Scott Walker’s early solo career in the late 1960s makes for an interesting story. It is rare in the history of popular music to find an artist at the peak of his career but in a mental artistic place so remote than that of his fans. The Beatles in 1966 come to mind, reading the Tibetean Book of the Dead, frequenting modern art galleries and avant-garde shows, getting high on LSD, writing psychedelic music and experimenting with sound in the studio, while most of their fans are still in Beatlemania mode. The four solo albums Walker released between 1967 and 1969 were a manifest of an artist progressively pulling away from what was expected of him by his record label and fans, remaining true to his art, and consequently losing his popularity. This is the story of the remarkable music Scott Walker created during those years.
I will skip Scott Walker’s years with the Walker Brothers, a band where none was related to each other nor a Walker at birth. The tale has been told extensively elsewhere, of their formation in Los Angeles, their move to London in 1965 and their success on the charts over the next two years. But since we are discussing Scott Walker’s solo period immediately following the Walker Brothers, it is important to remember that he wrote a good number of songs for the band while he was part of it. Between 1965 and 1967 the trio released three albums and a host of singles. Spread across them are twelve songs written by Scott Walker. In a way this collection could form a ‘Scott 0’ album.
Of these songs one stands out as an indicator to the music Scott Walker will create on his solo albums. Archangel, released in 1966 as a B-Side to the single Deadlier than the Male, starts with a fugue-like organ introduction, and the dramatic arrangement and classical music influences will become very significant on his albums. Scott’s interest in classical music started after finding shelter from screaming teenage fans of the opposite sex in a small record store: “This guy behind the counter closed the store up and kept me safe until some help arrived. He knew everything about classical music and he introduced me to it. I introduced him to jazz, so it was a trade-off, and I just became an addict from then on”. Arranger Reg Guest: “That was fabulous. It’s well over the top. I think Scott was into Sibelius, he was always quoting symphonies to me: ‘I want it like Sibelius’ Seventh symphony.’ We used the organ in the Leicester Square Odeon. I remember writing strings, brass section, and giving it a thumping huge beat.”
The hectic life that comes with being a star did not agree with Scott Walker: “It was fun for the first six months, and within a year it becomes a drag. They would just run us into the ground – just getting you from one gig to another, flying all over the place – you didn’t know if it was day or night, and your money wasn’t coming in regularly. It was a nightmare.” The Walker Brothers were a huge success in the mid-1960s, approaching Beatles-like fame. Scott Walker was a handsome young man, the subject of adulation by thousands of teen girls. By 1967 the quiet and sometime recluse singer wanted out: “Oh, it was amazing at first, but a little goes a long way. I was not cut out for that world. I love pop music, but I didn’t have the temperament for fame.” After the release of their last 1960s album Images, Scott started to work on material for his first solo album. The band continued to fulfill their live schedule obligations well into the end of the year and the beginning of 1968, but Scott was deep into pursuing other musical interests.
These interests included beat poetry, existentialism, literature and European cinema, all of which influenced the material that would end up on his solo albums: “It started when I was a drop-out from high school in California and read Sartre, who I don’t care for much now, but back then he had a huge impact on my way of thinking about the world. And Kafka, of course. Those writers were my main sources alongside the European films I saw in the Sixties in an art cinema on Wilshire Boulevard, Bergman and Kurosawa and the like.” But none of these influences had as strong an impact on his early solo career as the music and lyrics of Jacques Brel.
