By the age of 23, Scott Walker had enjoyed a more successful pop career than most could hope for in a lifetime.
As one third of The Walker Brothers, a trio of Americans in self-imposed exile in the UK, he experienced a level of superstardom that briefly rivalled that of the Beatles. Mid-60s songs like ‘Make It Easy On Yourself’ and ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Any More’ made Scott, John and Gary the clean-cut pin-ups du jour. But entertainment, as they say, is a fickle business, and the success wasn’t to last.
As The Walker Brothers disintegrated, Scott (real name Noel Scott Engel, and no relation to his two bandmates) would strike off on his own, producing a string of albums in the late ’60s that, while largely overlooked at the time, are now considered among the finest of the decade. Again though, Walker would quickly lose his way, slipping into MOR obscurity for the majority of ’70s. From there, many would happily have fallen into a lengthy, royalty-funded retirement. Not Scott. In the early ’80s he would reinvent himself again, emerging from the ashes of a faltering light entertainment career to become one of the most brilliant and distinctive voices of the pop avant-garde.
Walker and his music continue to captivate and confuse with a force rarely attained by musicians of any generation. His most recent solo album, 2012’s Bish Bosch, was of a piece with his best work, while this month he released Soused, an earth-shaking full-length collaboration with pivotal doom outfit Sunn O))). And while he has long had a cult following, a renewed frenzy of discourse in the past decade – the most visible products of which are a documentary and a book, both excellent – has helped cement his status as an underground hero with few equals.
Walker’s knotty, uncompromising and utterly unique body of work seems to be resonating more strongly than ever, with the likes of Radiohead, Jarvis Cocker, Damon Albarn and David Bowie all singing his praises. But Walker’s discography is an imposing one, and not an easy ride for the uninitiated. By way of introduction – and taking in love and loss, dead dictators and easily as much commercial failure as critical success – here are 10 of Walker’s best.
‘SUCH A SMALL LOVE’
(FROM SCOTT 1, PHILIPS, 1967)
The Walker Brothers officially disbanded in 1967, just two years after they had moved from LA to London to seek their fortune. The break-up was unfortunate but, with sales rapidly dwindling, inevitable. Added to which Scott, the trio’s enigmatic frontman, was far too neurotic and reclusive for pop superstardom, and seemed increasingly intent on following his own muse.
By that time Walker’s solo career was already well underway. His debut album emerged a mere six months after the final Walker Brothers LP, Images, reaching #3 in the UK album charts and marking the beginning of a flurry of activity from Walker. Scott featured a mixture of covers of contemporary songs, interpretations of Belgian chansonnier Jacques Brel (of whom Walker was an avid disciple) and a handful of Walker originals. The result was a noirish orchestral pop record, thoughtful, conceptually weighty and only occasionally tipping over into schmaltz. It served to recast Walker as an altogether more mature artist – a ploy largely carried off by his creamy baritone, which seemed to speak of experience well beyond his 23 years (even if his pitching was a bit dodgy at points).
Scott was far from a veteran songwriter, having only contributed the occasional B-side to Walker Brothers releases. But on Scott he was already displaying a restless imagination and a taste for risk-taking. ‘Such A Small Love’ is a prime example, its verse suspended in weightless space before a gentle guitar and bass accompaniment nudge it gently forward. The chorus, when it comes, is explosive, while lyrically Walker explores the none-too-light subject matter of a young man attending the funeral of a close friend. “Reach out, grab the memories that are left for your hand / They’ll help you get by for a while…”.
‘PLASTIC PALACE PEOPLE’
(FROM SCOTT 2, PHILIPS, 1968)
Scott 2 was Walker’s most successful album of this period, briefly topping the UK charts. It is also brasher and bawdier than its predecessor. Single ‘Jackie’, a Brel cover, was banned by the BBC for the line “Authentic queers and phony virgins”; ‘Next’ (also a Brel) tells the tale of a young soldier traumatised by his experience in a “mobile army whorehouse”; ‘The Amorous Humphrey Plugg’, meanwhile, articulates the lust-filled fantasies of a man stifled by family life. Even the album’s more po-faced moments feel, on the whole, somewhat triter – particularly the clunky ‘Best Of Both Worlds’, a song originally recorded by Lulu.
