The Flemish singer and songwriter Jacques Brel rose to prominence before American/English pop music took off and significantly influenced modern-day songwriters. Since the 1960s, many of these pop singers have shown their admiration to Brel and have paid tribute to him by covering his translated songs.
Brel was, first and foremost, a writer. He would later learn more about the mechanics of music theory from the classical piano player, Francoise Rauber, who also accompanied him for his earlier performances. It would stand him in good stead to become the icon he is.
The singer was one of the first major literary songwriters who pulled from subversive material for his songs; prostitution, alcoholism, death, drug use, and the bourgeoisie are just some of the taboo topics Jacques began introducing into popular culture.
Although there is a long list of artists who have covered Brel songs, one of the most popular tributes was from the American singer Scott Walker, although he wasn’t the first. Later, David Bowie did a couple of the songs that Scott Walker did and based them on his arrangements.
These are just a few examples of which we will delve into our definitive list of the best Jacques Brel covers. Below, you’ll find that list.
The best Jacques Brel covers
‘I’m Coming’ – Marc Almond
Marc Almond first rose to fame with the synth-pop band Soft Cell, whose version of ‘Tainted Love’ propelled them to stardom. One thing is clear, and it says something about an artist who covers a Jacques Brel song; usually, that artist deals in subversive themes themselves, which is certainly the case with Soft Cell.
The cover is off Almond’s album Jacques released in 1989, and the entire album is dedicated to Brel. Marc Almond stays true to the original arrangement and isn’t all that different from the version, but instead features more electronic instruments to bring the track into the modern world.
‘Mathilde’ – Scott Walker
When Scott Walker left The Walker Brothers, his debut solo record came out just six months after the break-up.
Walker, who discovered Jacques Brel’s records when he was seeing a German lady, explained: “When I heard Brel, it showed me that it could be done. I’d never anyone else who could write like that – not even Dylan. I thought, ‘That’s for me,’ and recorded them right away before anyone else had done them,” Walker reminisced years later.
‘Mathilde’ appeared on his debut record, along with ‘Amsterdam’ and ‘My Death’.
‘Next’ – Nick Cave
Nick Cave is probably the closest to Jacques Brel’s modern equivalent, so when Cave covered Brel’s song ‘Next!’ in 2007, it made complete sense. Cave delivered a rendition of the song, accentuating the sinister and dark humorous elements that Brel communicated on many occasions.
Cave, who is accompanied by an orchestra among some of his usual partners in crime, delivered a chilling live version of Brel’s ‘Au Suivant’, which, in English is, ‘Next!’. The cover only exists as a live song but is definitely worth the listen.
‘The Desperate Ones’ – Nina Simone
Simone delivers a beautiful rendition of this Brel song, ‘The Desperate Ones’, which is a morbid take on two lovers who end up committing suicide. Simone’s ability to encompass the drama only matched by the original takes its form in a world of dynamics that sees Simone go from quiet to loud, meek to powerful, within seconds.
Simone is a diverse performer who out of necessity learned to play the piano at a young age when she began performing at clubs. Simone’s rendition is haunting, painful, and bittersweet.
‘Amsterdam’ – David Bowie
There are many parallels between David Bowie and Scott Walker, and both remained distant but close friends when they were alive. Having dated the same woman to covering some of the same Brel songs, they both contained a mysterious element that I believe derived from a similar starting place of inspiration. Bowie got the idea to cover Jacques Brel songs from Walker.
‘Amsterdam’ is probably one of Bowie’s best solo performances — just him and the guitar — he has ever delivered. My personal favourite, he carries this tale of raunchiness, poverty and prostitution with such vigour and relentlessness that it is hard not to be moved after hearing his cover.
‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’ – Iggy Pop and Ayo
It seems like they don’t make rock and pop stars like they used to. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, they had audacity, ferociousness, anger and an unwavering sense of rebellion and hope. Iggy Pop once said that the only reason why he didn’t start a jazz band in the day was that he couldn’t find any jazz musicians to play with, so naturally, he started a proto-punk band.
Ayo is a Nigerian-German singer who found tremendous success with her debut record, Joyful, in 2006. She primarily works in folk, soul and reggae.
What makes Iggy Pop and Ayo’s performance special is that they sing it in the original language of french. The combination of the two voices is a special one; on one end, we have the punk crooner, whose deep inflexion creates the perfect interpretation. On the other, Ayo’s voice is as smooth as jazz voices get, complimenting the bluntness of Iggy’s voice very well.