By the time Scott Walker started recording Jacques Brel’s songs, the Belgian singer had retired from the concert stage and began focusing on films. In the previous fifteen year he wrote and performed songs that stirred European audiences with dramatic melodies, reciting poem-like lyrics in a theatrical performance. These songs started to capture the attention of listeners outside of the Continent. Walker recalled the moment he first heard Brel’s music: “I had been dating a German girl from the Playboy Club who played Brel and kept a bottle of Pernod under her bed. She used to play Brel records, and cos she spoke French, she’d translated them. I thought, ‘This is incredible!’ and bought the lot immediately.” Soon after he learned from Andrew Loog Oldham, The Rolling Stones’ Manager and owner of the Immediate Records label, that Mort Shuman translated Brel’s songs to English. Who is Mort Shuman, you ask? Shuman was a songwriter, among other things, and his claim to fame was his collaboration with lyricist Doc Pomus, with whom he wrote many hits such as ‘Save The Last Dance For Me’, ‘Little Sister’ and ‘Can’t Get Used to Losing You’. The translations Walker learned about were part of a project that would culminate in the 1968 staging of the play Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. Shuman’s translations rank among the best in a long series of English adaptations that were made over the years to Brel’s songs. The themes of death, loneliness, despair and isolation matched Scott Walker’s frame of mind, and no less than nine performances of Brel’s songs found their way into Walker’s solo albums.
Highlights of these songs include Jackie, released in advance of the second solo album and banned by the BBC for its use of lyrics like “authentic queers and phony virgins”. Also notable is My Death (La Mort in French). Mort (what a coincidence) Shuman translated it beautifully, keeping the dark theme in tact without trying to dilute it for English-speaking audiences. Perhaps the best known of them is Amsterdam, a song about sailors on shore leave in the port of Amsterdam. The lyrics are rich with vivid imagery:
In the port of Amsterdam
Where the sailors all meet
There’s a sailor who eats
Only fishheads and tails
He will show you his teeth
That have rotted too soon
That can swallow the moon
That can haul up the sails
And he yells to the cook
With his arms open wide
Bring me more fish
Put it down by my side
Then he wants so to belch
But he’s too full to try
So he gets up and laughs
And he zips up his fly
Scott Walker said of his versions of Brel’s songs: “Brel was the reflection of the ties I was going through – all sorts of dark images. His own interpretations of his songs, in many ways, were very different from mine. I certainly did not want to copy him.” This is a great example of his unique interpretation of this well-covered song, one that inspired David Bowie to cover the song a few years later.
Scott Walker’s first solo album was released in September of 1967. It was recorded during the summer of love, but bears no resemblance to that period. His interests were elsewhere: “I saw that you didn’t have to write flower power songs, which I didn’t want to do, cos I hated that period. I didn’t like hippies.” The sleeve notes for the album, simply titled Scott, were written by Keith Altham and they open with a flattering yet quite true description of the music: “This is the album which Scott called ‘my obsession’, and it is an LP for which you must open not only your ears but also your heart and your mind. There is great honesty of purpose in the selection of these songs by Scott for his first solo showcase, and the result is a fine example or original expression and unique interpretation.” The album includes a quote, a habit that became a tradition in Scott Walker’s solo albums. This one closes the poem Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats:
Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all.
This is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
The crown jewel of Scott Walker’s first solo album is Montague Terrace (in Blue). He commented that this song was about two friends of his, a married couple who lived in a small room about the size of a shoebox, who can still dream. The song deals with their illusions of living in Montague Terrace.
The girl across the hall makes love
Her thoughts lay cold like shattered stone
Her thighs are full of tales to tell
Of all the nights she’s known
Arranger Wally Stott, upon hearing the lyrics for the first time, was quite stupefied: “The lyrics, the imagery was so strong and graphic. Now and then I was a little shocked by it: ‘woo, is that allowed?’ you know.” Recording engineer Peter Olliff adds: “Montague Terrace was one of the most interesting compositions. I think that what you start to see there is the potential of Scott as a songwriter.”
Speaking of Stott, It is time to turn the spotlight on the orchestral arrangements that grace Walker’s solo albums. His vocal delivery, as great as it is on a song such as Montague Terrace, can only carry the tune that far. The arrangement Stott wrote for this and many other tunes for Walker adds all the dramatic flair that makes these songs so unique. Stott, who in the early 1970s went through a sex reassignment surgery and became Angela Morley, recalled her first encounter with Scott Walker: “I had a call from a man saying he was Johnny Franz and he said, ‘Scott Walker is going to do some things on his own and I’d like you to come and work with him.’ So I’d go into Johnny’s office, I’d expected to see Johnny sitting at the piano and Scott holding his music. But no! I walked in to see this young man sitting at the floor with a guitar and sheets of paper with words all over the carpet. And as he’d sing and strum his way all through these things, from time to time he would stop and would say, ‘I really hear Sibelius here,’ or ‘Here I hear Delius’ or ‘Here I hear…’ and all these classical composers that he was fond of. We just thought he was different, we didn’t realize that he was a scout for the avant-garde, what was to come.”
