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Music / Jacques Brel

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Jacques Romain Georges Brel (8 April 1929 – 9 October 1978) was Belgium's most famous and influential singer.

Together with Georges Brassens and Léo Ferré he is considered to be one of the Big Three of the Francophone music genre Chanson. He is widely admired for his deeply human, passionate but also cynical and satirical songs. Several of his songs have been become classics: "Ne Me Quitte Pas" and "Le Plat Pays" are his Signature Songs, but "Amsterdam", "Les Bourgeois", "Le Moribond", "Marieke", "Les Flamandes", "La Chanson de Jacky", "La Valse A Mille Temps", "Ces Gens-là"... are also well known.

Brel came from a Flemish bourgeoisie family. He had a dull youth in the shadow of the Catholic Church and narrow minded civilians. His early work was rather naive and preachy and in Paris people ridiculed his Belgian accent. Brel then changed his style by switching over to more mature subject matter and a standard French pronunciation. This made him a success both in his own country and soon in the entire world. Despite often referring to his fatherland Brel's music is both timeless and universal. He is the closest Belgium ever came to having a masterful lyricist of international stature à la Bob Dylan. His native French tongue made his songs a bit more difficult to understand for other languages, but luckily his work has been Covered Up by artists as varied as Frank Sinatra ("If You Go Away", a cover of "Ne Me Quitte Pas" on My Way), Nina Simone, Scott Walker and David Bowie. Most listeners in the English speaking world will know him from "Seasons in the Sun", the Translated Cover Version written by Rod McKuen and popularized by Terry Jacks, which is a sentimental and ludicrously bowdlerised adaptation of Brel's powerful "Le Moribond" ("The Dying Man"), and there's also the revue Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, which debuted off-Broadway in 1968 and has had numerous theatrical runs, plus a film adaptation in 1975 (which included a cameo by Brel himself).

Brel was full of energy. The singer gave wild concerts where he performed each number with both passionate drama as exaggerated comedy. After the show he never went home straight away, but instead stayed up in the local bars until the early morning light. Even during plane flights to concerts, when he claimed to be relaxing, he used the time to write new songs! Brel abruptly quit giving concerts in 1966 and then switched to new challenges. He translated Man of La Mancha into French and starred in the French premiere of the musical, starred and directed in a few films (Les Risques du métier and L'aventure, c'est l'aventure, for example) and for the remainder of his life he travelled over the ocean to Tahiti. In 1977 he unexpectedly returned to Belgium to record one final album. A year later the chain smoker died at the age of only 49.

Despite his wide acclaim the singer is still frowned upon in certain circles. He frequently treated women, the Church, Flemings and the Bourgeoisie as acceptable to mock.

This singer provides examples of:

