This week, Scott Walker released his latest studio album, Soused, a predictably unpredictable collaboration with drone-metal band Sunn O))). To mark the occasion, we’re reviewing the musical iconoclast’s complete discography in this two-part Back Tracks series originally presented in June 2010 and freshly updated!
The music business is famous for hyperbole, but it’s no exaggeration to say that few have had a career anything like that of Scott Walker. An American who skyrocketed to fame on British shores in the heady time that was the mid-1960s, Walker (born Noel Scott Engel in 1943) turned his back on the world of a pop idol. He became one of the first major performers to embrace and champion the dark musical melodramas of Jacques Brel but that, too, didn’t last long. After some largely-undistinguished albums recorded during his self-described “lost years” and a period of relative seclusion, Walker emerged, creating provocative soundscapes that dispensed with any traditional notions of melody or songwriting. Whatever other labels may be used to describe him, Scott Walker remains an artist true to himself. Back Tracks takes a look at the solo recordings of one of music’s true eccentrics, just one click away.
Scott (Philips, 1967 – reissued Mercury/Fontana, 2000)
Between 1965 and 1967, The Walker Brothers (none brothers, nor born Walker!) released three LPs, 10 singles and two EPs in the United Kingdom. By 1967, Scott, John and Gary Walker had grown restless, expatriate Americans in Swinging London. Their indelible recordings often reinvented American songs with a Wall of Sound to make Phil Spector envious, and inevitably out front with his booming, emotive croon was Scott Walker. On such tracks as Bacharach and David’s “Make It Easy on Yourself,” Randy Newman’s “I Don’t Want to Hear It Anymore,” Leiber and Stoller’s “Where’s the Girl” and most successfully, Gaudio and Crewe’s pulsating “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,” Scott and the Walkers made these songs uniquely their own. But the writing bug had bitten Scott, who from the very beginning had penned songs for the Walker Brothers, including their very first B-side, “Doin’ the Jerk.” By 1967 his style had matured far beyond dance numbers and he was ready to make his solo debut (not counting a number of flop American singles cut as a teenager and bearing no relationship to his later work or voice).
The major influence on his songwriting was Belgian composer/lyricist/singer/actor Jacques Brel. When many of his contemporaries were writing about war, peace, the Summer of Love, or heightened consciousness, Brel’s songs – with English lyrics provided by Doc Pomus’ old partner, Mort Shuman – were tackling taboo subjects like whores, opium dens, homosexuality, abuse and venereal disease, not to mention one’s own mortality. Scott would offer something for everybody, comprising three Brel songs, three by Walker himself (credited by his birth name of Engel) and a grab bag of interpretations. These ranged from “Angelica” by Brill Building stalwarts Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil to MOR standards like “When Joanna Loved Me” (popularized by Tony Bennett) and even Andre and Dory Previn’s big showbiz belter, “You’re Gonna Hear from Me.” Current folk trends were even acknowledged via a cover of Tim Hardin’s “The Lady Came from Baltimore.” Clearly, the multifaceted Walker was out to show his versatility. Famed arrangers Wally Stott, Peter Knight and Reg Guest all contributed to Walker’s debut which he called “my obsession” in the original liner notes. Clearly, the obsession paid off with this richly rewarding, beautiful and truly elegiac album. He had perfected a style of employing his expressive, deep voice (which could have given any of the era’s top crooners a run for their money) to bring to life a most unusual array of songs, most outfitted with big orchestral arrangements which still sound timeless today. Only Walker could give voice to the lost souls of his own “Montague Terrace in Blue” (a story-song similar in tone to Brel’s, but with Walker’s abstract, impressionistic lyrics) or those of Brel’s “Mathilde,” described by Walker as a “sadomasochistic love song.” Drawing on all of his disparate influences yet creating one cohesive album, Walker saw Scott reach No. 3 on the U.K. album chart.
