Hans Christian Andersen has had quite an effect on how people see Copenhagen. In reality he was supposedly grumpy, neurotic, a hypochondriac who went to bed with a sign round his neck saying ‘I’m not dead, I am sleeping’. However, his stories of the Little Mermaid, the Ugly Duckling and a score of others have forever linked Copenhagen to the imagination.
As a child, Copenhagen always had something a bit magical in its name . I think that came from two things. One was from hearing the Danny Kaye song, Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen, on the radio. I never saw the film it came from, Hans Christian Andersen, so I constructed my own ideas of why it was so wonderful. These became intermingled with the Hans Christian Andersen fairy stories so that Copenhagen itself took on the quality of a fairy-tale town. I wasn’t even sure if it actually existed or was a made-up place. The other was from an old radio that lay about the house with a dial on which were the names of foreign cities, including Copenhagen. On occasion I would listen to the crackling of the static and the occasional burst of music and indecipherable language and it would only increase the sense of a rather magical place somewhere far away.
It was a long time before I actually got to the town, on a summer visit with my teenage son. Not everything was as imagined, of course, but the centre remains pretty much as it was in Andersen’s time and it didn’t disappoint. There was also the surprise of the unexpected – the autonomous commune of Christiana, vaguely reminiscent of the outer fringes of the Reading Rock Festival; or finding you could have a 5-course meal where each course was herring. Especially in the evening, when fairy lights in the Tivoli Gardens came on to cast ethereal light on the flowers and streams there, a glimpse of fairy-tale came through.
Not all songs about Copenhagen fit this picture. The Norwegian singer, Kari Bremnes, has a song Copenhagen Cavern, with a very different take - the story of a young girl from northern Norway, desperate and stranded without money in Copenhagen and waitressing/begging in ‘a run down bar beneath the ground, a place where the sun has never been’. It is always good to be reminded that any city has different sides to it. The song here, however, Copenhagen, by Scott Walker, was the one I took in my head when I went there.
As the focal point of the Walker Brothers, Scott Walker (Engels) had been hugely popular in Britain and Europe –but not his home country of the USA - in 1966/7, specialising in melodramatic pop ballads with Phil Spector-ish backing, soaked in heartache and loneliness and all delivered in his powerful but rather sepulchral baritone. The first line of one of their hits, The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Any More, summed up the existential tone: ’Loneliness is a cloak you wear’. Following the group’s split, Scott Walker took a completely different road, towards Jacques Brel territory and the European chanteur. He also became something of a male Greta Garbo, reclusive, enigmatic, seemingly tortured by his art, introducing references to Camus and Bergman in his lyrics ,and he became an influence on artists such as David Bowie, Nick Cave and Marc Almond. Not all of his new oeuvre worked. It could be over-dramatic or slushy and the Brel interpretations in particular seemed uneasy, partly because Brel’s songs don’t translate into English well.
What Scott Walker did, however, was to bring a love of European culture and history to his songs, some of which were later put out in a CD collection, An American in Europe. You just knew that he really wished he had grown up on the Left Bank, not Hamilton, Ohio. But it also meant that he brought new eyes to his observations on European places and conventions, introducing a child-like wonder at times. The self-penned Copenhagen is from this period, first appearing in 1969 on his third solo album, imaginatively entitled Scott 3, and later re-issued in 2006 as part of the 5 Easy Pieces collection. It is a short, delicate song, reminiscent of Paris Bells and it is like a musical miniature painting, capturing Copenhagen through mood rather than explicit lyrics. The lush orchestration, poetic words and veering to a MOR style in the vocals could have resulted in an overblown mess of pretension. What keeps it this side of that is Scott Walker’s obvious earnestness about the place and the second part of the song. The lines ‘Copenhagen, you’re the end, gone and made me a child again’ are a haunting mixture of sunny hope and melancholy.
The musical fade-out with echoes of a distant carousel is an integral part of the mood here. Listen to this and imagine being on a bench in a small cobbled square in Copenhagen on a sunny late afternoon, with dappled light through the trees. Nearby the street market of fruit and fish and craft is packing up. You can hear the sound of children in a playground, a faint peel of bells from a small church on the corner and in the distance the tinkling sound of the carousel in the Tivoli Gardens. Easy to be a child again.
Link to song