The puzzling ‘Plastic Palace People’ is one of the few highlights. Walker repeatedly sidesteps concrete narrative, though the surreal yarn he spins seems to centre around a protagonist, “Billy”, floating free above a city. The starry-eyed, string-led verse and more driving chorus, in a subtle foreshadowing of the approach Walker would take decades later, operate more as disjointed vignettes than fluid song-form; the bridge section, with its queasy delay effect, is even more bizarre.
‘IT’S RAINING TODAY’
(FROM SCOTT 3, PHILIPS, 1969)
Scott 3 was slightly less commercially successful than its predecessors, though given the increasingly challenging nature of the material, its healthy chart performance was probably considered a blessing. This is the album where Walker really hits his stride, with the bulk of its 13 tracks being originals. The three Brel covers tacked onto the end feel like something of an afterthought, but otherwise two themes predominate. On the one hand Scott 3 is an album of love, loss and renewal, beautifully expressed in such svelte gems as ‘Two Weeks Since You’ve Gone’ and ‘Copenhagen’. On the other it presents a series of highly empathetic portraits of society’s most vulnerable inhabitants: as in ‘Two Ragged Soldiers’, which masterfully evokes the romanticism to be found in the bottom of a bottle; or ‘Big Louise’, which tells the poignant tale of an aging transvestite. Walker’s confidence as a lyricist was growing rapidly, and on Scott 3 he displays a knack for densely packed metaphor and balletic rhetorical flourishes. But it’s the framing of Walker’s lines – the work, as with all of Scott’s late 60s albums, of arranger Wally Stott – that really lifts them into the sublime.
Put simply, this record is, for my money, the best of Walker’s early era; the goldilocks zone where songwriting, arrangement, theme and mood come together. Emblematic of this is the exquisite break-up song ‘It’s Raining Today’, perhaps the finest song Walker has ever committed to record. In many respects it’s par for the course for this period of Walker’s output – a gorgeous orchestral ballad that wallows in its own high-budget melancholy. But it also stands out as the first instance of a technique that will crop up time and again in Walker’s music: namely that pervasive discordant string drone, a cut-glass texture that’s both eerily calming and deeply unsettling, and a marvelously astute musical representation of the bittersweetness of loss.
(FROM SCOTT 4, PHILIPS, 1969)
“A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.” So reads the quote adorning the back cover of Scott 4, taken from one of Walker’s beloved existentialists, Albert Camus. This was Walker’s first entirely self-penned record, and the first (and only) credited to his birth name, Noel Scott Engel, rather than his stage name. All of which seems to suggest an artist trying, finally, to make a decisive break with his pin-up past and reinvent himself as a serious pop auteur, self-made and self-governed.
It’s all the more tragic, then, that the album was a flop, failing to chart and being consigned to deletion within six months of its release. Either way, while Scott 4 is often hailed as the neglected masterpiece of Walker’s early period, it’s undeniably less unified, thematically and musically, than its predecessor. In fact, it’s a slightly jumbled affair, lurching from portentous Bergman-referencing opener ‘Seventh Seal’ to more conventional orchestral pop (‘The World’s Strongest Man’, ‘Get Behind Me’) and, for the first time, strident political commentary (‘Hero Of The War’ and ‘The Old Man’s Back Again’, the latter of which bears the subtitle “Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist regime”).
Scott 4 is at its best when Walker indulges his more poetic tendencies. The stately ‘Angels Of Ashes’ is worth a look, but ‘Boy Child’ is even better. Stott’s arrangement, all icy string chords and a single plucked guitar figure, is the perfect framework for Walker’s abstract, beautifully sensual imagery: “Window lights for wanderers / Hide hard in your swollen eyes / Echoes of laughter / Hide in the city’s thighs.”
