Amsterdam (Jacques Brel song)

"Amsterdam" is a song by Jacques Brel. It combines a powerful melancholic crescendo with a rich poetic account of the exploits of sailors on shore leave in Amsterdam.

Song by Jacques Brel
Songwriter(s)Jacques Brel

Brel never recorded this for a studio album, and his only version was released on the live album Enregistrement Public à l'Olympia 1964. Despite this, it has been one of his most enduringly popular works.[1] It was one of the songs Mort Shuman translated into English for the musical Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.

Brel worked on the song at his house overlooking the Mediterranean at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, the house he shared with Sylvie Rivet, a publicist for Philips; a place she had introduced him to in 1960. "It was the ideal place for him to create, and to indulge his passion for boats and planes. One morning at six o'clock he read the words of Amsterdam to Fernand, a restaurateur who was about to set off fishing for scorpion fish and conger eels for the bouillabaisse. Overcome, Fernand broke out in sobs and cut open some sea urchins to help control his emotion."[2]

Originally the song was situated in Antwerp, but moved to Amsterdam as 'Dans le port D'Anvers' does not fit the meter. Noteworthy is that in modern Amsterdam there is still a port, but owing to widespread automation and decline in crew sizes, there are far fewer sailors on shore leave.

Cover versions

David Bowie version

Scott Walker recorded several of these translated Brel songs in the late 1960s. This inspired David Bowie to record his own versions of "Amsterdam" in the early 1970s. Bowie's studio version was released as the B-side to his single "Sorrow", released in September 1973.[3] (This recording may have been made in the summer of 1973[4] or in late 1971.[5]) Brel refused to meet Bowie when he visited Paris, saying he did not wish to meet a "pédé" ("faggot"), but the latter nevertheless still admired him.[6]

Bowie's version is also found on several other releases:

Other English covers

Scott Walker recorded a version on his 1967, debut solo album, Scott.

Dave Van Ronk recorded a version on his 1971 album, Van Ronk.

The Dresden Dolls often play a cover of the song live with English lyrics. More recently, Amanda Palmer has performed the original French version in her live solo show with Jason Webley playing accordion.

The Bolshoi recorded a version for their debut single Sob Story in 1984.

Goodbye Mr Mackenzie recorded a version for their debut album Good Deeds and Dirty Rags.

Irish cabaret singer Camille O'Sullivan performs a cover of the song as part of her show with the Spiegeltent. Irish singer-songwriter Jack L has also recorded a version of the song.

John Denver released a version of this song on his album, Take Me To Tomorrow (1970). He has also released live versions on Live In London (1976) and the An Evening With John Denver bonus reissue tracks (1973).

Bellowhead have recorded Amsterdam on their 2010 album Hedonism.

Rod McKuen made his own translation of "Amsterdam" and included it on his album Rod McKuen Sings Jacques Brel.

In 2007 Marc Almond recorded a version for the EP "Brel Extras" released 2008 (

Dutch covers

Both Dutch band De Dijk and Dutch artists Acda en De Munnik recorded Dutch language versions of the song, called "Amsterdam" and "De stad Amsterdam" (The city Amsterdam) respectively. Other Dutch versions can be found by Liesbeth List (Liesbeth List zingt Jacques Brel), Jan Mesdag (Jan Mesdag zingt Brel) and Jeroen Willems (Jeroen Willems zingt Jacques Brel).

Other languages

  • Finnish: Finnish singer-songwriter Hector recorded a cover of the song in Finnish for his album Yhtenä iltana (1990). Finnish actress and singer Susanna Haavisto sang this song in finnish translation in a theatrical stage variety based on Brel's songs. A version is included on a compilation album Laulusi elää, Brel! (1984) of songs from this revue.
  • German: The song was translated into German and regularly sung by Hildegard Knef at the end of her live performance career, usually to conclude her concerts. A different German translation was also recorded by Klaus Hoffmann in 1975.[7][8] German chanteuse Ute Lemper included a version of "Amsterdam", in English and French, on her 2002 album But One Day....
  • Greek: Translated and performed by Giorgos Arapakis. Also performed by Manos Xidous, and by Vassilis Papaconstantinou.
  • Hebrew: Translated by Dan Almagor and originally performed by Dani Litani in 1970. Later on also performed by Corinne Allal and by Sassi Keshet.
  • Polish: The Polish version of "Amsterdam", with lyrics translated by Wojciech Młynarski, was performed by, among others, Piotr Zadrożny, Katarzyna Groniec and Marcin Czarnik.
  • Slovenian: Slovenian actor Branko Završan translated and recorded "Amsterdam" in his album Senca tvojga psa (Shadow of your dog), realised in 2008.
  • Basque: Basque poet and singer Xabier Lete translated "Amsterdam" and sang it in his last concert in Errenteria, on 25/09/1999. The concert, given for the basque festival Kilometroak, was recorded and finally released in 2011.


  1. "Jacques Brel". Retrieved January 9, 2012.
  2. Paris Match no 2992 September 2006
  3. Discogs - Sorrow / Amsterdam - 1973-Sept vinyl-7", RCA Victor (RCA 2424) UK
  4. Kevin Cann (2010). Any Day Now - David Bowie: The London Years: 1947-1974: p.311
  5. Chris O'Leary (2015). Rebel Rebel: p.496
  6. Jérôme Soligny - David Bowie - 10/18 (2002) - Enivrez-Vous
  7. "Klaus Hoffmann's version of Amsterdam". WhoSampled. Retrieved 2015-03-31.
  8. "Lyrics of the Klaus Hoffmann version". Edition Montana. Archived from the original on 2015-04-02. Retrieved 2015-03-31.
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