The Songs of Scott Walker review

 

The Songs of Scott Walker (1967-70), [Prom 15, Royal Albert Hall London, Tuesday 25th July 10.15pm, tx. Friday 28th July, 10.00-11.25pm, BBC Four] celebrated Scott Walker’s four plus one solo albums from the late 60s through interpretations by Jarvis Cocker, John Grant, Richard Hawley and Susanne Sundfør.  This review is of Friday night’s broadcast.

In an interview shortly before the concert, Walker urged the performers to ‘make it as new as you can’.  In the event, a largely respectful tone was taken.  Perhaps the clue was in the so called Heritage Orchestra.

Not quite copyists

A copyist approach could be justified as it allowed us to hear for the first time live, material which had hitherto been restricted to vinyl as Scott never promoted Scott 1-4 through concerts and tours in the late 60s.

Karaoke was avoided by allowing the individual tones and textures of the artists to inform and occasionally uplift the songs.  So we had Jarvis Cocker’s husky hesitancy, Richard Hawley’s benevolent burr, John Grant’s faultless efficiency and something altogether idiosyncratic and more interesting from Susanne Sundfør.  On The Amorous Humphrey Plugg, she led the orchestra on the evening’s best performance, stronger than her stripped down On Your Own Again which got all the attention.

Unassailable beauty

Scott 1-4 is virtually unassailable in its beauty which presents a problem for any artist attempting a cover.  How can you better Scott’s Boy Child or It’s Raining Today?  You can’t, but you can show the depths of your appreciation by paying tribute.  I didn’t hear anything on Friday night to challenge the supremacy of the originals.  The interpretations tended towards friendly fare or hushed after-dinner devotions (this was a late night prom).

Nobody could doubt Jarvis Cocker and Richard Hawley’s sincerity but Scott’s classical precision and nuanced delivery were missing – and missed.  It’s these formal qualities of economy and attention to every detail along with the scrupulous thoughtfulness of the orchestration which, on vinyl, lifts already extraordinary material to the greatest heights.

Subtle discipline

When you mention Scott 1-4, everyone gushes about lush romanticism but isn’t it the discipline and subtlety of the albums which marks them out?  I’d like to hear a Scott 1-4 selection performed by top, contemporary, classically trained vocalists perhaps accompanied by a chamber ensemble.

This is an approach which might have worked – actively acknowledging the classicism of the source material, its erudition, its refinement.

Compromised poise

On occasions, the Heritage Orchestra under Jules Buckley compromised poise, as if wanting to rush through the songs, not quite allowing them room to fully breathe.  Subtle phrasing, pregnant pauses, an almost imperceptible ebb and flow were flattened slightly.

These interpretations sailed too close to the originals and thereby highlighted their own shortcomings.  ‘Make it as new as you can’ might have meant the cracking whips and pounding meat of Scott’s later works like The Drift and Bish Bosch an approach which, although harder on the ears, would have obliterated comparisons.


The covers:
Jarvis Cocker: Boy Child, Plastic Palace People, The War is Over (Sleepers), Little Things (That Keep Us Together).

Susanne Sundfor: On Your Own Again, Angels of Ashes, The Amorous Humphrey Plugg, Hero of the War.

John Grant: Rosemary, The World’s Strongest Man, Copenhagen, The Seventh Seal.

Richard Hawley: It’s Raining Today, Two Ragged Soldiers, Montague Terrace (in Blue), The Old Man’s Back Again (Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinest Regime).

Singing Together: Archive on Four

Tx 29.11.14. 8.00-9.00pm, BBC Radio 4


 

If traditional songs like ‘Donkey Riding’, ‘Bushes and Briars’ and ‘Tree in the Wood’ ring bells for you, the chances are you might have first heard and sung along to them on BBC Radio for Schools’ Singing Together broadcast for over five decades on Monday mornings at 11am.  Sprightly, rousing and, above all, jolly summed up its approach to singing.

Saturday’s Archive on Four allowed Jarvis Cocker a fascinating trawl through a history of the series prompted by a personal quest to unite his 1974 pupil’s pamhlet with broadcast recordings of the songs.  He does so thanks to a cassette tape in the back of an old school music cupboard.

‘Singing Together’ survived for so long because it was well loved by generations of children.  It fought off BBC bigwigs’ criticisms that it was insufficiently erudite and later adapted, sometimes awkwardly, to schools’ ethnic diversity and the constraints of the national curriculum.  But ultimately, ‘Singing Together’ died because its inherent simplicity was regarded as old fashioned, too straightforward for the demands of a changing world.

As Jarvis says – “Singing always helps” and at the end of the documentary, there’s a chance for you to do just that.
 


Singing Together on BBC iplayer
BBC Magazine feature
Lightstraw – a selection of charming covers to pupils’ pamphlets  from the 60s