No Regrets (The Best of Scott Walker and the Walker Brothers) (1965-76)
Sings Jacques Brel (1967-69)
Scott 4 (1969)
Climate of Hunter (1984)
(All albums re-released on CD by Fontana, with the exception of Climate of Hunter which is deleted)
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It shouldn't really be like this but, for obvious reasons, the Glasperlenspiel office have of late been researching reclusive musicians. Artistes for whom decade long spans between albums are the norm; whose unlooked for releases are greeted with bemusement by journalists still in primary school when the last album was released, and with astonishment by long-suffering fans used to continual disappointments and no-shows. Invariably, our recluses are inhabitants of the Tower of Song, master craftsmen whose back catalogue contains a smattering of unassailable classics. Our man Eldritch is clearly earning his spurs in such exalted company, but he has some catching up to do here. Leonard Cohen (2 albums in 20 years) is reported as having been working on one lyric for the best part of 7 years. Fantastical studio bills for My Bloody Valentine's Loveless album would have bankrupted Creation records, but for the timely rise of the Gallagher brothers. But it's Scott Walker (2 albums in 24 years) we focus on. Partly because the net is shamefully shy of Walker resources, but mainly because I've just spent a large chunk of the budget for GPS 03 on the Walker back catalogue.
Scott Walker (né Engel) first came to notice in 1965 with a brace of classic Number 1 pop singles as one-third of The Walker Brothers, a US trio who had moved to the UK after failure in the States. Make It Easy On Yourself and The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore are vintage 60s MOR, with Scott's luxuriant baritone instantly defining one of pop's great vocalists. The Walker Brothers were huge with the screaming teen audience. Guitarist John Maus and Drummer Gary Leeds were up for this and took advantage of the celeb fringe benefits with gusto (Maus must have been taking advantage of groupies during the recording sessions, as there is little evidence of any guitars on the Walker Brothers tracks). The group, hitting the London scene big time, were notoriously heavy drinkers. Scott Walker, though, was made of more sensitive stuff. Legendarily nervous of live performance he went as far as faking a car crash in order to avoid one gig and there are reports of a suicide attempt in 1967. Becoming disillusioned with the direction the Walker Brothers were taking, (although the hits weren't drying up, there was a gradual slide down the charts in 66 and 67, and it has to be said some of the later Walker Brothers material on No Regrets is embarrassing MOR trex), and perhaps realising the destructive path on which stardom was taking him, he went solo in 1967.
A series of solo albums followed numbered Scott 1, 2 and 3. Crucially Walker had discovered Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel and achieved critical and commercial success with a cracking series of Brel covers (later collected together on Scott Walker sings Jacques Brel). Brel's songs are magnificently lewd and nihilistic, replete with memorable lowlife characters. Walker definitively nailed it when saying, "[Brel] rarely offers solution yet states the confusion beautifully". Walker's interpretations, which contrast strongly with David Bowie's somewhat arch versions, are big production numbers. The lush orchestration and noisy brass sections of the Walker Brothers tracks is still present and became Walker's modus operandi - Sisters fans should beware as this often sounds kitsch and comical to listeners brought up on a fashionable, guitar-based sonic assault. But persist with it, because Amsterdam, Next, Jackie and the rest are glorious: hugely entertaining and richly ironic. And in amongst the crew of syphilitic sailors and opium dealers, If You Go Away is genuinely heart-breaking. This track has been cheapened by a thousand dire cabaret singers murdering it, but Walker's version retains its integrity. At this stage in his career, on the back of 3 Top 3 albums in as many years (Scott 2 hit #1, only Sgt Pepper kept Scott 1 from the top slot), Walker seems to have regained his confidence. Complementing the Brel covers, Walker was developing his own songwriting talents. Exotic and urbane, Montague Terrace in Blue (from Scott 1) is a choice early example.
Divergent strands were developing in Walker's career. The record company presumably felt they had another Tom Jones on their hands. Walker was stuffed into a suit, put before the cameras and sang cheesy cover versions for his own TV show. This must have been humiliating. An album from the TV show was released, interleaving Scotts 3 and 4. Whether some kind of deal was struck whereby Walker did the TV hell in return for total control over 1969's Scott 4, is unclear, but there is no doubt that 4 saw Walker branching out into the unknown.
1969 was a watershed year for rock music. Anti-Vietnam protest was raging, Mayor Daley's riot police had tear gassed the previous year's Democratic convention in Chicago, Nixon was in the White House, acid and dope were on the streets, in Paris students rioted and a genuine whiff of revolution was in the air. Rock music was the soundtrack to these turbulent times: The Stones at their peak - with Street Fighting Man, Gimme Shelter and Sympathy For The Devil freshly minted - played Altamont, The Stooges' 1969 captured the times, Hendrix's electrifying guitar re-defined rock's limits. Tellingly, Scott 4 failed to chart. Scott Walker, manifestly not the revolutionary zealot, must have seemed like a man out of time. This, though perhaps the critical line at the time, is unfair. Eschewing the Brel covers, all 10 tracks on Scott 4 are self-compositions. The opener, The Seventh Seal, pays homage to Bergman's magnum opus. The soundscape is a downbeat version of the previous albums: the brass section had been dumped, the orchestrations are earthy and minor key, an acoustic rhythm guitar drives many of the songs, a choir added Gregorian chants. Walker's vocal melodies drift off the norm just enough to add an extra dimension to the songs. Importantly, the lyrics had developed a political aspect: Hero of the War ponders why the returning soldier, who "can't shake hands or move his feet", didn't stay at home in the first place, the anti-totalitarian The Old Man's Back Again is "dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime". Walker was one of the first artists to boycott South Africa. There's nothing overtly radical on Scott 4, and the humour of the Brel covers was absent, but there should have been enough to appeal to the Godard-loving intelligentsia then listening to Dylan and Cohen. The commercial failure of Scott 4 was nothing short of scandalous, but made the album legendary.