Speaking of Johnny Franz, it is time to also give credit to the producer. Franz was A&R man at the Philips label and one of the top producers in the UK during the 1950s and 1960s. He produced nine no. 1 hits, among them Shirley Bassey with Wally Stott & His Orchestra – As I Love You in 1959, Dusty Springfield – You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me in 1966 and a couple by the Walker Brothers: Make It Easy on Yourself in 1965 and their biggest hit from 1966, The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore. As you can tell from these songs, Franz’ trademark was a great use of large orchestras to back up the singers he produced, with arrangements written by the able hands of Wally Stott, Ivor Raymonde and Peter Knight. Scott Walker, the one Walker Brother who was interested in what goes into making a song in the studio, formed a special connection with Franz. Session guitar player Alan Parker recalls: “Johnny and Scott always seemed to be very friendly and very collaborative. I’m sure Scott had a lot of respect and admiration for Johnny. He was a very experienced man, a producer of a hell of a lot of big artists. There is no hiding from experience.” During the time of the Walker Brothers, a parallel trio formed in the studio, consisting of Franz, Scott Walker and Franz’ right-hand man, sound engineer Peter Olliff.
Years later Scott Walker said of the sound engineer he met during the Walker Brothers years and kept working with on his solo albums: “Olliff was a great engineer. He’d been doing Dusty Springfield and all those people. But although he had a wonderful idea of what a new sound could be, he couldn’t quite get it. So I knew what was happening at the bottom end, and that’s what made it complete.“ The inspiration for how to make the sound much bigger came from legendary producer Phil Spector, to whom Scott was paying close attention. Bringing multiple players of the same instrument into the studio, the Scott Walker-Johnny Franz-Peter Olliff team was able to create that bombastic sound on the Walker Brothers’ biggest hit, , The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore:
Scott (the album) reached no. 3 in the UK albums chart. His second album, Scott 2, topped it. It continued the same format of its predecessor, a mix of covers, Jacques Brel tunes and few original songs. Although it was the most successful commercially of all his solo albums, I find it the weakest link from that period. Maybe it is too similar to the first, or the selection of covers is not as strong. But it still contains a number of fine songs, such as The Amorous Humphrey Plugg, with another wonderful arrangement by Reg Guest.
Arrangers are not common household names, but Guest’s work is known by all due to his arrangements for hits such as ‘You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me’, ‘Shout’ and ‘As Tears Go By’. Walker on Guest: “It’s the fault of so many arrangers today that they profess to hate what they do in pop, but he believes in what he’s doing”. Over the years Reg Guest was dismissive of his work in the 1960s as house arranger for Philips and Decca, but of his work with Scott Walker he said: “This was special. I knew that Scott was a really creative artist but I also knew that he wasn’t a chart performer. He was also to most people a bit weird, I suppose reclusive. There was something very private about him but we were very friendly. I don’t think I’m particularly unusual but I have the ability to understand artistic people. I just sensed his whole persona. He’s been mistreated all along the line and they would rely on people like me to get through to him, which was dead simple. Once you sympathize with someone it’s no problem. So with me he had the opportunity to go as far out as he wanted – and he did. He went his own imperious way and it got him into trouble but he’s been proved right in the long run.”
1969 was one of the busiest years in Scott Walker’s career. In March he released his third solo album, Scott 3. He kept the usual dose of three Jacques Brel songs, but all other songs were his originals. Walker was a great interpreter of songs written and performed by others, but on this album and the next, it is his own songs that standout in their originality of music and lyrics.