  • Age-Progression Song: "Zangra", "Mon Enfance", "Au Suivant", "Les Vieux", "Vieillir", "Les Bourgeois", "Rosa, Rosa, Rosa"'', "Les Flamandes"...
  • The Alcoholic: "L'Ivrogne".
  • Alone in a Crowd: In "Orly" Brel observes a parting couple surrounded by countless other passengers at an airport, but he is particularly fascinated by these two alone.
  • Anti-Love Song: In some of Brel's songs ("Madeleine","Les Bonbons", "Mathilde",...) women are dangerous seducers or just ruthlessly take advantage of men. He cherished male friendships more than romances with females in his songs, even telling his depressed friend Jef in "Jef" to cheer up and go to a brothel with him, where new girls have just arrived.
  • Bilingual Bonus:
    • His song "Marieke" is part Dutch, part French. At his own request the Dutch part is left intact when other artists cover the song.
    • Brel also covered a few of his French language songs in Dutch.
    • In his scathing anti-Flemish nationalistic song "Les F..." Brel sings: "Et quand des Chinois cultivés me demande d' où que je suis, je réponds fatigués et avec des larmes sous dents: Ik ben van Luxembourg. (And when cultivated Chinese ask me from where I from, I respond tired and with tears between my teeth: "I am from Luxembourg".)
  • Badass Boast:
    • In "Les F..." Brel launches a scathing attack on the flamingants (Flemish-nationalists) and concludes his vitriolic comments with the declaration: Et si mes frères se taisent et bien tant pis pour elles/Je chante persiste et signe je m'appelle Jacques Brel ("And if my brothers remain silent, well, to hell with them/I stick to what I sing and sign "My name is Jacques Brel.").
  • Blasphemous Boast: Brel sang a lot of them:
    • In Le Dernier Repas he sings that before he dies he wants to shout out Dieu est mort! ("God is dead!") one more time.
    • In La Chanson de Jacky the final verse boasts that even when he is in Heaven with God and his angels he will still be doing what he wants to do, "beautiful and stupid" at the same time.
    • In "Dites" Brel talks about religious faith and summarizes many questionable elements with the expression if it's true. He concludes the song with the stinger that that all of it is beautiful if you believe... that it's true.
  • Boomerang Bigot: Brel was a Belgian who spoke French and would technically be considered a French-speaking Bruxellois. Yet he always identified himself as Flemish, even though he seldom spoke Dutch in real life and always kept a love-hate relationship with the Flemish people. He sang three controversial songs in which the Flemish are brutally mocked and the song "Les F..." was even banned from radio airplay in Flanders back in 1978. In this song Brel even sings that when cultivated Chinese ask him his country of origin, he simply lies that he's from Luxembourg (albeit not without tears between his teeth).
  • Chanson One of the most famous examples of this genre.
  • Cheerful Funeral: In "Le Moribond", the narrator insists that, even if his loved ones (or not-so-loved-ones) grieve him, he wants his funeral to be a joyous affair.
  • Childhood Friend Romance: Brel hates school in the song "Rosa, Rosa, Rosa", but is very interested in the girl Rosa.
  • Coming of Age Story: "Mon Enfance".
  • Corrupt Church: Brel attacked the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church and its clergy a lot.
  • Double Entendre: His lyrics sometimes had double meanings, which are sometimes overlooked by non-French speakers.
    • Example: Nous étions deux amis et la Fanette m' aimait (We were two friends and La Fanette loved me) in the song "La Fanette" changes its meaning in the final part by only changing one letter in the entire sentence: ... la Fanette l'aimait (... la Fanette loved him.)
  • Drunken Song:
    • "La Bière" is an Ode to Intoxication.
    • "Les Paumés Du Petit Main" sings about pathetic and lonely drunks late at night.
  • Dying Alone: "La Ville S' Endormait".
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: Brel's early songs were very saccharine, preachy and full of Catholic inspired messages. Georges Brassens even named him l'abbé Brel ("Abbot Brel"). His Brussels accent was also ridiculed. Brel then decided to change his image. He learned to speak standard French with a very clear pronunciation, free of his native accent, and changed his subject matter to more daring material.
  • A Friend in Need: A lot of Brel's songs deal with strong male friendships and how he wants to help and comfort them thru bad times.
    • In "Voir Un Ami Pleurer" Brel sings how he can stand a lot of human dramas, but not a friend who is crying.
    • In "Jef" he tries to comfort a depressed friend called Jef.
    • "Jojo" is a passionate homage to a personal friend of Brel who had recently died.
  • Flashback Nightmare: In "Au Suivant" a former soldier is haunted by Recurring Dreams of a visit to a prostitute while he was doing his military service. He lost his virginity there and got the clap, but worst of all he was more or less forced to do it as quickly as possible while waiting in line with all the other soldiers.
