Friday, 3 May 2013

Top 102 Albums⁺ No 11 Bernelle on Brecht

Top 102 Albums⁺ No 11 
Bernelle on Brecht - Agnes Bernelle

Who? I hear some of you ask. Tom Waits once called her his favourite recording artist.  Marc Almond duetted with and wrote a song for her. Philip Chevron was  "production co-ordinator" on this album and producer of her next album, which Elvis Costello was also involved in. She was a link to Lotte Lenya and Marlene Dietrich. She brought cabaret and chanson to Peter Cook's Establishment Club in sixties Soho; she caused a German U-Boat captain to surrender by congratulating him on the birth of his baby after he had spent two years at sea; she opened a door in Dublin which led you into Weimar Germany, dislocating time and space... You are in the world of George Grosz and Bertolt Brecht.

You can get a potted history of her life by listening to the radio shows at this LINK. You will also find Bernelle on Brecht there, where it has been for a few weeks, as I discovered this morning. I was wondering how to illustrate this album which had little or no life online. At one time the only mention I could find was one mentioning that it was "as rare as hen's teeth."
Thus hangs a tale, explaining in part why this album means so much to me. I had Agnes' two albums from 1985 and 1990, Father's Lying Dead on The Ironing Board and Mother The Wardrobe's Full of Infantrymen. (Both albums, plus extras, are included in the very long audio clip on Youtube below.) I loved both and also loved what I'd seen of Agnes live.

I had heard that she had released an earlier album but had never seen it or heard of anyone who had it. Prodcution had been co-ordinated by a young Philip Chevron of The Radiators, Dublin's finest punk/cabaret combo and later of The Pogues. Having seen a Brecht production during the Dublin Theatre Festival I ended up having a long conversation with Agnes in the festival club during which I brought up the album. She explained that all her own spare copies were gone and that she often got requests. A few years previously she had found a stash of albums which were in the possession of an ex-record shop owner. However, these had soon disappeared and all she had left was her own copy.

For years I dreamed of finding it. And then one day I did, nested amoung Top of the Pops albums and Pope John Paul in Ireland l.p.'s there it appeared. I did a double take, and then a few more takes. It was in mint condition. It was signed. It was £1. I was so excited I could hardly talk. I was on a high for weeks afterwards. Sad, I know, but that's how easy I was to please.

And the record lives up to its billing, as I knew it would. Backed on piano, as she was whenever I saw her play, by Peter O'Brien on piano, a guarantee of quality. Other musicians include the great jazz guitarist Louis Stewart. And then there are the songs, some of the great compositions of the 20th century, performed as they were meant to be. Eight have the justly famed Brecht/Weill imprimatur of genius. And the others including a solo Weill and a Brecht/Asriel credit. Three others have lyrics from the Weimar period and the music is composed and arranged by Michael Dress, a long time collaborator.

Agnes' father had been a theatre owner and a director and she was familiar from the cradle with Weimar cabaret. She performs these songs as if she owns them and with an amazing control of timing and phrasing. There is no schmaltz here. The music is spare and the performances are given over to the songs completely.

Favourites? Tootsies, reprised on the Fathers Lying Dead on the Ironing Board album, Surabaya Johnny;  Bilbao Song, later covered by Phil Chevron on his own rather excellent EP of Brechtian cabaret, Songs from Bill's Dance Hall. (another prized possession). The songs are funny, anarchic, moving. Listen to Bernelle on Brecht, listen to the other two albums, and be thankful.

And here's yet another in my series where favourite artists get the blame for songs in The Knocking Shop's canon. The following song, here live and lo-fi was partly inspired by Agnes' version of the Tom Waits song Broken Bicycles.

I've seen them laid out in the rain
Broken parts and rusted remains
Torn pictures in busted frames
A phoenix rising from the flames
All these things we've thrown away
Lit by a halo of decay

These broken things have angel's wings
These broken things
And we know it's only one small step
From the scrapheap to glory

Umbrellas with broken ribs
Fountain pens with rusted nibs
Torn papers spill the words
Of stories we have never heard
We can be the Rag & Bone men
Bring them back to life again

For we know it's only one small step
From the scrapheap to glory


  1. My first job in the theatre was as a lighting designer with Agnes, in fact she kind of discovered me! I did lighting on her shows often with Philip Chevron collaborating. I became a friend over the years. I have the album and treasure it! Out there in the mist are some unfinished films by who I can't remember! Sé Merry Doyle

    1. Hi Se, there is this film - http://www.buckledcranium.com/bcfilm/agnes.html and also Ben Yeates made a short doc on her as her student film. She was an incredible character, and artist.

  2. She sounds larger than life; I look forward to getting to know her music.
    Listening to Tom Waits' 'Alice' and think it might be an obvious progression...

    1. There are certainly links to Waits later work. I guess The Black Rider is the most Brechtian of his albums but I think all from Swordfishtrombones onwards show some influence.