The death of Scott Walker has left me with a hole in my heart. His voice, so individual, intense, so beautiful, still has the same capacity to move me today that it did the first time I heard it. His songs and albums are among the most beautiful I’ve heard in my life, and they will continue to bring warmth and solace into my life until the day I die.
In 2017, together with Simon Raymonde (Cocteau Twins/Bella Union) and conductor/arranger Jules Buckley (Metropole Orchestra, Heritage Orchestra), I organised a major Scott Walker tribute concert entitled The Songs Of Scott Walker 1967-1970 as part of the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. That means that my memories of Scott Walker go beyond just the music. And that’s also why I feel that I want to share my thoughts about Scott in a personal story, something I would normally never do. I’d like to take the opportunity to take stock calmly of who Scott has been for me, to consider who he is for me and to reflect on who he will always remain for me.
My memories of Scott Walker don’t actually go all the way back to my youth. Although I do remember my brother Erik playing the single No Regrets by The Walker Brothers on repeat (it was from the period after they’d got back together, 1975-78) and I remember that I loved Scott’s voice right away. But at the time that’s really all it was.
And then something unexpected happened: just before a holiday, the boss of the record store where I was working put together a cassette tape, and that was what first ignited my love for Scott Walker. Tucked away among a lot of other ‘music I was supposed to get to know’, I stumbled across Scott Walker’s Plastic Palace People, and it put me into a state of total confusion. Never before had I heard something so special, so intense. With Montaque Terrace (In Blue) and My Death, also on that tape, my musical world, which at the time was completely dominated by punk and new wave, had found a different path.
I immediately fell in love with Scott Walker’s divine baritone voice and with all the emotions that resonated for me in his singing. It was all so overwhelming, so full of life. And musically, it was of a different order too. It was just so full of everything. It was produced on a big scale, with arrangements for full orchestra, but at the same time so warm, even intimate. I was enchanted by the songs, even if I couldn’t yet fully place them properly at the time. There was simply too much going on, and all at the same time for my musical spirit that was still very young. I kept playing the tape until it was almost worn out. But as for the songs, they had found a place in my heart.
In the meantime, my musical life was continuing. There was simply far too much out there to discover in the late seventies and early eighties. To my surprise, the 1981 release of Scott Walker’s Fire Escape in the Sky compilation managed to pass me by at the time. As a fine ode to Scott’s first 4 albums, compiled by Julian Cope, a musician whose music has been so closely connected to my life since his early days with the Teardrop Explodes and later solo. Cope thought it was completely unjust that Scott had almost disappeared from the radar after those 4 albums. He had had a successful reunion with the Walker Brothers, but after that had managed to disappear for a while. Walker, said Cope, should be considered properly as being of huge value because of that four-part album. And he was so right.
The release of the innovative, beautiful album Climate of Hunter in 1984 (Richard Branson’s Virgin Records had come to the rescue) turned out to be a revelation. Suddenly I became aware of how I needed to go back and listen properly to everything from the first 4 Scott albums. And also of course also the work he had done with The Walker Brothers.
It became the musical journey of discovery of my life. I had suddenly grasped what Scott was aiming for in his music. Those fabulous songs from his youth with The Walker Brothers which, through being orchestrated were taken by Scott into a new universe. But it was mainly those first 4 solo albums Scott, Scott 2, Scott 3 and Scott 4, which got really deep under my skin. His own idiosyncratic compositions, those beautiful English versions of the powerful Jacques Brel songs (yes, I got to know Jacques Brel through Scott) and the fascinating development and growth that happened through the course of the 4 albums. I was completely sold on it, and musically changed for life. So Climate of Hunter turned out not only to be the way I was introduced to the new Scott, with his voice which by then had taken on leanings towards opera new classical music, plus his disturbingly beautiful yet dark songs, but also it resulted in the complete discovery of his early years.
