The Explanation
(for those who require one)

And, of course, that is what all of this is -- all of this: the one song, ever changing, ever reincarnated, that speaks somehow from and to and for that which is ineffable within us and without us, that is both prayer and deliverance, folly and wisdom, that inspires us to dance or smile or simply to go on, senselessly, incomprehensibly, beatifically, in the face of mortality and the truth that our lives are more ill-writ, ill-rhymed and fleeting than any song, except perhaps those songs -- that song, endlesly reincarnated -- born of that truth, be it the moon and June of that truth, or the wordless blue moan, or the rotgut or the elegant poetry of it. That nameless black-hulled ship of Ulysses, that long black train, that Terraplane, that mystery train, that Rocket '88', that Buick 6 -- same journey, same miracle, same end and endlessness."
-- Nick Tosches, Where Dead Voices Gather

Scott #1


The American-born singer and composer Scott Walker had his own series on BBC Television for about ten minutes back in 1969. Actually, the thing ran six weeks (not counting two pilot shows), at half an hour a shot. Imaginatively titled Scott, the program was not a Variety series with glitz and sketches and yuks. No. It was a straight-ahead half hour of music, featuring performances by guest artists and the usual between-number remarks from the host. A completely ordinary affair in most respects, then, but in a sense that short-lived series captured, more starkly than anything he did in those years, every bifurcated, seemingly counter-intuitive impulse that has driven Scott Walker as an artist these last four decades.

He steered away from the hits, for one thing. Much as they may have wished it, his producers (not to mention the great British public at home) wouldn't be hearing Their Scott and the rockin' BBC orchestra crank out those chart busters he'd recorded with The Walker Brothers in days that now seemed a lifetime in the past (in fact it was little less than two years since that group had split). Instead he stuck with an almost defiant menu of Tin Pan Alley evergreens; sharp, spiky Jacques Brel chansons (translated to English by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman), second-tier show tunes and his own compositions: baroque, many-splendored and increasingly eccentric pillow fights of song that were fast coming to dominate those eponymous LPs he was spinning out on the Philips label, one after another, with striking momentum.

As a host, Scott Walker was . . . unusual; and it was here that the show's vague sense of cognitive dissonance became all-consuming. Like so much of the BBC's programming in that era, Scott's visual component was destroyed long ago, but from the audio remnant and the handful of existing stills, it isn't hard to figure out the rest: Rail thin, leaning uneasily on a mike-stand or perched on a stool, a mile-long Isadora Duncan scarf wrapped 'round his golden throat; eyes parked (seemingly for life) behind a pair of black, nothing-to-see-here-folks shades, he frankly looked and sounded as if he were perpetually on the nod; struggling through intros imbued with the kind of stock showbiz blather one would have expected from Sophie Tucker at a 1954 AGVA benefit ("One of the nicest gentlemen in this business . . . "). Either that or he'd wax nostalgic; introducing his song 'It's Raining Today', for example, as an evocation of his adolescent years: being bounced out of schools, hitchhiking 'cross the length and breadth of America, digging on progressive jazz, finding succor in the most transient missions of the flesh.

A swell time for all, I'm sure . . . but what in hell was he talking about? Cross-country hitch-hiking? Progressive jazz?? Back then, the late 1950s, Young Mr. Kerouac was still Scotty Engel of Hamilton, Ohio; recording dead-on-arrival 45s for middling labels like HiFi and Orbit ("A Sound That's Out of This World!"); that is, when he wasn't doing guest shots on Eddie Fisher's NBC series and otherwise working the Teen Idol racket for any errant crumbs of glory it could cough in his direction (the fact that he actually was a teenager at the time, unlike most of his twenty-something confreres in that strange purgatory of show business, did not exactly compel his marginally souped-up treatments of 'Paper Doll' and 'Too Young' to fly out of record stores in any measurable volume). By the early 1960s, the fruits of that first chapter had long since vanished from remainder bins, and he was just another face on the LA music scene, scuffling around town for that much-needed (and in his case, delayed) encounter with fortune. He was apparently a skilled enough bassist to score occasional session work for Jack Nitzsche but, really, beyond that his resume had 'Unexceptional' written all over it, in big letters. To put it another way, if you hurled a rock at the bandstand of any Sunset Strip Twist palace in those days, forty-nine out of fifty times you'd hit a guy just like him.

