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A Celebration Of Jacques Brel
Attila The Stockbroker first encountered the music of Jacques Brel in a Belgian squat in 1979.
He’d moved to Brussels on a whim after an invite by a Belgian friend he’d met while teaching the summer before at a language school in Brighton.
The punk poet loves French (and at the time he’d just graduated from Kent University in French and politics), and he loves beer.
He also loves music. When his language school pal Eric said he wanted to start a band back home the decision was easy.
But on arrival in Brussels, Attila discovered Eric was a joker. He was a bedroom dreamer, not a man of action.
Attila, on the other hand, is a resourceful and outspoken whirlwind (when we meet in The Evening Star, or L’Etoile du Soir as he calls it, he waltzes in as if he’s just got home).
He soon got cracking on finding some serious punks. A few hours and several beers later, he’d been invited to live in a squat in the Schaerbeek district with some activists who wanted Attila to play bass in their band, Contingent.
He remembers it was about four days on when he heard the punks in the squat listening to Jacques Brel – thus kicking off Attila’s lifetime love for the singer.
“The striking thing is that it was the punks in Brussels, who theoretically would be from an older generation and from a totally different style of the music, who were listening to this man whose sound is not punk rock at all.
“But I very soon realised Brel was a hero to all generations. Not everyone, but the people who loved him came from all walks of life, all kinds of backgrounds.”
Attila, a socially-progressive punk poet, leader of Barnstormer, columnist in the Morning Star and former Albion Poet In Residence, will be singing tonight with three fellow aficionados at a celebration of the Belgian’s music in Shoreham.
He says he quickly began to love La Plat Pays, Brel’s homage to the low country, and Bruxelles, about the city in the First World War and his grandparents.
These reflect how in Belgium, in particular, Brel became a hero because he sung about the country in a style, Chanson Française, which had always been associated with everything French.
“He talked about Belgitude, the essence of being Belgian, and obviously Belgium has not had terribly good press over the years for being boring and there were jokes about it not having celebrities.
“But he encompassed and gave an identity to Belgium in the context of popular music.”
As Attila listened to more of Brel’s music he discovered the power of the witty, and subversive, lyrics.
He found the same profound and perceptive songs, which often castigate comfortable prejudice and middle-class pomposity, that had led Marc Almond to declare the sharply-dressed Belgian in a suit singing with an orchestra the first punk.
“For some people Les Bourgeois is a classic story of growing up, but not for me.
“It is set in a bar with some guys getting pissed and over the road is a posh hotel with Establishment figures leaving. The lads in the bar show the notaries their arses while singing Les Bourgeois are like pigs – the older they get, the more stupid they get.
“The second verse is ten years later and the lads all return to the bar to celebrate becoming 30 and they are still singing, but not quite as loudly, and still dancing but not quite so well.
“In the third verse they are older and still drinking, but they are now in the posh bar. There are some kids over the road doing what they’d dished out all those years earlier – and they are telling the police inspector to do something about it.”
Brel was born in Brussels in 1929. He was the son of industrialist and grew up speaking French. His father owned a cardboard box factory where Brel worked after being expelled from school.
Always a rebel and free spirit, he claimed that, “All the misery of life comes from being tied down”.
His love life was a like a soap opera and it found its way into many of his songs, which often deal with love, death and the pressures of life.
As a young man he moved to Paris in search of fame. He left his wife and children behind, and within a few years he was headlining the French capital’s premier concert theatre, the Olympia.
He made an impact in the US with his fourth album, La Valse à Mille Temps, which featured Ne Me Quitte Pas – later translated into English as If You Go Away, and made famous by covers by Nina Simone and Sting among others.
He influenced Scott Walker and David Bowie who both covered La Mort (My Death) from La Valse à Mille Temps.
By the 1960s though, Terry Jack’s sickly sweet and sentimental version of Seasons In The Sun, translated by Rod McKuen, had cemented the rot in bad translations of Brel’s work.
The anglicised version removed the dark, cutting irony of the original, Le Moribond (The Dying Man).
“The most important thing with Brel is the words,” says Attila, who will give his favourite numbers the rough and ready treatment tonight before folk singer Robb Johnson tackles his Brel highlights.
“From the first time I heard Brel’s lyrics I understood that he was speaking about profound things.
“But the sad thing is the translations. Sometimes the translations are OK, sometimes they are bad, sometimes they are disgusting.”
Another Sussex-based punk rocker will attempt to put that right tonight.
Philip Jeays will perform his own translations and interpretations of Brel’s songs before cabaret singer Barb Jungr, accompanied by pianist Jenny Carr, will give Brel’s chansons the theatre-style treatment.
- A Celebration Of Jacques Brel is at the Ropetackle Centre, High Street, Shoreham, on Friday, November 16. Starts 8pm, tickets £8. Call 01273 464440