A friend of mine has been struggling to recall exactly how Scott Walker, the idol-turned-auteur, entered his life.
Two memories stand out: the first is of flicking through late night terrestrial TV. Suddenly, he’s watching footage of a man in a recording studio beating a side of raw pork with his fists. Sitting behind a mixing desk is Scott, eagerly instructing him to throw quicker punches. He demonstrates with jabs of his own.
This scene is from the much-praised biopic 30th Century Man, and shows a recording session for Scott’s 2006 album The Drift. The hard and dull thuds captured that day were used on the track Clara, named for Clara Petacci, the longtime mistress of Benito Mussolini. After the couple’s failed attempt to flee to Switzerland in 1945, Petacci was executed alongside the hated despot. Their bodies were then hung in public, where they were beaten and disfigured by crowds who had survived the twin nightmares of war, and life in fascist Italy. The sickly sound of flesh hitting flesh captures a profoundly violent episode.
My friend’s second memory is of a pub in the village of St Florence, West Wales. A hen party approaches a jukebox and chooses Make it Easy on Yourself by The Walker Brothers, the band which made a young Scott as popular as contemporaries like The Beatles. Originally penned by Burt Bacharach, it’s a story of a lover leaving him for another man. The trio’s heart-wrenching, high-drama delivery made for a UK No.1 in 1965, and was among the first in an oeuvre that would fill halls up and down the country with manic admirers.
For those who’ve yet to know him, these two snapshots of the same man may seem an obscene juxtaposition. Such was the wildly unlikely creative arc of the artist born Noel Scott Engel, who passed away this week at the age of 76: from easy-listening break-up ballads and hits like The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore, to endlessly complex and punishing compositions which explored utterly abstruse themes, suffused with a grim sense of humour.
Yet in a 2006 interview for the BBC, Scott suggested that whilst his music had become more challenging for listeners over time, the mood is similar throughout. Despite the commercial considerations of earlier releases, it’s clear that Scott was a singular force from an early stage. For those who missed him when he was with us, here are five records that trace his development.
Scott Walker Sings Jacques BrelRecorded 1967-1970, released 1981
This is technically a compilation, bringing together all nine of the Jacques Brel renditions that appeared on Scott’s first three solo albums. Brel, the beloved Belgian chanteur known for his theatrical, lyric-driven work, made a huge impact on a disillusioned Scott. The Walker Brothers had now broken up, stretched to the limit by commercial pressures and a brutal touring schedule. It was Scott’s desire to share Brel’s music more widely with a remarkable set of English-language performances that drove him back into the studio. Brel’s wordy, confessional style had a clear influence on the descriptive, free-form approach to lyricism Scott would adopt in later years.
On the opening track of his third solo effort, we get one of the strongest indicators thus far that Scott is heading into weird territory. Suspended above a fragile guitar and his mournful crooning is the faint, wavering drone of discordant strings, just loud enough to set the listener on edge. A dramatic orchestral flurry abruptly changes the tone, and serenity briefly reigns before the same drone creeps back in to the mix, like a strange guest at a wedding. It’s Raining Today is the song, and its subtle pairing of harmony and dissonance is an idea Scott returned to repeatedly in subsequent records.
Following the commercial failure of his 1970 record Till the Band Comes in, Scott entered what he described as his lost years, featuring heavy drinking, no original material and by-rote covers of movie themes to meet label obligations. This changed with the reunion of The Walker Brothers, who in 1978 recorded Nite Flights. It’s a messy record, with each member having contributed their own tracks, but it’s fascinating for Scott’s new work, which reveals a mind erupting with new ideas.
Most compelling is The Electrician, a reference to the electricity torture deployed by murderous Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. A single bass note is plucked beneath a dense wall of horror-film strings and distant wails, between which the trio deliver a sleazy three-part harmony. It gives way to an unsettling, saccharine passage before ending like it starts. Incredibly, this was chosen as the album’s single. It did not chart.
The year is 1995, and on national TV a confused-looking Jools Holland is introducing a man who he claims was some sort of popstar way back when. It’s Scott, but not that you’d know: his long pin-up boy hair is gone, and his face is obscured by a pair of sunglasses. He’d been largely off-radar for several years, and by this point, he treasured his privacy so much that the session was shot in an empty studio, with a whooping audience edited in later to make it look live. There’s no backing band. It’s just Scott, and a dry electric guitar from which he ekes out an unthinkably sparse, highly strung guitar line. His vocals are similarly high, quivering, and lyrically impenetrable. It is entirely odd.
Perhaps it was here that the world was properly introduced to the modern Scott Walker: his intentions unclear, his mere presence a mystery. “Scott Walker ladies and gentlemen,” says a bewildered Jools over the canned applause, his thoughts written on his face: “What the fuck was that?”
The track is Rosary, the closer from his 1995 album Tilt. Despite the darker soundscapes of Nite Flights and 1984’s Climate of Hunter, virtually no-one would have been prepared for what came next. It opens with Farmer in the City, a bleak and beautiful rumination on the murdered film director Pier Paolo Pasolini. Then the floor falls out from under the listener: The Cockfighter layers grinding waves of industrial percussion over Scott’s tortured cries and cautious utterances: his vocals climb and drop with seemingly no fixed point of reference. A moment of reprieve gives way to an all-is-lost blast of atonal trumpet. From there, it only gets weirder. It is thrilling, free-fall music that prompts a stirring hopelessness.
SousedWith Sunn 0))), 2014
Scott cropped up in some unusual places – weirdest of all the soundtrack for Pierce Brosnan-era Bond flick The World is Not Enough – but his excellent collaboration with drone overlords Sunn O))) made perfect sense in the context of 2012’s solo record Bisch Bosch, an intensely heavy affair. Amid the sludge-thick mix of Steve O’Malley’s glacial guitar-riffing, Scott’s voice forces open new worlds, stretched to the limit when faced with a stack of amplifiers. His fondness for unusual percussion also surfaces, with the crack of a whip punctuating Brando, and what sounds like a ghostly knocking on top of a piano as Fetish fades out. That fact there are moments on a Sunn O))) record that you can’t hear without listening closely is something we can thank Scott’s uncompromising approach for.