Eventually he threw in with a fellow pop nomad, John Maus; then another, Gary Leeds. They were called The Walker Brothers . . . and why not? Jesus, one name was good as another; besides, half the allure of show business, then and now, was that whispered promise of redemption through the thousand mechanisms of false identity (just ask Bob Dylan). Their repertoire out of the gate was the standard line of pure white, mod-a-go-go Watusi fodder everyone else was playing ('Land of 1,000 Dances', 'Dancing in the Streets', on and on), but it got them decent club dates around Hollywood, a few television gigs, and one lone appearance in a motion picture: batting cleanup for The Supremes in Beach Ball (Paramount's quadriplegic attempt to cash in on the success of AIP's 'Beach Party' series). Things didn't really get moving, however, until they got to England and signed with Philips. Only then did the hits start rolling out; the girls shriek in deadly earnest; and The Walker Brothers, for a time, got to be as big as Big ever gets.

It lasted a year; year and a half. They flamed-out by the end of '67.

Throughout that period, however, Scott Walker not only carved himself choice territory as the Walker's principal songwriter and default front man, he gradually (and not entirely by coincidence) became Britain's leading contender for the title of Public Fruitcake No. 1. The papers were, literally and figuratively, full of it: Stories of stage fright and public intoxication, increasing reclusiveness, strange utterances, fleeing to a monastery on the Isle of Wight to silence, if only for a moment, the suddenly unending shriek of a now catastrophic success. For the UK's music and tabloid press, jaded scumbags all, this was chocolate-covered Heroin. Little did it matter if there was ever more than a kernel of truth to any of it; the stories virtually wrote themselves, transforming Scott Walker into the first true avatar of a relatively new cultural cliche: the beloved-but-misunderstood pop star, yearning for transcendence and a life lived less publicly (a cliche that would reach a terrible apotheosis of sorts with the 1994 suicide of Kurt Cobain). As journalistic impulses go, this was utterly reflexive . . . the only thing journalists love more than a bad loser is a bad winner . . . and they could let no moment of the spectacle go unrecorded, even the ones they had to make up.

But Scott Walker was not, as he seemed to so many, just another strange-o with a record deal. More neurotic than all four Beatles put together (and that's saying a lot), he was openly conflicted, even angst-ridden about his ascent. In Stephen Kijak's 2006 film, Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, there's an interview clip of him from the Walker Brothers days . . . a bottle in one hand, the go-find-somebody-who-gives-a-damn shades black as ever . . . rehearsing that old sweet song about burning, inchoate creative longings and how little he cared for the riches and fame now cascading down around them all. It is a line he held with single-minded consistency in that period, regardless of how frequently (and falsely) it had been trotted out by others before him. "I will starve to get something across," he was quoted as saying a few years later, just before everything started to unravel, "I mean that. I've never settled for second best in my life. If it doesn't work, I'll give it all up."

Looking at it in the gray morning light of 2009, and taking into account his full, unfettered embrace of the avant-garde in the last two decades, this makes perfect sense. The better angels of hindsight permit us now to hear in Scott Walker's words the uncompromising intention that came to inform immense (and immensely difficult) works such as 2006's The Drift or his score for Leos Carax's Pola X (2000). But how could he have expected anyone to take him at his word in the mid-1960s?

