- 26 Mar 19
SCOTT WALKER was arguably the finest singer/ songwriter in British popular music during the late 1960s. He had it all. As a singer, at his peak, he was a flawlessly focussed technician with interpretive powers matching even Sinatra. And as a songwriter, unlike most of his peers, he understood and pursued 'the Schubertian ideal – seeking to synthesize words and music in a way that would tap the full potential for poetry in both. In that endeavour, he succeeded as few others did then, or have since.
The tragedy is that Scott Walker never won the kind of discerning audience his work deserved. Partly because his original image as a teenybop idol with the Walker Brothers worked against it; partly because, in his middle period, his music was rooted in classical and pop rather than rock and partly because, in the end, while he longed for acceptance for his work, he detested being public property; psychologically, he was ill-equipped to deal with fame.
It's been nearly ten years since musicians like Bowie and Brian Eno and bands such as Magazine, Joy Division and Simple Minds began to openly acknowledge Walker's influence. We also had Julian Cope compiling the ludicrously-titled collection of his hero's songs: ‘The Godlike Genius Of Scott Walker’ while, more recently, Gavin Friday has drawn on Walker's interpretations of the songs of Jacques Brel and Bono has suggested that he is checking out the singer's back pages.
It may well be that we're about to witness another Scott Walker revival. Already Marc Almond has hailed the newly released The Best Of '67-'69 as "the ultimate Scott Walker Collection'. Similarly, the recently released After The Lights Go Out could lay claim to being the definitive Walker Brothers compilation.
The truth, however, is that neither of these new collections can be fully appreciated unless the songs they contain are understood in their original context, musically, sociologically and, particularly in relation to the psychology of the man himself, Scott Walker.
Scott Walker, then Noel Scott Engel, was born on January 9,1944 in Hamilton, Ohio. However, his father's job as a geologist kept the family on the move and he lived there for only one year before being hauled off to Texas. The relationship between his mother and father was, by his own admission, very tense and occasionally violent. He was just six years old when his parents were divorced.
Scott stayed with his mother and towards his father he felt considerable resentment, which was not to be resolved until they next met, 15 years later. After the divorce, his mother had a nervous breakdown and Scott, as an only child, became more and more withdrawn. According to his mother, after she and Scott moved back to California his personality completely changed - something she puts down to personal problems. Referring to those days, the most the ever-private Scott Walker will say is that he did grow "prematurely cynical and determined to be on my guard against people".
Scott's professional career had begun with a $300 a week singing role in Roger’s And Hammerstein's "Pipe Dream" when he was 10 years old. By the time he was majoring in music in High School he was recording demos for teen idols like Paul Anka and Tommy Sands. Later he played double bass for the L.A. Youth Orchestra and, in April '63, while studying for his B.A., he and John Stewart recorded together as the Dalton Brothers.
Being one of the first electric bass players around Hollywood also led to session work Phil Spector's Gold Star Studio where he met Jack Nitzche who suggested that Scott, John Maus and Garry Leeds should record quasi-Righteous Brothers material. The newly named Walker Brothers moved to England in February 1965 (partly to escape being drafted) and within a year they were nearly as popular there as The Beatles.
Inevitably, the Walkers are best remembered for mega-hits like ‘Make It Easy On Yourself’ and ‘The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore’ However their three albums Take It Easy With…, Portrait and Images also charted and, more importantly, can be seen as Scott Walker solo works in embryonic form. He may not have had the final say in terms of the singles they released but from their debut album onwards he exhibited what one critic later described as 'divine discernment in choosing quality songs.’
For that first album, he selected tracks by Dylan, Randy Newman and Pomus/Shuman, among others. He also produced first with John Franz, and later alone, all of their material. The creative input from Maus and Leeds, by comparison, was minimal. Scott Walker was the Walker Brothers and the main reason they soon soared above any comparisons with their original role models, the Brothers Righteous, was because young Scott also wrote his own compositions.
And although an early lyric like ‘Young Man Cried’ begins as little more than a thematic steal from Jerry Leiber's ‘Where's The Girl?’, Walker transcends his source by breaking away from the laundry list of items altered by the loss of his lover to reflect. “My own shadows surround me/They won't go away/I keep hearing your voice/And I cry out your name.” Even from his earliest compositions he was willing to invest himself in a lyric – to reveal himself to be vulnerable and, at times, overwhelmed by the shadows in his own emotions.
Likewise, in songs of his choosing, such as Newman's ‘I Don't Want To Hear It Anymore’ and the positively neurotic ‘In My Room’, the dominant sense is of the world viewed from a darkened isolation booth-or what Walker would later describe as a fire escape in the sky.
