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Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living on Cherry Red’s El Label

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The English-speaking world was let in on a secret when, early in 1968, it was revealed that Belgian songwriter/actor Jacques Brel was Alive and Well and Living in Paris.  The musical revue opened at New York’s Village Gate and counted among its cast Mort Shuman, the Brill Building-era composer of “Viva Las Vegas,” “This Magic Moment” and “Save the Last Dance for Me,” all co-written with Doc Pomus.  Shuman had become enchanted with Brel’s hauntingly dramatic music, and in addition to performing in the show, he and Eric Blau fashioned English translations of his stark chansons.  They didn’t shy away from the lyrical subjects that set Brel’s songs apart.  Very little was taboo for Brel, whose songs often lacked sentimentality and addressed death, whores, opium dens, homosexuality, abuse and venereal disease.  Yet those songs caught on.  The musical ran in New York for over four years and spawned a film version, while the profile of Brel’s songs remained high.  Even before the play opened, Scott Walker had popularized a number of his works with the Shuman lyrics, but Walker wasn’t the first or the last to perform Brel’s songs in English.  Others have included David Bowie, Sting, Frank Sinatra, Nina Simone, Judy Collins and one Terry Jacks, who made a smash hit out of Brel’s “Seasons in the Sun” in 1974.

The Cherry Red Group’s El Records label is offering a chance to hear some of Brel’s earliest compositions on the new release The Ballad of Jacques Brel.  This 28-track collection covers the period between 1958 and 1961 when Brel’s star was in the ascendant; in 1959, aged 30, he had even topped the bill at the Paris Olympia.  The centerpiece of El’s collection is the 1961 album No. 5, later reissued after one of its most famous songs as “Marieke.”   In addition to “Marieke” (later recorded in English by Judy Collins, among others), No. 5 introduced “Le Moribond,” the tale of a dying man’s farewell to his family and friends.  In a Rod McKuen translation first recorded by The Kingston Trio, “Le Moribond” became “Seasons in the Sun,” perhaps still Brel’s most famous song.

Hit the jump for more, including the complete track listing with discography and an order link!

It’s not necessary to know French to enjoy these tracks, though it certainly doesn’t hurt!  Even if your primary language is English, you may be captivated by the passionate and somewhat histrionic delivery by the singer/songwriter, befitting the big emotions of his songs.  (As Mort Shuman once said, “The only time I’d heard such virility in a voice was in black singers…here was a man who combined raw force with the most meaningful lyrics I had heard in songs, a deep understanding of the human condition.”)  The musical palette on No. 5 is a diverse one, from the jaunty melody of “On N’Oublie Rien” (“You Don’t Forget”) and the jazzy, Latin-flavored “Clara” with its wailing saxophone, to the plaintive ballad “Le Prochain Amour” (“The Next Love”).  Brel’s intensity vividly conveys the feeling behind the lyrics in any language.

No. 5 is augmented by songs from a variety of sources.  Four songs come from Simone Langlois’ Chante Brel EP, including a rendition of “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” translated by McKuen as “If You Go Away.”  (As was frequently the case with translations of Brel’s songs, “If You Go Away” isn’t a literal translation, and the original French lyric is darker in tone.)  One of Brel’s most-recorded songs, it’s also heard in a version by the French pianist/chanteuse simply known as Barbara.  This recording is historically significant, as it’s acknowledged as the song’s first cover.  Seven songs are taken from Barbara chante Jacques Brel.  Barbara also sings “Les Flamandes,” or “The Flemish,” which was rewritten as “Marathon” by Shuman.  Three rare tracks have been sourced from the television special Rendez-vous avec Jacques Brel.  Rounding out the compilation are covers from familiar names including Juliette Greco, Yves Montand and even Sam Cooke.  “I Belong To Your Heart,” the album’s lone track in English, features a lyric translated by Carl Sigman (“Unchained Melody”).  The Ballad of Jacques Brel is made possible due to current United Kingdom copyright law which finds music more than 50 years old to be in the public domain.

The booklet features photographs of the composer and a four-page essay focusing more on biographical details than specific information as to the recordings contained on the album.  Brel died in 1978, just 49 years of age, but The Ballad of Jacques Brel still remains both potent and absorbing today.  It’s available now from the El Records label!

Jacques Brel, The Ballad of Jacques Brel (El Records ACMEM230CD, 2012)

  1. Marieke
  2. Le Moribond (The Dying Man)
  3. Vivre Debout (Living Up)
  4. On N’Oublie Rien (You Don’t Forget)
  5. Clara
  6. Le Prochain Amour (The Next Love)
  7. L’Ivrogne (The Drunkard)
  8. Les Prenomes de Paris (The Names of Paris)
  9. Les Singes (Monkeys)
  10. Seul (Alone)
  11. On N’Oublie Rien (You Don’t Forget)
  12. Je Ne Sais Pas (I Don’t Know)
  13. Ne Me Quitte Pas (If You Go Away) – Simone Langlois
  14. Heureux (Happy) – Simone Langlois
  15. Au Printemps (In the Spring) – Simone Langlois
  16. Il Nous Faut Regarder (We Must Look) – Simone Langlois
  17. Quand On N’a Que L’Amour (When We’ve Nothing But Love) – Dalida
  18. I Belong to Your Heart (Quand On N’a Que L’Amour) – Sam Cooke
  19. Le Diable (Ça Va) (The Devil – It’s Going Well) – Juliette Greco
  20. On N’Oublie Rien (You Don’t Forget) – Juliette Greco
  21. Voir (See) – Yves Montand
  22. Les Flamandes (The Flemish) – Barbara
  23. Je Ne Sais Pais (I Don’t Know) – Barbara
  24. Seul (Alone) – Barbara
  25. Sur La Place (On the Square) – Barbara
  26. Ne Me Quitte Pas (If You Go Away) – Barbara
  27. Le Fou Du Roi (The Jester) – Barbara
  28. Litanies Pour un Retour (Litany For a Return) – Barbara

Tracks 1-9 from No. 5, Philips LP B 76.513 R, 1961
Tracks 10-12 from Rendez-vous avec Jacques Brel television special
Tracks 13-16 from Chante Brel, Pergola 450.074, 1960
Track 17 from Miguel, Barclay LP, 1957
Track 18 from RCA single 7330, 1960
Tracks 19-20 performed by Juliette Greco, discographical information TBD
Track 21 from 1958 Recital at the Theatre de L’Etoile, Philips LP 77,321, 1959
Tracks 22-28 from Barbara chante Jacques Brel, Odeon LP, 1961

Written by Joe Marchese

May 1, 2012 at 14:02

One Response

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  1. I guess “Ne me quitte pas” (If you leave me now) is his more widely known song. Terry Jacks change the original idea of the lyrics ommiting this refrain

    Adieu, Francoise, my trusted wife, without you I’d have had a lonely life.
    You cheated lots of times but then, I forgave you in the end though your lover was my friend.
    Adieu, Francoise, it’s hard to die when all the birds are singing in the sky. Now that spring is in the air
    With your lovers everywhere; just be careful, I’ll be there.



    May 1, 2012 at 15:50

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