With the release of Tilt, which was musically even more far-reaching, and on a different record label, my love for Scott only grew greater. With album opener Farmer In the City (Once you’ve heard the phrase ‘Do I hear 21…21…21’, you know you’re dealing with something very special) as an astonishingly brilliant album opener, Tilt is the album on which Scott really draws you into a new and visionary musical world.
Tilt was intriguing, but it turned out to be just too difficult for a large audience, and it was only several years later that the album was finally adjudged a masterpiece. Tilt, seen by Scott himself as his big musical step forward, meant the end of another record deal and he stepped back, disillusioned. It took 14 years before a new album was eventually released: The Drift. An album that I described in my first review of Scott as ‘An album that sounds alienating, hypnotizing, completely over the top but at the same time heartbreakingly beautiful’. Being given a free musical hand at last, in a perfect record deal with 4AD, Scott finally found peace. With The Drift and Bish Bosch, which appeared six years later and sounded even more frightening and darker, Scott once again produced masterpieces that were musically radical and innovative. Scott’s musical world, which took a dive into the dark with Tilt and The Drift, Bish Bosch and a little later with Soused (2014), made in collaboration with the American Sunn O))), plunged even deeper and darker, and the result was music that had not been heard before. It was experimental, challenging in all its aspects, electronic, dissonant, free, super -adventurous, hard, unfathomable, full of emotion – a lot of emotion – innovative, visionary, actually all at the same time and much more besides. It was completely brilliant, and at times completely inimitable. Albums that musically are barely comprehensible, not even after many listening sessions. And that’s why they remain intriguing.
My life with Scott takes an unexpected turn in the summer of 2014. I had met Simon Raymonde, the former-Cocteau Twins bassist and owner of the great record label Bella Union, in 2008. At our first meeting – I was interviewing him about his then 10-year-old label – I arrived an hour late due to London’s familiar traffic problems. When I arrived, Simon had already started on the pasta, ‘Well, it took a long time…’, he laughed and fortunately that reassured me right away. Our conversation went much further than what we were due to be talking about (his label and his artists), and it also became much more personal. That afternoon we sowed the seeds of what was to become a very congenial and precious friendship.
With Written in Music, the online magazine we had started in November 2009, there have been quite a few years for the friendship to develop, and as Written in Music got up to speed, there were plenty of new writing possibilities for us, which could give Bella Union all the attention it deserved, especially as its artist-roster grew to include Fleet Foxes, John Grant and Father John Misty. At one appointment to talk about the label again in London, (taking in the chance to see Pins who were on the rise, and especially the great Money playing), the conversation got really chummy. I had also brought along Written in Music journalist Edwin Hofman and after a while he started shaking his head, getting totally confused and asking: there are far too many stories here….what do I write down….what do I leave out… what am I actually allowed to report in the piece…?
And finally, in the summer of 2014 Simon and I get to talk properly about Scott Walker. I have just seen the beautiful Scott Walker documentary 30th Century Man, and Simon is telling about his great love for Scott. We are sitting on a terrace in Brighton and I tell him that I share his love for Scott and would like to capture it in a concert. And I tell him my plans. He immediately becomes enthusiastic and indicates that such a plan has been in his mind for years. While he gets us fresh coffee, I write on a scrap of paper the names of the vocalists I would like to have for that. When he returns, he sees my note, he looks at me and says that the names I have written down are exactly those he hoped to see. He also tells me he already met several people wanting to organise such a concert but who never really got it off the ground. But that my idea could really work.
I return to London, my head buzzing with ideas. I’m completely confused because now I actually have to do something. After seeing Laura Mvula and the Metropole Orchestra’s concert at the Royal Albert Hall, which I attend on behalf of Written in Music, I talk to Jules Buckley in the downstairs bar afterwards. He is the conductor of the Metropole Orchestra (also of the Heritage Orchestra based in London) and has been a good friend for years. He thinks it’s time we do something together and I drop three ideas that have been playing through my head for a long time now. One of them is the still unfinished idea about a Scott Walker tribute. Side-tracked by the many acquaintances we meet that evening, he only gets around to considering the proposals at the end of the drink: ‘Scott Walker is the hardest thing ever,” Jules says. “He’s a godlike genius but I’d love the challenge’, he tells me. A little later I send Simon a text message: “Jules is in.”
