BITTERSWEET SYMPHONIES

Like Handel, Henry James and TS Eliot before him, Noel Scott Engel wasn’t born in these islands but found what he was looking for here. He came all the way from Ohio expecting to arrive in an England populated by Ealing eccentrics like Margaret Rutherford; and by his own admission, the nation wasn’t short of such characters once he touched down in Blighty. Scott Walker, an American-born British citizen since 1970, was one of ours. And now we’ve lost him. Blessed with a mellifluous baritone voice that has influenced singers way beyond his own generation – everyone from David Bowie to Jarvis Cocker – Scott Walker went from being the definitive 60s pop balladeer to eventually exploring uncharted sonic waters in a series of challenging albums that acted as a foundation stone for the likes of Bjork, Radiohead and numerous others too many to mention. Yet for many, he remains the voice we return to whenever our hearts need healing. We’ll get through it as long as Scott Walker is there for us.

They remain a small and select breed, and perhaps it’s no surprise that genuine musical mavericks often spend the majority of their careers in the cult shadows, largely unrecognised by a wider public that can tell a Taylor Swift from an Ariana Grande. Scott Walker was relatively unusual in that he began his journey as a proper pop star. With John Maus and Gary Leeds, he headed a trio who adopted a shared surname and relocated to where the action was in 1965 – London.

It’s perhaps easy to underestimate how exotically androgynous The Walker Brothers must have seemed in the mid-60s; even amidst the outré sartorial styles of Swinging London, they stood out; and from the distance of half-a-century, these unrelated male siblings still look strikingly cool in that uniquely effeminate male manner of the era. Unlike their contemporaries, the Walkers opted not for loud guitars, but instead salvaged the white pop ballad from the anodyne teen idols of the Brill Building production line, taking it onto an epic level of grandiosity that only Phil Spector could match at the time and laying the ground for The Bee Gees in the process. Good-looking guys coupled with sweeping symphonic standards even yer mum could whistle was a winning formula with teenyboppers alienated by the increasingly experimental edges of The Beatles, and for around eighteen months The Walker Brothers outsold all brands of sliced bread.

One of the last classic package tours of the 60s took place in early 1967, when the Walkers shared an unlikely bill with Cat Stevens, Engelbert Humperdinck…and Jimi Hendrix. Many cite this as the moment when the impending divide between pop and rock was sealed, yet it wasn’t just Hendrix who realised he was playing before the wrong audience. For Scott Walker, the deafening din of screams drowning out every live performance (combined with frustration at having to interpret the songs of others when he was penning plenty of his own) prompted the inevitable split. He released his first solo LP in the autumn of ’67, propelled high in the album charts courtesy of the sizeable fan following he could command; although still drenched in MOR trimmings, the presence of songs by Belgian chanson legend Jacques Brel pointed the way to a more ambitious sequence of albums ahead.

Scott Walker operated in a field of one on the UK music scene in the late 60s. On the surface, he was the antithesis of the prevailing culture, producing heavily-orchestrated pop immune to the period’s musical innovations and he could even boast that emblem of unthreatening acceptance, his very own BBC TV show. However, Walker’s easy-on-the-ear crooning was something of a canny Trojan horse as he sneaked far more subversive content under the noses of the light entertainment department. Yes, his galloping recital of Brel’s ‘Jackie’ landed him in hot water with the new ‘fun’ Radio 1, but his albums continued to sell despite the risqué lyrical nature of his material; when his second solo LP topped the charts in 1968, it seemed as if his fan-base was prepared to follow Walker in whichever radical direction he was willing to take them.

Virtually alone in attempting to create a contemporary, baroque incarnation of the kind of dark, introspectively melancholy pop Frank Sinatra had pioneered a decade before with albums such as ‘Only the Lonely’, Scott Walker approached the 1970s confident he had manufactured and mastered an entirely new genre. Unfortunately, what many now regard as one of his finest works – 1969’s ‘Scott 4’ – failed to chart; just as he was preparing to peak, his audience deserted him. It appeared the public only wanted a song stylist churning out Bacharach/David covers on mainstream TV variety shows after all. Perhaps reflecting his disappointment, the energy and inspiration went out of his work in the early 70s and it was only when The Walker Brothers reunited in 1975 – returning to the top ten with ‘No Regrets’ – that Scott seemed to get his mojo back.

The reunion ended with the 1978 album, ‘Nite Flights’, notable for the return of Scott as a songwriter as well as heralding the beginning of the more avant-garde, esoteric phase of his career that would define him for what remained of it. His cult credentials swelled in the early 80s, thanks to the Julian Cope-compiled album, ‘Fire Escape in the Sky: The Godlike Genius of Scott Walker’; interest in this reclusive, enigmatic character was further rekindled with his first solo album in a decade, 1984’s ‘Climate of Hunter’, but a further decade elapsed before his next effort, 1995’s ‘Tilt’. By now, Walker seemed to have found a niche (and a dedicated fan-base) for himself again, embracing minimalism and industrial sounds whilst delving into beguiling lyrical waters. He continued along this path and did so without a roadmap, releasing two more albums that became the benchmark for ‘uneasy listening’, 2006’s ‘The Drift’ and ‘Bish Bosch’ (2012).

Whatever one’s opinion of his later, critically-acclaimed efforts, one cannot but admire the curiosity of the artist in seeking to go where no man had gone before when the nostalgia circuit would have been the easy option; but remember, this a man who at the peak of his pop success in 1968 spent time in an Isle of Wight monastery studying Gregorian chant; Scott Walker rarely chose the easy option. And that’s why he’s worthy of all the imminent obituaries. Yes, the majority of these (like this) will focus on his time in the 60s spotlight, but there’s little in his recorded output from that period to be ashamed of; even if some of the material could be called substandard filler, there’s always that voice. Even when he was producing music so ‘out there’ that it made Stockhausen sound like The Archies, there was always that voice.

© The Editor