This Monday saw the release of the massively anticipated (well massively if you’re a fan) of the Scott Walker and Sunn O))) collaboration ‘Soused’. Walker’s dark, abstract lyrics have been textured with increasing ambient music for years now so the meeting with the dons of metal drone is something to be excited about. As I once told a friend Scott Walker’s music nowadays sounds like Roy Orbison meets Einsturzende Neubauten – and that’s halfway true. If you have a spare fifty minutes ‘Soused’ is well worth your time.
But for now we are going to take a look at 10 of Scott Walker (real name Noel Scott Engel) finest musical moments.
1) Montague Terrace (In Blue) (Scott, 1967)
Brief history if you’re unfamiliar with Scott Walker. He first became hugely famous as bass player and joint lead singer of The Walker Brothers along with John & Gary (they weren’t actually brothers). They achieved huge success in Britain as a crooning American trio with hits like ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore’ and ‘Make It Easy On Yourself’. In 1967 Scott Walker released his first solo album. Having become besotted with the lyrics of Belgian singer/songwriter Jacques Brel his first three album included a good chunk of covers with only a handful of original compositions. Montage Terrace (In Blue) was one of these and already showcased Walker’s strong talents as a songwriter. A spiritual sequel of sort to the Walker Brothers earlier ‘Mrs Murphy’ it tells the disjointed story of love inside Montague Terrace “the only sound to tear the night comes from the man upstairs”, “her thighs are full of tales to tell/of all the nights she’s known”. Its brash horns and exquisite strings, composed by Wally Stott bring a lushness to what is essentially a British kitchen sink version of Kurt Weill.
2) Jackie (Scott 2, 1968)
The following year Walker followed up with Scott 2. An album he said even at the time was the work of a lazy man. It mostly carried on the template of ‘Scott’ – theatrical arrangements, Brel covers and dark relationships. Whilst Walker himself may have considered it lazy the album holds many treasures such as ‘The Amorous Humphrey Plugg’ and ‘Best of Both Worlds’. It’s the album opening and perhaps his finest Brel cover that stands out though. ‘Jackie’ the tale of a drugged out degenerate telling stories of drug induced globe-trotting. The arrangement is barnstormer. Mariachi trumpets. A military like drum role. A playful orchestra. It’s also one of the few times Walker sounds like he may be singing with a smile on his face.
3) Plastic Palace People (Scott 2, 1968)
Whilst some songs on Scott 2 may be more memorable, Plastic Palace People feels like an important song in Walker’s development as a song writer. The orchestral arrangement by this point is damn-like dream like, literally swirling round and round in a hazey vortex. It’s an epic of a narrative too, the story of a boy called Billy as he floats above the world as people below call him back but voices in the sky tempt him away. At six minutes it was his longest song to date. He manages to make it feel more sprawling with several musical changes throughout. It all starts to show signs of his interest in sonically changing the sound of his voice which would become much more important later on…
4) Boy Child (Scott 4, 1969)
Released under his real name, Scott 4 was such a financial flop on it’s release Walker re-retreated into MOR hell for nearly ten years after it’s release. Now it’s widely regarded as his best album, every song on it a classic. The entire album could fill this list. So let’s look a couple specifically.
Boy Child. Maybe one of the most beautifully heart-breaking songs every written, if only for the lonely guitar that carries the song. In one regard hopeful, the other sorrowful. It’s an incredibly hard song to pin down. Of course, it’s complimented by a lush string arrangement that elevates it to something approaching ambrosia. His deep vocals feel less theatrical than his early albums, it feels more world weary and soars along with the music. The lyrics point to events that seem to be happening in the ether, between this world and another. It’s truly over-wordly “extensions through dimensions, leave you feeling cold and lame/boy child mustn’t tremble, cause he came without a name”.
5) Hero of the War (Scott 4, 1969)
In the documentary about his work ‘Scott Walker: 30th Century Man’ Walker spoke of his dislike for protest songs and being preached at by someone with a guitar. Hero of the War is the closest Walker ever got to writing a late 60s protest track. Accompanied by a lively guitar that feels one step away from a jig. A proud mother show’s her sons war medals around to all the neighbours, shows his gun to all the children in the street “it’s too bad he can’t shake hands or move his feet”. The song plays out like a horror film as an almost jubilant Walker sings about the heroic soldier who’s now home, paralysed, with no one to help out expect the single-mother before asking the question “why’d he leave his mother for a gun?”. An anti-war song as only someone like Walker could do – a domestic chiller.
