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Scott Walker

+ {Scott Engel}

From 60s pop pin-up with The WALKER BROTHERS (and MOR solo star) to high priest of 21st century avant-garde, very few artists have embraced the kind of musical metamorphosis that SCOTT WALKER has over the past 50 years. In latter times more in line with Stockhausen than Andy Williams, American-born baritone Scott – who became a British citizen in 1970 – will always be remembered for UK chart-topping “Brothers” classics, `Make It Easy On Yourself’ and `The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore’, while his interpretations of JACQUES BREL songs, gave him extra cult appeal before his unorthodox reinvention. The likes of JOHN LENNON never went anywhere near as far towards Scott’s leftfield dabblings, while DAVID SYLVIAN, JULIAN COPE, MARC ALMOND and BILLY MACKENZIE never began from quite so far away.
Born Noel Scott Engel, January 9, 1943 in Hamilton, Ohio, he moved with his family across the States (his father was an oil industry manager), before they settled in California. Already something of a teenage idol after appearing as a singer on Eddie Fisher’s TV light entertainment show, Scott Engel – as he was then billed – released a handful of 78s/45s for L.A.’s Orbit outlet (namely `The Livin’ End’, `Charlie Bop’, `Blue Bell’, `Golden Rule Of Love’ and `Comin’ Home’), before the 60s kicked into gear. Never quite ridding himself of solo ambitions (Liberty issued `Mr. Jones’ in ’61, and Challenge released `Devil Surfer’ in ‘63), jazz lover/film fanatic Scott was forced to take session work as a bassist, which, in turn, led to him join surf instrumental combo The ROUTERS. Not quite fitting in with the in-crowd, a chance meeting with guitarist/singer John Maus and his sister Judy, led on to his brief liaison with Judy & The Gents; and subsequently, The Daltons (with John Stewart), and as touring musicians with The SURFARIS.
In 1964, both Scott and John began working as The WALKER BROTHERS, a trio after they added drummer Gary Leeds (ex-STANDELLS). All adopting the Walker surname, Gary’s time spent in the UK augmenting fellow American star P.J. PROBY was helpful in their quest for success. Buoyed by verbal support from Brian Jones (of The ROLLING STONES), and in-vogue with Carnaby Street-styled fashions that had filtered into America through the plethora of “British Invasion” bands, The WALKER BROTHERS decided to reverse the policy and take on Old Blighty. When debut 45, `Pretty Girls Everywhere’ (John on lead vox), had failed to generate any significant sales for Smash Records (or indeed, Philips, in the UK), February ’65 marked the month the WB’s took their chance in London. Fast-forward a year or two, and the blue-eyed soul combo were the toast of Great Britain, although in their flower-power-addled homeland they’d petered out before they really got going.
In-fights, decreasing sales and the market moving aside for psychedelic rock, the easy-listening appeal of the “Brothers” had waned, with the inevitable split coming when all three wanted a piece of solo action. Of the three, it looked likely that SCOTT WALKER would be the best bet to succeed in the fickle, revolving-door world of mid-60s pop-ballad music.
That proved correct almost immediately when debut SCOTT (1967) {*8} clawed its way up the British charts; it still baffles pundits to this day why his homeland didn’t catch his drift – so to speak. Inside its lush, orchestra-addled minutes, WALKER’s crooning contributions (`Montague Terrace (In Blue)’, `Such A Small Love’ and `Always Coming Back To You’) sat nicely with a triumvirate of Belgian BREL beauts in `Mathilde’, `My Death’ and `Amsterdam’. Next to movie pieces, the singer could command respect from his interpretations of TIM HARDIN’s `The Lady From Baltimore’, Andre & DORY PREVIN’s `You’re Gonna Hear From Me’ and Weil & Mann’s `Angelica’.
