Remembering Scott Walker

When the pop singer went avant garde, he traded narrative meaning for emotional truth to explore those things that lay beyond language.

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | April 2019 | 16 minutes (2,528 words)

 

Scott Walker died of cancer on March 22. The singer was 76. His lengthy career was one of influence articulated in a variety of ways: from the pure pop stardom and frontman moves of the mid-1960s to his collection of more recent solo albums communicating dark dreamscapes.

The unique arc of Walker’s career can be traced in four of his songs, which show how he first mastered the pop form, then deconstructed it. In them, you hear a man increasingly haunted, bending musical structure to his purpose.

Born Noel Scott Engel in Ohio, Walker teamed up with John Maus and Gary Leeds in a group called the Walker Brothers in the early ’60s. Modeled on the Righteous Brothers, the band relocated to England in 1965. Walker later credited the move to the Army “chasing” him (he was apparently evading the draft) and the “European imagination” he developed as a kid.

“It only got serious when I started singing with the Walker Brothers,” Walker said in a 2006 interview. “In fact, I wasn’t a lead vocal with them. John was the lead vocalist. But there was this ballad they wanted to do called “Love Her,” and so they switched it around, because they had to go with the guy with the lowest voice. So it was kind of accidental.” Scott was now the group’s lead singer, a job he took to instinctively.

The lush “Make It Easy On Yourself” went to Number 1 in the U.K. and Canada in 1965. Its follow-up, “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,” released in February 1966, cemented the Walker Brothers’ teen idol status in a time when teen idols were big business.

A clip of a mimed television performance from that year showcases Scott Walker’s frontman abilities. He’s young and handsome — prerequisites for pop stardom — but it’s his emotional distance that must have made him irresistible. “Loneliness is a cloak you wear,” Walker sings, later looking soulfully into the camera. “A deep shade of blue is always there.”

The sun ain’t gonna shine anymore

The moon ain’t gonna rise in the sky

The tears are always clouding your eyes

When you’re without love

Walker’s baritone is voluptuous, and his moves are mesmerizing. He’s dramatic without overstatement. There was a darkness to him, with his upraised, grasping hand — long before any genre had been identified that would contain it. His voice and stage presence certainly caught the attention of a young David Jones, who later changed his name to David Bowie. Bowie was struck silent for several seconds after he heard a recorded 50th birthday message from Walker in 1997. “I think he’s probably been my idol since I was a kid. That’s very moving,” Bowie told the interviewer who played it for him, before laughingly demanding a copy to take home.

By 1967, the Walker Brothers’ popularity was threatening their lives. Screaming girls routinely mobbed the group. One mob even swarmed and overturned their van. Scott had already gone AWOL in 1966, sneaking off to a monastery on the Isle of Wight for a week (according to Walker the plan was to study Gregorian chant). There were rumors of a nervous breakdown and suicide attempt. He left the group that year.

“Oh, it was amazing at first,” Walker later said of the experience, “but a little goes a long way. I was not cut out for that world. I love pop music, but I didn’t have the temperament for fame.”

Given carte blanche to establish his solo career, Walker began releasing a series of bold albums, all titled Scott. Around this time he discovered the theatrical Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel.

“Seeing a German girl at the time, she was a friend,” Walker said in 1995, “and she had a habit of drinking quite a lot of Pernod. But she kept this Pernod under the bed — I remember all this ― and she would play Brel records into the night. And I just loved them.”

Walker heard English translations of Brel songs through Andrew Loog Oldham, who was then the manager of the Rolling Stones. “And I said, ‘That’s great. Can I do them? Is that possible?’” Walker asked him.

“Sure,” Oldham replied. “I don’t see why not. Nobody else is doing them.”

Watching Brel’s sweaty cabaret performance of his “La Chanson de Jacky” doesn’t immediately make one think of pop star material, but Walker was undaunted. His version of “Jackie” opened 1968’s album Scott 2. An absolute musical and lyrical salvo, the recording is upsetting and brilliant.

And if I joined the social whirl, became procurer of young girls,” Walker sings brightly, “Then I would have my own bordellos.”