After that time goes by quickly again, because we’re absorbed by all the other work that’s around. Of course, Simon and I talk about the concert, but we really need an orchestra to make our dream come true and we really need and want Jules for that. It is when David Bowie dies very suddenly – he had been the singer at the very top of our list of vocalists to ask to perform Scott’s songs – we realise it’s time to really act. With my ‘day-job’ (well, as a journalist you really don’t earn enough) just ticking over quietly, I decide that 2016 should be the year. But it turns out to be much harder than expected and it takes a lot more time and money to get it off the ground than expected.
Then, quite unexpectedly, on 1 January 2017 the phone call comes that unlocks it. Jules tells me that he has received an offer to fill in an evening at the BBC Proms, and he has been thinking about our idea of the song repertoire of Scott Walker. I really don’t know what has just happened to me. After the phone call I call Simon and we are both completely silent for a moment. What an opportunity. After some weeks of calling back and forth and emailing in the evening, it is then officially confirmed by the BBC. Tuesday evening 27 July will be the date. I had talked about it before with John Grant. “If it happens, I want to sing Copenhagen,” he had told me in a second-hand record store in Düsseldorf, where he was performing at the New Fall festival and I was attending.
John Grant is the first one to give an unequivocal YES to my official invitation to The Songs Of Scott Walker 1967-1970, as we will call the concert from that day on. Jarvis Cocker is the second to be added. He and Scott have been friends for years, since the time Scott produced the last (seventh) Pulp album We Love Life. Richard Hawley, who, just like Cocker, has been friends with Scott for many years, follows soon afterwards. And so, we have the three singers to head the list for our programme. How incredible is that!
Meanwhile, Simon and Scott’s manager Charles and Scott themselves have already been in touch and it’s gone well. Scott wants to assist in everything and suggests adding a female singer to get more diversity. Simon has been in touch with singer Susanne Sundfør about making an album together. Jules knows her too and is really keen too. The line-up is now complete.
Simon and I decided long before that to do a concert with songs from his early albums. In other words, songs that had been recorded in the studio with orchestra, but never actually performed live with orchestra. Scott asks if we can focus on the songs he wrote himself for those first four albums. No problem of course: those albums are such treasure chests, and they contain more than enough good songs to make a beautiful setlist.
In consultation with Scott, we then compile the list of singers and songs. This is a wonderful, beautiful job, but it is also very difficult. Everything must be fit neatly into a programme of 75 minutes. So, with precise timings and everything. We decide to give four songs to each singer with a finale for all of them. The singers have two songs to start, and then one each, but it all has to be in a sequence which flows in terms of musical impact. And for Jules the difficult task begins, to write these incredible arrangements into even stronger new ones. Scott asks for great-sounding arrangements and that’s what Jules is all about. Of course he gets help from other arrangers. Time suddenly goes by very fast indeed.
On Saturday, July 24, 2017 at around 2 pm I walk into the BBC’s Maida Vale studios to listen to the second rehearsal, now with all vocalists, and the complete Heritage Orchestra (Jules’ UK orchestra) and the tears well up in my eyes. After all the preparations, and this really has been much more work with all the highs and lows than I can ever write down, suddenly the overwhelming power of the music enshrouds me like a glowing cloud of emotions. With John Grant, Jarvis Cocker, Richard Hawley and Susanne Sundfør as radiant focal points for the orchestra. I am so proud to be here…. All of a sudden, I’m overwhelmed by the magnitude of what I have helped to bring about, plus the fact that the dream really is now coming true.
