Scott Walker Meets Jacques Brel.

Label: Ace Records.

Release Date: “31st” January 2020. 

It’s no exaggeration to say that Scott Walker and Jacques Brel were two of the most influential singer-songwriters of their generation. However, if it wasn’t for Scott Walker covering nine of Jacques Brel’s songs on his first three solo albums, the Belgian singer-songwriter’s music wouldn’t have reached such a wide audience. And even today, a new generation of record buyer are discovering Jacques Brel’s music through Scott Walker. That is why it’s fitting that both men feature on the next instalment of Ace Records’ Songwriter Series, Scott Walker Meets Jacques Brel. 

This nineteen track CD features Scott Walker’s nine cover version of  Jacques Brel’s. They’re joined by his original versions and a cover of the Scott Walker song Seul. It was performed live by Scott Walker on his show,  but he never recorded the song. It’s a track that will be of interest to fans of both singers. Their story begins in 1967, when The Walker Brothers and Scott Walker embarked upon a solo career.

By then, Scott Walker had been introduced to Jacques Brel’s songs by his German girlfriend, who loves the chansons and translated them into English for the singer. Straight away,  he captivated, spellbound by Jacques Brel’s songs.

Not long after this, a demo disc of American lyricist Mort Shuman’s translations of Jacques Brel’s chansons was given to the Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham, who passed the record to Scott Walker.

When Mort Shuman first saw Jacques Brel’s perform it had huge effect on him and he said: “The only time I’d heard such virility in a voice was in black singers…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.”

Mort Shuman translated  Jacques Brel’s chansons from French  into cover versions that English speaking audiences could relate. Importantly, the translations stayed true to the original songs and Scott Walker would eventually record nine of Jacques Brel’s chansons that had been translated by Mort Shuman. This included three on his debut album.

 When he came to record his debut album Scott, the former Walker Brother decided to record a trio of tracks written and recorded by Jacques Brel and accompanied by orchestral arrangements by Peter Knight, Reg Guest and Wally Stott.  The album open was Mathilde which Jacques Brel wrote with  Gérard Jouannest. It was joined by My Death and Amsterdam which were penned by Jacques Brel and focused on two things that he admitted to being “obsessed” about. 

This included death, loneliness, prostitution and romance, which were themes he would revisit throughout his songwriting career.

In a 1966 interview with the British music magazine Melody Maker, Jacques Brel explained that 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.” 

Having released his debut album Scott in Britain on the ’16th’ of September 1967, and the album reached number three. The following year, 1968, Scott was released  in America but failed to chart. That was despite Scott Walker’s covers of Jacques Brel’s three songs. They were part of an album where the vocals were dramatic, ruminative, impassioned  and meditative. Scott was a classic album, and the twenty-four year old singer was hugely influenced by Jacques Brel’s impassioned, heartfelt and soul-baring vocals. He was impressed with Scott Walker’s vocals and must have felt here was a kindred spirit.

So much so, that Jacques Brel told Mort Shuman to give Scott Walker his song folio over to him. This would allow Scott Walker to cover more of Jacques Brel’s songs on his sophomore solo album Scott 2.

When it came to choosing the songs for Scott 2, two songs  Jacques Brel wrote with  Gérard Jouannest were chosen. They were Jackie and The Girls and The Dog. The other Jacques Brel composition was Next. These songs were much more risqué than the Jacques Brel compositions on Scott and dealt with sexual themes and decadence. However, some things stayed the same and that was the orchestral arrangements came courtesy of Peter Knight, Reg Guest and Wally Stott. 

Before the release of Scott 2, Jackie was released as a single towards the end of 1967, and proved controversial because of its lyrics. This resulted in the single being banned by mainstream radio. Despite this, the single still reached twenty-two in Britain. This augured well for the release of Scott 2.

The album which was another mixture of covers and some origin material was released in March 1968 to critical acclaim, and reached number one in the UK. Sadly, the album failed to replicate that success in America when it was released in July 1968.

By then, a wider audience were discovering Scott Walker and Jacques Brel’s music. In the case of Brel, his popularity was growing in English-speaking countries. This continued with the release of Scott 3.

For his third solo album Scott Walker decided to cover Tons Of and Funeral Tango which were written by Gérard Jouannest and Jacques Brel. He penned If You Go Away with American singer, songwriter, poet and actor Rod McKuen. The trio of Brel tracks closed the album which was produced by John Franz and featured lush string drenched arrangements by Wally Scott. 

When Scott 3 was released in March 1969, some critics thought that Wally Scott’s string arrangements made Scott Walker seem like a crooner who belonged on the Las Vegas strip. However, crooners didn’t usually release albums which featured dronings and jarrings sounds as well as hints of dissonance. Scott 3 was an ambitious album that showcased a vocal that matured with each album, and was perfectly suited to Jacques Brel’s songs. Despite that, Scott 3 didn’t sell as well as its two predecessors, and “only” reached number three in the UK. It was  also the end of an era.

Never again did Scott Walker record another of Jacques Brel’s songs. The nine songs that he recorded on Scott, Scott 2 and Scott 3 feature on Scott Walker Meets Jacques Brel. So do Brel’s originals which he recorded in French. These tracks re the perfect introduction to two hugely talented singers who were contrarians and enigmatic. They were also innovators whose music was way ahead of their time, and as a result were sometimes misunderstood. 

Scott Walker and  Jacques Brel did things their way and weren’t afraid to offend sensibilities by recording songs which featured lyrics that could offend some people. They created cerebral, cinematic, dark and thought-provoking music and sang about everything from death and loneliness to prostitution and romance. It seemed nothing was off-limits for Jacques Brel and his kindred spirit Scott Walker. 

Ace Records new compilation Scott Walker Meets Jacques Brel  celebrates the two men’s music. The first nine tracks are Scott Walker’s covers which are followed by Jacques Brel’s original French language versions. Closing the album is Brel’s cover of the Scott Walker song Seul. He sang it on his television show, but never recorded the song. It was later recorded by Jacques Brel and his rendition is a fitting way to close this lovingly curated compilation. It’s that is a homage two great and hugely influential singer-songwriters who wrote their way into musical history. For anyone yet to discover either their music, there’s no better place to start than Scott Walker Meets Jacques Brel.

Scott Walker Meets Jacques Brel.  

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