Scott 2 (Philips, 1968 – reissued Mercury/Fontana, 2000)
Like Scott, Scott 2 opened with another Brel composition, this time the stunning “Jackie,” telling of “authentic queers and phony virgins.” This swaggering, cocksure tune described the singer’s wish of running opium dens and whorehouses, hoping he would be “cute, cute, in a stupid ass way.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, “Jackie” stalled on the U.K. singles chart at No. 22 but it epitomized Brel’s frequent style of marrying a jaunty melody to an ironic, even unpleasant, story. The rest of Scott 2 also included Brel & Shuman’s abrasive “Next” and darkly comedic “The Girls and the Dogs.” As with the first album, a number of other songwriters’ work rounded out the set. A strikingly sad reading of Bacharach and David’s gentle protest song “The Windows of the World” is easily one of the song’s strongest renditions, while Walker imbues Henry Mancini’s film theme “Wait Until Dark” with conviction. Four of Walker’s own compositions were among his finest, including the six-minute opus “Plastic Palace People.” Ostensibly it tells of a child wishing to fly through the skies on a balloon, but its bizarre lyrics defy description, and they’re set to a hauntingly atmospheric melody and expansive orchestration. Bolstered by the success of the non-LP single “Joanna” (written by Tony Hatch and Jackie Trent with contributions by Scott), Scott 2 reached No. 1 on the British LP chart. The mercurial Walker would later dismiss the album as “lazy” and “self-indulgent,” but if it’s not overall as unified as Scott, it still retains a great deal of power. As for “Joanna,” it remains a singular entry in the Walker catalog. While it’s unabashedly commercial pop, Hatch’s beguiling melody and Trent’s longing lyric find full expression in Walker’s gorgeous reading. One suspects the singer had a bit of a soft spot for the romantic ballad and for the couple he described on television as his “very good friends,” the hit-making composer/lyricist team of Hatch and Trent.
Scott 3 (Philips, 1969 – reissued Mercury/Fontana, 2000)
Walker and producer John Franz (known for his similarly big productions for Dusty Springfield and others) tweaked the formula for Scott 3. Gone were the Mancini and Bacharach songs, however great they were. Scott 3 is the album where Walker came into his own, containing 10 of his original songs with 3 Brel songs tacked onto the end of the song cycle almost as “insurance.” Walker’s compositions were his most wide-ranging to date. “It’s Raining Today” was more poetry set to music, a reflective, melodic journey through a sorrowful past. The Brel influence was most clear in songs like “Big Louise,” about an over-the-hill transvestite or “Rosemary,” about a woman trapped in her own existence. But rather than just aping Brel, Walker had found his own voice. He used his theatrical croon to great effect on these movies in miniature, creating stories and conjuring feelings that lingered, growing in effect with each listen. The Brel songs, though typically incisive, felt tacked on. The almost-gentle “Sons Of,” the malevolent “Funeral Tango” and the oft-recorded “If You Go Away,” with lyrics by Rod McKuen rather than Mort Shuman, were all worthwhile but superfluous. Scott’s own intelligent, anguished songwriting, aided by Wally Stott’s sympathetic arrangements, reached its apex here, and it was rewarded with a U.K. No. 3 chart placing.
Scott Walker Sings Songs from His TV Series (Philips, 1969 – currently unavailable)
Two steps forward, one step back. In March and April 1969, Scott Walker starred in a series of six short (25-minute) television programs for the BBC. While footage from the series is lost to time, Walker preserved a number of the songs he sang on this LP. While Scott used the TV series to promote both Brel and his own songs (singing seven self-written gems off Scott 3), the LP oddly featured none of these songs, instead drawing on Broadway theatre music and standards plus the odd bossa nova (“Someone to Light Up My Life”) and Bacharach tune (“The Look of Love”). True to form, Scott sounds convincing on Jerry Herman’s “If She Walked Into My Life” (from Mame) and even the recorded-to-death “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha (which Brel actually performed as the star of the musical’s French production). It’s little known that as young actor Scotty Engel, Walker actually appeared on Broadway in the musicals Plain and Fancy and Pipe Dream, and he often evinced an affinity for theatre music and standards. And if, in fact, his heart wasn’t totally in these songs, he admirably didn’t walk through them.
Walker has reportedly blocked Songs from His TV Series from a CD release; however, nine of its 12 tracks have surfaced on compilation discs. All of the tracks reveal a romantic LP perfect for cocktail listening but devoid of the adventurous spirit that actually characterized much of the TV show’s repertoire and indeed, this point in Scott Walker’s life. For reissue enthusiasts, it’s heartening news that 15 tracks exist which Walker performed on BBC television and never committed to wax. These have surfaced in trading circles, and could be released by the BBC on CD (following in the footsteps of such releases for artists like Matt Monro or Scott’s Philips stablemate, Dusty Springfield) or as part of an expanded edition of this title. The most important of these tracks is his recording of the Brel/Shuman “Alone,” which he described for the television audience as “probably my most favorite song to sing, I think. It’s about loneliness of all kinds.” “Alone” would have fit comfortably onto Scott 1, 2 or 3; perhaps it will one day see official release.
