Today we have lost a musical genius and giant, and the greatest interpreter of the songs of Jacques Brel: Scott Walker.
If you have never heard of Scott Walker then I feel I must turn you on to my all time favorite singer. His recorded works are not for everyone’s tastes. My wife can’t stand any of his music; she associates his sound with Frank Sinatra (whose work I like; especially his Capitol years) and her parent’s generation of singers. But Scott and his work are much deeper and more mysterious than that older generation of singers who just crooned many of the same classic standards without the depth those songs deserved.
OK; here’s my Scott pitch. DON’T start your listening with his recent CDs (many Scott fans find them unlistenable; I beg to differ)! Ease into his more experimental stuff by beginning chronologically with The Walker Brothers, followed by Scott’s solo work and the work of the reformed Walker Brothers. Hopefully, Scott’s Climate of the Hunter, Tilt and The Drift will then make perfect, painful, poetic sense.
You’ll either be grateful to me forever — or you’ll agree with my wife.
If you ever listen to oldies pop radio, you’ve heard his early work. While Scott never had a solo hit in the United States, he had two massive North American hits when he was with the Walker Brothers (they weren’t really brothers): “Make It Easy On Yourself” and “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore.”
Noel Scott Engel (Scott Walker’s real name) began as Eddie Fisher’s (yes, Carrie’s dad) protegé. Scott made recordings as a teen that sound like Fisher — don’t buy those! Later Scott attended my alma mater, the Chouinard Art Institute (aka CalArts; he went there years before me. I’d like to know if he attended Chouinard while Jackie DeShannon or Rick Griffin were there). Scott played bass for The Routers (they had a stomping hit with “Let’s Go!”) before hooking up with John Maus and then Gary Leeds to form the Walker Brothers.
Scott began his serious songwriting while he was with the Walkers. I highly recommend picking up either the The Walker Brothers – After the Lights Go Out or The Walker Brothers – Singles + CDs (the second one is a double CD). They both contain the big Walker Brothers hits as well as a nice selection of Scott-authored songs.
When I first heard the Walker Brothers I brushed them off as being Righteous Brothers clones. The Walkers had pretty much lifted Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” style for their hit recordings. It was a review in the Los Angeles Times, however and especially the constant urging of my best art school friend and UK Scott fanatic, Sue Foster, that made me give Scott’s work a second listen. The reviewer compared Scott not only to the Righteous Brothers’ Bill Medley, but to Arthur Brown as well. Being a big Arthur Brown nut (don’t get me started), that did the trick. I gave Scott another chance and my life was changed (much for the better) forever.
After three hit LPs with the Walker Brothers, Scott went solo. The music press thought his career was finished. “Why, it’s John Walker who’s the talented member of the group!” they chorused. How wrong they were. Scott 1 (1967) was a roaring hit in the UK and Europe. It was followed by the critically acclaimed and highly successful Scott 2 (1968) and Scott 3 (1969). The boldness of “Jackie”, Scott’s first single from Scott 2, caused the record to be banned by the BBC (the line that bothered them the most, apparently, was the one about “authentic queers and phony virgins”). Scott became acknowledged as the finest interpreter of Jacques Brel songs (all of Scott’s Brel work is contained on those three CDs) in the world (Brel himself would immediately send Scott his latest compositions before he sent them anywhere else, hoping that Scott would record them). There are a couple of MOR songs on the first two LPs but by Scott 3, nearly everything was penned by either Brel or Scott himself. I think that perhaps the saddest song I have ever heard is Scott’s interpretation of Brel’s “If You Go Away.” It is the perfect musical and ultimate lyrical encapsulation of False Hopes after the devastating and sudden demise of a relationship.
For over twelve years running (during the late 60s and throughout the 70s), Scott was voted Best Male Vocalist in the New Musical Express annual poll, consistently beating out the likes of Robert Plant, Steve Marriott, Rod Stewart, Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and, well … any of the other giant pop stars of the time.
The bravery of Scott in the pop world is unsurpassed; he went much farther than the Rolling Stones in his examination of the darker sides of life. Who else would have the guts to include this lyric on a mainstream pop album: “I swear on the wet head of my first case of gonorrhea” (from Brel’s “Next”)?
Scott’s songs have the power to instantly convey what it feels like to walk the wet cobblestones of an old European city on a bleak, misty dawn or dusk. He sings about whores, desperate lovers, the devastation of war, transvestites, Bergman, Stalin and a boy named Billy floating high in the sky with a string tied to his underwear. The pre-vocal opening to “Big Louise” exactly captures the mood aurally that I try to evoke visually in my serious paintings. Put that track on, look at a good reproduction (or, better yet, the original oil painting) of “Destiny in the Depths” (the sperm whale attacking the giant squid), and you will be emotionally transported to exactly where I would like you to be when you’re perusing my work.
