It’s another death disc! And one of the most famous, and controversial, as Canadian singer Terry Jacks’ loose cover of Jacques Brel’s Le Moribond (The Dying Man) has as many critics as it does fans.
Terrence Ross Jacks was born 29 March 1944 in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The family moved to Vancouver in the early-60s, around the time Jacks first took up the guitar. He formed his first group, The Chessmen, when he was 18, and they gained quite a following in the area. He then formed, with future wife Susan Pesklevits, psychedelic pop group The Poppy Family, who had a big Canadian (number 1) and US (number two) hit with Which Way You Goin’ Billy?, written and produced by Jacks, in 1969.
Jacks didn’t enjoy performing live, and the pressures of fame resulted in him disbanding the group in 1972. He wanted to concentrate on production, and was honoured when his friends The Beach Boys asked him to work with them. The song he chose was singer-poet Rod McKuen’s reworking of Brel’s Le Moribond.
The Belgian songwriter’s theatrical songs were becoming influential among the counterculture, and singers including Scott Walker and David Bowie. Le Moribond was substantially different to Jacks’ number 1, musically and lyrically. The similarity in the chorus is clear, but Brel’s song is faster-paced, like a march. Jacks later recalled that Brel told him over dinner how he had written Le Moribond in a Tangiers brothel, and that it was about an old man dying of a broken heart, after learning his best friend was having sex with his wife. Brel had retired shortly before Jacks’ song came out, and six years later it became apparent he had been fighting cancer, which he succumbed to in 1978.
Jacks liked McKuen’s translation of Brel’s song, and it struck a chord with him, as he was losing one of his best friends to leukaemia. He flew to Brian Wilson’s house to work on it, with an idea of getting his brother Dennis to perform the lead. But Brian was in a fragile state still, and tried to take over the sessions. In the end, Jacks felt he had no choice but to walk out, and he chose to record it himself instead.
The first thing you hear in Seasons in the Sun is a guitar that sounds like it’s from a grunge or indie tune several decades later (which might explain why Nirvana eventually covered this), and Jacks’ vocal is unusual too. Combine these, and the cheesy organ, with the morbid subject matter, and you can understand why this song is so divisive. In fact, I can’t decide what I think of it myself. I used to like it, finding the lyrics, in which the dying singer says goodbye to an old friend, his father and daughter, rather moving, and of course, whatever your opinion, you can’t deny that’s a great commercial chorus. But listening to it again for this blog, I found the production offputting and a bit nauseous, truth be told. I preferred Brel’s original arrangement.
Having said that, it still has a curious appeal, is a better death disc than the number 1 that directly preceded it, and is better than the awful Westlife version, a double-A-side with a cover of ABBA’s I Have a Dream, which somehow became the final number 1 of the 20th century. I voted it the worst Christmas number 1 of all time here.
Jacks was as surprised as anyone at his number 1. It became the biggest-selling Canadian song in history at the time and has sold several millions worldwide. Despite the arrangement being his own, as well as the last verse, he missed out on royalties by not bothering with a songwriting credit. But he bought a boat and named it after the song. Jacks had another Brel/McKuen cover hit in the UK with If You Go Away, but that was his last success here.
As the 70s went on, Jacks withdrew from the public eye, and found religion while travelling around on his boat. He would occasionally produce other artists, however. He’s only recorded three other albums since the 1974 one named after his number 1 – in 1975, 1983 and 1987. His private life has occasionally made headlines – his first marriage dissolved, and in 2001 he was accused of spousal abuse by second wife Maggi Zittier, and the police cautioned him for improper storage of a firearm while they were there. Jacks has been a strong campaigner for environmental issues for decades and has won several awards.
Written by: Jacques Brel & Rod McKuen
Producer: Terry Jacks
Weeks at number 1: 4 (6 April-3 May)
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27 April: Manchester United are relegated from the First Division of the Football League, where they have played continuously since 1938. Their relegation is confirmed when they lose 1-0 at home to Manchester City in the penultimate game of the season. The only goal of the game comes from former United striker Denis Law.
1 May: Sir Alf Ramsey, the man who led the England football team to victory in the 1966 World Cup, is dismissed by the Football Association after 11 years.
2 May: The National Front gains more than 10% of the vote in several parts of London’s council elections, but fails to net any councillors.