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Jacques Brel

In the 1950s and 60s, Belgian-born BREL was to Europe what DYLAN and COHEN is/was to North American popular music. As much a 10-inch LP and/or 7-inch EP specialist, one of the globe’s most revered and influential cabaret/chanson artists released an abundance of singles on the continent (mainly in France, Belgium and The Netherlands) but remained hitless in Britain and America. Despite his dearth of chart success abroad, he remains one of the last century’s most talked about songwriters: a man indeed ahead of his time.
First to sing Jacques’ praises was American poet/singer-songwriter/actor ROD McKUEN, who met the man in the early 60s whilst residing in France. The Oakland man went on to perform `Ne Me Quitte Pas’ (as `If You Go Away’), `Le Moribond’ (as `Seasons In The Sun’) – a subsequent smash hit for The KINGSTON TRIO; then TERRY JACKS – and many, many others.
Ditto SCOTT WALKER, who had a handful of hits (including `Jackie’) and an album’s worth of tracks as documented together on “Scott Walker Sings Jacques Brel” (1981), a compilation including the bitter-sweet `Mathilde’ and `Amsterdam’. The latter ballad, meanwhile, found solace in the canyons of one’s mind on the flipside of BOWIE’s re-issued `Space Oddity’ chart-topper.
Other British artists influenced by his work included MARIANNE FAITHFULL, JAKE THACKRAY, and The SENSATIONAL ALEX HARVEY BAND; the latter covered `Au Suivant’ (aka `Next…’: the title track of their 1973 album centering on an army-based brothel); singer Alex had heard the track on the cult continental film, “Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris”. Its English translator, Eric Blau, whose idea it was to get BREL’s work on to stage and screen, saw it become an Off Broadway hit early in 1968; a film was premiered seven years later. Both cast and soundtrack sets celebrated the classic troubadour and all his remarkable songs. With music conducted and arranged by Francois Rauber (a long-time associate of Jacques), the latter double-LP connected stars from its original stage-production, Elly Stone (funny lady and long-standing fan) and her hubby Mort Shuman (the same man who wrote for ELVIS, RAY CHARLES et al) and added the underrated Joe Masiell and a cameo song of `Ne Me Quitte Pas’ by BREL himself.
Born Jacques Romain Georges Brel, 8 April 1929, Schaerbeek, Brussels, he was raised in a conservative middle-class environment, and went on to study law before entering the family business. He soon tired of a conventional lifestyle and instead relocated to Paris, where he thought he’d try his hand at songwriting. Despite an awkward gait and buck-teeth, Jacques soon graduated to performing his own compositions, appearing regularly at the Theatre Des Trois Baudets.
BREL enthralled fans with a magnetic stage presence and a gift for dramatics that helped define his vision of the doomed romantic, translating this to the wider record buying public with his first French hit in 1956, `Quand on N’a Que l’Amour’, by which time he’d already delivered a handful of singles, EPs, and his inaugural 10-inch mini-LP for Philips Records: JACQUES BREL et ses chansons (1954) {*6}. Clocking in at under 20 minutes, the original set, recorded live at Theatre de l’Apollo in Paris, opened with `La haine’ (Hate) and closed with `Sur la place’ (In the square); the recording was later known as “Grand Jacques”, a 2003 CD re-issue featuring bonus songs.
At a time when ELVIS was king of the rock’n’roll brat-pack, the EU continent was rife with softer, subtler pop artists that could croon their way to the top with a casual smile and a suit, though BREL duly documented the dark underbelly of modern society in shrewdly observed style. The long-awaited JACQUES BREL 2 (1957) {*6} featured the aforementioned debut hit and others; songs with a certain je ne sais quoi such as `Pardons’ and `Les Bleu’.
Co-arranged by Andre Popp and Francois Raubert; the latter also wrote several tunes on JACQUES BREL 3 (1958) {*7}, which improved greatly on his previous efforts, and provided further examples of his flamboyant cabaret aplomb that echoed with `Au Printemps’ (its subsequent CD title), `Je Ne Sais Pas’, `Le Colonel’ (penned with Gaby Wagenheim), `Voici’ and `Litanies Pour un Retour’.
Arguably his finest work to date, JACQUES BREL 4 (1959) {*8}, finally found an ear overseas when Columbia Records repackaged the LP as “American Debut” in October 1960, with the addition of two further tracks. Songs such as `La Valse a Mille Temps’ (its CD title), `Je T’Aime’, `Les Flamandes’ and `La Mort’, introduced BREL’s literate genius to a whole new English-speaking audience and influenced a host of future stars.