The effect of 4's failure on Walker's career was disastrous, and the early 70s were lean years. Scott 5 was planned but under pressure from the record company was changed to a dismal covers album, 'Til the Band Comes In. Unbelievably, worse was to follow with an album of Country and Western songs (later described by Walker as "cornball schlok") released. Perhaps there was some kind of perverse, Klaus Kinski style, motive at work here; sacrificing himself to make some kind of obscure point about the vapidity of his chosen career? Whatever, both albums sold as poorly as Scott 4. The effects of this on Walker's confidence can only be guessed at. If he wasn't going to sell records, at least he should have had been able to retain some integrity?
A compromise solution was found in '75 with a surprise reformation of The Walker Brothers. No Regrets, the single, was an international hit, though Walker's vocals, perhaps uninspired by the song, are a pale imitation of previous glories. "There's no regrets," he may have sung, but he sounded like he had thousands. Three Walker Brothers albums were released between 75 and 77, with the sporadic self-penned tracks the highlight. 1977 brought about another revolution, once again musical rather than political. Punk's Year Zero was undiscriminating in its casualties and bookings dried up for the Walker Brothers as well as a hundred prog rock nightmares. The band split again. This time there was no comeback.
Scott Walker went into retreat, and from 77 onwards observed textbook reclusive behaviour. In the absence of official information, the press, accurate as ever, made it up: Walker was alleged to be running a Chip Shop in Betley. In fact he was simply living in London until he felt ready to record again. Signing to Virgin, Climate of Hunter was released in 1984. The album's promotional campaign was a disaster. Walker was expected to do the usual rounds of interviews: an NME interview found Walker expounding on his disillusionment: "Unless I'm ready [to make a record] it would take a bear to drag me out". He was even dragged in front of the TV cameras; on The Tube, Muriel Gray - stuck in "Frequently Asked Questions (of the boring kind)" mode - asked whether it was good to be back. Walker - thrown by this idiotic question, and clearly hating every moment of it - managed to mumble, "Yes", before the interview was terminated quickly. Unsurprisingly the album stiffed in dramatic fashion: it was the lowest ever selling album on Virgin. Walker was dropped and again disappeared. All of which would be tragic, but for one thing: the album was praised to the hilt by the critics and appears to have been something of an artistic tour-de-force, a tortured companion piece to Roxy's Avalon. Which might be true, but we don't know. The album is long deleted and impossible to get hold of.
Another decade passed, the map of Europe was re-drawn, wars were fought and won and Scott Walker was again all but forgotten except, briefly, when Make It Easy On Yourself was resurrected in a government advert for, of all things, the Poll Tax. One wonders whether Walker saw the ad and what his reaction was. It must have seemed like a lifetime ago that the track was recorded, but he surely would have been livid at being associated with Thatcher's folly. Increased activity on the rumour mill for once proved prescient: a new album hit the streets in 1995: Tilt.
Tilt did not contain any number one singles. The Brit awards committee did not come calling, lifetime achievement awards in hand (richly though this would have been deserved). Hello magazine didn't sign a big dollar deal to photograph Scott reclining by a Mediterranean swimming pool. The booking office at Wembley Arena were not instructed to keep a third night free in case of strong ticket demand.
Tilt remains one of the strangest albums ever released. Age had deepened and thinned the voice a little, but the vocals were instantly recognisable. The songs and musical score are absolutely alien, completely out of left-field and wildly experimental. The opening Farmer In The City is extremely bizarre. Starting with a low drone, Walker opens with a sepulchral chant, "Do I hear twenty-one/twenty-one/twenty-one", before gorgeous strings cut in with dramatic fifths and sevenths. "Can't go by a man with brain grass/go by his long long eye gas/and I used to be a citizen", Walker continues, incomprehensibly. The tempo is funereal. But despite the strangeness there is a Dead Can Dance or late Talk Talk impressiveness to the track, and in parts the lyric is reminiscent, stylistically at least, of T S Eliot. The Cockfighter explodes in a rumble of harsh percussion, atonal jazz trumpet and industrial beats. This level of experimentation is maintained throughout, and puts many Young Turks of the alternative scene to shame. Bouncer See Bouncer is discordant and disturbing for 3 minutes before flowering beautifully. Face On Breast quotes Bacall: "Ya know how to whistle, put ya lips together and blow", evidence of a sense of humour, or Neil Cassidy style babbling? Patriot (a single) is more mainstream (I can't remember if it was actually released as a single), but there is a conviction about the album that suggests this is the genuine article. What is clear is that, finally, Walker got to make the record he wanted to.
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