The following days pass by as if in a dream. Preparations progress steadily and from Maida Vale Studios we go into the Royal Albert for the dress rehearsals. I can still remember very well that on the morning of the concert I brought journalist/friend Edwin Hofman into the last rehearsal, (remarkably he was the only Dutch journalist there, while British journalists were fighting for press tickets). He was completely blown away by the overwhelming scale of the hall. In this moment I truly became aware of what I was doing. And what an impressive hall the Royal Albert Hall is. Really the center of the musical world. And that was where our The Songs Of Scott Walker 1967-1970 was going to take place…tonight!
How exciting to be having a drink before the concert with Simon, his partner Abbey and also brother Erik, his partner Walter and friends Tea, Bas and of course Edwin as well, and to see the crowds outside the hall. To then hand over the tickets and the programme booklet (with a text I wrote about Scott…) to other guests/friends and then walk into the hall and look around. ‘Overwhelming’ suddenly becomes a very strange word. Rather than taking my seat, I decide to watch the concert from a standing space, just in front of the stage next to the audience. A fantastic intense experience that I wouldn’t have wanted to miss for anything. And suddenly the concert is over before I know it.
The big question before the concert was whether Scott himself would be there for it. A man who always preferred to be out of the spotlight and in the shadows, would he come to such a major concert in London and England’s most famous venue? During the weekend before the concert he does pay a visit to BBC 6 Music Radio for an interview with Jarvis Cocker. So that seems a good sign. Although he did request to go home as soon as possible after the interview, Jarvis tells me the next day. Of course there are fantastic seats reserved at the concert for Scott, his wife, daughter, granddaughter, manager and partner and friends.
Actually, the word does go around before the concert that Scott is indeed there, but it somehow passes me by. Only at the encore, and when everything has gone brilliantly (!!!), I suddenly become aware that he IS there. Just as surprised I am when, after the concert, I come downstairs, walk through the rooms and congratulate the orchestra’s great musicians and am greeted by Richard Hawley. He introduces me to Scott as ‘This is Dick, the Dutch journalist who planted the seeds for this concert with Simon and made it work through Jules’s contacts’. How beautiful to see that Scott knows who I am right away, embraces me and tells me how fantastic he thought the evening was. With Simon, Jules and all the singers, we then have a very special moment with the man whose music has changed our lives and to whom we paid tribute tonight. What an unforgettable and incredibly precious moment.
Nourished by the warmth of the reactions of the audience, Scott even decides to join us to the after party in the The Gore hotel behind the Royal Albert Hall. I remember very well Jules and I walking down the street from the Royal Albert to The Gore, with arms round each other’s shoulders, only crying dazed at each other how special it was that Scott would come there too. “Scott is coming to the afterparty! Scott is coming to our afterparty!!”
The world and his wife seems to come to The Gore to celebrate the evening. A wonderful party where Scott and his family can see themselves in the downstairs room surrounded by friends and Scott is visibly having a great time. And John Grant meanwhile cuts the delicious birthday cake that was given to him and my friends and family help out serving the pieces to everyone who celebrates John’s birthday. In all the hustle and bustle I hardly realise that Scott is about to vanish, after an hour and a half. Luckily we see each other just in time and he turns around, to hug me again and tell me how wonderful he thought the evening was and that we’ll be sure to see each other again, soon. To talk about it all again.
But as is often the case in life, it never did happen again.
Telling this story makes me realise how my life was changed by the concert. There is no music I have listened to more often in my life than Scott Walker’s. Especially in the period before the concert. But if music is so brilliantly constructed that it still has the right mixture of mystery and unfathomability about it, that really is not a problem.
I know this is never going to change: I will continue to play his records for the rest of my life, always with a sense of wonder at how intense and extraordinary they are. Always losing myself completely in the music. And that voice, well that voice, that is really one of those you will never hear so beautifully again. So much ecstasy, so much intensity, so many emotions and everything with so much dedication. Scott’s music and voice are anchored in my heart. Scott Walker is anchored in my heart. And his death has made me even more aware of that.