Scott Walker’s interpretations of the nine Jacques Brel songs from his “Scott”, “Scott 2” and “Scott 3” albums.
Many in the English-speaking world first heard of Jacques Brel through Scott Walker’s recordings of his songs, yet when Scott launched his post-Walker Brothers solo career with his interpretation of Brel’s ‘Mathilde’ in 1967, Brel had been an enormous star in France for years. That lofty status was remarkable, given Brel’s lyrical obsessions with doomed romance, loneliness, prostitution and death. As he told Melody Maker in 1966, “I’m obsessed by those things that are ugly and sordid, that people don’t want to talk about, as if they were afraid of touching a wound that might soil them.”
It was American lyricist Mort Shuman who, by remaining as faithful as he could to Brel’s original words, transformed several key chansons into versions English-speaking audiences could relate to. Scott, however, was introduced to Brel’s songs by his chanson-loving German girlfriend, who would translate them for him. He was immediately smitten. Soon after, a demo disc of Shuman’s Brel translations found its way to Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham, who duly passed the record to Scott.
“The only time I’d heard such virility in a voice was in black singers,” Shuman recalled of seeing Brel perform. “I just had to find out what he was singing about. Then I had to translate it. He wrote about things you didn’t hear people singing, of things you normally only found in philosophy or in novels. By that time, Dylan and the Beatles were doing interesting things, but I was much more impressed by Brel. Here was a man who combined raw force with the most meaningful lyrics I had heard in songs, a deep understanding of the human condition.”
Brel’s impassioned compositions also made a profound impact on Scott and would influence his own increasingly meditative and dramatic songs. His “Scott”, “Scott 2” and “Scott 3” albums – produced by John Franz with superb orchestral arrangements by Wally Stott, Peter Knight and Reg Guest – each featured three Brel songs. After hearing Scott’s recordings of ‘Mathilde’, ‘Amsterdam’ and ‘My Death’ on his first album, Brel told Shuman to turn his entire song folio over to Scott. “With those albums, I was very excited having discovered chanson and Brel,” Scott told Jarvis Cocker decades later. “When I hear something I get excited about, I think everyone should hear it.” However, “Scott 4”, arguably his first masterwork, contained no Brel songs, an affirmation that the former student of the Belgian singer/songwriter had now graduated.
Along with Scott’s interpretations of all nine of the Brel songs in his catalogue, and Brel’s original iterations, this new Ace collection features Brel’s rendition of ‘Seul’, a song Scott performed live on his TV series but of which made no studio recording.
IAN JOHNSTON, KRIS NEEDS & MICK PATRICK