Following on from the previous post here is some more information about Jacques Brel. He was one of the great singer-songwriters of the 20th century, and though English translations can never compare to the real thing, they do give those of us who don’t speak French a chance to understand and enjoy his work. This is a brief survey of the best translated versions of his songs. I’ve included the videos in the form of a playlist below.
IF YOU GO AWAY – DUSTY SPRINGFIELD
By the early sixties Brel was a star in France and he began to attract the interest of translators. Rod McKuen’s version of ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’ remains the most popular Brel translation, despite or because of the fact the lyrics are rather bland compared to the original. It has been recorded by countless artists, but you can’t go wrong with Dusty Springfield’s version.
SEASONS IN THE SUN – BLACK BOX RECORDER
In general I think McKeun took far too many liberties with the original Brel lyrics, in fact sometimes he ignored them completely. His own album ‘Rod McKuen sings Jaques Brel’, sung in the manner of a hammy actor, is only recommended to masochists (though ‘The Women’ will certainly raise a few eyebrows). His adaptation of ‘Seasons In The Sun’ was a huge hit for Terry Jacks, and is similarly painful. Much more palatable is this tongue in cheek cover by Black Box Recorder.
THE DOVE – JUDY COLLINS
A superb version of this anti-war song, translated by Alasdair Clayre in the mid-sixties. Sadly this was his only Brel adaption.
FUNERAL TANGO – MORT SCHUMAN
This is from ‘Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris’, a plotless musical from 1968 made up completely of translated Brel songs. All the songs were adapted by Mort Schuman, and they certainly catch the spirit of Brel better than Rod McKuen did.
JACKIE – SCOTT WALKER
Clearly inspired by the above musical, Scott Walker included nine Brel adaptions on his late sixties albums. It’s a cliché, but they probably are the best English versions ever recorded.
AMSTERDAN – DAVID BOWIE
Clealy inspired by Scott Walker’s version. It’s also interesting to note Brel’s influence of Bowie’s own songs, particularly ‘Rock & Roll Suicide’.
NEXT – ALEX HARVEY
Covering Brel seemed to be cool in the early seventies when this wonderfully OTT single was a hit.
SEE A FRIEND IN TEARS – MOMUS
By the eighties covering Brel was not so fashionable. This adaption by Momus from a 1986 EP is superb. More please Momus, it’s not too late!
THE BULLS – MARC ALMOND
Marc Almond is another one who has tried to keep the Brel torch burning in the UK. Unfortunately his 1989 LP ‘Jacques’ is very disappointing, though ‘I’m Coming’ is an unintentional comedy classic. ‘The Bulls’ is my pick as the best track, a song he had also recorded earlier in the eighties with Marc & The Mambas.
YUPPIE SCUM – TOM ROBINSON
A spirited live track from the early nineties.
IT SNOWS – PETER OSTROWSKI
Peter Ostrowski has translated and recorded 41 of Brel’s less well known songs. My pick would have been his version of ‘Jaures’, one of Brel’s last songs. However, that isn’t on YouTube, so I’ve gone for another track.
Let’s end with perhaps the cream of the crop, another from Scott Walker. Arguably this is the one Brel song that actually sounds better in English. Hey Scott, it’s not too late to do some more! It could be interesting combined with your current avant garde style…