Gavin Friday, Neil Hannon, Marc Almond and Beirut’s Zach Condon talk to Graeme Thomson of The Guardian on the legendary Belgian singer Jacques Brel:
Jacques the lad
Cruel, cynical, at times impossible to understand, Jacques Brel has inspired everyone from Bowie to Westlife. Graeme Thomson talks to today’s singer-songwriters about their hero
The Guardian, Friday 6 February 2009
First things first. Try to forget that Jacques Brel, the Belgian singer-songwriter, is indirectly responsible for Terry Jacks’s Seasons in the Sun. Forget also for a moment Scott Walker, whose obsession with Brel in the late 1960s tends to dominate discussions about the chansonnier, with largely obfuscatory results. Brel’s much-translated songs of sex, death, bruised romance and equivocal cynicism have influenced generations of artists, but to understand why, it’s necessary to return to the source.
Gavin Friday, the Irish singer and ex-Virgin Prune who has recorded several of Brel’s songs, recalls seeing him perform for the first time. “I didn’t know what the fuck was coming at me,” he says. “I just couldn’t believe the man. The kicking-against-the-pricks theory, that’s what I picked up on. It was like the next stage up from David Bowie doing Starman or Johnny Lydon doing Pretty Vacant on Top of the Pops. The physicality. The expression. I became obsessed.”
For the Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, he was “beautifully ugly” – an odd, unreliable man who wore good suits and whose music set “a wonderful example of the absolute need to be yourself and say exactly what you think, regardless of what the public seem to want”. Marc Almond, a longtime fan who once recorded an entire album of Brel songs, says: “He’s in everything I do. Songs like Say Hello Wave Goodbye have a Brelian sense of disillusioned romance. As a singer, I’ve always looked at myself as an expressive storyteller rather than a technician, and that comes from him.”
It’s timely to return to Brel. The 30th anniversary of his death passed last year – he died from lung cancer, aged 49, in October 1978 – and a new compilation revisits his earliest recordings. Brel was born in Brussels on 8 April 1929, and his performance career was brief: he gave up singing live in 1966 and was in semi-retirement for the last 10 years of his life.
He first sang and acted in Franche Cordée, a Catholic youth organisation, before attaining modest success as a performer in Belgium. Only then did he head for Paris to conquer the music halls. He made two albums for Philips Records between 1954 and 1957, and it is this fledgling period of his career that is covered by the new collection, In the 50s: The Birth of Genius. Remastered by Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake, In the 50s is undeniably proto-Brel, the faltering footsteps of an artist still getting into his stride – though, as Blake says, “there are flashes of what’s to come”.
Almond argues that a singer has to have lived a little before he or she can really get to grips with Brel’s songs. Perhaps that applied to Brel as much as anyone. By the time the 60s began, he had piled up experience. His wife Miche and their three children had returned to Brussels, unable to cope with Brel’s philandering and disappearing acts. His religious belief also failed to survive; instead, he placed his faith in flawed humanity and the certainty of death. Experience made his world-view darker, his themes more uncompromising, but there remained a sermonising streak in his work: an identifiable moral centre among the pimps, prostitutes and disillusionment. Hannon describes the song Amsterdam as the “apotheosis of that mix of brutal honesty and absolute beauty: life is shit, everybody is horrible, but isn’t it wonderful!”
By 1959 and the release of his fourth album, La Valse à Mille Temps, Brel was a star in the francophone world, writing the songs that would ensure his legacy. Beyond their lyrical brilliance, La Mort (My Death, in its English version), Ne Me Quitte Pas (If You Go Away), Au Suivant (Next), Amsterdam and dozens of others are inventively arranged and rich in their use of instrumentation; they remain remarkably resonant today. La Diable (Ça Va) is a song about western arrogance, colonial ghosts and bombs exploding on railway lines; Fils De … is a deeply human anti-war song. There again, he was just as likely to sing about aeroplanes. Friday expresses awe at “the width of what he sang about – not just the poignant love songs, but his political songs. And he wrote about things that people don’t write about, like old people. There aren’t many people who cover that vast spectrum.”
Like many Brel fans, Friday was turned on by Bowie’s and Scott Walker’s performances of Brel songs. Walker first heard Brel in 1966 and plundered his songbook on his first three solo albums. The songs introduced the former heartthrob and Walker Brother to avant-garde euro-experimentalism, and he disappeared headlong into the possibilities. “I believe Brel had a profound effect on that man,” says Friday who, alongside Jarvis Cocker and Damon Albarn, worked with Walker during the recent Tilting and Drifting show at the Barbican. “I think it was Brel that tipped him into where he’s gone now. He ‘Europeaned’ him.”
