By now, deep in the end days signalled by the year 2017, the name of Scott Walker can no longer be considered a niche and little known artist. After the excellent documentary ‘30th Century Man’ directed by Stephen Kijak in 2006, many know the tale of Scott. He was one third of The Walker Brothers from California in the 1960s- a group of three non-sibling friends. They spun tales of melancholy and romance and played to crowds whose baying cries easily concealed the melody being played. Highlights of his career include the release four solo albums in three years (Scott 1-4), joining his band members one last time in the late 70s to release Nite Flights (1978), the final, oft considered seminal record by The Walker Brothers. Then there was a long period of retreat from the public gaze before producing the trio of solo records, Tilt, ‘The Drift’ and ‘Bish Bosch’. As well as this Walker has most recently composed the soundtrack for the film Childhood of a Leader.
This is familiar territory and better covered in the aforementioned documentary. It is the shape, dynamic, and psychological spheres explored in his compositions that I would like to examine further.
In Scott’s early solo work and in his compositions with The Walker Brothers, a track can be followed through the narrative of his songs; an examination of kitchen sink life, followed by an experience of the protagonist’s internal and external life meeting in an anxious liminal space, and a morphing into a gorgeously full-fledged fantastical imagining, present only in the narrator’s mind. A clear example of this is ‘The Amorphous Alfie Plugg’ (Scott 2, 1968) – starting with the memorable line, ‘Hey Mr Big shot, say, you’re looking smart.’ Before immediately delving into domesticity ‘I’ve had a tiring day. I took the kids alone to the park’. In the documentary ‘30th Century Man’, Walker explains how he was influenced by Ealing Comedies, and was surprised at the apparent accuracy of these depictions of British life upon arriving on the island. The mid-section goes on to describe how at night, after the kids are in bed, he will ‘Leave it all behind me, the screaming kids on my knee and the telly swallowing me and the neighbours shouting next door, and the subway, trembling the roller skate floor…’ The next section perhaps regales pure fantasy or a reality of visiting brothels and drinking with bohemians. ‘Pavements of poets will write that I die in nine angels’ arms…’ The progression between the three kingdoms of domestic, public and private existence is easy to chart here. The movement towards the final state is buoyed up by soaring strings and discomfiting discordant horns.
At around the same time, Walker started to cover the work of Flemish chanteur Jaques Brel. ‘Jackie’ is undoubtedly the most famous of these. This song follows the quixotic imaginings of the singer ‘If I could be for only an hour, if I could be for an hour every day, if I could be for just one little hour, cute cute in a stupid ass way’. So goes the nonsensical musings of a man who is clearly trapped in some altogether more parochial world. This romanticism, this examination of the internal world to form a significant part of reality is what Walker has continued to harness across the years.
Leaping forward to the final Walker Brothers album, Nite Flights released in 1978, we can see these ideas develop. Each member composed their own set of songs- Scott was responsible for the first four. ‘The Electrician’, the final one in the quartet, starts off with an uncomfortable and ongoing squeal of strings, punctuated by a single resonant bass tone. Two male voices come in, one ghosting the other, ‘Baby it’s slow, when lights go low’. The lyrics then chart a seemingly incomprehensible dream space, ‘He’s drilling through the spiritus sanctus, tonight through the dark hip falls screaming oh you mambos, kill me and kill me and kill me.’ Apparently this is a conversation between a torturer and his victim, inspired by the CIA presence in South America at the time. We can sense an uncomfortable sympathy with the torturer- a desire to fully investigate what might turn them on; a romantic view of the internal world that must be constructed to face this reality, perhaps.
Walker has mentioned that in his later work, the songs are driven from the lyrics and he has to fully inhabit that world to compose, rehearse and record them. Walker’s most recent trio of solo work, Tilt (1995), The Drift (2006) and Bisch Bosh (2012) zone in on darker subjects and things of nightmare. Walker is a compositional poet in this manner, in intention and exploration. No subject is tackled head on, but rather in an elliptical manner, evading, circling and sidling up to the topic at hand before hitting the emotional intensity of it full force. It might be difficult to work out exactly what is being eluded to, but you will certainly know what it feels like. However, the primacy is in the word- language is the gateway to these feelings and emotions that can be expanded upon through sound and texture.
Walker’s latest work is the soundtrack for the film ‘Childhood of a Leader’ directed by Brady Corbet. His compositions lend themselves well to film due to the ‘method acting’ approach Walker takes to recording. Much like filming a take, the music has probably been recorded when Walker is undergoing the emotions referred to in the music, making it like another skin of feeling upon the dermis of the picture. The film is about the upbringing and grooming of a dictator, and Walker’s music lends itself well to this, an examination of a domestic situation, albeit a very strange one; punctuated with moments of unease and unquiet.
Despite what could be seen as a clean break of difference between the writing in The Walker Brothers, and Walker’s more experimental solo efforts, a line of romanticism can be traced through his oeuvre. This coupled with a strong emotional performance makes Scott Walker’s work live and immediate and perfect for world building and illustration. He remains an important composer today and proof , if needed that popular music can embrace, retain, and promote artistic experimentation in 2017. In this time of the individual- a turn away from tribal groupy–ism, the light is shining strongly from Walker’s work and continues to illuminate those fans that are no longer screaming, but continuing to be thrilled by his music.
Words by Fraisia Dunn
Images by Brian Gibson