Repeating the nostalgia-pop formula on the un-psychedelic SCOTT 2 (1968) {*8}, WALKER was almost a musical rebel in the mould of LONG JOHN BALDRY, TOM JONES and Engelbert, when other relatively young singers were delving into all aspects of flower-power. Bolstered by a BREL-penned/Mort Shuman-translated Top 30 hit, `Jackie’ (banned by the BBC for its colourful lyrics and drug references), the chart-topping set garnered two others from the same source: `The Girls And The Dogs’ and `Next’; the latter exhumed by The SENSATIONAL ALEX HARVEY BAND, in ‘73. In similar fashion, Engel/WALKER worked his own Mediterranean nightcafé aplomb on `The Girls From The Streets’, `The Bridge’, `The Amorous Humphrey Plugg’ and his greatest and breeziest, psychedelic pieste de resistance, `Plastic Palace People’. Alongside further outside tracks, `Come Next Spring’ and `Best Of Both Worlds’, anyone nostalgically-minded unaware of BACHARACH-DAVID’s `Windows Of The World’ and Henry Mancini’s `Wait Until Dark’ (plus folkie TIM HARDIN’s `Black Sheep Boy’), would’ve had to have been from another cinematic planet. Pity then, that was no room for WALKER’s biggest hit (UK #7), `Joanna’, a ballad penned by Tony Hatch and Jackie Trent.
The tried-and-tested formula wearing thin for SCOTT 3 (1969) {*7}, sales figures plummeted in a matter of a few weeks after the LP had peaked in the Top 3. Almost relegating the usual suspect BREL covers (`Sons Of’, `Funeral Tango’ and `If You Go Away’) to finale encore pieces, WALKER was in full swinger-songwriter-meets-orchestra-mode for the remaining nine cues. Mentioning ultimately profound lyrics “Fire escape in the sky” embedded in `Big Louise’, and utilizing either stalwart arrangers/conductors Wally Stott and Peter Knight (Reg Guest was not credited on this occasion), the godlike genius of SCOTT WALKER played lounge lizard on melancholy spine-tinglers `It’s Raining Today’, `Copenhagen’ and minute-and-a-half excursion, `30 Century Man’; the latter track was used as the title of his career-spanning documentary in 2006.
Star, WALKER, had previously contributed backing vocals to The BEATLES’ All You Need Is Love world broadcast in ‘67, pointing his way to hosting his own TV series (“Scott”) for the Beeb. Turned into a Top 10 album, SCOTT “Sings songs from his T.V. series” (1969) {*4}, and riddled with a dozen MOR staples, it proved to be his commercial downfall; its never been re-issued on CD and some of the songs (thankfully not `The Impossible Dream’, `The Look Of Love’ and `I Have Dreamed’) have remained exclusive to vinyl buffs only.
The full impact of WALKER’s commercial fall from grace was felt when his third album of the year (or five in two), the completely self-penned SCOTT 4 (1969) {*9}, failed to reach the charts; reason?: initial copies bore his birth name Noel Scott Engel. Regarded as a cult classic, the half-hour LP produced by John Franz, referenced deep relationships gone wrong embracing a world only known by Sinatra or the aforementioned Williams. The haunting `Boy Child’, the filmic `Angels Of Ashes’, the sardonic country-tinged `Hero Of The War’ and the nod to Ingmar Bergman `The Seventh Seal’, were the star attractions, while the catchy `The Old Man’s Back Again (Dedicated To The Neo-Stalinist Regime)’, `Duchess’ and `Get Behind Me’, shifted his Baroque gear into country-rock.
Needless to say, “Scott 5” or ’TIL THE BAND COMES IN (1970) {*6}, was drawn from other influences such as jazz, film themes and of course, showbiz schmaltz. Alien to a fresh decade full of promise and enterprise for his peers, BOWIE, BOLAN and a smorgasbord of heavy rock, WALKER seemed content with plundering the past for inspiration, and several songs. Leaving the covers as an addendum to his own compositions, engineer Franz was happy to let him loose on `Stormy’ (a hit for CLASSICS IV), and film themes by Henry Mancini: `The Hills Of Yesterday’, Michel LeGrand: `What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life’, plus Alex Harvey/Barry Ellis: `Reuben James’ and Jimmie Rodgers: `It’s Over’. Of the others, including Esther Ofarim’s vocal contribution `Long About Now’, the spirit of his film noir nuances were catered for between `Prologue’ and `The War Is Over (Sleepers – Epilogue)’.
The self-explanatory THE MOVIEGOER (1972) {*4} took the genre to the extremes and left the once-great WALKER languishing in MOR hell when subsequent covers set, ANY DAY NOW (1973) {*4} plummeted the man further down the musical mindshaft. A glance at the track listing (`If’, `Ain’t No Sunshine’, `Any Day Now’ et al) would be enough to make any rock ruffian baulk. And when one thinks that WALKER was not yet in his 30s, the karaoke “Top Of The Pops”-like LP was doomed for the bargain bins.
