Scott Walker: From Pop Pap or (Pap of Pop) to Beating The Avant-garde at Their Own Game
You can hardly count the number of exploratory, experimental, avant-garde musicians that, for many reasons (mostly commercial), went for, or at least tried to go pop at one point or another. Even such an experimental jazz giant like Albert Ayler at least tried to incorporate soul singing and funky drumming on his 1969 outing New Grass. Still good, still no radio play, but more palatable to the ears of the public, for certain.
Still, this trend is practically a one way street; rarely could you name a musician or a group of musicians (a band) that came from the other side. Ok, names like Brian Eno or even more so, David Sylvian, who started with the ’80s faves Japan and turned to experimental music, do come to mind. But none went so far as Noel Scott Engel, a guy from Ohio better known as Scott Walker. The British daily “Guardian” aptly put it, he is “Andy Williams reinventing himself as Stockhausen.”
Reinventing the Name, the Citizenship, the Music
If such musical reinvention might sound like madness, Scott’s history points to logic in that madness. The musicality and the quality of his voice were recognized even at a young age, and Eddie Fisher, a late-Fifties TV host tried to promote Walker as a teen idol. On the other hand, Scott’s musical tastes were more inclined towards cool jazz in the form of, for example, pianist Bill Evans, while at the same time his greatest interest seemed to be European cinema and the likes of Federico Fellini and French New Wave cinema.
While still in high school, then still an Engel, Scott became a session musician playing the bass guitar. Through that work, he met guitarist John Maus, who also underage, used a fake ID under the last name Walker so he could get late night gigs at bars. So, for the same reasons, Engel became a Walker too. Soon, Gary Leeds, a drummer that joined them became another Walker, so the band became brothers of sorts, The Walker Brothers.
The tension between John…and Scott, who practically took over not only the singing, but also the songwriting and producing duties…effectively broke the band up in 1967.
It was actually Gary’s idea that they try their luck in the UK where the trio arrived in 1965. They started charting immediately, even while John was still the lead singer. By coming with their own version of Bacharach/David’s “Make It Easy On Yourself” and with Scott’s seemingly bottomless baritone in lead, by August of 1965 they reached number 1 in the UK (16 in the US). By the beginning of next year with one of the greatest pop singles ever in tow, “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore)”, their fan club grew to larger proportions than that of The Beatles (at the time).
The pop fame, as well as the Walker Brothers themselves,did not last long though. The tension between John, whose role slipped totally into the background, and Scott, who practically took over not only the singing, but also the songwriting and producing duties, and their newer singles not reaching the expected levels, effectively broke the band up in 1967.
Reinventing European Cinema as Music
During the last three years of the ’60s and the first year of the ’70s, Walker came up with a series of solo albums that are to this day among the most revered by his broad base of his fans. Recently they served as a base for a special BBC Proms tribute to Walker, organized by one of his biggest fans, Jarvis Cocker of The Pulp fame.
While still remaining in what could be called a standard song format, Walker started to intensively incorporate his love of classical music, jazz, and European song tradition. Both the songs and lyrics, to which Walker obviously started to pay serious attention to, started to be more intricate and sophisticated, but much darker in tone. It was as if Walker was reinventing the European cinema he loves so much as his musical vision.
It was as if Walker was reinventing the European cinema he loves so much as his musical vision.
Still, his first four solo albums numbered 1-4 ( boxed in 2013 along with Till The Band Comes In from 1970) brought him substantial chart success, particularly in the UK where Scott 2 was also able to reach the top of the charts. But, as there were changes in his music, there seemed to be profound changes in Walker’s life too. He was becoming more and more reclusive, constantly trying to separate himself from his previous pop image, even becoming a UK citizen in 1970. The fact that he was given a personal TV show on BBC seemed to add to a sort of downward spiral, and even though 4, his last numbered album, was a brilliant all self-penned affair, it flopped in full. Part of the reasons possibly lying in the fact that he originally issued it under his birth name, Noel Scott Engel. All subsequent reissues bear the name of his Scott Walker persona.
Taking the Routes Unknown – “This is how you disappear”
From then on, things started getting strange, even though initially they seemed to take ‘the traditional’ route. Walker seemingly turned back to pop, even country, with four or five almost nondescript albums which Walker himself describes as ‘getting rid of contractual obligations.’ While the material could be described as nondescript, Walker’s vocals never could be, even on those albums.
It seemed that this return to pop would culminate with the reunion of The Walker Brothers in the mid-Seventies, with their version of Tom Rush’s country hit “No Regrets” hitting the British top 10. But instead of diving back into pop pap for good, renewed personal energy seems to have taken Walker on a completely different route. Nite Flights and The Electrician, the following two Walker Brothers albums (and the last two as well), were bringing in something completely different musically.
…things started taking Walker down paths musically less taken, with Walker growing more and more reclusive personally, but laying down music that transcends the term of experimental and avant-garde.
As some critics put it, it seemed that Walker was developing in a similar musical direction at the time as one of his biggest fans, a certain Mr. David Bowie, who was a co-producer of the 2006 documentary on Walker. In that same documentary, Brian Eno states that the current pop music hasn’t “got any further” than Nite Flights. From there on, things started taking Walker down paths musically less taken, with Walker growing more and more reclusive personally, but laying down music that transcends the term of experimental and avant-garde.
“This is how you disappear out between midnight”, declares Walker on “Rawhide” one of the tracks of his truly genial Climate of The Hunter album from 1984. And from there on, Walker is truly making attempts to disappear – but as a personal element from both his lyrics and the music.
Rock of cast-offs/Bury me/Hide my soul/Sink us free/Rock of cast-offs/Bury me/Hide my soul/Pray us free
– “Track Three” Climate of The Hunter
Goes on Walker, who in a rare interview stated that it usually takes him a few years to construct the lyrics to his musical pieces, which he also claims is actually the start of his composition process.
No wonder it took him 11 years to come up with a follow-up, Tilt (1995). The album came as a complete shock, both musically and lyrically, not only to the general listening public but also to Walker’s hardcore fan base. Reviewing the album for AllMusic, Dave Thompson wrote that it was “indescribably barren and unutterably bleak… the wind that buffets the gothic cathedrals of everyone’s favorite nightmares.”
From then on what transpired was music that can be likened to those Viennese cakes that are so intense and rich you can only consume them in small bits and pieces. Anybody who is able to completely sit through his 1996 album Tilt should certainly get a special listening award.
For example, as Anthony Carew puts it in a “New Yorker” article on Walker, “percussionist Alasdair Malloy punching on a side of pork to summon the sound of angry citizens clubbing the strung-up corpses of Benito Mussolini and his mistress in a Milan piazza.” Yet another composition on the album is based around the excerpts of the war crimes indictment against the former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic. All of it combined with sound structures some modern classical composers wouldn’t dare explore.
“…I’m like Don Quixote…All I ever do is hear the faults, I never hear anything else, so I never listen.”
The same could be said about all the albums that followed, solo or otherwise, like the 2012 album Bish Bosch, on which, for example the twenty or so minute long composition “SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter),” explores the fates of a dwarf and an astronomical phenomenon known as brown dwarf.
It just seems Scott Walker has no intention of ever looking back. Literally. Interviewed (barely) ahead of the BBC Proms special, Walker said that he has no intention to watch it and that he never listens to his old songs/compositions – “With that kind of thing, with any past recordings, I’m like Don Quixote being confronted by the Knight of Mirrors. All I ever do is hear the faults, I never hear anything else, so I never listen.” Scott Walker’s persona is already somewhere else.