or at least no more than Jet Boy Jet Girl is a cover of Ca Plane Pour Moi -- same tune, yeah, but really not the same song. Le Moribond is kickass: scathing, sarcastic, funny, and successfully touching in that you can't help but sympathize for the narrator, who is nasty and bitter and really human. Seasons in the Sun is a treacly mess that sounds like the last scene of whatever the hell movie-within-a-movie they were shooting in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure with Jason Hervey, shot through a gauze filter in a field of wilting daffodils.
posted by Shepherd at 2:28 AM on August 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

While I agree about the terribleness of Seasons in the Sun, I do have a soft spot for Kingston Trio's version. They do their very best with terrible source material. And yeah, it isn't a cover, so much a translation. A bad, bad translation. Well, most translations of Brel songs aren't all that great, but Seasons in the Sun is not so much a poor translation as a moral failure.
posted by Kattullus at 9:12 AM on August 7, 2010

Brel is number two out of four great singer-songwriters that died in the late 1970s & early 80s to get featured here recently. Only Dassin and Brassens to go. :)
posted by mvuijlst at 11:51 AM on August 7, 2010

The Claude François post sent me off on a big Brel kick, the results of which was this post. One of these days, unless someone beats me to it, I'll do a Brassens post. Dassin I know only perfunctorily.
posted by Kattullus at 5:24 PM on August 7, 2010

Oh hey! You've already made a Dassin post. Excellent!
posted by Kattullus at 5:26 PM on August 7, 2010

Oh, hey, translations--Tom Robinson's version of Les Bourgeois, as Yuppie Scum, is actually really good. Can't find it a video just now, though, because YouTube is banned here in Turkey. Look it up, it's on Living in a Boom Time.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 9:56 AM on August 8, 2010

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