I mean, please; don't let's be obtuse here, children. Million-selling pop music acts, despite all public ravings to the contrary, rarely sailed far from the loving shores of commerce; and on the few occasions when they did (the most noteworthy being John Lennon and Yoko Ono's traveling art kindergarten and agit-prop freak show of 1969), it looked so much like a gargantuan publicity indulgence that even the fans . . . the ones who, in better days, would buy a record of these artists mowing their lawns . . . started to feel burned. If journalists thought about it at all, they simply took it for granted that Scott Walker was another showbiz narcissist trying to con the world into thinking that he wasn't just in it to get laid like everybody else. And given the alarming frequency with which assertions of integrity in that business assume the color of marketing strategies, that kind of cynicism was more than excusable. How were they supposed to know he was serious? The very notion of someone at his end of the Pop music racket actually charting the ambitious musical course they said they aspired to, as opposed to just talking about it because it sounded good when you read it in Melody Maker, simply beggared the imagination.

So this is what Scott Walker was up against as The Walker Brothers disbanded and his solo career beckoned. There was no way around it; not then. He could have taken out full-page ads in every trade magazine and newspaper in Britain, reading "I'm not kidding!" and it would have availed him nothing. If the music hadn't been so singular, had it not stood just at the line of departure to the undiscovered plain it eventually arrived at after a quarter century's halting journey, I daresay he might only have succeeded in becoming a laughing stock; a punchline; a totem of lofty pretense the whole wide world could have some fun with.

But the music was singular; extraordinarily so. Three LPs in less than two years; each a clear advance over what had come before, each a Top Ten conquest on the album charts of the day. The approach was similar to that of his BBC television series, but while its presentation there came off as wildly inconstant, almost schizophrenic, on record the elements were virtually seamless. For those who harbored even marginal illusions about so-called Easy Listening music, it was impossible to tell if the more traditional offerings on these albums . . . songs by Bacharach & David, Andre & Dory Previn, Henry Mancini and others . . . were meant to establish a context for his original compositions, or if Walker's songs instead were a primordium that enabled the listener to hear the rest with an ear tuned magically anew. This was forward momentum writ large and arranged for orchestra; a speculative Before & After portrait of Easy Listening itself: where it was, and where it could possibly go. For the truly remarkable thing about Scott Walker . . . the achievement with implications few if any have come to terms with . . . is not that he made the trip, turbulent as it was, from MOR crooner to avant-garde chanteur, but that he made it as if there had never been any meaningful distance between the two in the first place.

Beginning now, and for the next two installments of this series, If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger . . . will be bringing you the full audio portion of Scott Walker's short-lived BBC program, beginning with the two pilot broadcasts from 1968. The first program, transmitted on the 16th of August, features performances by former Count Basie vocalist, O.C. Smith and then-rising UK songbird Kiki Dee. The second (from December 30) has Salena Jones and Blossom Dearie stopping by to show everyone how it's done . . . in case anyone was wondering. Walker handles the vocal duties for the balance of both programs. The quality of these recordings is not what anyone would call optimal, but it is highly listenable, despite the occasional, seconds-long blemish or two. As always, we hope you enjoy it.

19 comments :

Lee Hill said...

This is brilliant. Cheers, Lee

J.M. said...

"This particular song deals with a sadomasochistic love affair."

Thanks so much for posting this! Wonderful, & I greatly look forward to the future installments.

Tim Lucas said...

WOW! Bless you!

Tim Lucas said...

I just wanted to add, Tom, that you wrote brilliantly about him. For the first few paragraphs I thought you were going to give him a rough once-over, but your piece is very clear-eyed, rational and appreciative. To me, THE DRIFT is one of those albums like METAL MACHINE MUSIC: it's not easy listening, but closer to a mountain plopped down in the middle of modern music that demands to be scaled at least once or twice in a serious music listener's life. Moreso than MMM, which is not conspicuously composed, THE DRIFT commands respect if not clear comprehension. And it doesn't get any better than "Montegue Terrace (In Blue)" or "It's Raining Today" or "The Angels of Ashes."

Richard Gibson said...

I am looking forward to this series and will listen when I get some free time, hopefully soon.

So was the Scott solo stuff big in America? I do know that both 'Scott 1' and 'Scott 2' reached number one in the album charts here. 'Scott 3' as everyone knows didn't sell so well and famously Scott 4 was deleted and the hardest to find in record format.

