Reissues: Amsterdam

Along with the VU’s “Waiting For the Man,” Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam” (and Scott Walker’s interpretation of it) is one of the essential building blocks of Bowie’s development as a songwriter. Diamond Dogs couldn’t exist without it, nor could “Time”; “Amsterdam” was even once slotted to appear on  Ziggy Stardust: Bowie wrote “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” in part as his Brel substitute.

There’s a spot of confusion as to when the released Bowie studio take of “Amsterdam” was recorded: the reliable Kevin Cann slots it into the Pin Ups sessions of summer 1973, which is possible (that’s when it finally came out, as a B-side) but that seems like a rare error on his part. Unless the “Amsterdam” recorded in 1971 for Ziggy Stardust was a different take from the B-side version? There’s also another studio version circulating (see below) which sounds like a demo. And the version included on Rare is yet another take, of unknown origin: was this the Ziggy take? One day, perhaps, it will all get cleared up.

Originally posted on 21 December 2009, it’s “Amsterdam” (or “Port of Amsterdam,” if you prefer):

Amsterdam (Jacques Brel, 1964).
Amsterdam (Scott Walker, 1967).
Amsterdam (Bowie, demo? 1971?).
Amsterdam (Bowie, BBC, February 1970).
Amsterdam (Bowie, studio, 1971).
Amsterdam (alternate studio take?, 1971?).
Amsterdam (Bowie, live, 1971).
Amsterdam (live, 1990).

Jacques Brel composed “Amsterdam” in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, in a villa overlooking the Mediterranean. He read his lyric to a fisherman friend, who wept while he carved open sea urchins. “Amsterdam” inspired these sort of visceral responses. After Robert Guillaume debuted the English version of “Amsterdam” at the Village Gate in January 1968, there was a “disconcertingly long hush—followed by a roar so damn loud I jumped.”

Brel never recorded “Amsterdam,” despite it being one of his best-known songs: its only official release is on a 1964 live LP of Brel at the Olympia, in Paris. Bowie first heard “Amsterdam” via Scott Walker’s cover recording, the final track on Walker’s 1967 debut LP. Bowie also attended the stage show Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, which, having debuted at the Village Gate in Greenwich Village, had come to London in the summer of 1968. The play had no libretto, just a series of performances of Brel compositions, with Mort Shuman (who also performed in the play) and Eric Blau translating Brel’s lyrics (freely and racily).

By late 1968 Bowie was playing “Amsterdam” with his folk trio and he’d keep the song in his stage repertoire until 1972 (he replaced it with Brel’s “My Death,” which better suited the times). Like “Waiting for the Man,” another song Bowie was obsessed with during the glam years, “Amsterdam” offered street life as stage material. Where “Waiting For the Man” was confined to the narrow lens of its junkie narrator, “Amsterdam” was a sprawling Brueghelian canvas: a port overrun with drunk, paunchy sailors who gnaw on fish heads, piss and fight in the street and use the port prostitutes “for a few dirty coins.” “Amsterdam” also gave Bowie a primer in how to craft an apocalypse in song, as it opened quietly, with the port waking up, and steadily built to a wild, drunken carnival (it was the template for everything from “Five Years” to “Station to Station.”)

After performing the song twice for the BBC, Bowie cut a studio take of “Amsterdam” that was issued as a B-side in 1973. Where Walker’s “Amsterdam” had been a reel of accordion, strings and horns, Bowie sang accompanied only by his (and in the studio take, possibly Mick Ronson’s) acoustic guitar. In early live recordings Bowie seemed in awe of the song, but by the studio take and his last live performances, he’d developed a saucy tone for the opening verses, boldly inflating and compressing phrases. Yet when he vied to match Brel and Walker in intensity in the last verse, he still audibly strained for effect. His last apprentice work.

Recorded (presumably) autumn 1971. Released 12 October 1973 (RCA 2424). Broadcast on 5 February 1970, The Sunday Show and 21 September 1971, Sounds of the 70s. After retiring “Amsterdam” as a stage piece in 1972, Bowie gave it a very brief revival for the Sound + Vision tour of 1990: its only appearance, I believe, was the aborted attempt in Brussels, linked above.

Top: “Renard Livres Echanges, near Les Halles, Paris,” 1970.

24 Responses to Reissues: Amsterdam

  1. s.t. says:

    I dunno Chris, I have to disagree. Bowie throws his voice to the sky and sings to God above, and I piss and then I cry (and then retreat to the bathtub).