By this point Walker was not listening to popular music, and all his influences came from classical composers: “Beethoven, because he was the greatest expert in his medium who ever lived, Shostakovich, because he was the last of the great symphonists and Brahms, because it is wonderfully intellectual music.” His collaboration with Wally Stott was at its peak on this album, the two marrying Walker’s poetic lyrics and dark melodies with magnificent orchestral textures: “Working with Wally Stott on Scott 3 was like having Delius writing for you.” What you are listening to here has little resemblance to the stuff that teen audiences go for:
The song Copenhagen was dedicated to his then-girlfriend Mette Teglbjaerg and the town where they spent their pre-marriage honeymoon. They later married, in 1972. A photograph of hers is featured atop the lyrics to the song in the album’s inner sleeve.
Debussy comes to mind when listening to Butterfly, a perfect miniature of a song, only 1:45 minutes long. Keith Altham’s liner notes allude to the song: “The butterfly last seen on a beach on Southern France flutters fleetingly once more. It too is flashingly ephemeral caught out in musical sunlight on still quivering wings.”
Another small vignette on the album is Winter Light, very different in mood and another example of Walker’s fondness of these orchestral arrangements. Interestingly he commented on his inability to be a classical music performer himself: “I could never have been a classical music player. I don’t have the patience. I have very bad eye-to-hand coordination.”
In spite of the fact that the material featured on this album demands attentive listening not usually practiced by large audiences, the album still made it to number 3 in the UK charts. The interesting album cover includes a photograph of Walker that was taken by Chris Walter: “I took the photo of Scott on the cover, the one reflected in the eye. I did the rest of the album too. I remember we drove around London one Sunday morning in Scott’s Mini, looking for gargoyles and tramps to photograph. Scott never seemed to have a problem with being photographed. He was a little more serious than most, maybe.”
Around the time of releasing Scott 3, the BBC started airing a series of six Tuesday night programs featuring Scott Walker. The show producers and the singer were not aligned as to what the demographics of the show may be. While the BBC was trying to present him as a crooner, Las Vegas style lounge singer, he skipped all the hits and sang his moody, artistic ballads. He left the crowd pleasantries to his guests, inviting Blossom Dearie, Gene Pitney, Dudley Moore and others.
Looking to capitalize farther on its reluctant star, Philips released the album Scott: Scott Walker Sings Songs from his TV Series. No original songs, no Brel. Just covers of standards and show tunes. Walker’s singing is inspired as usual but one can’t escape feeling that his heart wasn’t into this album as much as his solo efforts. One redeeming thing about this album is its cover photograph, spread over a gatefold double sleeve, a great shot of the singer by Peter Rand. The album reached no. 7 in the UK charts, but like the early 1970s albums Walker released due to pressure from his record label, they were never re-issued.
The true redemption came at the end of 1969 with Scott 4. This album is a true masterpiece and represents Scott Walker in the artistic space he was occupying at the time. He wrote all the tracks on the album and switched to his birth name, Scott Engel. Coupled with material that is far from radio-friendly, this was a commercial suicide. The album got very little air time, people who were looking for the album in record stores could not find a new Scott Walker under ‘W’, and the album did not even scrape the bottom of the chart. In short – a flop. Still, this is the album I come back to the most. Here are a few reasons why.
Scott Walker’s love of European cinema has clearly influenced his music, an element he talked about in a number of interviews. Reminiscing about his high school days, he said: “When I lived in Los Angeles I was going to a lot of European cinema at a pretty early age, when everybody was going to surf movies. After school or even cutting school I would go to Hollywood Boulevard, where there were all these cinemas. You could see four movies for a quarter.” A director who left a strong impression on him was Ingmar Bergman: “I went to one of these things, paid my quarter, didn’t know what I was going to see. The last movie on was quite late. It was the Bergman film The Virgin Spring.“ Scott 4 opens with the song The Seventh Seal, directly taken from a Bergman movie of the same name, with lyrics that are the actual synopsis of the film story.