The reason I ask about the solo stuff is one of the easier records to find, from my record collecting days was the record from the TV series:

http://www.discogs.com/release/1208081

I have a copy, it’s not in such great shape but the cover and the image inside has the key from the monastery, as I found out through watching ’30 Century Man’ on a chain around his neck – you can just about make it out in the picture on the link above. I haven’t listened to it very often at all. I have dug it out and will give it a spin sometime soon.
When Scott curated the Meltdown Festival here in London a few years ago, I went to quite a few of the shows. One of which was the German star Hannah Schygulla, most famous for her association with Fassbinder. Anyway, after the show as I was leaving, I caught a glimpse of the man himself, quietly tucked away in a corner of the Queen Elizabeth hall, I presumed he had watched the show as he chose all of the artists. For me as a fan and knowing that he is famously reclusive it was enough to see him in the flesh, even from something of a distance, for a while all that was known was that he lived in West London and had been seen briefly in a television advertisement for ‘Britvic ‘55’. Apologies if I have posted any of this before.


Tim: I agree about 'The Drift', when it came out, I dug out 'Tilt' which I couldn't get into at the time at all. It made a lot more sense and was more accesible to me later.

WEISSMAN said...

Right on, great posting and thank you very much.

Tom Sutpen said...

Lee:

Thank you, sir. 'Tis a valued compliment indeed from your quarter.

JM:

The beauty of this series (at least for me) is that it's only four installments; unlike 'Hitchcock/Truffaut' which was . . . too many.

Tim:

Thanks very much, Tim. I have this strange quirk that causes me adopt a sardonic, almost mocking tone when writing about artists I admire (perhaps it's meant to stay my hand from engaging in full-blown rapture, who knows). In the case of Scott Walker . . . whose music I've become obsessed with over the last year or more since hearing The Drift for the first time . . . it probably came off even more so since his roots (some of them) can be found in the most cynical, meretricious tidepools of show business (I mean, there's nothing more cynical on this planet than the Teen Idol racket).

Richard:

A few of the Walker Brothers singles had success over here (particularly 'The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Any More'), but Walker's solo recordings had zero chart presence. In fact, I can't say for certain if they were even released in the US, let alone whether anyone bought them.

My understanding is that the first three albums made it into the UK Top Ten, while the fourth and fifth ('Scott 4' and the very strange 'Til the Band Comes In') didn't chart at all . . . as if every copy had gone right from the pressing plant to a diving bell at the bottom of the Thames. Legend has it that this is what stalled his creative advance for about eight years or more, but I don't believe it. I mean, I'm certain it was a factor in how UK record companies viewed him thereafter, but the idea that this, on its own, was enough to halt his songwriting entirely? There had to be more, much more to it than that; and I doubt if we'll ever know the story in full. He's not about to start telling it, after all.

I don't think you ever posted that Meltdown Festival account before . . . he was doing ads? . . . though I think you'd told me previously that you'd spotted him in the audience at a Brian Wilson concert; perhaps that was this. Good thing you didn't approach him, since I get the sense he handles encounters with fans less than well (post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from the Walker Brothers days no doubt).

Richard Gibson said...

The IMDB entry lists just that one commercial around 1987. I haven't seen it but at around 1990, when I guess the CD's of 'Scott 1' etc were first reissued here that was the last anyone had ever seen of him, at least that was the rumour. I don't think there were any press interviews at that time, although a small number of interviews were given when 'Tilt' was released the one I recall was from Wire magazine.

I like his philsophy, which I think is touched on in '30 Century Man', that he'll only do an interview if he has something to say.

Apologies Tom, I think I may have confused you, I didn't see Scott Walker at the Wilson concert (Pet Sounds: Wilson plus The Wondermints) but both were at the Southbank Centre. The Pet Sounds concert wasn't part of a Meltdown. A quick check on Wikipedia says Walker curated Meltdown in 2000, the line up was pretty decent.