    Brel’s version has a violence that can’t be matched, to be sure, but Bowie takes the street carnival elements and exalts them. Walker’s version (like so much of his early work) is eaten up by the musicians.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I listen to it first through the “Rare” compilation. A true goosebumps vocal performence and a alltime favorite of mine! I prefer the acoustic guitar over the big orchestration from Scott Walker.

  3. comicalArchitect says:

    So, a while back, I mentioned working on a secret Bowie-related project. Time to reveal it.

    It is called “Her Face,” and is a Bowie mix in six parts, containing one song from each of his full-length studio albums (except for Outside, for a very good reason which you will see below.) This is not a greatest-hits compilation, nor is it an attempt to “encapsulate” Bowie. It is simply a composition. It comprises six parts, and you can make it in iTunes for yourself if you desire.

    Suite 1: Wretched Highs
    Segue: Nathan Adler
    Under the God
    Valentine’s Day
    Look Back in Anger
    The Pretty Things are Going to Hell

    Suite 2: Big Screen Dolls
    Segue: Baby Grace
    Love You Till Tuesday
    Across the Universe
    Miracle Goodnight
    Litttle Wonder

    Suite 3: Time to Unfreeze
    Segue: Ramona A. Stone (minus I Am With Name)
    ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore
    Here Comes the Night
    Watch That Man
    Scary Monsters
    China Girl (Let’s Dance version)

    Suite 4: Impermanent Chords
    Segue: Algeria Touchshriek
    Memory of a Free Festival
    Sound and Vision
    God Only Knows
    South Horizon
    After All

    Suite 5: Peephole in My Brain
    Leon Takes Us Outside
    Rebel Rebel
    TVC 15
    Goodbye Mr. Ed
    Soul Love
    Glass Spider
    I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship
    Andy Warhol

    Suite 6: So Good to Me
    Segue: Nathan Adler II
    Liza Jane (Toy edition)

    • s.t. says:

      Great idea, and a great mix too!

      I took a quick stab at my own take, trying to channel the various personas via Bowie’s larger oeuvre and it’s interesting that we seem to associate different songs with different “characters.”

      Here’s what I came up with. To even out the song number per segue, I included a few non-album cuts.

      * Leon Takes Us Outside *
      1. Pretty Thing
      2. Fascination
      3. She Shook Me Cold
      4. Boys Keep Swinging
      5. Pallas Athena

      * Nathan Adler 1*
      1. Where Have All the Good Times Gone?
      2. Afraid
      3. Stay
      4. Zeroes
      5. It Ain’t Easy

      * Algeria Touchshriek *
      1. Suite for a Foggy Day
      2. Always Crashing in the Same Car
      3. Goodbye Mr. Ed
      4. The Last Thing You Should Do
      5. The Loneliest Guy

      * Ramona A. Stone *
      1. Time
      2. If You Can See Me
      3. Cygnet Committee
      4. Neukoln
      5. We Are the Dead

      * Baby Grace *
      1. Fill Your Heart
      2. There Is a Happy Land
      3. Scream Like a Baby
      4. Tonight
      5. Ian Fish, UK Heir

      * Nathan Adler 2 *
      1. The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell
      2. Hole in the Ground
      3. Bars of the County Jail
      4. I Can’t Give Everything Away
      5. Criminal World

      • comicalArchitect says:

        Criminal World is a great ending choice. Certainly more original than mine!

    • Dave L says:

      cool idea, i will try this out.

  4. James LaBove says:

    The second Bowie album I ever picked up (after Heathen) was a bundle of Bowie at the Beeb and a recording of a BowieNet concert circa late 90’s. Weird introduction to the man’s back catalog as you might imagine – lots of 90’s cuts on the concert disc (probably why I love that era of his so much), and songs like London, Bye Ta-Ta and Waiting For the Man on the BBC session discs (among more well-known songs of course, but you get the idea).

    The version of Amsterdam on …Beeb always stood out for me – an early favorite before I became a full-blown Bowie fanatic. I haven’t listened to his version in many years, but I might this evening. Thanks!

  5. Mike F says:

    Sorry Scott and David, you can’t touch Edith Piaf’s version:

    • Mike F says:

      Whoops, apparently Edith’s version is a phony. It is Jacques Brel’s version sped up.