(FROM TIL THE BAND COMES IN, PHILIPS, 1970)
There’s a line in the 2001 song ‘Bad Cover Version’, by paid-up Scott Walker fans Pulp, that reads: “Like… The second side of ‘Til The Band Comes In… He’s going to let you down my friend.” Given the fact that Walker produced the track (and, indeed, the rest of the album it came from, We Love Life), it’s probably safe to assume that this opinion came with this tacit agreement. Certainly Walker’s 1970 album seems representative of his chronic loss of confidence after the failure of Scott 4, seeing him retreat back behind his stage name and, bizarrely, share writing credits with his manager Ady Semel, who he has since said acted “as a censor”.
Unsurprisingly, then, the ten originals on ‘Til The Band Comes In are for the most part far less innovative than anything on Scotts 3 and 4, and you sense that there’s less of Walker in them. They’re also diluted by five unremarkable cover versions, plus a frankly unbearable guest spot from another Semel charge (presumably on a promo kick), Israeli singer Esther Ofarim. But while the record more or less sank without trace at the time, it tends to be looked on kindly compared to the majority of Walker’s 70s output (kindly enough, at least, to be reissued in 2008, after being out of print for decades). And there are certainly more parallels to be drawn between these songs and the Scotts than with the increasingly listless MOR Country path down which Walker was to stagger in the ensuing years.
In particular, the loose concept that binds the album together – each song focusses on a different inhabitant of the same tenement building – represents a continuation of the downcast realism found on Scott 3 and elsewhere. ‘War Is Over’ sports the loveliest arrangement here, but it’s wry blues ballad ‘Joe’ that packs the lyrical punch. Walker, with an insight (as usual) well beyond his limited years, depicts the increasing indifference and loneliness faced by a man slipping into old age. There’s still the occasional glimmer of his brilliant way with a metaphor, too: “Sit back and watch a spider / Weave your window ‘cross the moon / And meals on wheels laughed kindly / When you’d say / There ain’t no-one left alive to call me Joe.”
‘Til The Band Comes In, like its predecessor, was a resounding commercial failure. Walker would subsequently lose his songwriting confidence altogether; it would take him the better part of a decade to regain it. In the meantime he would spiral into a black hole of depression, self-medication and MOR obscurity, putting out a series of albums that have since, with Walker’s blessing, remained firmly out of print.
THE WALKER BROTHERS
(FROM NITE FLIGHTS, GTO, 1978)
With Scott’s career close to rock bottom and his bandmates having struggled to achieve any degree of solo success, the Walker brothers reformed in 1974. They recorded a trio of albums, the first two of which – 1975’s No Regrets and 1976’s Lines – were largely uninspiring affairs, ploughing a softly-softly MOR furrow and featuring almost no original material. And who could blame these men, chewed up by the industry and spat out into the wasteland of the 70s, for making a few safe plays? In fact, it paid off, at least in part: ‘No Regrets’, a Tom Rush cover, reached #7 in the UK single chart, and was to be the Walker Brothers’ final major chart success.
But with sales once again drying up towards the end of the decade, and the trio’s record company, GTO, on the verge of bankruptcy, it was clear that the comeback was over. Cue 1978’s Night Flights, the product of a decision by the band to throw commercial cautions to the wind and “make the album we wanted to make.” In fact, Nite Flights isn’t so much an album as a bundle of EPs, with each of the Brothers contributing a handful of originals. And while Gary and John’s efforts have little to recommend them, Scott’s four songs – his first original material since 1970 – are a dazzling bolt from the blue.
There’s merit to all of Scott’s songs here: the discordant rock-disco of ‘Shut Out’; the distinctly queasy ‘Fat Mama Kick’; the gorgeous title track, which presages Walker’s taste for Francis Bacon-esque lyrical imagery (“The raw meat fist you choke / Has hit the bloodlite,” anyone?). With their mechanistic grooves and period production they have something of the taut, sparse alienness of post-punk, but it’s clear that Walker’s inspiration was coming from some other place.
‘The Electrician’, somewhat laughably the album’s lead single, is probably the peach of the lot. It opens with another one of those spine-chilling drones, while guitar notes toll balefully down below, a little like doom metal avant la lettre. The chorus, meanwhile, borders on the euphoric, but Walker’s high, tremulous voice tells the distinctly sinister tale of a torturer and their victim. The components of Walker’s later solo work are all here: the stark, block-wise arrangement; the strained vocals, nudging towards the higher end of his range; the deeply unsettling lyrical themes. But ‘The Electrician’ is more than just some half-baked prototype. It’s a brilliant pop song in its own right, and undoubtedly one of Walker’s best.
