Jacques Brel is one of the most covered French language singers of all time. In this list are my top five covers of Jacques Brel’s music.
I’ve left out the more common covers and looked to represent a range of styles that show Brel’s influence on a wide variety of musicians: from punks to goths, and from rock stars to jazz icons…
Let me know what you think of this list in the comments section!
5: Iggy Pop & Ayo – ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’
Iggy is perhaps one of the more interesting artists inspired by Jacques Brel. Mr Pop has always been a fan of jazz, once saying that the only reason he started the Stooges (the original punk rock band) was that he didn’t know any jazz musicians he could play with. Pop would have been introduced to Brel through covers by crooners such as Frank Sinatra, who recorded English-language versions of ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’ and ‘Fils De’, and would have been introduced to at least ‘My Death’ and ‘Amsterdam’ by David Bowie.
Iggy’s ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’, while lacking the command of the French language of the original, captures the passion and longing of the piece. his deep and smooth voice is certainly closer to Brel’s than any other artist who’s attempted his work. Similarly, Ayo’s emotional performance acts as a perfect juxtaposition to the ageing rocker, adding a new perspective into the mix. Both artist possess this song, turning it from a mere cover version into something special.
4: David Bowie – ‘My Death’
If any artist comes close to the theatricality of Brel’s performances, it’s David Bowie. Bowie has a long history of covering Brel’s music – and there are other remarkable similarities that I wrote about here. ‘My Death’ (recorded here live at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1973) isn’t as famous as Bowie’s rendition of ‘Amsterdam’, but its importance to the set – which would see Bowie infamously retire the Ziggy Stardust character – is immeasurable.
This is the set piece in the killing off of the Ziggy. Before the song starts, Bowie introduces it as “a quiet song” before pleading with the audience to be quiet – thus highlighting its importance in the Ziggy narrative.
Bowie would come back to this song many times during his career, including this fantastic at the GQ awards in 1997.
3: Nick Cave – ‘Next’
This is a particularly raunchy version of this song, which captures Brel’s sinister humour very well. This version has been modelled after Alex Harvey’s 1970s cover, which introduced many to Brel’s work when it was broadcast on the Old Grey Whistle Test in the UK.
Nick Cave is perhaps the closest modern musician and lyricist to Brel, and his music exists in a similar sphere – covering themes such as love, loss, spirituality, as well as highly poetic and vivid imagery.
2: Marc Almond – ‘Jacky’
More interesting than Walker’s reading of ‘La Chanson De Jacky’ is Marc Almond’s 1991 attempt. While the production may now seem dated, and the translation hasn’t been improved from the Walker cover (it retains the laughable “Spanish bum” line…), Almond’s performance here is on point and from the music video it’s evident that he had been watching footage of Brel.
1: Nina Simone – ‘The Desperate Ones’
Haunting and full of longing, Nina Simone’s voice on this track encapsulates its mood perfectly. Combined with her simple piano, Simone’s voice ranges from whispers to tearful yelps as the recounts the story of ‘the desperate ones’, a pair of ill-fated lovers who take their lives.
The translation Simone uses, while removing much of Brel’s poetry, is one of Shuman’s better efforts and retains the tragic feel of the song – keeping the iconic line that the lovers ‘know the word love, but don’t know how’.
Once again. what makes this cover special is the performer’s ability to transform the song into her own inimitable performance, which doesn’t merely seek to emulate the original, but builds upon it with a new perspective.