      • col1234 says:

        yes, was going to say that Piaf was inconveniently dead before Brel wrote that song.

      • Mike F says:

        If Michael Jackson was able to perform at the Billboard Music Awards after he died, Piaf should be able to record a song. We have the technology. Who’s ready for the Virtual Bowie World Tour in 2017?

  6. marta says:

    I’ve always loved Bowie’s Amsterdam, ever since I bought Rare when I was 15 in a secondhand record shop. It was the second most dramatic, emotional thing I had heard from him so far… – My Death on the Ziggy-The Motion Picture being the first. By then I already loved Bowie above everything else but with Amsterdam I could show him off to my parents pointing out his good taste and superb vocals. (My parents had Brel records).

    I’ve been listening to the 30th anniversary Ziggy album that includes Amsterdam on its second disc. My older 3 kids (15, 13 and 10) say it’s “cool” (the boys) and “very intense” (the girl). We’re not English native speakers, so they just get a part of the lyrics…

  7. Matthew says:

    We often give Bowie’s cover versions a hard time, but I think this is one of his very best. Almost impossible to compete with the intensity of Brels own version, I particularly like the restrained vocal on the BBC take. ‘My Death’ and ‘Waiting for the Man’ would complete my top three.

  8. I wonder if Bowie stopped performing Brel’s songs in 1973 because of what Brel was supposed to have said about him. Apparently Bowie was passing through Paris that year and hoped to meet Brel to tell him how much he admired his work. When Brel learned of this he is reported to have said “How can such a faggot believe I might have wanted to see him?” (Comment un pédé pareil peut-il croire que je pourrais avoir envie de le voir ?)

    It just goes to show for all of Bowie’s apparent pretense about his bisexuality, he still endured prejudice from people he admired.

    • MajorTomCat says:

      … in which it is demonstrated that a celebrated artist can act and talk as a perfect moron

  9. Jason Das says:

    I’m glad DB did Brel in the same way I’m glad Nirvana did MWSTW. Doesn’t touch the original, but brings great songs to a new audience, and deepens the context for the newer artist.

    (Amsterdam also deserves a better translation than the Mort Shuman version; the atmosphere, moodiness, and moralizing all seem changed for the worse.)

  10. I really like the vocal delivery on Bowie’s (final?) studio recording of this song. I much prefer it to Walker’s, whose version I feel lacked the venom that was at the forefront of Brel’s performances, something which Bowie at least attempted to emulate.

    As someone who doesn’t really speak French, I feel like I’m missing out on a huge part of what makes Brel a great songwriter. It’s a shame that a lot of the English adaptations don’t seem to live up to the French originals. I’ve never been particularly fond of many of the Shuman/Blau versions, though when it comes to lyrical liberties Amsterdam is far from the main culprit (can Carousel even be considered a translation??).

    I didn’t realise Bowie recorded more than the one studio take of this song, which is bizarre because I actually own the Rare LP. I mean I haven’t listened to it in a long time so I can only guess I assumed it was a live performance? Put that down to the reverb on the vocal mic, I guess.

  11. sons of the silent age says:

    I used to dance/ mime to this and the Alabama Song etc in the 80s. Nightlife in Wakefield… Memories…

  12. MC says:

    I got to know Amsterdam via Bowie Rare, and I had no idea that the version therein was a different take from the B-side. Listening to it now, I must say I don’t hear a huge difference. It’s an awfully skeletal arrangement for a song originally intended to be on Ziggy. What it lacks in production it makes up for in the vocal department, to a fault. This might be the first of Bowie’s seriously over-egged cover versions. DB’s purple delivery of lines like “He once sought to belch” used to have the 13-year old me in stitches.

    For me, the better Brel cover was definitely My Death, though in the end, Scott Walker seems the better interpreter. I love the notion of Brel as a key building block for DB’s songwriting, though. He was possibly the European strand in Bowie’s work, where Lou was the American one.

    The above comment from Brel is unfortunate, but it fits with the caustic character he supposedly was. He apparently once marveled that the diminutive Charles Aznavour was the one pop star who could stand up inside his own limo.

  13. Super review as per usual. Amsterdam was an early favourite of mine, I had the flawed Rare album early on. A moving performance but prefer Bowie over Brel.

  14. billter says:

    Wait wait wait wait…you mean Robert Guillaume from “Benson”?

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