Whether it was down to the hard-to-follow numbering sequence of EPs that preceded each bona fide “eponymous” LP release, both British and American label bosses just couldn’t give this Belgian/French pop artist another chance for 1961’s 5 {*7} album; thus `Marieke’ (its CD title), `On N’Oublie Rien’ and the wonderful `Le Moribond’ were dismissed for a time when the man was at his most poignant.
Spearheaded by its title track, LES BOURGEOIS: No.6 (1962) {*7}, was a magnificent specimen of modern-day cynicism against the middle class; `Les Paumes du Petit Matin’, `Madeleine’, `Une Ile’, `Le Plat Pays’ and `Rosa’… like songs from musicals not yet cut. His final bow for Philips, before he floated along the corporate corridor to Barclay Records, was indeed a live LP recorded the previous October, and entitled ENREGISTREMENT PUBLIC A L’OLYMPIA (1962) {*6}.
JACQUES BREL (1963) {*6} – aka “Les Bigotes” – and the wondrous JACQUES BREL (1964) {*8} – aka “Jef” – kept up the Belgian’s momentum on the continent. The latter sported a title track that just might’ve spurred on a sombre BOWIE, whilst his darkly sinister WWI tale of `Au suivant’ proved useful to the aforesaid SAHB as `Mathilde’ and `Tango Funebre’ did to SCOTT WALKER. The year ended with charming man BREL’s sophomore concert set, OLYMPIA 64 {*7}; by all accounts a night or two to remember as he conquered a French audience with panache.
As CES GENS-LA {*6} made its vinyl appearance twice; once as a 6-track mini-set in 1965 and secondly as a fully-fledged LP in 1966 (UK: as “Jacques Brel, Volume 2”), the stateside Reprise Records stayed safe by playing catch-up on the JACQUES BREL (1965) {*7} compilation of continental choruses. To confuse things further, LES BONBONS (1966) {*6} – recorded back in April ’63 and January ’64 – preceded JACQUES BREL 67 {*7}; the latter issued on Vanguard Records as “Le Formidable Jacques Brel”.
A hugely popular and hard working live performer, BREL had sold out both New York’s Carnegie Hall and London’s Royal Albert Hall. But once again, another LP in his repertoire: J’ARRIVE (1968) {*7}, saw no overseas dispatch, a recurring fact that had already prompted him to depart from the music biz; he’d stated his intention to boycott the USA after they became involved in the Vietnam War. Jacques duly retired to French Polynesia, from where he’d make contractual recording trips back to Paris.
1968’s cast-members set, L’HOMME DE LA MANCHA {*5} joint effort with Joan Diener, and 1969’s children’s animation LP, L’HISTOIRE DE BABAR {*4}, were hardly worth the wait, though film acting/directing theme work a la “Franz” (1971) and “The Far West” (1973), and a re-recordings album, NE ME QUITTE PAS (1972) {*6}, played to a nostalgic audience.
One album in particular, the infectious and aforementioned movie production of JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN PARIS (1975) {*8} adapted the man’s classic songs in a way he himself could not imagine. Adding to what was described as “Cabaret” in bed with “The Producers”, and just when one thought that `Next’ had stolen the showcase, up popped `Alone’ (aka `Seul’) and `If We Only Had Love’ (aka `Quand on n’a que l’amour’) – all classics in their own right. And speeding up to a climactic crescendo and spinning to a new degree in musical dizziness, `Carousel’ (`La valse a mille temps’) and its spiralling accomplice Elly Stone transported one to a place called Vertigo. Lyrically excellent throughout his career, BREL’s mission was to save souls through his wayward transfigurations; prime examples being `The Taxicab’ and drunken barroom drawl, `The Middle Class’.
Diagnosed with advanced lung cancer in the mid-70s; his plans to sail around the globe curtailed, Jacques decided to die alone in the Marquises Island, an exotic hideaway in the Pacific Ocean between Australia and South America. Proving, ironically, he was for now still alive and well (just), he returned to France to cut some songs. His swan song set, LES MARQUISES {*6}, was dispatched in October 1977. In the weeks running up to Christmas, the French chart-topping LP sold in excess of over half a million copies and prompted the release of attendant and completists 7-inch A/B sides.
After three months of intense treatment for his cancer, the great man succumbed to the disease in Bobigny, France, on 9 October 1978. It would now be the turn of future devotees, MARC ALMOND, MOMUS, The DIVINE COMEDY et al to continue his mission to entertain and caress the minds of the oppressed, the dysfunctional, and basically lovers of pertinent and perennial pop music. In 2017, a statue of the BREL singing was unveiled in Brussels.
© MC Strong 2000-2008/GRD-LCS // rev-up MCS Oct2019

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