Scott Walker – From Teen Heart Throb To Avant Garde Artist

Posted on 01 August 2013 by Joe

Scott Walker is the last man standing from the sixties to still be making anything approaching fresh music, with  his current work overshadowing his former persona as a bona fide pop idol teen heart throb. Imagine if Gary Barlow were suddenly to start making oblique art songs referencing the philosophy of Jacques Derrida all to a post-industrial sound collage; tricky isn’t it, but that’s what Scott Walker did, boy band to avant garde artist in five easy pieces.

Within the Walker Brothers Scott had been the only one seeking to move into writing, to get away from solely being an interpreter of other peoples words. On their second album he already has two writing credits and there are three on their last album. These songs stand out immediately from those surrounding them due to their idiosyncratic construction, they scan like short stories rather than conventional lyrics. Working with top arrangers Scott was learning his craft ready to break out into a solo career which has been stranger and more genuinely productive than most.

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With Scott 1 he establishes himself as a mature adult singer, trying to move out of the lovelorn teen market. A threeway split in writing credits between standards, Walker penned material and songs of Jacques Brel. The Brel material is most immediately arresting due to the scabrous lyrics and cabaret arrangements, My Death and Amsterdam in particular signalling a bold move from popular lyrical themes. Whilst Scott is fully in control of all the material and the arrangements and his phrasing on all the standards make his the version you want to hear, it is on his own material that he takes flight.

An unusual lyricist even then, Walker uses the song form as a vehicle for storytelling or mood setting. In Montague Terrace (In Blue) he sings of bedsits, the inescapable crowd and the curious loneliness of the city, “The scent of secrets everywhere”. Only the protagonists relationship seems to steel him against it, but there is a realisation that this is temporary, almost certain to end – “But we know don’t we, And we’ll dream won’t we, Of Montague Terrace in blue”.

The arrangements for Walker’s own lyrics also strike out for fresh territory. Decentred strings, drone forms, brass arrangements punch through for crescendo and there’s an unusual sense of time as the soundstage follows Scott’s own phrasing.

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Scott 2 comes galloping out of the traps with perhaps the most rollicking opening number of any album ever. Jackie had been a single released in 1967, banned by the BBC due to Brel’s lyrics concerning opium dens, brothels and “authentic queers and phony virgins.”  Later in the album Scott sings Next, another Brel song, this time about mobile army whorehouses and the psychic scars resulting, had anyone else ever sung about “gonorrhea” on a number one album before, or for that matter since?

After setting the bar so high at the outset Scott continues to vary the pace with a pair of excellent covers,   Best of Both Worlds and Black Sheep Boy, before the first of his own compositions on the album, The Amorous Humphrey Plugg. In the vein of Montague Terrace in Blue Scott sings a kitchen sink drama in first person, Humphrey Plugg, caught in suburban domesticity, seeking escape –  “Leave it all behind me, Screaming kids on my knee, And the telly swallowing me, And the neighbour shouting next door, And the subway trembling the roller-skate floor.”

His next original composition “The Girls From the Street” glows with poetic wordplay in waltz time, “ Snap! The waiters animate, Luxuriate like planets whirling ’round the sun, Collapsing next to me, Shouts don’t look sad, Things aren’t so bad, They’re just more wrong than right.”

Plastic Palace People takes a surreal bent with a floating protagonist Billy observing the streets from above, Don’t pull the string, Don’t bring me down, Don’t make me land”. Over floating chords with a rising and falling string motif we float along with Billy. Billy’s suspension above the ground a metaphor for adolescence caught between childhood and maturity, dreams and concrete reality. An hallucinatory soundworld is brought into play throughout with sharp discontinuities between sections, use of extreme reverb and leslie speaker on Scott’s voice when the main theme drops out.

There are further delights across the remainder of the album, a further Brel song, a couple of strong ballads, another Walker original The Bridge (a sorrowful song of lost love), and perhaps the best cover ever of a Bacharah/ David song,Windows of the World.

Scott 2 was the commercial highpoint of Scott’s solo career, reaching number 1 in the UK charts in April 1968, however, Scott was not satisfied describing it as the work of a “lazy, self indulgent man”.

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Following this success Scott was granted further creative control and for Scott 3, released in March 1969, he had written ten of the thirteen tracks, the remaining three being Brel covers.

The previous two albums had opened with furious stampeding Brel covers, Scott 3 shimmers into being with It’s Raining Today, a string section play a hovering drone, a bass modulates, a guitar strums a few chords – Scott enters looking out at the rain and reflecting on a love, now gone, almost forgotten. Almost the epitome of melancholic, but there’s a steel within the observation, which stops it being mere self-pity, “You out of me me out of you, We go like lovers, To replace the empty space, Repeat our dreams to someone new”.

The album proceeds at this stately pace, a quiet sadness permeating the first four songs.  Big Louise opens imperious, gong sounding, french horn playing a beautiful refrain, strings swelling as Scott sings about the broken hearted Louise, evoked with great economy across just a few lines, with the killer chorus “Didn’t time sound sweet yesterday, in a world filled with friends, you lose your way.”