By nature he was reclusive and it showed even in his earliest work. "Putting me in front of a camera is like taking a hermit who has lived all his life in a cave and suddenly standing him in Trafalgar Square," he once explained, discussing his strange habit of trembling while performing on television.
That was just the way he was.
In those days, too, Scott was listening to his favourite music of all time' -modern jazz- and exploring Beat Culture via Kerouac and Gary Snyder, writers in the American tradition of autobiographical frankness', an artistic stance which clearly left its mark on Walker-most specifically through the writing of one of its most celebrated exponents, Henry Miller In the late '60s he was also reported to be 'devouring' the world of that jolly threesome, Kafka, Camus and Sartre and studying modern art and art-cinema particularly the films of Ingmar Bergman. These eclectic influences soon began to show in his work
‘Mrs. Murphy’, for example, is cinema-verite in song form, a glorious slice of lowlife captured mostly in the form of a conversation picked up as if from a microphone hidden somewhere in an apartment hallway. "I hear that the Johnson's had a baby/Mrs. Murphy, is that true?/Why yes, but it's rumoured That the little tart's real daddy/Lives in twenty two". Already Walker was focussing sympathetically on those described as 'the fugitive kind' by another of his heroes, Tennessee Williams. Nor would he flinch even then, from dealing with sexually charged material. "Well I'm back to make your face/So it smiles once again/And harpoon you like whale/With a bent and rusty nail", he sang in ‘Orpheus’ at a time when The Beatles were content to croon about how happy they were just to dance with youooooo!
Musically suspended brass chords that herald the ominous arrival of ‘Orpheus’, combined with the flesh-tingling figures on strings, reveal that by this stage Walker had fallen under the spell of classical music - at first Mozart and Bach, then Beethoven and Brahms and later again, and most decisively of all, Viennese atonalists such as Schoenberg.
‘Archangel’, a positively Gothic piece of aural claustrophobia, based on a fugue by Bach, also shows how Walker rarely took the easy road as a vocalist. Here, he tackles and easily matches the power of a church organ while in the more lyrical Genevieve’ his seraphic vocal line forms the perfect counterpoint to a harpsichord. Never one to assume full credit in these matters, Walker continually made public his debt to superb arrangers like Ivor Raymonde and Reg Guest. ‘Portrait’, the Walker Brothers' second album he described a creative cataclysm by Reg. Johnny Franz and myself".
However, the delicious juxtaposition of the sacred and the sexual in ‘Archangel’ highlighted a motif developing in his work which was entirely Scott's own. These songs do not yet encompass Sartre's dictum 'that the only goal in sexual love is power and domination' but there is, pulsing from them, a palpable sense of desperation and a craving for redemption through sexual union. "Archangel/Rides in on the moon Just to save me from this tomb/I'll cry the tears of time all day till she wipes them all away.”
Paradoxically, however, these hymns to sexuality have less to do with celebration than uncertainty. It was a theme to which Walker would return, at times with almost monomaniacal regularity.
Early 1967: Scott Walker was suggesting that the Small Faces would be the Group Of The Year and predicting 'great things for a new guitarist named Jimi Hendrix. He also took his customary swipe at Tom Jones, describing him as "the most tasteless singer in Britain.”
However, if he was keeping a jaundiced eye on the business, at the same time he was clearly growing increasingly bored with mainstream popular music and with being a teen-idol. Brother John, meanwhile, was more angry than bored with the volatile Scott, publicly describing him as moody irresponsible and a pain-in-the-neck. The Walkers never were, it seems, in sympathy either musically or temperamentally. They were also Scott later claimed, the drunkest group ever. There were rumours later denied by Scott - that he had been found unconscious in his gas-filled flat at Dudley Court. Marble Arch, London. A few months later The Walker Brothers split irrevocably and less than amicable terms.
Before leaving the Walker Brothers, Scott had discovered the works of Jacques Brel. It was “one of the happiest days of my life," he claimed, "when a girlfriend gave me the first English translations I'd seen of Brel's lyrics. Already decidedly Europeanised, Walker instinctively identified with the Belgian singer's black romanticism, his cynicism and "his rarely offering solutions yet stating the confusion beautifully."
During an interview to publicise his solo debut Scott 1 he also added that "In a song, I now look for what I consider to be the truth. The people following me don't want sugar-coated rubbish. A strangely aching song, and people come away itchy after hearing it." Songs such as Brel's ‘My Death' is an important song.