(FROM CLIMATE OF HUNTER, VIRGIN, 1984)
Following Nite Flights and the demise of GTO, Walker found himself out in the cold for a while, but by the early 80s he had managed to sign a deal with Virgin. During that period the singer’s earlier work also underwent something of a reappraisal, with a rash of Best Of albums emerging, including the Julian Cope-compiled Fire Escape In The Sky: The Godlike Genius of Scott Walker. It’s perhaps understandable, then, that many assumed Walker’s return to fit the standard comeback co-ordinates (cf. this toe-curling interview on The Tube). But if Virgin thought they’d picked up a cash cow – one that was a little hoary, sure, but but still serviceable – then they were in for an unpleasant surprise.
“This is how you disappear,” runs the opening line of Climate of Hunter over an unsettled, loping drumbeat. And this stark, forbidding record really does represent the complete effacement of both Scott the teen heartthrob and Scott the MOR workhorse. Sonically it’s very rooted in its time – the sinuous fretless bass, gated drums and tart synth chords wouldn’t sound out of place on, say, a Kate Bush record – but in other ways it’s perennially, inimitably Scott. Its grander orchestral moments are particularly striking – those dense, static chords that slide across each other like tectonic plates.
The whole thing, in fact, feels very large in scale, evoking the open expanses of Walker’s estranged homeland. Indeed, ‘Rawhide’ with its visceral hunting imagery, and ‘Blanket Roll Blues’ (a song originally sung by Marlon Brando in the 1959 Sidney Lumet film The Fugitive Kind) seem to suggest something of a wild west theme: Walker as the lonely exile, striking off into the wild.
Climate Of Hunter is an album that stuns more as a whole than in its individual parts, and in places it feels a little underworked. But there are a couple of stand-out moments. The luscious ‘Sleepwalkers Woman’ isn’t so far from Scott 3‘s more tender moments. ‘Track Three’, meanwhile, expanding on the apocalyptic rock-disco framework laid out on parts of Nite Flights, swings the other way, to highly satisfying effect.
‘FARMER IN THE CITY’
(FROM TILT, FONTANA, 1995)
After Climate Of Hunter Walker once again disappeared for over a decade, during which time an aborted collaboration with Brian Eno cost him his contract with Virgin. He returned in 1995, sporting a new record deal, with Fontana, and his most challenging album yet. Tilt represents a distillation and a darkening of the ideas laid out in Climate Of Hunter. It’s also notable for the old-school way in which it was recorded: no sampling, no guide tracks, just an orchestra, a rhythm section, a conductor, and that voice – that increasingly haunted voice.
Laying down vocals for Walker, by this point, was a gruelling ordeal. This was around the time that he described himself as “basically terrified of singing,” and each performance represents an attempt to compress that terror, that existential discomfort, into a series of taut, unadorned phrases. Musically, there’s something faintly Lynchian about these songs, the way in which their baffling illogic gives rise to a creeping sense of dread. But their unusual structures are, Walker has maintained, entirely governed by his lyrics, an approach inspired by his chanson forebears like Brel.
The bleakness of it all is occasionally punctuated by moments of high drama – the towering organ chords of ‘Manhattan’ – and unexpected flashes of pop catchiness, as in the absurdist but addictive hook to ‘Bolivia ’95’. But opening track ‘Farmer in The City’ is perhaps the most affecting. Subtitled “Remembering Pasolini,” it’s partly a biography of the Italian filmmaker and poet; the recurring motif, “Do I hear 21, 21, 21?”, is probably a reference to the age of Pasolini’s lover, Ninetto Davoli, when he was drafted into the Italian army. Appropriately, the song positively overflows with sorrow and doomed romance. I defy you to listen to those lachrymal strings in the chorus, and that opaque but somehow deeply touching refrain, without feeling the chills shoot down your spine.
