PRIMER: Scott Walker

If you have a list of alternative icons you’d love to get into but don’t know where to start, get ready to cross some of them off with PRIMER, in which we guide you through the varied careers of renowned indie icons. This week: pop-star-turned-art-rocker, Scott Walker.

- Jul 6, 2012

If you have a list of alternative icons you’d love to get into but don’t know where to start, get ready to cross some of them off with PRIMER, in which we guide you through the varied careers of renowned indie icons. This week Dan Berube guides us through the work of American pop-star-turned-art-rocker, Scott Walker.


N
ever has a dreamy teen idol made the transition to full blown alternative icon with quite as much integrity as Scott Walker. According to many sources (admittedly, often effusive admirers) his gloomy poetic streak and disinterest in fame were evident from early on.  Yet his artistic coming-of-age was a long, drawn out process that saw his '60s pop get wilder and stranger. Perhaps this explains the often silly and misleading mythology that surrounds him, as well as the highly uneven nature of his unwieldy, half-century-spanning discography. And yet Scott’s music is completely worthwhile and important, and his idiosyncratic career carves out an alternate history of rock music, beginning in Phil Spector’s Golden Age of jukebox pop, finding its way into the experimental, disco-inflected studio music of Eno and Bowie, and eventually landing on an incomparable kind of avant-garde noise music with tortured, apocalyptic vocals.

However tempting career-spanning documentaries may be, I don’t recommend the Bowie-produced 30 Century Man as an entry point. Superficially, it makes some annoying filmic choices, like setting his music to lame and often too literal computer animations. It also surrounds every meaningful biographical detail with drawn out scenes of celebrity fans gushing about his creative genius, probably because interviews with Walker himself are hard to come by.

More importantly, the movie gives an over-the-top account of his career arc, at one point equating it to Orpheus’s heroic descent into the underworld. My impression from interviews and general reading is that he was a precociously artsy, literary young session musician that unhappily stumbled into pop stardom; more Salinger character than mythical Greek prophet. I think this makes him all the more compelling and relatable, and gives just about enough context to sink into his early records. But hey, I don’t have David Bowie money, so what do I know.

After making a few variety show appearances under his birth name (Noel Scott Engels) he joined up with John Maus (no, not that John Maus) and Gary Leeds to form The Walker Brothers, eventually undergoing a Ramones-style name change. During their initial run, the group’s renditions of recognizable pop tunes (including stuff by Bob Dylan and a young Randy Newman) exploded in the UK, and they spearheaded a kind of reverse British Invasion. The Burt Bacharach and Hal David-penned torch song Make It Easy On Yourself became the group’s first gold record in 1965, and second single to showcase Scott’s baritone croon. His vocal performance is pretty powerful for a scrawny twenty-something, and brings a definite sadness to what is otherwise a slick pop recording. It doesn’t hurt that studio trickery was only a burgeoning art back then, and successful pop artists were mostly flawless performers with brilliant craftsmen for producers and songwriters, so even his most saccharine, “artificial” early material is completely satisfying and catchy.

"Make It Easy On Yourself" from Take It Easy With The Walker Brothers (1965):

The Walker Brothers - Make It Easy On Yourself

 

After three hugely successful albums in as many years, the Walker Brothers disbanded. This was in late 1967 and in the following months Scott all but vanished, apparently studied Gregorian chant at a monastery, and returned with an eponymous TV variety show and a flurry of increasingly strange solo albums. He was allegedly inspired to start recording again by a revelatory experience with a Playboy Bunny and a Jacques Brel album, and his first three proper solo albums are a mix of translated Brel compositions and originals. Mathilde and Sons Of show the range of his Brel work, which is often bombastic and savagely witty, but also melodically sugary and lushly orchestrated.

Scott 3 has more originals than covers and marks a definite shift away from R&B-based Spector stuff to arty and sometimes dissonant compositions. Walker credits the album’s commercial failure to its predominantly ¾ arrangements. I’m sure the orchestral drone on opening track It’s Raining Today, and gloomy, high-minded lyrics on most other song also helped to limit chart potential. "30 Century Man", a cryptic meditation on modernity and the historical obsession with legacy, eventually had a second life as a soundtrack selection on Wes Anderson's 2004 film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.

After a pretty lame TV show compilation record, he came out with Scott 4, his 3rd LP of 1969, and his first-ever album of entirely original songs. As if to announce his serious aspirations, the sleeve is emblazoned with a contemplative, chiaroscuro shot of the singer, and on the reverse side an Albert Camus quotation about the power of art. Despite a few near-misses, like "The Seventh Seal," in which he basically describes memorable scenes from the 1957 Bergman film, the album is a high water mark of early art rock. "The Old Man is Back Again (Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime)" is a standout, with its noir lyrics, towering backup vocals, and propulsive rhythm section.

"The Old Man is Back Again (Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime)" from Scott 4 (1969):

Scott Walker The Old Man`s Back Again

 

What followed Scott 4 was a prolonged dry-spell: eight years in which he produced seven middle-of-the-road country albums, five solo and two with the reunited Walker Brothers. The comeback from this creative lull was some of his most focused, genius material, achieving in only a quarter of an album what Bowie and Eno were striving for in their comparatively diffuse Berlin trilogy. The four Scott-penned tracks on The Walker Brothers' Nite Flights (1978) catch him in a sweet spot creatively – still able and willing to balance drama with gorgeous melody, and in the first stages of the avant-pop deconstructionism that reaches its apex on The Drift (2006). "The Electrician" is the epic here, concluding Scott’s four-track masterwork, unfortunately grafted onto an otherwise mediocre blues-rock album.

"The Electrician" from Nite Flights (1978):

 

His next (and most recent) three albums, Climate of Hunter, Tilt, and The Drift, intensify the thematic and sonic innovations of Nite Flights, moving away from traditional orchestral arrangements and instead focusing on “big blocks of sound” and a kind of crazed, apocalyptic poetry. In a way they are the logical extension of his early solo work, distilling its avant-garde and literary instincts and shedding its outdated pop trappings. He’s become more direct tonally, but more obscure lyrically, and without the context of his early work, he might come off as a complete lunatic. "The Escape" is a slow build, but reaches an indelibly creepy climax with Scott’s violent Donald Duck impression rasping over tortured instrumentation. It’s hard to imagine what will follow this rigorously weird an album, but it’s safe to assume he won’t be dipping back into the AM gold songbook or accepting any offers for lip-synced variety show appearances in the foreseeable future.

"The Escape" from The Drift (2006):

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