To date, the integral Brel edition Boit Integrale assembles the largest list of the known recorded heritage of Jacques Brel. Therefore it is the main subject of these pages. In reviewing it, I focussed on the inedits and the rarities rather than on the overfamiliar songs.
Label: Universal | Fondation Jacques Brel
For those who are new to Brel while knowing all about Bowie it may come as a shock to learn that it was French language Brel who influenced Bowie and not the other way around. This becomes abundantly clear when comparing Bowie's Brel–tribute 'Rock'n Roll Suicide' with Brel's 'Jef'. Bowie's 'Oh no love, you're not alone' is a literal translation of Brel's 'Non Jef, tu es pas seul', which also applies to the climax in the music. And there is a more subtle paraphrase too, where Bowie kisses Brel's antihero 'Jef' in his opening line ''Chev' brakes are snarling.'' And Bowie is not alone in his admiration. A more obvious example is Terry Jacks, whose evergreen 'Seasons in the sun' is one of the best known tunes in Western popular music. Yet Jacks did not paraphrase Brel in the way Bowie did. Brel simply wrote the song! Its original French title being 'Le moribond | The moribund'.
The 1953 Hasselt recordings
Therefore the true value of the Boit integrale lies elsewhere. Universal and the co-producing Brel Foundation have joined forces in order to issue as many unique items as possible, and unique naturally does not refer to the regular vinyl issues and their alternative takes as mentioned above. The big catch on the Boit Integrale are the complete radio recordings Brel made at the Flemish Hasselt Studios in two sessions from the year 1953 (cd 16). For decades these concerts had been thought lost until radio host Jef Claessen himself discovered them in a forgotten corner of his house. Invaluable, though not a recording premiere, as the obscure Canadian label XXI released the bulk of these copyright free 1953 recordings on a single cd some months before the Boit Integrale hit the shelves of the recordstores.
The sessions are about the earliest testimonies we have of Brel's career. The singer had just returned disillusioned from his first stay in Paris where he had notoriously failed. Of all people, the Flemish unexpectedly came to his aid when local BRT–director Jef Claessen invited Brel for two complete radio recitals. The songs he performs there will form his basic repertoire until the beginning of 1957. Naturally this is not the great Brel, but they are invaluable for a better understanding of his biography and invaluable for following his development as a singer/ songwriter. Listening to the Hasselt sessions is like witnessing the very conception of songs like 'Ca va, Le diable | All is well', The devil' and 'La haine | Hate'. Here young, monochrome-voiced Brel searches for lost chords on the guitar that he would not find until three years later.
Never released before
Perhaps it is precisely the competition from the XXI label that caused Universal to release the complete sessions instead of the partial 13 track release that had been announced. And things get better, since Brel's widow Miche generously donated her personal copy of the unique 'Si tu revenais | If you return' from an early Swiss radio show. In addition to that, the Dutch KRO broadcast corporation donated the long lost unique performance of 'Le pendu | The hung one', a beautiful song that Brel banned from his repertoire immediately after having premiered it on the KRO Domino show because he was aghast at the scenic demands of the KRO director.
No omissions then? Well yes, there are some, provided one would consider them as such: Brel wrote a number of instrumental songs and, in addition, some hits for others, but perhaps these aren't very much missed as he isn't singing in them. That changes when it comes to his recitation of a poem in the Marie–Claire magazine Christmas record 'Un soir a Bethleem | An evening in Bethlehem' and the curious Nord Studio edition 'Nos amis les mineurs | Our friends the miners'. On the latter single, Brel recounts the lives of the miners for a full 20 minutes. Though he is not singing, this is basically one of the holy (and very expensive) grails in Brel collectors' land. Less rare are Prokofjev's 'Peter and the Wolf'' and Poulencs 'Babar', as they were issued on an official cd before. The same goes for a cd with a number of takes from different live recordings (Barclay 559 231–2).
On the the art of remastering
When it comes to breaking one's head, it must be over the splendid technical remastering of these songs that outdo anything that has been done with Brel thus far. His voice sounds more engulfing and warmer than ever. In fact, it sounds very much like it sounded on the original vinyl. In his great recordings ('Ne me quitte pas', 'Le valse a mille temps', 'Amsterdam', 'Jef', 'Le moribond', 'Marieke' the Belgian singer sounds even more modern than before. And there we touch upon the very heart of Brel, who never sounds dated, whereas any song of Charles Aznavour or Gilbert Becaud immediately evokes the year it was recorded. Brel employed some features of French chanson but never used its cliche orchestrations in his best songs, taking a more classical approach.
The companion booklet
Concerning the Boit Integrale a small word has to be said regarding the accompaning booklet included with this spectacularly designed box. The booklet in the old 10" format is a small remake of the large format book that accompanied Bruxelles major 2003 Brel expo 'Le droit de rever | The right to dream'. There are many photos, reproduced posters, songtexts and documents in facsimile surrounding the tracklists that are spread out over the booklet. A real collectors' item which – like everything else in the box – is designed to impress. Normally this would give rise to a climactic phrase concluding this review, but unfortunately there is one major complaint regarding all this glitter and glamour: it is arrogantly and unforgivably issued solely in French language. No English and not even Dutch translations are given! It seems to be that the francophone anti Dutch climate in Bruxelles is matched by the chauvinism of Universal France toward the Anglosaxon world. I wish George W. Bush could be blamed for this as well as for the current paranoia in the world, but alas! Its plain arrogance! And I am not writing on my own behalf : I do speak French.