Bowie, meanwhile, covered Amsterdam on the B-side of his 1973 single Sorrow and frequently played My Death in concert. The versions performed by Bowie and Walker, however, did not come from Brel, who wrote exclusively in French. Following Brel’s first appearance in New York in 1963, his songs were translated first by the poet Rod McKuen, and later by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman, who in 1968 put together the off-Broadway stage show Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. Subsequent renderings by everyone from Tom Jones and Dionne Warwick to Judy Collins and Alex Harvey brought his songs into the mainstream.
The translations range from the superior to the woeful. Blau and Shuman’s rendering of La Mort, for example, is wonderful. Norman Blake picks out one particular line: “‘My death waits like a Bible truth/ At the funeral of my youth’ – my God, it’s astounding, absolute genius.”
Less astounding are the disastrous transformations where, like some drunken game of Chinese Whispers, the original meaning is obliterated. In the hands of McKuen, the acerbic Le Moribond – a bitter, briskly cynical farewell from a dying man to his unfaithful wife and hypocritical friends – became the saccharine Seasons in the Sun, last heard being trilled by Westlife. Zach Condon of the band Beirut, who often performs Le Moribond in concert, dismisses Seasons in the Sun as a song where “the dagger of his words has been taken out: ‘I can see you all crying and wiping your noses above my grave, and I laugh at you.’ That’s all gone.”
The fact is, Brel’s humour, verve and honesty are tamed by the English language. One of the worst sufferers is Ne Me Quitte Pas, perhaps his most famous song. It was translated by McKuen as If You Go Away and covered by everyone from Nana Mouskouri to Frank Sinatra. Almond first became familiar with Dusty Springfield’s “toned-down” version, but when he wanted to record the song himself, he went back to a “truer” translation of the original, which addressed Brel’s affair with Paris impresario Suzanne Gabriello. “It becomes a pleading, desperate song – voyeuristic, sexual and sinister,” he says. “The English translations have become the [accepted] versions of his songs, but you always lose something.”
Because Brel has been translated so often and his songs sung by such a wide variety of artists, it’s common for English speakers to enjoy his work by proxy. Yet it’s arguable that no translation really does him justice. “I’m close to fluent in French, but Brel was the first to really prove to me that you can’t just directly translate songs,” says Condon. As for Hannon, he recalls his French teacher struggling to explain what some of the lyrics in Amsterdam meant: “There’s a line in the first verse, a metaphor about the flags hanging from the buildings across the canal, and the way they drooped was like the atmosphere or something. It was hard even for her to understand it.”
The best way to get around the problem is to watch Brel in action. Visit YouTube, or get your hands on Comme Quand On Etait Beau, a DVD of Brel’s collected TV appearances. “His magnetism breaks down the language barrier,” says Almond. “You don’t necessarily have to understand every word he’s singing – he makes you understand the story through the way he delivers it. He lives inside his songs.”
A word of warning, however. Anyone expecting echoes of Scott Walker’s Adonis voice and lush orchestral pop will be in for a shock. Brel’s sturdy baritone is technically ordinary but emotionally compelling, and the songs tend to zip along, propelled by flailing arms and guttural exclamations. Watching him sing is a physical, visceral experience. “Brel is sweaty,” says Friday. “You can imagine him spitting on you if you’re in the front row. It would be good to bring the blood and guts, the smelly Brel, back into play.”
For musicians such as Friday and Hannon, the stark, grown-up realities of Brel are appealing when the posturing faux-rebellion of rock’n’roll starts to pall. “Britain has a terribly snobby attitude to continental Europe and its musical traditions,” says Hannon. “But I vastly prefer most of it. We need it now more than ever; we have to admit that mostly everything this last decade has been complete rubbish. Rock’n’roll has had a good innings, but we don’t have to be tied to that template. We can move on.”
Deviate from the orthodoxy of the traditional rock lineage, the one that starts at Rocket 88 and ends somewhere around Smells Like Teen Spirit, and it’s not hard to see Brel as a father figure to some of our greatest, most emotionally expressive songwriters. He comes through loud and clear, both musically and lyrically, in the early songs of Leonard Cohen; he’s there in the torch songs of Tom Waits, all grubby dockside glamour. He’s there in Jarvis Cocker’s words and in Joan as Police Woman and in Rufus Wainwright’s defiantly non-rockist tilt at pop drama. Even in translation, he expanded the vocabulary available to pop songwriters, yet he remains woefully underappreciated as an artist in his own right.
True, language may be a barrier, but Friday has an answer: “It’s like a painting, isn’t it? I might not understand everything literally, but I have the gist of it.” In other words, with Brel you either trust your French or you trust your gut. Either way, the effort is richly rewarded.