Jacques Brel is a legend and one of the premier musical icons of the 20th century. Despite being born in Belgium, he is perhaps the most influential French-speaking artist of all time, and has had a profound and lasting effect on the British and American music industry, where his passion and legendary performance broke the barrier of language and influenced some of the most highly regarded artists.
His life and work would go on to inspire many artists who would go on to use a hint of Brel in their works; his reach is diverse and transcends all genres, from rock to punk, and from jazz to rap. Artists like David Bowie and Scott Walker took more than a few tips from Brel, particularly his announcement of hiatus at the height of his career, followed by a critically acclaimed resurgence.
When I and many others saw the concert footage of David Bowie at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1973, the night he ‘retired’ Ziggy Stardust, I could not help but see the similarities between the artists. Bowie followed his announcement with Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide, a song which was inspired by an English translation of Brel’s Jef, which calls out “Oh no, you’re not alone!”
His life is legendary, surrounded by mythology, but biographies of Jacques are few and far between in the English speaking world. He is a ghost of pop music, his influence is felt across all generations, styles and artists, but often without a name. He is both immensely popular and underground.
What lies behind the remarkable performer, however, is a man with an inspirational story, complex emotions behind his sentiment towards his home country, and a plethora of albums, each with their own virtues.
I do not recall when I first became aware of Jacques. Before I was a teenager, I remember seeing the title to the musical Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, and finding the name familiar. Later, I heard David Bowie singing Amsterdam and in the process of looking into that song found a video of Jacques singing the original version with English subtitles. At the age of 16 I performed the song in French as part of my GCSE Music performance.
Over the years, my collection of Jacques Brel music memorabilia has grown to become the largest collection of Brel in England, with over 35 examples of Brel’s autograph and a variety of rare and collectable items.