Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon, Gavin Friday and Jack L give their opinions of one of their biggest influences.
In the '90's climate of computer music and BPMs, the
suggestion that a Belgian cabaret artist, popular in 1950's France,
is still relevant seems laughable.
Be that as it may, the Brussels born singer Jacques Brel's influence
has never been far from contemporary music.
Brel was born in 1929. He recorded most of his work in French
before retiring from the music biz in '67. His music was brought
to the 60s beat generation by pop star Scott Walker who recorded
7 of his songs on his first 3 solo albums. These were later repackaged
as 'Scott Walker Sings Jacques Brel'.
Brel's work was brought to the Broadway stage in 1968 by Mort
Schuman with the musical 'Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and
Living in Paris'. The title proved ironic as Brel retired to
the Marquesas Islands in '74 with cancer. He returned to Paris
in '77 to record his swan-song 'Brel' and died the same year.
Brel wrote songs about all aspects of life. His themes included
love, loss, death, drink, drugs and war. The attraction of his
writing is his clarity and honesty. He wrote about human emotion
in a way that can be understood by all, even if the language is
His songs have been recorded by many artists and have influenced
the work of many more. David Bowie recorded versions of 'Port
of Amsterdam' and 'My Death'. Marc Almond recorded an
entire album of his songs entitled 'Jacques' and followed
it up with a camp disco version of 'Jacky'.
Brel's finger-prints are still evident on today's music scene.
Between their early gothic sound and their current end-of-the-millennium
disco anthems, Brit-pop band Pulp have had one constant: most
of their releases have featured a Brel-esque cabaret number.
Three of the top Irish acts of the moment are quick to name-check
Brel as a strong influence. Mr Divine Comedy, Neil Hannon, ex-Virgin
Prune Gavin Friday and new boy Jack Lukeman are all recording
and performing cabaret for the 90s.
The Brel influence is clearest in Jack L's recordings. His first
album with the band the Black Romantics, 'Wax', featured,
almost exclusively, Brel numbers.
"Lyrically he's the man for me: what he writes about and
how well he can do it. His writing is very naked, very bare, but
not too serious."
This sentiment is echoed by Neil.
"It was basically his ability to meld a classic romantic
style with kitchen sink normality and create powerful songs. He
had the power to draw you in with a good tune and then subvert
Gavin Friday says it's obvious what the attraction is.
"Read his words, he was one of the great singer song-writers.
Whether he was writing tender love-songs or vicious political
stuff, he was one of the greats, up there with Leonard Cohen and
anyone else you care to mention."
According to Jack the reaction to 'My Death' can be strange
when he plays it live.
"The song's about death with an optimistic chorus. People
enjoy it and then realise it's about death. They don't really
end up cheering wildly."
Unlike Jack, Gavin has only released one Brel song. 'Next'
was on his first solo album, 'Each Man Kills the Thing He Loves'.
"When I finished with the Virgin Prunes, I played in the
Blue Jaysus a lot. I wasn't interested in playing old Prunes songs,
I wanted to find my own identity. Myself and Maurice (Seezer,
his partner-in-cabaret) started playing songs we loved, which
included a lot of Brel and some Kurt Weill numbers. When we went
into the studio we recorded two Brel tracks, 'My Death' and
"I like the sentiment of 'Next', it was like the whole
punk angst thing, about not liking being told what to do. Brel,
on-stage, just spat it out, like punk, but he was coming from
a Vaudeville background. There's that kind of streak in me. I'm
thirty-odd now and I still don't like being told what to do.
"I could relate to 'Next'. That's important, you have
to be able to make a song your own. Brel spits it out, so I thought
it would be good with to record it with a discordant punk/jazz
Jack just likes his outlook.
"He's seen as bleak in some ways, but he showed the beauty
of people and the working class. He must have had a very deep
heart to write songs like 'If You Go Away'. They're soppy,
but not in a cliché kind of way."
Both Neil and Jack were introduced to Jacques Brel through Scott
Walker and in many ways this influences their style.
Gavin Friday was introduced to Brel in a much more direct manner.
"I had heard of him, mostly through other people versions
of his songs, Terry Jacks'' Seasons in the Sun', David Bowie's
'Port of Amsterdam', but I hadn't heard him. I was touring
France and this journalist came up to me and said 'You've got
to see this.' He had a video of Brel's last show in the Olympia
in Paris in 1966.
"I was blown away, smitten. It was in French and my French
is very basic, but I understood everything. It was like, as a
kid, turning on a TV and seeing Johnny Rotten screaming - you
could relate to the intensity. It was the way he moved, how he
used his hands.
I started buying all the stuff I could get, I went around French
shops buying all the stuff I could. I bought Scott Walker records,
even that dreadful musical 'Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and
Living in Paris', everything.
"I think it's great that people are getting interested in
him, but I've got a qualm about people picking up on him. They're
all performing from a Scott Walker angle. At the same time, I
give a big thumbs up to people who are doing his songs."
Neil thinks it's peculiar how Brel comes and goes.
"I'm not sure why he's currently popular, but maybe he fits
in with things people are trying to do, trying to spruce up song-writing.
As far as its popularity among Irish artists, I think his cynicism,
his mocking tone is the same as the Irish mocking outlook."
Gavin has a simple theory about the current popularity of Brel's
"It's 'cause it's brilliant. A great song will out-live trends."
Jack thinks it comes from the fact that songs were dying out for
"Dance music meant that songs were getting lost. Neil Hannon
and Gavin Friday are concentrating more on the lyric; trying to
write songs with a bit of depth; trying to go back to a classic
kind of song."
While Neil Hannon seems content to concentrate on his lyrics and
record music in a classic style, both Gavin and Jack have added
more modern elements to the music.
Jack added a techno element to some of the songs to update them
and bring them to people of his own age and younger.
"It's amazing because at the shows themselves, there are
teenagers and old dears. I love it. It shows the strength of the
Gavin worked with Tim Simenon on his last album for the same reason.
"I deliberately picked Simenon, because the most interesting
stuff is coming out of dance. Rhythm is the sound of the end of
the 20th Century and I wanted to use that, but I also brought
along my vaudeville influence, accordions and cellos. You don't
repeat the past, you have to move on. In fact, Brel tried to do
that in the 70s, he made funky records. It was dreadful, but he
was trying to move the music on."
Despite all of the theorising about Brel's music and its popularity
at different times, Neil Hannon, in his own inimitable style,
has a much simpler theory as to Brel's longevity.
"He was beautifully ugly!"
by Donnacha DeLong.