We Came Through ups the tempo in the style of Mathilde and Jackie but this time the lyrics are less knowing, there is less distance than in those of Brel. The lyrics come from the perspective of the strong, those willing to inflict violence on the weak to wield power over and over through time. There is cruel despair in the final lines made all the more bitter for the upbeat delivery, “and as Luther King’s predictions fade from view, we came through.”

More exceptional songs follow, Winter Night, in particular a luminous miniature only eight or so lines but couched in a beautiful string arrangement, opening on a severe descending chord.

The album ends with three Brel covers, Sons of , Funeral Tango, and If You Go Away, the last of which is perhaps his purest lovelorn outpouring on record (and with the Walker Brothers he had mastered that market already).

Scott 3 had reached a respectable No.3 in the charts, and Scott had his own BBC TV show, a vehicle for his performances and for other guest singers. To capitalise on this he cut another album Scott Sings Songs from his TV Series in July 1969, containing only standards this reached No.7.

scott4

By November 1969 Scott had released Scott 4, an album of only Walker penned music. Although now widely considered one of the best albums of the sixties, it was a notorious commercial failure at the time. Scott’s decision to issue it under his birthname Noel Scott Engel undoubtedly hindered it’s marketing, but the fact that it was his third album release in under eight months probably had a greater effect, albums in the sixties were luxury items costing approximately a tenth of the average weekly wage, few fans could have afforded to buy all three albums in such a short space of time.

Across Scott 4 Walker widens his lyrical ambit away from his previous themes, there are still love lost ballads, but he now takes in socio-political themes, oblique protest songs, and a song offering a plot summary of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.

There is also a wider variety of songs styles across Scott 4, from Morricone spaghetti western score on The Seventh Seal, to pedal steel Country on Duchess and Rhymes of Goodbye and lounge funk on The Old Man’s Back Again.

As with Scott 3 the standout tracks are those with the most idiosyncratic arrangements, Angels of Ashes and Boychild. Angels of Ashes has a classical guitar line, punctuated by a harpsichord following Scott’s vocal, light snare brushing, bass line moving the song along, with sweeping strings wrapping it all together.  Boychild uses zither, acoustic guitar and hovering strings to shadow Scott’s vocal lines, a floating world of unsettled yearning – “Extensions through dimensions, Leave you feeling cold and lame, Boychild mustn’t tremble, cause he came without a name.”

Scott 4’s relative commercial failure undermined Scott’s ability to retain creative control.

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His last album on Philips, 1970’s ‘Til the Band Comes In makes this conflict apparent in the straight split between Scott’s songs on the A side and the covers he returns to on the B side.

A return to covers can only be a crushing disappointment to anyone following Scott’s development as a songwriter through the preceding albums. A great interpreter of standards by any measure, but by this point you only want to hear him sing his own songs because no-one else writes like he does.

The A side, however, is as strong as anything on Scott 4.  A loose suite of songs themed upon the residents of a block of flats, there is a return to character studies, mixed with topical satire/ social protest. Prologue opens the album with sound effects, tap dripping, keys in locks, children playing while a string section swells sorrowfully before fading into Little Things, a headlong brass stomp similar to Mathilde or Jackie.

Arrangements and song forms are straighter across ‘Til The Band Comes In with more defined verse/ chorus patterns and less oblique lyrics, but the subject matter is as off-beat as ever, Joe is about a lonely old dying man, Thanks for Chicago Mr James is about the end of young hustlers relationship with a gay older man, Time Operator is sung by a man so lonely and isolated he calls the speaking clock for company, he’s fantasised for so long about the voice at the other end of the line he really thinks he’s in with a chance – “I wouldn’t care if you’re ugly, cause here with the lights out I couldn’t see, you just picture Paul Newman and girl he looks a lot like me”.

Towards the end of the A side the title track rises to a crescendo, with brass section flourishes and a soul singer backing, Scott sings about taking his leave with perhaps the promise of return – “If you need me to move through, you know where I’m found, still alive, with my sub-human sound to the ground.”

Side A ends with The War Is Over (Sleepers), a promise of peace following the overall chaos which reigned previously. However, war is as much a metaphor for life in this song and the peace that is found is the peace of the tomb – Everything Still, Everything Silent, As after the rain, Still we are after the rain.

‘Til the Band Comes In was not well received at the time and didn’t chart confirming Scott’s fall from grace. For the next few years his career limped along with a series of albums of covers in a strictly middle of the road rut, seemingly a burnt out case at 27. As with the B side of ‘Til the Band Comes In these are all good for what they are, but not satisfying for the same reasons, Scott Walker is too good a writer to sing other peoples songs.

A Walker Brothers reunion rescued Scott from a lifetime of cabaret and Working Mens Club engagements. Although there was no original material to begin with, by their final album Scott was ready to write again. His four songs on Nite Flights are where Scott Walker reappears and strikes out for terra incognita, a road he still travels getting further and further out.    

by Garry Todd

 

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