  • Fun with Homophones: Several of them in the chorus of "La valse à mille temps": Brel first uses the homophony between "à vingt temps" (with twenty beats) and "à vingt ans" (at twenty years old), then "à cent temps" (with a hundred beats) and "ça s'entend" ([it] can be heard), and finally between "à mille temps" (with a thousand beats) and "a mis l'temps" (took the time [to]).
  • Grandparental Obliviousness: "Les Vieux"
  • Grief Song: "Fernand", "Jojo", "Viellir", "Le Moribond", "Le Dernier Repas", "Tango Funèbre", "La Ville S' Endormait".
  • Growing Up Sucks: Songs like "Mon Enfance", "Rosa"'' and "Il Neige Sur Liège" mourn over the end of all the dreams and illusions the protagonist once had as a kid.
  • Grow Old with Me: "La Chanson des Vieux Amants".
  • Have a Gay Old Time: In "Bruxelles", he mentionnes that his grandparents "were gay like the waterway".
  • Henpecked Husband: A lot of men in Brel's songs are pitiful losers under the thumb of their lovers or flames. In "Vésoul" a man finally has the balls to resist his nagging wife who orders him to drive everywhere she orders him to.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: "Jojo", a moving tribute by Brel to his best friend Jojo, who had recently died from cancer.
  • Hypercompetent Sidekick: His accordionist Marcel Azzola, one of the best players of the instrument of his time. His insane show-stealing speed in Vesoul has led Brel to the iconic exclamation Chauffe, Marcel, chauffe (heat it up, Marcel, heat it up!), which even has entered the French language as an idiom.
  • Jukebox Musical: In English. Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. One of the earliest examples. Mostly a revue, though different directors can add a vague storyline.
  • Karmic Transformation: The three students in "Les Bourgeois" sing how they hate the bourgeoisie, but near the end of the song they have grown old and became part of the bourgeoisie themselves. In a case of Hypocritical Humour they now complain themselves that they are ridiculed by sassy college students.
  • Large Ham: Brel could ham it up magnificently whenever he wanted to. Like in this rendition of "Amsterdam".
  • Last Request: "J' Arrive" about a man about to die who would like to do so much more before he goes.
  • List Song: "Ces Gens-Là", "Je Suis Un Soir D'Eté", "Vésoul"
  • Location Song: Brel has quite a few of these:
    • "Amsterdam": a song about the Dutch capital city. Brel depicts the sleazy life of sailors there. David Bowie covered it later on his album Pin Ups.
    • "Bruxelles", a song about how the Belgian capital Brussels was once full of life. The song ends on a depressing note when the music slowly but surely loses all of its cheeriness and comes to a halt, signifying the city nowadays is only a shadow of its former self.
    • "Il Neige Sur Liège": A song where Brel observes snow falling down on the Belgian city Liége and reflects his dreams are also being covered with snow nowadays.
    • "Les Marquises: During the final years of his life Brel lived on the Marquesas Isles in French Polynesia. Before he died "Les Marquises" was his final recorded song. It reflects on the simple, carefree life of the local people there who don't worry about the problems of the modern world.
    • "Mon Père Disait": Brel sings how his father told him that London is actually a piece of the Belgian city Bruges that floated away.
    • "Orly" takes place at the airport in Orly, Paris, where he observes a couple saying goodbye to each other.
    • "Vésoul": A song about a nagging couple who want to travel to several different places, but can never decide where exactly they want to go. The French place Vésoul is only of the many locations mentioned.
  • Lonely Funeral: "Fernand", "Jojo", "La Ville s' Endormait"
  • Lyrical Dissonance: "Le Moribond", a cheery song about a man on his death bed.
  • Manly Tears:
    • In "Jef" Brel tries to cheer up his depressed friend and tells him to wipe away his tears.
    • In "Voir Un Ami Pleurer" Brel sings that he cannot stand the sight of a friend crying.
    • In "Les F..." Brel lies about being Flemish to a group of cultivated Chinese with tears between his teeth.
    • Some of his performances were so intense that he cried on stage.
  • Milking the Giant Cow: A noted master of this. His unusually large hands and long limbs increased this impression and some people argue he might have had a mild form of Marfan syndrome.
  • Misogyny Song: Brel once described women as tender vampires and in many of his lyrics men are weak and seduced by women, even though they should know better.
  • Motor Mouth: "La Valse a Mille Temps" (The Waltz With A Thousand Beats) by the last verse.
  • My Country Tis of Thee That I Sting: Brel was often fiercely critical of the Flemish and especially Flemish nationalists. Yet he always considered himself to be Flemish, since he was raised by Flemish parents, even though he spoke French and his knowledge of the Dutch language was always rusty.
  • Neologism: Brel sometimes invented new words, difficult to translate.
    C'était au temps que Bruxelles "bruxellait" - "Bruxelles"
    Six pieds sous terre, Jojo, tu "frères" encore - "Jojo"