Scott 4 (Philips, 1969 – reissued Mercury/Fontana, 2000)
Walker was back on track with Scott 4, his first wholly self-composed LP. Keith Roberts joined Peter Knight and Wally Stott for arranging duties, and John Franz returned to the producer’s chair for this challenging LP originally released as by Noel Scott Engel (perhaps adversely affecting its commercial fortunes). It’s somewhat incorrect to say, though, that Scott 4’s songs were more esoteric than those on Scott 3. The tracks here actually vary from straightforward and accessible (the wistful “The World’s Strongest Man,” with an orchestral backing reminiscent of Jimmy Webb’s finest) to baroque (“Angels of Ashes” with attendant religious imagery) and even country-rock (“Get Behind Me” and “Rhymes of Goodbye,” the furthest things Walker had recorded to date from his patented style). Walker’s voice was still intact, but he was clearly exploring with different backgrounds and sounds. But with music itself changing rapidly in 1969, Scott 4 failed to chart, and it was quickly deleted from the Philips catalogue.
‘Til the Band Comes In (Philips, 1970 – reissued Water, 2008)
This LP could be thought of as Scott 5, though such a title wouldn’t have been prudent given Scott 4’s commercial failure. For this LP, Scott returned to his Walker surname and enlisted the same corps of arrangers and producer that graced his previous LPs. No fewer than 10 Walker compositions graced this LP, all co-credited to one Ady Semel, then his new manager, and one featuring vocals by another Semel client, Esther Ofarim. The end result was as sporadically brilliant as its predecessors even if today, it’s too often forgotten. “Little Things (That Keep Us Together)” is an ironically-titled song cataloguing mankind’s greatest offenses, set to a cacophonous orchestration and resigned vocal. “Thanks For Chicago, Mr. James” is first heard on the LP as its overture-cum-“Prologue” and reprised a few tracks later with a striking lyric and typically passionate, double-tracked vocal. It hints at homosexuality telling an offbeat Western tale of a “kept cowboy.” While “Joe” has a melody that is pure Jack Jones-esque MOR, no surprise given Scott’s affection for Jones’ casual style, it has the Walker twist in continuing his often-explored theme of aging and mortality with odd lyrical turns of phrase. “Jean the Machine” is a vaudeville-styled attempt at comedy that doesn’t quite come off. The Walker/Semel song cycle concludes after all of these varied directions with “The War is Over.”
But then ‘Til The Band Comes In takes a different direction, and concludes with five songs that could only be considered throwbacks. Walker takes an almost-funky approach on the Classics IV’s gentle pop song “Stormy,” quite a jolt after the drama of the previous 10 tracks. Old favorite Henry Mancini returns with “The Hills of Yesterday,” his theme to the film The Molly Maguires. Walker’s take on Michel Legrand’s “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?,” written with Alan and Marilyn Bergman, is as strong as the renditions by Streisand, Sinatra or Jones, and Walker also tackles a song popularized by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, “Reuben James.” ‘Til The Band Comes In ended its mini-lounge set with Jimmie Rodgers’ “It’s Over,” perhaps prophetically. Nobody knew then that this period of Scott Walker, Songwriter, was also over. A new Walker composition would not emerge until 1978.
In the meantime, this album disappeared without a trace, and its initial CD release followed the same route, becoming a pricey item to be sought on eBay. Thankfully it’s once more available via Water Records, with no bonus tracks but fine new liner notes by rock historian Alec Palao. There are no bonus tracks, but a future reissue could include the 1971 single comprising Michel Legrand’s “I Still See You” b/w the Walker/Semel “My Way Home.” In 2013, Universal reissued and remastered Scott 1-4 plus ‘Til the Band Comes In as Scott: The Collection 1967-1970, available on both CD and vinyl. As some of the individual CDs are out of print and the remastered sound is superb, this box is the best way to acquire these early recordings in one fell swoop.
The Moviegoer (Philips, 1972 – currently unavailable)
After a brief hiatus of a couple years, Scott Walker returned with The Moviegoer. The cover featured the artist in a cowboy hat, and the music was all drawn from the cinema. Nine of the album’s 12 selections were then-contemporary songs from films dating between 1970 and 1972, and reflect Walker’s interest not only in the Hollywood assembly line but in films of European origin. All of the songs are tastefully performed and lushly arranged, making this LP a filmic companion to Songs from His Hit TV Series. Given the Walker treatment are songs including The Godfather’s romantic “Speak Softly Love,” Dory Previn and Fred Karlin’s lovely “Come Saturday Morning” from The Sterile Cuckoo (released in the UK as Pookie) and Summer of ‘42’s Legrand/Bergman/Bergman collaboration, “The Summer Knows.” Another Legrand song was also tackled (“A Face in the Crowd” from Le Mans) plus one each by Mancini, Lalo Schifrin, John Barry and Ennio Morricone, among others. A highlight is an unexpected rendition of Neil Diamond’s “Glory Road,” as heard in the 1970 film WUSA. While The Moviegoer has never been made available on CD, all but two tracks can be found on compilations.
