Desert Island revisited: the 10 folk tracks I would take please, Kirsty
Cover Story: (7) how Lesley Gore's party became Barbara Gaskin/Dave Stewart's

Cover Story: (6) Jacques Brel or Flossie Malavialle: Amsterdam. France eclipses Belgium

APOLOGIES TO those who came here earlier and could find no trace of the clip of Flossie singing Amsterdam. It has now been restored ...

As Flossie Malavialle introduces it at a friend's house five years ago (see the clip below), Jacques Brel's Amsterdam is a song everyone knows.

Well not quite everyone, but even some who never stray from pop will know of one or more of the cover versions: Scott Walker, David Bowie, John Denver, Marc Almond among many more.

I like Bellowhead's muscular interpretation and astute readers will doubtless come up with others. So which do I prefer in this arbitrary series I have chosen to call Cover Story (see all previous items here)? You shall soon see.

Flossie, a Frenchwoman who has lived in the North East of England for 15 years and deservedly has a loyal following on the British folk circuit, says that since this version is being performed "not far from Amsterdam" - no further clues except that her host is Dutch, one Karin Pronk if I have done my research well - she'd better get it right. She does and her spoken English, pitched somewhere between South West Durham and Gard, is a delight.

This powerful, energising ballad describing the lives of hard-nosed sailors - the work, the booze, the fighting, the dreams and the paid-for intimacies - is correctly the property of Brussels-born Brel. He wrote it, more than half a century ago, and he gives it his all in this version showing him singing, a shade off-puttingly in a bank clerk's suit, as passionately as a male Piaf.

I was intrigued to hear Brel had a small flat in the little French seaside town on the Med where I live for part of the year and more than a little disappointed, even allowing for changing times, to read that he refused to meet Bowie because he had no wish to be in the company of a pédé - homosexual.

Nevertheless, I hugely admire his work. I am sure that among fellow Brel fans, I will be among a tiny minority prepared to find another version of Amsterdam more appealing. Brel apparently did not record it in the studio and we have to rely on footage of a concert at the Olympia in Paris, from which the clip you see here was taken.

But I found that more appealing version. It is Flossie's. I have heard her perform the song even better - notably in a live recording from the Trades Club in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire - but even the one I have chosen showcases her wonderfully strong, reverberating vocals as she attacks the irresistible crescendo of a great but challenging song. And she is also right about the crucial role played in this version by Chris Parkinson's accordion playing.

Bravo Flossie, who gets my France 1-0 Belgium vote, not because she has recently suffered the sad loss of her father back in the south of France but on merit. And continue, Jacques, to rest in peace. You gave the world many fine songs and it is no shame that, for me, someone else was able to improve on this one.

* Read more about Jacques Brel here

* And see a great interview with Flossie at this link

* See also the follow-up to that interview:

* separate item inspired by the same interview ...

* Please bear in mind that the interviews date from 2008 and opinions/details/acquaintances may have changed ...

And feel free to tell me I am right or wrong in my choice.


Bill Taylor

I just cited Dave Van Ronk's version of House of the Rising Sun in your Desert Island post and I'm going with Van Ronk again for Port of Amsterdam.
I think his voice is perfect for the lyrics. Bowie's version is also very creditable.
As a total aside, Jacques Brel's name made me think of another French legend. Back in the late '50s there was a strange American song which began, "He wore black denim trousers and motorcycle boots and a black leather jacket with an eagle on the back. He had a hopped up 'sickle' that took off like a gun; that fool was the terror of Highway 101."
I've won bets with the least likely singer to cover this one: Edith Piaf...
Here, on one clip, is the original by The Cheers and Piaf's version (starting at about the 2:10 mark). Just as Richard Thompson did with Britney Spears' Whoops, I Did It Again, Piaf turns it into a decent song

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