Apart from the three Brel compositions on Scott 1 the album included standards which reflected his long-time admiration for singers like Sinatra and Tony Bennett and there were songs by Dory/Andre Previn and Tim Hardin. Yet dwarfing all of these were three new compositions by Walker.
In the sleeve notes, suggesting that Walker's 'anxiety to communicate amounts almost to 'despair' Keith Altham writes points are barbed- but so superbly made that you must realise these three songs are almost an intrusion of privacy, and that, like the bullfight, this is no idle sport but a matter of life and death."
This certainly applies to the unbearably poignant ‘Always Coming Back To You’, a crystallisation of the pain felt by lovers who are umbilically tied together even though their love has turned to dust. In a poem of contrasts, comparing time present to times past, he offers this recollection "When you'd burst in from the rain/Clasp my head between your hands/Kiss away the darkest day/Always there to understand/You could make me proud again'.
And now? "Now I go aimlessly at night/Sleep with faces I don't know/Always coming back to you/And the shadows of his room/I must search your eyes again Just to find that they are dead/Always coming back to you."
Graveside memories hardly seem like appropriate material for a popular song - but Scott Walker was never one to let considerations of that nature deter him. Mist falls,"he sang, “And his voice cracks from the morning/Flowers/And my body like lead/Someone should have stopped the birds/ From singing today/Hammers, from striking nails into clay"
All my songs come from personal experience, Scott said at the time. "It's the only way an artist can get any sincerity into his work. How can you relate to something unless you have felt it, emotionally." ‘Such A Small Love’ clearly reverberates with this feeling of being true. It is a view from inside Camus outsider, as Scott compares the tears on the cheek of a woman his friend only barely knew, to the sense of loss he is feeling pools – “Produce a tear/Someone should have shouted you had "Her face/Penetrates a blue-grey morning/Her eyes/pregnant gone/In her ear, that summer was stolen away"
However if such situations lend themselves naturally to ‘The Streets’, one of Scott's four compositions on Scott 2 poetic impulse others lead up a blind alley. "The Girls From pales badly alongside Brel's magnificent ‘Next’ which, unfortunately, precedes it on the album: "Now I always will recall The brothel truck, the flying flag/The queer lieutenant who slapped our asses/As if we were fags/Next, you're next/1 swear on the wet head/Of my first case of gonorrhea/It's his voice I forever hear.”
Brel's language is blood-stained and true to army life: here Walker's is dipped in too much literary wine. Yet most damaging of all is Brel's influence, musically. To Brel, a song's melodic structure was too often little more than a limp support system for a lyric. Similarly, in ‘The Girls From The Streets’, Walker merely erects a concrete backdrop for his self-conscious attempt to write concrete poetry-proof that if he could get it immaculately right he also could be abysmally wrong
Walker's still-maturing view of women meanwhile, particularly as represented in an earlier song ‘Deadlier Than The Male’, had echoes, albeit less severe ones, of Brel's jocular misogyny. Again, in Scott's own, ‘The Amorous Humphrey Plugg’, the song's female characters are reduced to little more than stereotypical receptacles for male lust. Yet true to the cute duality of the man, in the staggeringly sensitive ‘The Bridge’ is the drink-sodden male who is pilloried because he fails to perceive, much less fulfill, the more holistic desires of the woman, while in ‘The Bridge’, when he unfurls that heart-stopping description of “Marie/Whose thunder laugh/was just a thread from crying", you realise that his insight into the female psyche could, at times, be sublime.
‘The Bridge’ is also significant in that the words and music complement each other perfectly. From the undulating musical figure that sets the mood in the opening phrase through the ebb and flow of its harmonic structures mirroring the movement of a river, it is a sybarite's delight. ‘The Plague’, on the other hand, though similarly integrated, is more of a demon's delight, like a crazed motif from Berlioz's "Symphony the Fantastique". There is a truly exciting tripartite effect in the song, with a relentless guitar line coiling, like a cobra, round Walker's despairing vocal, and a demented choir battling to rise above the darkness, from beginning to end. "In the river of the night I see/A face that shimmers down at me/But like a fallin’ star burns itself out/Like a dead leaf scrapes the gravel ground My voice cries out a gravelled sound/But no one's there to hear me But the plague”
It is Camus sans allegory, the cold-sweat terror many felt yet with hindsight, an aberration on the Walker landscape which would constitute Scott 3 and Scott 4 few articulated so nakedly in this particular medium in the maelstrom of the late '60s. Yet for all that it is, when viewed particularly when set against the classically-bound song cycles