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.