My record would be number one

And I’d sell records by the ton

All sung by many other fellows

My name would then be handsome Jack

And I’d sell boats of opium

Whiskey that came from Twickenham

Authentic queers and phony virgins

“If I could be, for only an hour,” Walker opines, in what might be, in my opinion, the greatest chorus ever written, “if I could be for an hour every day, if I could be — for one little hour — cute, cute in a stupid-ass way.”

Even now it’s hard to know what to make of this song. The melodramatic arrangement, all swooping strings and staccato horns, wouldn’t have been out of place in a big-budget American network television special of the time. But the lyric still outrages middle-of-the-road sensibilities. In the televised performance, Walker — not content to dress down in jeans and Henley shirts like the Beatles or the Band during that period — provides a kind of sign language accompaniment with his hands while he sings. He’s a semiotic savant. There was no one else like him.

Walker continued composing his own material, usually intense character studies and dark commentary. His easy listening audience started to lose the plot.


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“I wanted to ask about a record you made … ‘Plastic Palace People,’” a fan once asked Walker about another song from Scott 2. “Do you remember that?”

“What did you want to know about it?” Walker asked somewhat testily.

“Well, I wanted to know what the words meant because I didn’t like them,” she replied with a nervous laugh. “It unnerved me.”

“I can see why it unnerved you,” Walker told her. “It unnerved me at the time writing it.”

Released in November 1969, Scott 4 was comprised solely of original material. The album was credited to Noel Scott Engel. It flopped. Soon after, Walker began issuing a series of bland cover albums to keep the proverbial lights on, including one consisting solely of movie theme songs originally performed by other people. He never recorded under his given name again.

“I hated myself so much for all the years of bad faith,” Walker told The Guardian in 2006. “I still do. I’m very wary of it. It bothers me that I wasted all that time, you know? I was making records to pay off bills. I’d bought a big flat and all this kind of stuff. I get so annoyed, because I should have figured out another way, but I was just very vulnerable after the fourth album.”

Walker’s management suggested a Walker Brothers reunion as a return to form, and hopefully, to renewed success. At first it seemed to pay off. 1976’s “No Regrets” updated the band’s sound and charted. But the years of bad faith caught up, and before the third reunion album, 1978’s Nite Flights, Scott “snapped:” That is to say, the real Scott Walker emerged, artistically radicalized and turned inward. The four songs he contributed to Nite Flights are challenging in the best way, and drive a stake into the heart of his pop idol former self. None is as emblematic as “The Electrician.”

Baby it’s slow

When lights go low

There’s no help, no

He’s drilling through the Spiritus Sanctus tonight

Through the dark hip falls

Screaming, “Oh, you mambos

Kill me and kill me and kill me”

If I jerk the handle

You’ll die in your dreams

If I jerk the handle, jerk the handle

You’ll thrill me and thrill me and thrill me

Listening to this song is not just total immersion. It’s an undertow. The arrangement, the lyric, and the vocal performance carry you irresistibly into the dark heart of the song. From the ominous opening twang of the bass guitar to the gorgeous cascading string section (featuring a Spanish-style guitar, no less!), it’s a vivid meditation on — what? — state-sponsored torture and redemption? Violence and ecstacy? I’ve listened to the song hundreds of times and have no idea. The first time I encountered it, my friend put it on in a darkened room and said confidently, “This is about the CIA.”

I can say one thing with some assuredness: Listen to the way Walker sings the word “he’s” after the drum fill, going into the orchestrated section. It’s not so much a note as an expression of horror; a vocalization made by a gifted singer. This is the sound of the Scott Walker to come, not the one that got him here.

Remarkably, “The Electrician” was issued as the A-side of the last Walker Brothers’ single. It failed to chart. Walker withdrew for six years. “I began imbibing,” he remembered, “and just went into the abyss.” Still, he had created the template for the rest of his career. Not only had he caught up artistically with David Bowie — then in the middle of his extraordinary Berlin period — but Walker caught up in one stride, proving every bit the risk-taker.

“We haven’t got any further than this,” musician and producer Brian Eno noted 30 years later about Walker’s experimental work on Nite Flights. “It’s a disgrace.”

Walker’s subsequent solo albums, each suffused with brilliance, came more slowly: Climate of Hunter was released in 1984. Tilt came next in 1995.