  • Non-Appearing Title: "Le Moribond" (The Dying Man) being about the narrator.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: At the start of his career Brel was ridiculed for his Brussels accent by other Frenchmen. He took diction lessons until he spoke very clear standard French. Yet Brel never mastered the Dutch language and even when he recorded a few Dutch cover versions of his original French language songs his French accent is very clear. Brel was assisted by Dutch speech coach and translator Ernst Van Altena, but struggled so much thru certain Dutch words that he simply gave up.
  • Not Quite Dead: Brel sings in "Jojo" that his late best friend may be six feet under the ground, but he is not dead to him.
    Six pieds sous terre/ tu n'est pas mort.
  • One-Man Song: "Jef", "Jojo",...
  • One-Woman Song: "Mathilde", "Marieke", "Madeleine",...
  • Patter Song: The conclusion of the studio version of "Une Valse à Mille Temps", which has to be heard to be believed. Even during concerts he was unable to match the speed of this studio delivery.
    • "Vesoul" is another showcase for Brel's ability to sing a lot of words at breakneck speed.
  • Patriotic Fervor: "Le Plat Pays", a moving ballad about his "flat homecountry".
  • Pep-Talk Song:
    • "Le Bon Dieu", with those immortal lines:
    Toi, tu es beaucoup plus mieux: tu es un homme! ("You, you are far more beautiful: you are a man/human!")
    • "Jef", in which Brel cheers up a sad man.
    • "Marieke", a love song about a Flemish girl between Bruges et Gand.
    • "Jacky", the most Badass Boast Brel ever recorded about life and himself.
  • Pink Elephants: "La Chanson de Jacky", in which Brel envisions a future where he sings a drunken elegy to his prime years for the pink elephants every night.
  • Please, Don't Leave Me: The message of "Ne Me Quitte Pas".
  • The Power of Friendship: "Jef", "Jojo", "Voir Un Ami Pleurer".
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: "Les Flamandes", "Les F..., F..., F..." and "Les F...", all targeting the Flemish (nationalists) in Belgium. Since he was born to a Flemish father Brel thought he had a right to criticize his own people, even though he mostly spoke French instead of Dutch.
  • Protest Song: Several, often a case of Take That!.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Brel's Large Ham is the Red Oni to the Blue Oni of his favorite arranger François Rauber. Rauber's impressionistic and jazz-influenced arrangements balanced out the over-the-top performances of Brel.
  • Religion Rant Song: Brel wrote a lot of these, against the Catholic Church in particular.
  • Romantic Hyperbole: "Ne me quitte pas" (Don't leave me) has a number of line about what the singer would do to keep their lover. Unlike other songs where this is considered completely romantic, this one is more about how the despair associated with losing love would make you do really desperate things. One example among many:
    Moi je t'offrirai/ Des perles de pluies/ Venues de pays/ Ou il ne pleut pas\\I will bring you pearls of rain from countries where there is no rain.
  • Saying Sound Effects Out Loud: In "Ces Gens-Là" Brel imitates a tragic family eating soup by making slurping sounds.
  • Sequel Song: "Les bonbons 67" to the '64 song.
  • Sharp-Dressed Man: Brel usually appeared in public wearing a tuxedo.
  • Shout-Out:
    • "Vésoul" has several shout-outs to "Marcel", which is the name of his accordeonist, Marcel Azzola.
  • Singer Namedrop: "Grand Jacques", "Jacky" and coupled with Self-Deprecation in "Les bonbon 67" ("I've lost the Brussels accent. Besides nobody has that accent anymore. Except for Brel on the television").
  • Smoking Is Cool: Smoked four packs a day.
  • Take That!!: The Church, the Bourgeoisie, the Flemish and women were his most prominent targets.
    • In "Orly" Brel sings that it is sad to be at the Orly airport, with or without Bécaud. This is a sarcastic jab at singer Gilbert Bécaud's romantic song "Dimanche à Orly" ("Sunday at Orly").
    • "Le Moribond" is about a dying man addressing (among others) his wife and his friend who were cuckolding him. It became a straightforward saccharine song as "Seasons of the Sun".
  • Throwaway Country: In "Mon Père Disait" he sings how his father told him that London is just a piece of the town Bruges, Belgium that long ago floated away on sea and then got attached to England.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: The song "Jaurés" asks the rhetoric question why the French socialist Jean Jaurés was murdered back in 1914, despite his good nature.
  • Trrrilling Rrrs: His signature style.
  • Wham Line: "Dites" has Brel ask questions about the Christian faith with the question "si c' était vrai" ("If it's true"), then ends with the following lyrics and the Wham Line:
    Si c´était vrai tout cela ("If it's all true")
    Je dirais oui ("I say "yes")
    Oh, sûrement je dirais oui ("Oh sure, I would say "yes")
    Parce que c´est tellement beau tout cela ("Because it's all beautiful, all that")
    Quand on croit que c´est vrai. ("If you believe it's true.")
  • You Are Not Alone: "Jef," performed in English translation in Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris as "You're Not Alone."