Sorrow/Amsterdam single – FranceWritten by: Jacques Brel, Mort Shuman
Recorded: 1971
Producers: Ken Scott, David Bowie

Released: 12 October 1973

Available on:
Re:Call 1
The Width Of A Circlesun

Personnel

David Bowie: vocals, 12-string acoustic guitar
Mick Ronson: acoustic guitar

David Bowie recorded a version of Jacques Brel’s ‘Amsterdam’ in 1971, and it was released two years later as the b-side of the ‘Sorrow’ single.

The song was originally in the 1968 revue Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris. The songs were translated into English by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman, who also wrote the story.

‘Amsterdam’ became one of Brel’s most popular songs, although he never recorded it for a studio album. His only released version was on the live collection Enregistrement Public à l’Olympia 1964.

The song was inspired by Brel’s villa at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, which overlooked the Mediterranean. Originally the lyrics were set in Antwerp, but “Dans le port D’Anvers” scanned less well.

Bowie performed ‘Amsterdam’ often between 1968 and 1972, when it was supplanted by another Brel song, ‘My Death’. Both songs had also been on Scott, the 1967 debut solo album by Scott Walker, which was where he first heard them.

Scott led Bowie to Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris, which he saw in London in July 1968. In 2003 he included the cast recording in a list of 25 of his favourite albums for Vanity Fair.

In the mid-60s, I was having an on-again, off-again thing with a wonderful singer-songwriter who had previously been the girlfriend of Scott Walker. Much to my chagrin, Walker’s music played in her apartment night and day. I sadly lost contact with her, but unexpectedly kept a fond and hugely admiring love for Walker’s work. One of the writers he covered on an early album was Jacques Brel. That was enough to take me to the theater to catch the above-named production when it came to London in 1968. By the time the cast, led by the earthy translator and Brooklynite Mort Shuman, had gotten to the song that dealt with guys lining up for their syphilis shots (‘Next’), I was completely won over. By way of Brel, I discovered French chanson a revelation. Here was a popular song form wherein poems by the likes of Sartre, Cocteau, Verlaine, and Baudelaire were known and embraced by the general populace. No flinching, please.
David Bowie
Vanity Fair, November 2003

Bowie recorded ‘Amsterdam’ in the summer of 1971, during the sessions for The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars.

An early master tape of the album was compiled on 15 December 1971, although it was still missing the songs ‘Starman’, ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide’, and ‘Suffragette City’.

At that stage the album was to be titled Round And Round. The running order had ‘Five Years’, ‘Soul Love’, ‘Moonage Daydream’, ‘Round And Round’, and ‘Amsterdam’ on side one; and ‘Hang On To Yourself’, ‘Ziggy Stardust’, ‘Velvet Goldmine’, ‘Holy Holy’, ‘Star’, and ‘Lady Stardust’ on the second half.

‘Amsterdam’ was, instead, held back till 1973, when it was issued as the b-side of ‘Sorrow’. The single was taken from Pin Ups, Bowie’s collection of cover versions from the mid-Sixties R&B scene, and although ‘Amsterdam’ would not have belonged thematically, it was apposite to release Brel’s song at a time when Bowie was performing the songs of others.

The release

David Bowie’s recording of ‘Amsterdam’ was first released on 12 October 1973, on the b-side of ‘Sorrow’. Some international variants of the single listed the title as ‘Port Of Amsterdam’.

‘Life On Mars?’ was released as a single in Italy in December 1973, with ‘Amsterdam’ on the b-side.

In France, ‘Amsterdam’ was billed as the lead song on the single, with ‘Sorrow’ on the b-side.

‘Amsterdam’ was included on the 1982 RCA compilation Bowie Rare. That year, ‘Sorrow’ and ‘Amsterdam’ were also included in Fashions, a collection of ten picture disc singles housed in a hardback wallet.

A 1982 single in Germany also had ‘Amsterdam’ as the b-side of ‘Alabama Song’.

A remix of ‘Amsterdam’, retitled ‘Port Of Amsterdam’ was included as a bonus track on the 1990 Rykodisc CD reissue of Pin Ups, along with Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Growin’ Up’. It was also included on the bonus disc of the 30th Anniversary Reissue of Ziggy Stardust in 2002.

The original mix was included on Re:Call 1, part of the Five Years (1969–1973) box set.

BBC recordings

David Bowie recorded ‘Amsterdam’ on two occasions for BBC radio, both of which predated the studio version.

The first was for an edition of The Sunday Show, recorded on 5 February 1970 and broadcast three days later.

The 15-song session took place at the BBC Paris Studio in central London. ‘Amsterdam’ was one of six recordings from that day included on Bowie At The Beeb in 2000 – the others were ‘God Knows I’m Good’, ‘The Width Of A Circle’, ‘Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed’, ‘Cygnet Committee’, and ‘Memory Of A Free Festival’.

‘Amsterdam’ from The Sunday Show was also included on the 2021 album The Width Of A Circle.

The second BBC recording was for an edition of Sounds Of The 70s presented by Bob Harris. It was recorded at Kensington House on 21 September 1971, and broadcast on 4 October.

This session featured just Bowie and Mick Ronson. They performed six songs: ‘The Supermen’, ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’, ‘Eight Line Poem’, ‘Kooks’, ‘Fill Your Heart’, ‘Amsterdam’, and ‘Andy Warhol’.

That version of ‘Amsterdam’, however, was not included in the broadcast, and remains unreleased.

Lyrics

In the port of Amsterdam
There’s a sailor who sings
Of the dreams that he brings
From the wide open sea
In the port of Amsterdam
There’s a sailor who sleeps
While the river bank weeps
To the old Willow tree

In the port of Amsterdam
There’s a sailor who dies
Full of beer, full of cries
In a drunken town fight
In the port of Amsterdam
There’s a sailor who’s born
On a hot muggy morn
By the dawn’s early light

In the port of Amsterdam
Where the sailors all meet
There’s a sailor who eats
Only fish heads and tails
And he’ll show you his teeth
That have rotted too soon
That can haul up the sails
That can swallow the moon

And he yells to the cook
With his arms open wide
“Hey, bring me more fish
Throw it down by my side”
And he wants so to belch
But he’s too full to try
So he stands up and laughs
And he zips up his fly

In the port of Amsterdam
You can see sailors dance
Paunches bursting their pants
Grinding women to porch
They’ve forgotten the tune
That their whiskey voice croaked
Splitting the night
With the roar of their jokes
And they turn and they dance
And they laugh and they lust
Till the rancid sound of the accordion bursts
And then out of the night
With their pride in their pants
And the sluts that they tow
Underneath the street lamp

In the port of Amsterdam
There’s a sailor who drinks
And he drinks and he drinks
And he drinks once again
He’ll drink to the health
Of the whores of Amsterdam
Who’ve given their bodies
To a thousand other men
Yeah, they’ve bargained their virtue
Their goodness all gone
For a few dirty coins
When he just can’t go on
Throws his nose to the sky
Aims it up above
And he pisses like I cry
On the unfaithful love

In the port of Amsterdam
In the port of Amsterdam