6) Nite Flights (The Walker Brothers – Nite Flights, 1978)
Officially a Walker Brothers song, but the solo stamp of Scott Walker is all over this hugely influential track. After years of middling country stylings and an underwhelming reunion with John & Gary they decided to go all out and do what they liked with their last album. The resultant Nite Flights saw each member write a handful of songs each. The first 4 belonged to Scott and it really stands as an EP bringing in new the dawn of his avant-garde era. Nite Flights the song seems to take the swirling strings of Plastic Palace People, speed them up and run them through a synthesizer and took them to strange new places. The piano and bassline strike a slight Boz Scagg note but those synths couples with Scott & John’s vocals give the track a hauntingly odd quality. Apparently made after Walker had heard the work Bowie, Eno and Visconti were doing in Berlin at the time, Bowie would end up re-paying the favour by covering Nite Flights on his Black Tie, White Noise album. The lyrics make little sense narratively but they’re hard to forget “glass traps open and close on nite flights, broken necks, feather weights press the wall”. Me neither.
He made a return in the 80’s with ‘Climate of Hunter’, adorned with a cover that makes him look oddly like Gary Shandling. The music inside was the beginning of disparate rhythms and tempos coming together to create his odd odes. The bass playing and some synths unmistakably label it as the 1980s but it works as both a head nodder and dark ambience as a listen. Track one ‘Rawhide’ begins the album with the line “this is how you disappear”, a nice indicator of his subsequent decade long break from music. A lone cowbell builds and builds, with laguid bass until it crescendos in a flurry of paranoid strings. It’s the twisted tale of a buffalo herder. But by this point the lyrics are beginning to mean less narratively and more the conjuring of dark imagery “to where necks leave the air un-possessed/and giant heads lock constellations”
8) Track Three
‘Climate of Hunter’ is one of those truly great albums where you’ll be seen right by most of it’s songs. Track Three (yes most of the songs on the album don’t have titles) is perhaps the most danceable! How many Scott Walker songs can you say that about. The albums lead off single and featuring backing vocals by none other than Billy Ocean it could have been a big hit but Walker couldn’t help but make an ambiguous video filled with blood and odd imagery (check it below). Musically it wouldn’t sound too out of place on the Rocky IV soundtrack. In fact it would have been fantastic in it. “From the host of late-comers, a miracle enters the street/shining with rain, he is shaking to wash, the murder away”. Dark yes, what does it mean? Who knows but it’s provocative.
9) The Cockfigher
Returning eleven years later with Tilt, Walker had gone to stranger, darker places. It seemed like he had actually seen the abyss that Werner Herzog constantly loves looking at. The opening track, the operatic ‘Farmer in the City’ is famously one of Robert Plant’s favourite songs but it’s in track two The Cockfighter that we really hear where Walker is musically going. With more musical twists and turns than The Usual Suspect has plots twists. The music begins quietly, with the barely audible sound of scratching. So quiet you may find yourself turning up the speakers then scaring the shit out of yourself as the manic industrial drone blasts into your ears. A howling guitar solo, an orchestra more tense than anything Howard Shore could ever write and lyrics that speak to someone being tortured “that ribbon crack like this one… bring in those strutter”. The song certainly made an impression of director Leos Carax who not only used some of The Cockfighter in his film ‘Pola X’ he also brought Walker in to compose the score.
It’s brash and bold to the point of ridiculousness. Once again starting off with quiet tones before unleashing a tidal wave of church organ that instantly makes the song sound as gargantuan as a cathedral and Walker’s vocals hits the very top of the spire. More lyrics of scalpel’s and potential violence mixed with name checks of Bengal, Burmese, Kenyanese. Tilt is starts to sound like the darkest globe-trotting adventure where every new song is a new adventure involving pain. It also feels like Walker is singing to a young boy arriving in a big city as he keeps singing “here you are boy, here you are”. The evil fagan-esque character sitting high on the rooftop looking down on a degenerate world.
Really you could easily do a Best 30 of Scott Walker. Perhaps not as consistently brilliant in his career due to his 70s nadir he is without doubt one of the most intriguing music makers ever to grace popular music. His evolution from boy band pop idol to his latest project with Sunn O))) continues this miraculous transformation. Whilst not mentioned his last two albums ‘The Drift’ and ‘Bish Bosch’, whilst perhaps not as entertaining as Tilt (which is one of my personal favourites, and they are hard listens) there is much to admire. Treat his output like a TV box set. Start at the beginning. The end will be more rewarding.