A new contract with C.B.S. and album number nine, the country-roots STRETCH (1973) {*4}, changed little in his stubborn back-to-the-croon ethos, and once again it failed miserably to regain Scott any lost ground. Once again hand-picked ballads from the songwriters of the day, RANDY NEWMAN, JIMMY WEBB and BILL WITHERS (adding MICKEY NEWBURY and others), the balance was maybe succinct, but the timing was all askew. 1974’s WE HAD IT ALL {*4} featured no less than four BILLY JOE SHAVER numbers, while WALKER thought it time to extol the virtues of GORDON LIGHTFOOT (on `Sundown’) and EAGLES (on `What Ever Happened To Saturday Night’).
The man duly re-emerged as part of a re-formed WALKER BROTHERS trio, enjoying a UK Top 10 with a cover of TOM RUSH’s `No Regrets’. Scott eschewed the lure of the beckoning nostalgia circuit, however, leading the band in a radically different direction for 1978’s moribund “Nite Flights”, the brothers’ final album together.
WALKER eventually resurfaced in solo mode by March 1984, courtesy of the tortured CLIMATE OF HUNTER {*7}; hardly a record to kickstart his career, and once again available only to the British public. Clocking in at only 31 minutes and as close as a Billy Mackenzie/ASSOCIATES collaboration with ENO (or JAPAN) as one’ll ever hear, co-producer Peter Walsh had helped guide the crooner into the world of alternative music. Menacing and foreboding at times, it all somehow fitted together without the conventional verse-chorus approach – or even proper titles! When `Track Three’ was released as a single (BILLY OCEAN on backing vox!), it was clear the climate of WALKER was cold and barren, and living up to his reputation for anti-commercial tricks; check out `Dealer’ and `Rawhide’, chunky bass provided by Mo Foster, drums by Peter Van Hooke; concluding track 8, `Blanket Roll Blues’ showcased the guitar talents of MARK KNOPFLER – a sort of “Walker Brothers In Arms”.
Virgin Records were suitably unimpressed with the sales returns (UK #60), although there was hope for Scott when he almost immediately signed to Fontana. In 1987, Scott appeared in TV ads for Britvic juice, and on the recording front there was a mooted collaboration with BRIAN ENO; the project was never completed. Similarly, Scott’s collaborative work with former JAPAN warbler DAVID SYLVIAN, produced no concrete results. WALKER’s cult appeal proved infectious for fans old and new, when the combinative “No Regrets – The Best Of Scott Walker & The Walker Brothers 1965-1976” soared into the UK Top 5 in 1992.
It would be eleven years between studio albums. The first in a supposed trilogy, his new work of art, TILT (1995) {*7}, spent one lonely week in the charts peaking at No.27. As out-there as WALKER had yet ventured, fans and critics alike agreed that while he mightn’t be the most prolific artist of late, his darkly compelling experiments were worth waiting for. Once again using his baritone vocal chords as an instrument to full effect when accompaniment was sparse and skeletal, the neo-classical, avant-garde aspect of the work was on show from the get-go on opening salvo, `Farmer In The City’ (memorable for the lines, “Who are you, 21, 21…”). Turning rock music around on an old sixpence, at 50, in one fell swoop, Scott became the fatherly equivalent of DIAMANDA GALAS, albeit with sprawling tunes fitted in and around titles such as `Manhattan’, `The Cockfighter’ and `Bouncer See Bouncer…’.
The subsequent soundtrack to French film, POLA X (1999) {*6}, was similar in some respects to “Tilt”, only here the stark experimentations were interspersed with beautiful orchestral manoeuvres that reflected the versatility of the artist’s imagination. His rousing baritone voice was again used sparingly, making a brief appearance on `The Time Is Out Of Joint!’, while the listener could only imagine what instruments or other implements were being used to create the sonic anarchy of `Never Again’ or `The Church Of The Apostles’. While WALKER contributed the majority of the work on the OST, the French-only record was also served by a few other artists: SMOG and SONIC YOUTH chipping in. A difficult soundtrack and taking – as per usual – several listens before it slipped under one’s skin, it was worth the effort for the contrast in styles and the sheer ingenuity of one of the few true geniuses that was still willing to try something that little bit different.