(FROM THE DRIFT, 4AD, 2006)
The Drift, released in 2006, was preceded by another 11 year gap. This time, though, Walker filled his days with a few other projects, composing the soundtrack to 1999 Leos Carax film Pola X and, bizarrely, singing on the OST to Bond film The World Is Not Enough in that same year. He was also invited to curate the Southbank Centre’s Meltdown festival in 2000, calling on a suitably schizophrenic cast of artists including some of his pop acolytes – Radiohead, Jarvis Cocker – Climate Of Hunter contributor Evan Parker and contemporary classical composer Mark-Anthony Turnage. Meltdown, though, was only the most visible indicator of a wider groundswell of interest in Walker, who was by now a cult figure held in high regard by many sectors of the underground. Fitting, then, that The Drift found a home on indie institution 4AD.
Where Climate Of Hunter and Tilt had both been written quickly and immediately committed to record, The Drift was slower to germinate – the writing process took some seven years – and slow to make, involving a year and half of sporadic studio work. The studio time is audible: the whole thing is suspended in a pitch-black vacuum, every element arranged with clinical precision. And while the occasional jackhammer beats and blasts of excoriating noise might suggest parallels with other extreme forms of pop, really Walker is, by this point, thoroughly entrenched in his own singular world.
Lyrically the album reprises the hyper-dense, impenetrable jumble of cultural and historical references found on Tilt. Walker seems fascinated with confronting the traumas of the modern age head-on, as in ‘Jesse’ – a meditation on the American Dream named after Elvis’ stillborn twin, featuring whispered “pow pow”s that are said to represent the impacts of the planes on the Twin Towers. Sometimes it all sounds like a strange, sick joke – I’m thinking particularly of the Donald Duck episode at the end of ‘The Escape’, probably one of the most absurdly horrifying moments in pop music – and Walker has always insisted there is humour to his music. But it’s a hysterical humour; the kind of joke you only laugh at because the alternative is too grim to contemplate.
Walker famously deploys a host of unusual instrumentation on the album, the iconic peak of which is the use of a pork joint as percussion in ‘Clara’, perhaps The Drift’s finest moment. As always with Walker, the sound is in service to the lyrics – in this case a rumination on the public execution of Mussolini and his mistress, Clara Petacci, and the subsequent desecration of their corpses. Of course, Walker’s ability to empathise with those that society has discarded dates back to his earliest solo work. ‘Clara’ is no different, an examination, by turns tender and gut-wrenching, of the psychology of a woman who would choose to be the lover of a dictator. “Sometimes I feel like a swallow / A swallow which by some mistake / Has gotten into an attic / And knocks its head against the walls in terror,” sings Vanessa Contenay-Quinones as Clara, over the sound of fists hammering meat, over and over.
(FROM BISH BOSCH, 4AD, 2012)
Last year’s Bish Bosch, according to Walker, concludes the trilogy of records that began with Tilt. It’s a reasonable assertion: the album functions very much as an extension of The Drift. Those imposing block-wise structures remain, as do the bizarre sound sources (ramshorns, machetes and, on ‘Corps De Blah’, a surreptitious bit of farting). Lyrically, Walker reaches through time and space to create complex thematic hybrids that resist easy digestion, displaying a now-familiar fixation on violence, disease, and dictators (‘The Day The ‘Conducator’ Died’ deals with the execution of Romanian president Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife).
But while Walker’s lyrics reach new heights of gnomic wordplay and sly allusion, musically speaking Bish Bosch is often more playful and sonically immediate than its predecessor. It feels smaller in scale, too, with orchestral textures largely supplanted by synths, guitars and drums, while Walker seems to have embraced studio trickery to an even greater degree. ‘Epizootics!’ is perhaps the most instantly gratifying of the lot, and undoubtedly the funniest. The title references both a fast spreading infection and jazz-age hipster slang,and the track’s succession of vivid vignettes read like a sort of diseased swing, over which Walker reels off quickfire, increasingly garbled utterances. “Take that accidentally in the bollocks for a start,” he deadpans at one point. From him, we wouldn’t expect anything less.