Any Day Now (Philips, 1973 – currently unavailable)
Walker historian Lewis Williams finds Any Day Now to be the most purely pop album in the Walker canon, and it’s hard to argue with him. The songs range from typical AM fare of the day (David Gates’ ubiquitous “If”) to less expected fare from the old guard (Paul Anka’s “Do I Love You?,” Barry Mann’s “When You Get Right Down to It” and another Don Black/John Barry movie song, “The Me I Never Knew” as introduced in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.) Most noteworthy are two beautiful songs from the pen of Jimmy Webb, “All My Love’s Laughter” and “If Ships Were Meant to Sail,” and one from Randy Newman, “Cowboy.” The Burt Bacharach songbook is again raided for the title song co-written with Bob Hilliard (and introduced by Chuck Jackson) and the A&M Records concept album Wings yielded the Michel Colombier/Paul Williams song “We Could Be Flying,” with which Walker soars. Yet Any Day Now also contains what many feel to be the nadir of his recording career, and proof that the man didn’t really care what he was recording: Caetano Veloso’s Calypso-flavored “Maria Bethania,” inexplicably sung in a Jamaican accent. Seven of the album’s 10 tracks have seen CD release, while “If,” “Ain’t No Sunshine” and of course, “Maria Bethania,” remain obscure. Only “Maria,” though, wouldn’t benefit from rediscovery; the other tracks are solid and worthy entries in the Walker-as-interpreter canon. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Any Day Now marked the end of Walker’s long tenure with Philips Records.
Stretch (CBS, 1973 – reissued BGO, 1997)
If Scott Walker’s final Philips recordings never reached the lofty heights of his four self-titled albums, they at least were all of a cloth. The same can’t be said for the two LPs resulting from Walker’s 1973 signing with CBS Records. While recorded in London, both albums reflected a seemingly-newfound interest in countrified pop, the sound of which never fit with Walker’s deep, dramatic timbre. Stretch is the more successful of the two CBS albums, flecked with Southern soul. As if to underline this connection, Walker recorded two songs also covered by Dusty Springfield for her seminal Dusty in Memphis LP: Randy Newman’s “Just One Smile” and Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “No Easy Way Down.” While neither recording challenges Dusty’s readings as definitive, Walker clearly understood both songs, having had a connection with Newman, Goffin and King as far back as the Walker Brothers days. Newman makes a return appearance on Stretch with “I’ll Be Home,” which Walker delivers in a most restrained fashion mainly to piano accompaniment only. “Where Does Brown Begin?” is an earnest Jimmy Webb ballad. Stretch was no masterpiece, simply a collection of songs recorded solidly by their singer.
We Had It All (CBS, 1974 – reissued BGO, 1997)
In 1973, outlaw country artist Waylon Jennings recorded Honky Tonk Heroes, a landmark effort in the outlaw genre marked by the songs of Texan songwriter Billy Joe Shaver. Today, one wonders who thought it would be a good idea for Scott Walker, circa 1974, to record a whopping five tracks off Honky Tonk Heroes (four Shaver originals plus one by the Fritts/Seals team). Those tracks comprise exactly one half of We Had It All, the remaining tracks a mixed bag of countrified pop covers. If you ever wanted to hear what Scott Walker singing Gordon Lightfoot would be like, We Had It All is your album, with his somewhat darker take on Lightfoot’s hit “Sundown.” Similarly, did you ever have a yen for Walker Sings Tanya Tucker? Here’s Scott doing “Delta Dawn.” The premier American country-rock supergroup, The Eagles, even contribute “Whatever Happened to Saturday Night?” Walker’s vocals are unimpeachable, and the musicianship is stellar, with Pentangle’s Terry Cox, Elton John percussionist Ray Cooper and steel guitar legend B.J. Cole all playing on the album. But the end result was just too odd to find an audience, and within one more year, Scott would find himself reteaming with John Maus and Gary Leeds for a Walker Brothers reunion…which ironically would lead him to a creative renaissance nobody saw coming, least of all John and Gary.
Tomorrow: Part 2 brings our Back Tracks exploration of the music of Scott Walker up to the present day and the release of Soused.