Anybody seen a knight pass this way
I saw him playing chess with Death yesterday
His crusade was a search for God and they say
It’s been a long way to carry on
The orchestration here was created by Peter Knight, known to many by the wonderful arrangements he created for the Moody Blues album Days of Future Passed. A decade later he was invited by Richard Carpenter to create the orchestral backing to the Carpenters’ version of Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft.
Commenting on the song The Old Man’s Back Again, dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime, Scott Walker said: “There’s a political element only if it’s a springboard into something else, something that perhaps we find interesting but difficult to talk about. When I write a lyric about a dictator, for instance, I’m not a slave to the history. That’s not the idea of it. I think I’m simply playing around with language, sometimes for the joy of it, and sometimes to talk about other things”
I seen a woman, standing in the snow
She was silent as she watched them take her man
Teardrops burned her cheeks
For she’d thought she’d heard the shadow had left this land
The excellent bass line here is played by Herbie Flowers, the legendary session musician whose credits are too long to mention. He plays on David Bowie’s Space Oddity and Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Commenting about the importance of a melody in a song, Walker elaborated: “I put every ounce of mental energy I have into my songs, more upon the melody than anything else, because I feel it is often neglected in popular songs.” A fine example can be found in the song Angels of Ashes, again with Peter Knight as arranger.
I keep coming back to the arrangements on Scott Walker’s albums and songs. Scott 4 has no shortage of these wonderful orchestrations. Walker, taking an active role in coming up with ideas for these arrangements, commented on the art: “Arranging is not an easy thing to do, because it’s not a visual thing. We can storyboard the movie, we can draw pictures of what it would look like frame by frame, and people can see that – but not with music. It’s a different thing. And we didn’t have synthesizers to try it out on first. We only had a live session, and it had to be right that day.”
That last sentence embodies the professionalism that all the people involved in making those sessions had to possess. A session was usually a three-hour block of time, where the arranger brings the music sheets for the musicians to look at for the first time. The arranger himself had no way of previewing what the arrangement will sound like. The technology for that did not exist, no synths, samplers, notation programs. Each musician saw only his/her part of the score, not the full arrangement. Everyone, including the arranger, producer, singer, orchestra, sound engineer – all had a single three-hour slot to learn it, rehearse and record a perfect take. That takes true professionals. Walker on the efficiency in the studio: “I had a great apprenticeship in the ’60s, because when I was doing those Philips records it was in the contract that you had to go in and do four tunes in a three-hour session. And they had to be done live. That’s how it worked with the Walker Brothers and in my solo records, so you had to get everything prepared before you went in there, and that’s always stayed with me.”
One of the most brilliant songs on Scott 4 demonstrating that skill is Boy Child, with Wally Stott again in the arranger’s seat.
Love, catch these fragments
Swirling through the winds of night
What can it cost
To give a boy child back his sight?
Extensions through dimensions
Leave you feeling cold and lame
Boy child mustn’t tremble
‘cos he came without a name
New arranger to work with Scott Walker on this album was Keith Roberts, who was starting his career at the time: “The words are very important to me as an arranger. You need to get some definition. I’d accentuate a certain lyric with a timpani, for instance. On a certain song I wouldn’t have powerful trumpets going. You’d have blended strings and delicate instruments.” Roberts wrote arrangements for three songs on the album, all of them recorded in a single day. One of these songs is the country-tinged album closer, Rhymes of Goodbye. I love Walker’s vocal delivery here.
The bells of our senses can cost us our pride
Can toll out the boundaries that level our lives
Scott Walker’s career after his late 1960s solo albums is full of twists, turns and surprises. The avant-garde records he released later in his career are masterpieces that can easily occupy another article. There are hints that point in that direction on some of these early solo albums. Perhaps the best way to close this article is with Albert Camus’ quote on Scott 4:
“A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.”
For farther reading, I strongly recommend Anthony Reynold’s excellent book, The Impossible Dream: The story of Scott Walker and the Walker Brothers, a well-written and informative chronicle of Scott Walker’s career.
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