Des de Moor
Press Cuttings: Chanson

BBC Radio 4 1130-1200 BST 17 July 2003
Jacques Brel drawn by Robb Johnson

20th Century Troubadour

This Radio 4 documentary marking the 25th anniversary of the death of Jacques Brel, presented by Philip Sweeney and researched and produced by Miles Ward, included an interview with Des de Moor. Starting from the premise that Brel is almost unknown in Britain, despite the numerous covers of Rod McKuen's version of 'Ne me quitte pas' ('If you go away'), it outlined Brel's biography, stressed the importance of poetic text in his work, his aloofness from the influence of Anglo-Saxon pop music and referred to his influence on certain English-speaking artists...

Philip Sweeney. In fact Brel and his genre do have Anglophone equivalents. Randy Newman springs to mind in the context of that particular song ['Ces gens-là'] with its wickedly vivid portrait of an introverted redneck family of senile crones, alcoholic sons and trapped spinster daughters. Even the UK pop charts have found room for polished lyricists: Ray Davies or Billy Bragg for example.

Then there's the interesting subcurrent of recent musical life that reclaims the tradition of erudite European song and cabaret: singers and musicians like Leon Rosselson, Pete Atkin, Robb Johnson. It's a measure of the gulf that separates the continental and the British traditions that some of these artists refer to the movement as 'English chanson' -- our own word 'song' apparently isn't up to the job. Brel is a revered figure among English chansonniers.

One of the chief locations for this scene is a club in north London called the Vortex...

Audience member (Russell Churney, for it is he). I come to the Vortex a lot. It's one of the few places in London where you can hear stuff that's not specifically jazz or specifically blues but has that...European cabaret style stuff. There's very few places that you can hear that in London, and I like that stuff. It's music for grownups, and we don't really have in this country a tradition of popular music for grownups.

Another audience member. I'm not aware of any cabaret in England. I've been to Denmark and to Paris many times and I think that they have a lot more there. It's a sort of social form of singing which I think is very good, intimate, and I think we should have a lot more in this country, rather than my daughter's favourite form of singing which to me sounds raucous, but I guess when I was 18 my parents thought the same.

A third (younger and female) audience member. I'm not sure what to expect really but hopefully it'll be something different to what I normally hear like Coldplay and Eminem and those radio-type songs so it'll be interesting to see what kind of atmosphere it is when the music starts up.

Des (on stage). If you go to Brussels this year, you won't be able to escape from the fact that it's the 25th anniversary of the death of Jacques Brel, and everywhere you look you will see his rather less than classically handsome face staring out at you...this is Madeleine. [Des sings Madeleine.]

Philip. The man who organises the Vortex evenings is Des de Moor...

Des (in interview). There is a problem with French-speaking popular song in the English -speaking world, and particularly in Britain, strangely enough. Brel himself was actually much more popular during his lifetime in the US than he was in Britain -- he did a lot more gigs in the US, and I think he only played London once. And I think it's partly because British popular music is very dominated by the the Afro-American style of popular music. It's rhythm and blues, basically. British musicians adopted rhythm and blues as their own in the 60s and it kind of overshadowed everything else.

And I would say it's partly a language thing, except it's always struck me as strange that since the late 80s we've had a big shift in people's tastes and world music came in, and people were quite prepared to listen to songs in Spanish or even actually in French so long as it was being sung by someone from Senegal or somewhere like that. So if it was world music, it was OK, but if it was from a country that's a bit like ours but speaks a different language, it wasn't exotic enough, and not kind of earthy or mystical or third worldy enough so it kind of got passed by then.

The programme also touched on the problems of translation with some interesting comments on the subject from Attila the Stockbroker, but could have gone into more detail. Other interviewees included daughter France Brel, wife Miche Brel (memorably sanguine about Brel's extramarital relationships), and Olivier Todd, Brel's biographer, with some great insights into Brel as a great teller of stories and portrayer of pictures in song. It's a shame the BBC could only manage to commemorate such a major figure with only one half-hour on Radio 4 on a weekday morning.

 More press cuttings
Press Index
Radio 4 website