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Annonce Goooogle
Annonce Goooogle

Jacques Brel, 25 years on

Controversy over the complete works


09/10/2003 - 

Three days after his death in the Paris suburbs (on 9 October 1978), Brel's body was laid to rest in Hiva-Oa, in the Marquesas, the Polynesian islands where he retired from the showbiz spotlight in 1975. As the singer's homeland, Belgium, declared 2003 "The Year of Brel," Universal released Brel's complete works in collaboration with the singer's family and the Brel Foundation. The Boîte à bonbons includes 17 previously unreleased songs which have caused their fair share of controversy on the music scene.

- CD and DVD releases
- The "posthumous release" debate
- Interview with Brel's former accordionist, Jean Corti


Comme quand on était beau, a boxed set of 3 DVDs featuring 7 hours of extracts from music programmes, TV news and rare behind-the-scenes footage (mainly from the 60s). Needless to say, the DVDs also include footage of Brel's thrilling live performances and include lesser-known versions of his hits as well as previously unreleased songs. (Barclay/Universal).

Brel infiniment, a double CD compilation featuring 40 songs, includes five "never heard before" songs from 70s recording sessions – see below. (Barclay/Universal).

La Boîte à bonbons, the complete works. Like that other chanson great, Edith Piaf, whose complete works (L'Accordéon) have been released to mark the 40th anniversary of her death, Brel has been honoured in his anniversary year with his complete works released as a "boîte à bonbons." This brilliant marketing idea, based on one of his most enduring classics Les Bonbons, should clock up record sales. Brel is still the biggest hitter in the Universal back catalogue, his albums continuing to sell up to 300,000 copies worldwide each year.
The ultra-collectable boxed set features 15 re-masterised albums, all presented in their original covers. But the main bonus for Brel-ophiles is the inclusion of five previously unreleased songs taken from the recording sessions for his final album, Les Marquises (organised between September and October 1977). A 16th CD features 12 previously unreleased songs from Brel's early days recorded at radio sessions in 1953.

RFI Musique looks at the controversy surrounding the release of the five Marquises songs which, in his lifetime, Brel preferred to leave on the shelf:

Is it right to raise singers from the dead without their permission? The question is one which still divides public opinion every time a posthumous release hits record stores. And when the debate concerns an artist of the stature of Brel, the controversy is guaranteed to run and run.

La cathédrale, L’amour est mort, Mai 40, Avec élégance and Sans exigence, the five songs Barclay recently plucked from record company archives had initially been destined to be included on Brel's last album, Les Marquises. But Brel had not been entirely happy with the songs. So when Barclay (owners of the copyright on the songs) and the Brel Foundation justified the songs' release on the symbolic date of the singer's 25th anniversary, there was a huge outcry that " Le Grand Jacques's" final wishes had not been respected. Further fuel was added to the debate when Pascal Nègre, director of Barclay's 'mother' label, Universal, revealed the existence of "a letter Brel sent to Eddie Barclay*" which essentially declared, "Don't release anything without my authorisation!"

The songs appear to be more rough drafts than finished material - although they are obviously rough drafts of a masterly quality. But many of Brel's former collaborators such as Jean Corti admit "there's something not quite right about them." Brel's former accordion player does concede that "the Brel family were right in insisting on the release because there's no doubt that the music and the lyrics are good and it will obviously make a lot of fans happy."

However, the problem is that the Universal venture appears to be motivated more by commercial concerns than cultural or philanthropic ones. Two of the songs in question had already been 'released' at the "Brel, le droit de rêver" exhibition in Brussels (thus becoming potentially broadcastable via other means and representing a loss of income for Universal, already at war against free downloads on the Internet). Perhaps the moral of the story lies in one of Brel'sown songs? "Faut vous dire Monsieur/Que chez ces gens-là/On ne cause pas Monsieur/On ne cause pas/On compte!" ("Let me tell you, sir, Those people they don't talk, sir, they don't talk, they count!")

Loïc Bussières

Jean Corti, Brel's accordionist from 1960 to 1966, wrote the music for some of Brel's greatest hits including Madeleine, Les Vieux and Les Bourgeois. In this mini-interview he reminisces about his collaboration with "Le Grand Jacques."

RFI Musique: Would you say your collaboration with Brel is the most important line on your C.V.?
Jean Corti: Yes, it's certainly an important line, but it's not the most important one. I've done other things in my life, too, you know! And thank goodness for that because I didn't meet Brel until I was about 32. I had to make a living before then… But there's no denying my collaboration with Brel was a vital period in my life, both from an artistic point of view and the man himself… I like to think of Brel as being a bit of an everyman. He was just like you and me, really – apart from the fact he had this incredible talent as well. One of the things that impressed me throughout our collaboration was how open Brel was to others. He was always very accessible, very sociable and very human about things. And, believe me, when you work in close contact with someone over the years those things count for a lot!

What do you think about the media frenzy surrounding the anniversary of Brel's death?
There's been a huge amount of coverage generated by the 25th anniversary. But as we're about to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Piaf's death, I'd say Brel's still got a long way to go! I think in some ways the discovery of the previously unreleased songs has got the Brel "machine" up and running again...

Brel's throwing in the towel at the height of his career isn't something you can imagine happening these days...
Well, there are plenty of singers who quit – but then you find out they were just pretending! (Laughs) Brel wasn't a computer, you know. I think he just got to the point where he felt he was cheating. He said so himself, in fact. He got to the point where he was beginning to run out of ideas and felt it was time to move on to something else. Writing music and song lyrics doesn't just happen on its own, you know. It requires a lot of effort and hard work. I think Brel needed a change of scene really. That's why he turned round one day and said "I'm stopping!" I think he was right to do so because perhaps he'd got to the point where he risked... I was going to say risked churning out any old thing, but frankly with Brel it was never a case of churning out any old thing. At the end of the day he didn't want to cheat others or himself. He was a very honest man.

Interview: Loïc Bussières


The Brel Foundation runs an impressively in-depth website (in four languages) devoted to Jacques Brel and his "news." It includes a long list of Brel-inspired shows and albums released everywhere from Norway to the U.K.

"Brel, le droit de rêver" – an exhibition at Espace Dexia, in Brussels, which runs until 17 January 2004.

Essential reading:
Jacques Brel, biographie / Jean & Angela Clouzet (Seghers, "Poésie et Chanson" collection, 2003).
Jacques Brel, Vivre debout / Jacques Vassal (Hors Collection, 2003).
Jacques Brel, photo collectors / various authors (Altinea Collectionneur, published on 16/10/2003).
Jacques Brel Une vie / Olivier Todd (Robert Laffont, 2003)– the ultimate Brel biography (in paperback!).

Catherine Pouplain

* Source: AFP

Translation : Julie  Street