SOPHIA DEBOICK on a sometimes maligned city, and the intense star who still casts his huge shadow over it
Viewed from the other side of the North Sea, Belgium is neither one thing nor the other. Both French and Dutch, it’s sometimes seen as no man’s land between France and the Netherlands and accused of lacking its own identity, still being most associated in many British minds with the real no man’s lands of the First World War. ‘Brussels’ becoming a metonym for an allegedly monstrous EU bureaucracy left little room for interest in the culture of Belgium and its capital too.
But the city is a microcosm of all things European. It has both architectural beauty and boundary-pushing ‘eyesores’, artistic excellence, the signs of the spoils of empire and scars of war, and takes both gastronomy and popular culture very seriously.
Indeed, the city is the cradle of icons of Belgian popular culture – Tintin creator Hergé was born there, legendary cyclist Eddy Merckx was brought up there, and Magritte first exhibited there. There may be a well-worn joke about famous Belgians, but it’s a case of quality over quantity.
And so it is for Brussels’ music too, even if its chanson, ersatz punk and innovative electronic music suits the British view of the Belgians as generally odd. An early mention for the city in popular music didn’t help that view, as Maurice Chevalier’s 1948 song Manneken Pis paid tribute to the urinating 17th century statue, a typically idiosyncratic symbol of Brussels, making ‘piss piss’ sounds throughout the song.
In the year of Manneken Pis Jacques Brel was not yet 20 and on the path to a life of complete obscurity. Today, this most emotive live performer of the 20th century and one of the greatest songwriters of all time is everywhere you turn in Brussels. He boasts a museum, a statue, a station on Line 5 of the Metro and even a youth hostel named after him.
Born in 1929 in a terraced townhouse at 138 avenue du Diamant, Schaerbeek, eastern Brussels, Brel was schooled at the Institut Saint-Louis, near the botanical gardens. After turning 18 he began working for his father’s business, Vanneste and Brel, a cardboard factory in Dilbeek, just outside the Brussels-Capital region.
Brel was deeply unhappy there, and the maudlin Il Pleut (Les Carreaux) from his 1954 debut LP Jacques Brel at ses chansons described the dirty factory and his sense of alienation: “Les corridors crasseux/ Sont les seuls que je vois/ Les filles qui vont danser/ Ne me regardent pas” (“The filthy corridors/ Are all that I see/ The girls who are going to dance/ Don’t look at me”).
But Brel’s creative life had in fact already begun. In 1947 he had joined the Catholic youth organisation La Franche Cordée. Its motto must have appealed to Brel’s situation deeply: ‘Plus est en toi’ (‘More is within you’). It was at a gathering of the group above the bistro Le Chalet d’Alsace in the Koekelberg district that same year that Brel first sang his own songs in front of others. Still, it would be another five years before Brel began to pursue music seriously, as his job, military service and then marriage intervened.
As Brussels emerged from the shadow of the war in the 1950s, swinging jazz joints began to open all over the city. La Rose Noire, off the opulent Grand-Place, opened in 1950 to later attract jazz greats from the US and become part of a local scene which also spawned Toots Thielemans, the harmonica player famed for Midnight Cowboy (1969). In 1952 the club became the first trying ground for Brel, who began performing in the intimate first floor room.
A record deal with Philips shortly after was the chance to make a break for Paris, leaving his wife and two daughters behind in Dilbeek. Four years of constant live work followed before 1957’s soaring Quand on n’a que l’amour made Brel a star.
However precarious his familial relationships, Brel’s relationship with Brussels was unbreakable. He had several homes there over the years and played notable concerts at its leading concert venue, the Ancienne Belgique, and the Palais des Beaux-Arts. He appeared as Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha at Le Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in 1968 and his 1973 comedy film Le Far West was filmed in the city.
But, incapable of uncomplicated emotion, Brel’s enthusiasm for his homeland was not unalloyed. Marieke (1961), sung half in French and half in Flemish, used Flanders as a background to disappointed love, while Le Plat Pays (1962) painted a picture of a bewitching but unremittingly desolate Belgian landscape.
The music hall-style Les Flamandes (1959) and funk-spiked swipe at Flemish nationalism Les F… (1977) suggested the Flemish were unintelligent, easily amused and ambivalent (“Nazis during the wars, and Catholics in between”).
Brel’s tribute to Brussels itself, Bruxelles (1962), was a frenetically upbeat ode to the city, but not of his own time. Rather the song idealised “the days of silent cinema” – the era of his grandparents – evoking the vast late 19th century Place de Brouckère and the ancient “cobblestones of Place Sainte-Catherine”.
Brel died of lung cancer in the autumn of 1978, just a few months short of his 50th birthday. But other bruxellois originals were already emerging. Brussels-born Roger Jouret studied music at the city’s Conservatoire before taking up the impetus of punk at 23 and forming Hubble Bubble.
The band’s 1977 album flopped, but Jouret had charisma – and an impressive punk wardrobe – that brought him to the attention of Wallonian producer Lou Deprijck. Their Ça plane pour moi (1978) was a perfectly-timed punk parody, coming only a few months after the Sex Pistols broke up.
With honking sax and a Beach Boys-style vocal hook, Ça plane pour moi was an unsurprising success. It swept European charts and peaked at No.8 in the UK in June 1978, prompting a Top of the Pops performance where Legs & Co. danced around the singer while festooned with plastic bags and brandishing baguettes. The single became one of the best ever performing French language songs on the US charts.
In 2010 it emerged that, in a Boney M-type scenario, Deprijck had in fact been the singer on Ça plane pour moi. Having been challenged by music journalist Bert Bertrand to make a French punk song, he co-opted Jouret, renamed him after Bertrand and made him the face of the project. Deprijck had, it turned out, sung on the entirety of Bertrand’s first four albums, but this only enhanced the post-modern frisson of their biggest hit and doesn’t seem to have dented Plastic Bertrand’s cult appeal. He is still going – now doing his own vocals – and a new single, L’expérience humaine, recently appeared.
Ça plane pour moi has echoed down the years, covered by Sonic Youth, The Presidents of the United States of America and even tackled by Metallica at their gig at Brussels’ King Baudouin Stadium last year. But the first band to cover it was another bunch of Brussels originals. When jazz pianist Marc Moulin, formerly of jazz duo Placebo, formed electronic project Telex with fellow Belgian vocalist Michel Moers and German sound engineer Dan Lacksman, one of their first recordings was a minimalist cover of the song with heavily vocodered vocals.
While the Plastic Bertrand cover appeared on Telex’s 1979 debut Looking for Saint Tropez, it was the LP’s opener that really mattered. Moskow Diskow anticipated the house and techno music of the next decade, heavily influencing its pioneers. Telex’s robotic cover of Rock Around the Clock broke the UK Top 40 the same year, and in 1980 they fulfilled their goal for the project of “making something really European” when they represented Belgium at Eurovision with the tongue-in-cheek Euro-Vision, giving a surreal performance which seemed to baffle the audience. As European electronic pioneers, Telex are to be mentioned in the same breath as Kraftwerk.
Today, in figures as different as Lara Fabian, Belgium’s own Celine Dion who was launched to megastardom with her 1997 album Pure, and Stromae, the electronic/ hip hop sensation of Rwandan descent whose 2008 single Alors on danse topped charts across Europe, music from Brussels still has a strong showing. But the spectre of Brel still looms large, with Stromae naming him as a key influence and adopting his hallmark drawl. Brel will be king of Brussels for a long time yet.