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.