Alastair Campbell plays the songs of Jacques Brel

Home » Posts » Uncategorized » Alastair Campbell plays the songs of Jacques Brel
Alastair Campbell plays the songs of Jacques Brel

I often find that discovering that somebody shares one of your passions can efficiently neutralise any misgivings or antipathy you previously held towards them. So it was this morning, as I listened to Alastair Campbell’s programme on Radio 4 about the legendary chanson singer Jacques Brel:

Former Labour strategist Alastair Campbell reveals his passion for the music of the late Belgian singer/songwriter Jacques Brel. At the peak of his career during the 50s and 60s, Brel’s music explored emotions darker and deeper than the conventional popular songs of the time, and his live performances were famed for their intensity and ferocity.

Contributors include Brel fanatic Mel Smith, impresario Jean Michel Boris, accordionist Jean Corti, journalist Olivier Todd and Brel’s daughter France.

Before the programme started I didn’t care too much care for Campbell; by the end of it, though, I wanted to invite him around for tea and macaroons. I assume there’s a snappy psychological term for this phenomena, but it does worry me. Would I feel compelled to soften my position on George W. Bush, Melanie Phillips & Jim Davidson if they suddenly developed a passion for Tom Waits’ music, Robert Anton Wilson’s books and Grant Morrison’s Invisibles comics?

Many of Brel’s songs have been translated into English over the years, but – as Campbell mentioned – many of these are far from faithful to the source material. Even his most frequently covered song, If You Go Away (Ne Me Quitte Pas), is no exception. As Brel’s Wiki entry states:

English translations of Brel’s songs, in particular also Ne me quitte pas translations, have been subject to criticism and are regarded by some as being stripped of their original brilliance and magical lyricism. For example, Brel’s Ne me quitte pas evocatively states, “Moi, je t’offrirai / Des perles de pluie / Venues de pays / Où il ne pleut pas”

[As for me, I’ll offer you pearls of rain that come from a country where rain never falls]. However, Rod McKuen’s English translation replaces that imagery with “But if you stay / I’ll make you a day / Like no day has been / or will be again.”

Sometimes the lyrical changes can be more substantial. One of his most famous songs, Jacky, has been covered by, amongst others, Scott Walker and Marc Almond:

While Messrs Walker and Almond stuck to translations that were reasonably faithful to Brel’s original vision, not everyone has been quite so honourable:

And if one day I should become
A spinner with a brutish tongue
The scourge of all those politicians

And I will tell them how it is
Those sorry gutless sacks of piss
Will be no match for my ambitions

My pal will be called Tonio
And I will stand there by his side
And if there’s one thing you should know
It’s that he’s Jekyll and I’m Hyde

You’ll see me get my every wish
The Fourth Estate will be my bitch
Just watch me beat them with a fish
And leave them wimpering in a ditch

And when they say things I don’t like
I’ll bash them senseless with a pike
Just ask The Guardian’s Michael White
And he will tell you Who’s the Daddy

If I could be for only an hour
If I could be for an hour every day
If I could be for just one little hour

Cute brute in a boot-yer-ass way

Next Week: Peter Mandelson plays the songs of Serge Gainsbourg


About the Author:

My name is Tom Lennon and I'm a freelance writer who specialises in humour at the geekier end of the pop culture spectrum. I'm based in Birmingham, UK, and my work has recently appeared in BuzzFeed and Time Out.


  1. Momus September 7, 2008 at 11:48 am

    It’s not called “Brel et Moi” for nothing — you can’t help thinking the whole time that he’s talking about himself and Tony Blair. Brel’s final performance as Blair’s adieu to the Labour Party conference, etc etc, grown men cry, etc etc, the importance of being loved warts and all no matter how many people you’ve hurt along the way etc etc the main thing being the legacy, etc etc.

    No mention of Iraq, though, or Brel’s views on war: “No dream is ever worth a war,” he said. Brel, that is, not Campbell.

  2. Carrie October 29, 2008 at 3:34 am

    Keep up the good work.

  3. Tom October 29, 2008 at 2:37 pm

    Thanks, Carrie.

Leave A Comment