More than a decade of birthing pains, THE DRIFT (2006) {*7}, was met with almost universal shock, horror, awe and admiration as one of the most gratuitously, beautifully unnerving listening experiences ever released. He’d signed a deal at the evergreen indie stable of 4 a.d. Against Dante-esque screeds of Eraserhead ambience and nerve-flaying industrio-tronics, WALKER picked his metaphors with the delectation of a deranged hangman, dropping them into traumatic treatise on the likes of 9/11, ELVIS’s stillborn brother, and the fate of Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini.
Of interest to Scott’s soundtrack apostles, the instrumental 4-movement `And Who Shall Go To The Ball? And What Shall Go To The Ball?’ EP (2007), filled a stop-gap period while the genius plotted his third set of the trilogy. In the meantime, fans of avant-garde rock were treated to three nights (13-15 November 2008) at the Barbican Theatre entitled “Drifting And Tilting: The Songs Of Scott Walker”; augmented by celebrity apostles DAMON ALBARN, JARVIS COCKER and DOT ALLISON.
Released toward the fall of 2012, the 70-minute BISH BOSCH {*8} garnered plaudits from all angles; some daily tabloids designating it Album of the Week, Mojo music mag making it Album of the Month, and better still, Album of the Year at the discerning Tiny Mix Tapes. Neo-classical and relying on an array of musicians, including himself, Hugh Burns, James Stevenson, John Giblin, Alasdair Malloy, Mark Warman, Ian Thomas and stalwart producer Peter Walsh, drums and drones took precedence hand-in-hand with Scott’s off-kilter neo-operatic larynx. The longest track by far (at 21 minutes!), `SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)’, proved in its 5/10-second-ish empty silent interludes, as well its stark backdrop, that instrumentation didn’t have to complement vocals – neither a nothingness. A record not for the faint-hearted or anyone with a limit for the X-Factor machine, this set could get one clicking to a different beat, or climbing the white walls looking for one’s straight-jacket. Lonely listens on headphones away from sharp utensils might ensure further pleasure for these precious mathematical exercises. A different Engle indeed.
Teaming up with doom/drone specialists, SUNN O))), WALKER steps deep into sonic, avant-garde waters on SOUSED (2014) {*8}. Straight from the off, `Brando’, pulled no punches between the cracking whips, gutsy guitar licks and Scott’s haunting howls of strategic opera. Like breaking into two parties in the same apartment (ultimately combining PiL’s “Metal Box” and/or The Tempest flick), WALKER took his listeners to another dimension, another time and another place in history by way of `Herod 2014’, a present-day portrayal of the New Testament King who killed off innocent babies. Closer and creepier to LOU REED’s `The Kids’ than its “no raindrops on roses, whiskers on kittens” (from My Favourite Things/Sound Of Music) narrative, Scott abandoned any conventional ambience on this and three further, 9-minute excursions into subversive sound, including the sinister `Lullaby’.
Adrift in the ether of space time continuum – at least musically speaking – SCOTT WALKER donned his BERNARD HERRMANN composer’s cap for the 30-minute, original soundtrack to THE CHILDHOOD OF A LEADER (2016) {*7}. The fascinating and award-winning Jean-Paul Sartre short story-turned-historical mystery drama, concerning the making of a fascist dictator, Scott was the only choice to tear up conventional orchestral codas for his own dramatic sequences. As spiky and spine-tingling as the times it was set (1919…), the `Opening’ segment was pure psycho: the knives twisting with squeaky-swing aplomb, whilst the commanding `Versailles’, `Third Tantrum’ and “The Shining”-like coldness of `The Meeting’, almost guides one into the cinema for the full widescreen effect.
Working again with film-maker Brady Corbet (and sharing credits with composer SIA, performers Natalie Portman and Raffey Cassidy) on 2018’s `Vox Lux’, WALKER provided 10 instrumental vignettes. It would be the composer’s epitaph as many fans all over the world were subsequently paying tribute to the uber-unique SCOTT WALKER, when he sadly passed away on March 25, 2019.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/GRD-LCS/CM // rev-up MCS Nov2014-Mar2019

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