Navigating the diverse, difficult musical career of Scott Walker
Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing email@example.com.
Geek obsession: Scott Walker
Why it’s daunting: During the ’50s teen-idol boom, big-voiced Ohioan Noel Scott Engel moved west to try his hand at becoming another Paul Anka. While Engel kept busy in the recording studio and was booked regularly to perform on TV and radio shows, he couldn’t catch a break in American show business—not even when he changed his name to “Scott Walker” and formed the Righteous Brothers-like band The Walker Brothers with fellow struggling Los Angeles musicians John Maus and Gary Leeds. But in the U.K., during the mid-’60s, The Walker Brothers became headlining stars with their gloomy, schmaltzy pop. And in the late ’60s, Scott Walker carried that momentum into a solo career, becoming so popular that he briefly hosted his own TV show on the BBC.
Throughout his rise to the top, Walker kept experimenting with how to cut the old-fashioned, cabaret-style pop his record label wanted with some subversively artsy elements, inspired by the saucy, sophisticated music of Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel. Walker was forced to abandon this direction when his fourth solo album, Scott 4, tanked badly, and he spent most of the ’70s pumping out bland pop, trying—and failing—to recapture his fan base. Finally, in 1978, Walker skirted the mainstream entirely and embraced his avant-garde side, which he’s indulged ever since by releasing ever-stranger, ever-bleaker albums of drone, noise, and operatic crooning.
As Stephen Kijak’s excellent 2006 documentary, Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, makes clear, even Walker’s biggest boosters don’t like everything he’s done. Beyond the pap he cranked out during his work-for-hire phases, there are Scott Walker albums that some fans find too bizarre, too pretentious, and too unmusical. And while abrasion-loving rock critics have warmed to Walker’s recent work, many of the profession’s old guard have failed to see what’s so special about them—let alone why anyone of taste would enjoy his ’60s albums, which on the surface sound exactly like the kind of easy-listening slop that rockers once cast as everything wrong with popular music. (After Marshall Crenshaw curated an anthology of Walker’s ’60s songs in 1996, esteemed critic Robert Christgau wrote that nothing had prepared him for “how purely godawful he’d be.”)
But 30 Century Man also clarifies that outside of those contract-fulfillment records—which Walker admits were fueled partly by his being inebriated through much of the early ’70s—everything Walker has recorded has been part of a process of sincere exploration and trial-and-error, as he’s learned how to control the pace of a song and the power of his own inimitable vocals. And those willing to power through any off-putting first impressions can find themselves deeply absorbed by Walker’s ability to construct an entire world out of his voice and just a little dissonance.
Possible gateway: Side one of The Walker Brothers’ Nite Flights (1978)
Why: It’s inapt to say that Nite Flights came out of nowhere. Really, it just continued what Scott Walker had been up to with his four self-titled solo albums from the ’60s. It’s as though Walker pretended that he’d had David Bowie’s career during all that time, only without recorded evidence of any excursions into glam, hard rock, and blue-eyed soul to connect his late-’60s balladry and his late-’70s new wave. But in 1978, when Walker had largely fallen into obscurity, the four songs he contributed to The Walker Brothers’ third “comeback” album were shocking to the few people who actually bought it. The entire LP has a moody art-rock sound, heavily influenced by Bowie and Brian Eno, but Walker’s contributions outpace the artists who inspired them. He invests futuristic soundscapes with real menace, while still delivering catchy songs with imaginatively off-kilter structures. In 30 Century Man, Eno says he and Bowie were galvanized by Nite Flights, and adds that when he listens to Scott Walker’s songs from that album now, it depresses him that pop music hasn’t gone any further since then. (To be exact, he says, “It’s disgraceful.”)
It’s easy to see why Nite Flights would’ve been startling in the context of its times. Walker’s more out-there ’60s efforts could be lumped in with an entire era of experimentation, when even the softest pop stars were recording psychedelic concept albums. But those same establishment types weren’t looking to new wave to revive their careers in 1978; if anything, they were going disco. Plus, Walker’s “Shutout,” “Fat Mama Kick,” “Nite Flights,” and “The Electrician” are weird and gorgeous in a way a mere appropriator could never manage. These songs were evidently the true Walker, emerging after a long dormancy, and even now, his Nite Flights tracks burn with such creative fire that they don’t sound dated (as the four Scott albums sometimes do). In fact, Nicolas Winding Refn used “The Electrician” as his soundtrack to the dreamy, violent opening scene of the 2008 movie Bronson, and the song’s syrupy rhythms and woozy washes of synthesizer feel like they could’ve been recorded expressly for the film. That’s how modern and relevant Nite Flights still is.
Next steps: The Walker Brothers formed in 1964 and joined the throng of well-groomed young pop-rockers trying to stand out on the Sunset Strip, even recording a song, “Love Her,” with one of the scene’s producing gurus, Jack Nitzsche. Then in 1965, the group headed to England and signed with Philips Records, where, with the help of arranger Ivor Raymonde (father of Cocteau Twins’ Simon Raymonde), they scored a string of hit singles that replicated the dramatic, cavernous sound of “Love Her.” The three Philips albums—Take It Easy, Portrait, and Images—are generally pleasant, with high points like “Make It Easy On Yourself” and “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” that are among the best old-fashioned pop songs of their era. In 30 Century Man, The Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr says that listening to these records today makes him think about 1960s London and the undercurrent of sadness beneath the city’s “swinging” image, adding that he tried to make the final Smiths album, Strangeways, Here We Come, into an homage to the Philips-era Walker Brothers LPs. People who insist on buying complete albums should start with Take It Easy, which is the most consistently inspired of the three, but those who are less purist about such matters can get by with a good Walker Brothers anthology. (After The Lights Go Out would be the best of the best-ofs.)