“Big Louise” also has one of my favorite evocative Scott lyrics: “She’s a haunted house and her windows are broken…”
Scott released what many fans consider his masterwork (he wrote every song on the 1969 LP), Scott 4, and it tanked. Perhaps it was because he released the LP under his real name, Noel Scott Engel, which might have confused his “Scott Walker” audience. Perhaps it was because he had already released Scott 3 and Scott: Scott Walker Sings Songs From His TV Series (a disappointing collection of MOR standards) within the same year as Scott 4. Or the fans may have been put off by the two songs that feature Scott’s Ella Fitzgerald-ish scat singing. Whatever it was, the record didn’t chart and Scott was devastated.
I personally think that Scott’s first four solo CDs should be a proud component of every serious music collection. To give you an excellent sampling of those four LPs, pick up the Scott Walker – Boy Child CD on Fontana (with liner notes by Scott fan Marc Almond) or the CD with the not-too-subtle title Fire Escape in the Sky: The Godlike Genius of Scott Walker (compiled by Scott fan Julian Cope).
After the failure of Scott 4, Scott buckled under the pressure to sing more mainstream standards and did so for a few LPs (he has refused to allow some of those LPs to appear on CD).
In 1975 the Walker Brothers reformed and had a big UK & European hit with Tom Rush’s “No Regrets” (from the album of the same title). Their next LP was Lines which did not have the same success as “No Regrets”. Guessing that the hit may have been a lucky fluke, Scott convinced the group to really go for it, artistically, on their third LP, arguing that it might be their only chance to do what they really wanted to do without artistic restriction. The result, Nite Flights, was terrifying and stunning. Scott really began breaking new, unexplored artistic ground as both a singer and composer.
Going solo again, Scott continued down this path and slowly (Scott created one album about every twelve years) pushed the boundaries of expression even harder and farther. Upon hearing one of Scott’s new solo works, Brian Eno, no slouch himself when it comes to experimentation, phoned his fellow avant-gardists and said something to the effect of, “We think what we’re doing is bold and daring? HA! We haven’t even come close to what Scott has accomplished. We’re mere dabblers in comparison.”
On his 1995 CD Tilt Scott managed to convey the sounds of thousands of diseased locusts as part of the back-up to his vocals.
In 1998 Scott wrote and produced the score for the film Pola X. In 2003 Scott was awarded a prestigious award for his contributions to music from Q magazine. There had been only two previous recipients: Phil Spector and Brian Eno.
In 2000 he was selected to be the guest curator of the Meltdown Music Festival. In 2006 he was awarded the MOJO Icon Award from MOJO magazine. On his highly acclaimed 2006 CD (it was #2 on the Metacritic chart upon its release in June 2006 and still at #12 by the end of September of that year), The Drift, Scott had his drummer play one song’s rhythms on a side of raw meat. Personally, I consider Scott the most daring and experimental musical composer since Igor Stravinsky. Scott is creating powerful emotional “songs” deliberately devoid of melody, songs that are sheer expressions of mood (usually of harrowing desperation, angst or the most painful periods of loneliness). They are unnerving shouts in the darkness by a soul suffering deep anguish and pain.
There is an excellent 2006 documentary on Scott, Scott Walker: 30th Century Man, that is available on DVD and blu-ray. It is produced by David Bowie (a huge Scott fan; Bowie said his only unrealized goal in life was to work with Scott Walker). The filmmakers made outstanding choices when it came to pairing their visuals with Scott’s music.
In 2007, Scott released the instrumental CD And Who Shall Go to the Ball? And What Shall Go to the Ball? In 2011 he wrote the score for Jean Cocteau‘s 1932 play Duet For One. His last solo album was 2012’s Bisch Bosch. In 2014 he collaborated with the experiment drone metal duo Sunn O for Soused. Scott’s last recorded film scores were for The Childhood of a Leader (2015) and the Natalie Portman music pic Vox Lux (2018).
Scott’s death is a staggering loss to the music world. His music has sustained me since I first fell in love with it in 1968. I still begin every rainy day by playing “It’s Raining Today” from Scott 3. I know that I will now never have the opportunity to meet Scott, express how much his music has meant to me — and ask him about his time at my alma mater, Chouinard.
This fine sunny spring day is suddenly less fine and less sunny.