“A lot of what I do is waiting,” Walker said in 2008. ”I begin always with the lyrics and they seem to take some considerable time. They have become more angular of late and now come in blocks of words. It’s just a different way of writing. When I see the page and the lyrics, I see soldiers in a field. There’s a lot of white space which represents me in a sense. It’s an abstract way of putting it, but I see it that way visually.”

Walker was restructuring the pop form. His voice, once confident, was now tremulous. To paraphrase Nietzsche, if Walker went into the abyss, then the abyss went into him. From Tilt forward, hummable melodies are largely discarded; his voice seems to be used more for conjuring instead of singing. Consequently, the music becomes spare and dissonant. This is a man making you come into his own aural environment rather than coming out to complement yours. His goal is to express, not impress.

“I have a very nightmarish imagination,” Walker once said. “I’ve had bad dreams all my life. Everything in my life is big, it’s out of proportion.” It’s reminiscent of Alice Cooper’s “Welcome to My Nightmare,” except Scott Walker means it. He’s harrowing.

The world on Tilt offers many points of access, but “Face On Breast” is perhaps the most definitive.

Swan

You glide above the thrashing

Release the catches

Strain your wings behind your back

Paint his eyes

It’ll never lick those eyes

Smear the mouth

All across the thready sky

Then Walker makes two oddly juxtaposed pop culture references. First he recalls the famous scene with Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in Howard Hawks’s 1944 movie To Have and Have Not. “You don’t have to act with me, Steve,” Bacall’s character says in a way that somehow combines agency and submission. “You don’t have to say anything and you don’t have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.”

“Face On Breast” starts with a whistle — a short, solitary note, sounding almost like a mistake. “I tried to show ya. Ya didn’t want to go,” Walker sings over a headachy drone and insistent kick drum.

Ya know how to whistle

Put ya lips together and blow

That’s what it said

That’s what it said

What it said

Walker then immediately quotes the ill-fated early R&B star Johnny Ace’s biggest hit “Pledging My Love.” Ace shot himself to death, apparently unintentionally, backstage between sets at a Christmas Eve show in 1954. “Pledging My Love” was released posthumously. Famed for his ballads, to my ears Ace always sings from an absolute emotional remove. His tempos are funereal, the performances clunky. The lyrical repetition of “always” and “forever” in “Pledging My Love” quickly becomes more forbidding than romantic: These are not concepts that apply to the living.

Walker was almost 12 when Johnny Ace died. Two years later he recorded his first single as Scotty Engel. “Pledging my love, pledging my love. What if I’m only pledging my love?” he sings 40 years later in “Face On Breast.”

I would like to tell you what I think this all means, but that is not possible. Walker is relating a jumble of impressions. Flotsam of memory, art, and identity float down his stream of consciousness and pool at your feet. He’s traded narrative meaning for emotional truth. You may not understand him, but the feelings being communicated are unmistakable.

“I like the way he can paint a picture with what he says,” David Bowie once said about Walker. “I had no idea what he was singing about. And I didn’t care.”

When asked to summarize his artistic sensibility in 2008, the normally reticent Walker responded with this: “Essentially, I’m really trying to find a way to talk about the things that cannot be spoken of. I cannot fake that or take short cuts. There is an absurdity there, too, of course, and I hope that people pick up on that. Without the humor, it would just be heavy and boring. I hope people get that. If you’re not connecting with the absurdity, you shouldn’t be there.”

In life, as in art, it’s hard to be true to yourself. It’s hard to commit to your possibly unpopular essence in lieu of what others think you should do. As a musician, I admire Scott Walker for doing this. He is one of the few of us to plumb the depths of his potential. After all, he moved from the comforts of material success to the instability of the avant garde; he declined the cakewalk of covering other people’s radio-ready songs to start navigating the dark topography of his own imagination; and he turned one of the most sonorous voices of recorded pop history to his purpose: an expression of undisguised emotional truth, unbounded even by melody and pitch.

“Like everyone else,” Walker said at the close of his birthday wish to David Bowie, “I’d like to thank you for all the years, and especially for your generosity of spirit…So have a wonderful birthday — and by the way, mine’s the day after yours, so I’ll have a drink to you, on the other side of midnight.”

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Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath; Fact-checker: Ethan Chiel