The years between the failure of Scott 4 and the triumph of Nite Flights are mostly undistinguished for Walker. Just prior to Scott 4, he released a collection of super-corny cover songs from his TV series (the footage no longer exists; the BBC erased the tapes to save money), and he largely continued in that moribund vein with 1970’s ’Til The Band Comes In, 1972’s The Moviegoer, and 1973’s Any Day Now. Walker began to perk up a little with 1973’s Stretch and 1974’s We Had It All, which found him embracing light country-rock singer-songwriter music—similar in form and taste to Glen Campbell—in a way he hadn’t since the occasional Tim Hardin covers and folk ballads on his Scott albums. Neither record is essential, but they’re decent examples of their genre, and pieces of the larger Walker puzzle. The same can be said of the first two Walker Brothers reunion albums, No Regrets and Lines: They stem from the folk/country side of Scott Walker that he’s never completely shed, and their beautifully sad renditions of classic songs like Tom Rush’s “No Regrets” exemplify Walker’s formidable skill as an interpreter of other people’s music. (The hushed, slower songs on Lines also sound a little like Nite Flights, only twangier.)
But post-Nite Flights, Walker’s discography becomes simultaneously difficult and marvelous. While art-rock fans were anxious to see how he’d follow up his four brilliant 1978 Walker Brothers songs, Walker bided his time, and waited until 1984 to return, with the decidedly different Climate Of Hunter. Reportedly recorded by session musicians who weren’t allowed to hear any part of the songs except their own—and featuring four songs identified only as “Track Three,” “Track Five,” etc.—Climate Of Hunter, like Nite Flights, is so assured and on-par with the best music of its time, it’s hard to believe Walker hadn’t been recording an album a year. And yet the oddness surrounding its creation and presentation is definitely felt. On first listen, the album sounds like it fits with the more danceable side of post-punk and new wave, alongside the likes of Ultravox and O.M.D. But while many of its songs are as lithe and poppy as Nite Flights, the record as a whole has a spaciness and distance about it, as though Walker wrote these songs in 1978, tore them up, then tried to recollect them six years later.
Walker then went into seclusion for another 11 years, re-emerging in 1995 with Tilt, a fusion of operatic woe and noisy musique concrète. After playing with peppier tempos on Nite Flights and Climate Of Hunter, Walker returned to the slowness of his ’60s work, recording songs that drift by glacially—the musical equivalent of one of those European art-films with motionless 10-minute takes or long scenes of people walking in silence. He continued in that mode for his next big album, 2006’s aptly titled The Drift, except that after 11 more years in exile, he’d become even ornerier, loading up on still more clattering percussion and atonality. The music on these albums isn’t meant to be sung along to, or played neutrally in the background; these songs are to be experienced, and often can only be understood if the listener is willing to stick with them through every second of their sometimes-epic lengths.
Many of the disciples who hailed Walker as an underrated genius in the ’80s have rebelled against the subsequent work—in 30 Century Man, Walker buff Marc Almond describes how betrayed he felt by Tilt—but these records do have clear roots in Climate Of Hunter, Nite Flights, and the Scotts, in that they look to lead listeners into another world, full of darkness and eerie beauty. They reveal themselves more gradually, and have much more jagged corners, but they get easier to explore with each spin, and while they’re low on hummable melodies, they aren’t song-free . (Robert Plant has been known to cover Tilt’s opening track “Farmer In The City,” for example, pinpointing its affinity with the blues.) Anyway, fans of the old Scott Walker could still find him around in the Tilt/Drift era: in the unused ballad “Only Myself To Blame” from the James Bond film The World Is Not Enough; in his often-lovely score to Leos Carax’s film Pola X; and as the producer of the Pulp album We Love Life.
As for fans of the intense avant-garde exercises of Tilt and The Drift, they should be pleased with Walker’s latest album, Bish Bosch, which opens with the mechanical thumping of “See You Don’t Bump His Head” and stays serrated throughout, peaking with the unclassifiable 21-minute whatnot “SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter).” Walker uses more rock instrumentation on Bish Bosch than he has since Climate Of Hunter, but the songs still sound like they were cobbled together from the outtakes of tracks that didn’t make the final mixes of someone else’s album: the third drum track, fourth background vocal, unused horn part, and so on. The album is an adventure, in other words, and not one for all ages. (It’s the “wild cave tour” of alt-rock records.) But consider this: The man who once would’ve been content to be Paul Anka is 69 now, only two years younger than Anka himself. It’s a thrill that someone of his age and background is up to something as exciting and new as Bish Bosch.
Where not to start: From the moment Walker became a U.K. chart-topper, enterprising music-business types began repackaging those teen-idol sessions that no one cared much about in the late ’50s and early ’60s. And they’ve stayed in circulation under various titles (such as Looking Back With Scott Walker, In The Beginning, 14 Original Recordings, The Early Years, When Is A Boy A Man?, and Humble Beginnings), such that a search for Scott Walker albums via any online retailer often turns up more “Scotty Engel” than the actual classics. These songs aren’t unlistenable; Walker’s voice was strong from the start, and pop historians may appreciate comparing these recordings to what the Hollywood star-factories were turning out during the era when the first wave of rock ’n’ roll was subsiding. Though many Walker fans disagree about which records represent his best, no reasonable Walker-ite would suggest that newcomers begin at the beginning.