REVIEW: Prom 15: The Songs of Scott Walker (1967-70)

Singer Jarvis Cocker with Jules Buckley and the Heritage Orchestra
Photo credit BBC/Mark Allan

REVIEW: Prom 15: The Songs of Scott Walker (1967-70)
(Royal Albert Hall. 25 July 2017. Review by AJ Dehany. Drawing by Geoff Winston)

The “Scott Walker Prom” has been heavily trailed with a rich season of programmes, 6 Music Celebrates Scott Walker, including a vanishingly rare recent interview with the legend himself and exploratory features by Jarvis Cocker, Stuart Maconie and Max Richter.

The BBC Proms tend to celebrate great pop and rock composers only after they’re dead: Michael Jackson and David Bowie have each been saluted. Last year’s bloody G.R.R. Martin-esque cull of our most beloved pop icons had me bleeding my knuckles while praying for Scott Walker to be spared. It’s gratifying to know he was backstage at his own tribute. He deserves it. As Brian Eno says, Walker “took music to a place it hasn’t been since.”

Masterminded by Bella Union label boss Simon Raymonde and journalist Dick Hovenga, the Prom focused on the late '60s period of the four classic orchestral pop albums Scott (1967), Scott 2 (1968), Scott 3 (1969) and Scott 4 (1969) plus ‘Til The Band Comes In (1970) - the same selection of records that Julian Cope drew on for the compilation Fire Escape in the Sky: The Godlike Genius of Scott Walker, which reignited interest in Walker in 1981.

Scott Walker never performed these songs live. The Albert Hall concert was a one-off event, possibly the only chance we’ll ever get to hear them realized at scale. The Heritage Orchestra with conductor Jules Buckley and the London Contemporary Voices choir brought the lush arrangements from the albums to life with great gusto and aplomb, though at the same time it was all rather tasteful and faithful, in an atmosphere of stiff reverence. The four vocalists, Jarvis Cocker, John Grant, Susanne Sundfør and Richard Hawley, were in varying degrees visibly and audibly nervous. Scott Walker’s voice is a wonder of the world: vulnerable, tender, bracing and bombastic all at once. Each of the them possessed some but not all of his qualities.

Richard Hawley at the Scott Walker Prom
Drawing by Geoff Winston. All Rights Reserved

Richard Hawley is a wonderfully rich singer but just couldn’t step into Scott Walker’s lungs in the colossal choruses of Montague Terrace (In Blue). He seemed to be hiding behind his guitar during It’s Raining Today, Two Ragged Soldiers and The Old Man’s Back Again, all beloved songs that seemed destined for bigger vocal cords. Jarvis Cocker gave nervous readings of Boy Child, Plastic Palace People, The War Is Over, and Little Things. He might have been better employed on The Amorous Humphrey Plugg. This second album cut was a prize fit for Susanne Sundfør, the star of the hour, who managed to belt it out in a way the others didn’t quite dare. Closest in expressive range to Walker, her Plugg was full Shirley Bassey with John Barry Big Band; raunchy then smooth, delicate and crystalline throughout On Your Own Again, Angels of Ashes, and Hero of the War. Her TV performance of On Your Own Again with just piano is exquisite and devastating.

John Grant has some pipes too and is no stranger to big orchestras, having recently toured his breakthrough album Pale Green Ghosts with the BBC Philharmonic. The Greatest MF was in fine voice for Rosemary, The World’s Strongest Man, and he was perfection in a commanding reading of Walker’s retelling of Bergman, The Seventh Seal, a widescreen epic with Mariachi horns and no mean feat to pull off. John Grant told 6music before the concert that Walker’s songs are “not easy to perform: sometimes very loose, sometimes very specific. Things don’t go where you expect. The words are challenging. I’m a little bit shocked”.

Susanne Sundfør, Jules Buckley and the Heritage Orchestra
Photo credit BBC/Mark Allan


It’s true, it’s challenging material. We can be distracted from this by what he did later. Proper musos tend to celebrate the albums from 1981’s Climate of Hunter onwards: Tilt (1995), The Drift (2006), and Bish Bosch (2012): dark modern classical sound worlds with an industrial impact. On these albums the use of the orchestra is somewhat different, more akin to musique concrète: “there are no arrangements [on The Drift],” says Walker, “it’s big blocks of sound; the orchestra’s there but it’s noises and big blocks of sound, it’s even come down to that.”

Scott Walker famously warned Evan Parker when he turned up for work, “This is not a funk session,” which is no understatement. But how we thrill to the lopping melodic bass on The Old Man’s Back Again on Scott 4. Jarvis Cocker in his 6music interview asked Walker the question we have been asking forever: who played the bass on that song? And the answer was... he can’t remember... “but it would have been a very fine bass player.” Do you think he means himself?

Now acclaimed as a masterpiece and a summation of his art, in 1969 Scott 4 was summarily deleted. 1970’s 'Til The Band Comes In should have been Scott 5 and is sometimes called 'Scott 4 1/2': a decent short suite of originals followed by some derisory company-demanded covers. Subsequent albums from the early 1970s contained no original material at all, and have been suppressed: silent documents of “lost years”.

Regarding the failure of his solo career Walker notes that the third album is “practically all written in 3/4: you can’t dance to it — unless you wanted to waltz all night. Before, I’d given something people could hang onto. People started to drift away. I became a kind of leper. People didn’t wanna touch me commercially... and after that I don’t know what happened. A whole lot of drinking.”

The belated appeal of the songs on these four albums is not because they were ahead of their time or because they were sombre and melancholic in a way that mirrors our times. Pop contains multitudes of visionaries and depressing bastards, and it’s patronising to suggest pop is just about bubblegum and Ed Sheeran’s face. These albums failed for the same reason they are great: they straddle two very different worlds that aren’t always permitted to meet.

The greatness of those albums is their inbetween-ness. They have many of the same ‘weird’ elements of the later albums - unlikely textural combinations (at the concert we spotted a contrabass flute), lyrics so loaded with meaning they might appear meaningless (is The Old Man’s Back Again about Stalin or something? Following the concert, Walker’s response to hearing his songs for the first time in 50 years was “Just basically I wondered what was I going on about!?”), and dissonant clusters of shrill cicada-like tones that drone throughout It’s Raining Today from Scott 3: if you listened to just the right channel you’d hear a guitarist singing a pretty song, just the left channel and you’d think it was John Cage’s Two4.

The tension between the more traditional songwriting and the avant garde underbelly is what makes these records so satisfying. Anyone can be weird — though admittedly Walker has made a weirdness distinctively his own. At the Barbican in 2008 the concert Tilting and Drifting: The Songs of Scott Walker presented the more recent work, with Walker himself at the mixing desk. To give you a flavour of what that evening was like, during a song about the hanging of Mussolini an opera singer lay across the stage with his legs tied up while a boxer punched a dead pig. It’s on YouTube.

AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk

Prom 15: The Songs of Scott Walker (1967-70) was broadcast simultaneously on BBC Radio 3 and BBC 6music and will be screened on Friday 28 July at 10pm on BBC Four.

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff. It made me think of shoving bubble gum in Ed Sheeran's face.

    ReplyDelete