Steven Augustine said...

Marvellous

swac said...

Great piece, I love reading about Walker. I first remember hearing him around the time Climate of Hunter came out, and a friend of mine who ran a record store went on a big Walker listening binge and let me make a mixtape of highlights of his vinyl copies of 1-4. Still have it somewhere.

I had no idea how big the Walkers were until I got to thumb through some music mags of the era, and they are featured prominently throughout. I don't believe those Philips albums came out in North America either; every vinyl copy I've seen has been an import from the UK or elsewhere.

swac said...

Also, I think The Drift sounds best around 4 a.m. I certainly can't listen to it while the sun's still up.

William said...

First, thanks for this great examination of my favorite singer (and one of my favorite composers).

The first three Scott solo LPs were indeed released in the United States. Scott 3 had a slightly different track listing with "Lights of Cincinatti" replacing "30th Century Man" as I recall. The cover of the US Scott 1 was similar to the UK cover. The Scott 2 and 3 US covers were very different from their UK counterparts.

Of course, the first three Walker Brothers LPs were released in the US but as two LPs and with very different track listings (obviously missing lots of songs). One US LP song, Wilson Pickett's "Don't Fight It", was never released in the UK --- not even on the "Everything Under The Sun" compilation.

JRSM said...

Wow: as I was reading I was thinking "If I ask in the comments will they be able to direct me to the programmes?" and then, there were LINKS! Huzzah! Thank you so much!

tiny banquet committee said...

A [third?] WOW and effusive thanks for this! The first I ever recall hearing of Scott Walker was late at night, listening to a repeat of a WNYC program in 2003. (Spinning on Air; http://www.wnyc.org/shows/spinning/episodes/2003/03/07). I was fascinated and wrote his name down on a scrap of paper but, partly because of the timing, the whole experience felt like a dream, and I didn't get around to properly checking him out for months. I've since developed a healthy obsession, but have never heard these BBC programs.

caffeine head said...

Excellent commentary on Scott Walker, but surprising that neither TS' initial entry nor any comments reference Walker's amazingly resonant, expressive baritone voice. As they say, this is a guy who could sing the phone book and make it sound good. Early Walker Bros. hits rival/surpass best of Spector/Righteous Bros. sound and vibe.

Tom Sutpen said...

caffeine head:

This will sound like a cheezy dodge on my part, but I give you my word as a gentleman that it's righteous:

I wrote a few lines about Walker's voice, mainly comparing the voice on these recordings to the slightly over-mannered kid tenor of his late-50s HiFi/Orbit records, when I recalled something he said in Kijak's doco about how he'd deliberately and systematically stripped his voice of inflection over the last few decades. It got me to thinking about the trajectory of that voice over the last 50 years (yes, he's been at it that long) and his deployment of certain vocal influences (in particular that of Jack Jones).

Other words, I realized I had the substance of another set of introductory remarks on my hands. It will probably be the third or fourth entry, however, as the next entails some thoughts on the absolute darkness of Walker's sensibility and the practical function of Jacques Brel songs in his work during the late 1960s

Tom Sutpen said...

Oh, and thank you William, tiny banquet committee, JRSM and caffeine head for the kind words re: the Introduction.

dirtyblowflies said...

Brilliant! I love it when people write with real perspective on the artists they love; rather than just writing gushy nonsense about how wonderful said artist is.

It's funny to think that he's embarrassed by his teen idol past, I wouldn't have thought he would care. (though listening to samples of some of those songs online I can see WHY he was/is embarrassed by it...)

I have to ask, where is the next installment, though?

Ryan Sarnowski said...

Confession: Until I recently, I knew nothing of Scott Walker, the artist. I learned of him just last year only because of his sharing of a name with Scott Walker, the politician. Perhaps, it is my desire to hear nothing of the latter that has prevented me from learning of the former.

Your great article convinced me that I need to seek out Scott Walker the musician and be ignorant no more. Thanks for posting this and I look forward to the rest.