Monday, March 25, 2019

Did Time Sound Sweet Yesterday?

Scott Walker, one of the most enigmatic and influential figures in rock and/or roll history - and a particular favourite of this blogger - has died at the age of seventy six. The American singer/songwriter, whose best-known hits included 'The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore', 'No Regrets' and 'Joanna', was a huge influence on a wide-range of artists - from David Bowie and Leonard Cohen to The Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon and Jarvis Cocker. He found fame as a teen-idol in The Walker Brothers in the mid-1960s, but his dark baritone and brooding introspection always hinted at something far deeper and more complex. That was borne out in his subsequent experimental, lush and baroque string of solo LPs, which explored the complexities of love, death and pretty much everything in between. Scott's death was confirmed by his current record label, 4AD, who described him 'one of the most revered innovators at the sharp end of creative music.'
Born Noel Scott Engel in Ohio in 1944, Scott initially pursued a career as an actor, before linking up with John Maus and Gary Leeds to form the misleadingly-named Walker Brothers in Los Angeles. After something of a false start in the US, they relocated to England in 1965, where they caused a huge sensation, having a hit with their second single, a lush Jack Nitzsche-arranged version of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil's 'Love Her'. Executives at Philips, their UK record label, soon took note of the good-looking émigré Americans and began to promote them heavily, with Scott displacing John as the trio's lead singer and effective focal point. The Walker Brothers' next release, 'Make It Easy On Yourself', a powerful Burt Bacharach and Hal David ballad, swept to number one on the UK Singles Chart (it was also a top twenty hit back in the US) on release in August 1965, knocking '(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction' off the top spot. After 'My Ship Is Coming In' (another UK top three hit), their second number one came with what remains their best-known piece, the glorious 'The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine (Anymore)' in early 1966. Finding suitable material was always a problem for the trio, however. The Walkers' sound mixed grandiloquent Phil Spector-style 'wall of sound' techniques with symphonic orchestrations featuring many of Britain's top musicians and arrangers. Scott served as effective co-producer of the band's records throughout this period alongside Johnny Franz. Further hits followed with 'Babe, You Don't Have To Tell Me', 'Another Tear Falls' and 'Deadlier Than The Male' and they made three fine LPs (Take It Easy, Portrait and Images) but, by 1967 the pressure of constant touring was beginning to take its toll. 'At first it was fine,' Walker told the BBC's Culture Show in 2006. 'I hate people in the business who bitch about the business. It was fantastic for the first couple of albums or so but it really wears you down. Touring in those days was very primitive. It was really a lot of hard work. And you couldn't find anything good to eat. The hours were unbelievable.'
At the height of their fame, with Scott still considered a heart-throb and potential superstar, he called time on the band and ran away to a monastery for a few months. Not, as the rumour had it, because of a nervous breakdown, but rather to study Gregorian chants. He remained disillusioned with the music industry until his girlfriend introduced him to the Belgian singer/songwriter Jacques Brel, whose literate, passionate and dramatic torch songs inspired Scott to embark on a solo career. His first solo hit was a controversial version of Brel's 'Jackie' (playlist-restricted by Radio 1 because of its then-shocking inclusion of the word 'bordellos'!) His regular recording of Brel songs thereafter was to be a major influence on the young David Bowie whose own subsequent versions of 'Amsterdam' and 'My Death' closely borrowed from Scott's translations and arrangements. Bowie remained a devoted fan of Scott's work, covering 'Nite Flights' on Black Tie White Noise and both producing and appearing in Stephen Kijak's 2006 documentary Thirty Century Man. David was, famously, audibly moved when Scott recorded a birthday message for him for a 1997 radio show declaring 'I've just seen God in the window!'
Scott's first four solo LPs, all self-titled, juxtaposed lush, orchestral pop with dark existentialism; the lyrics were frequently scattered with characters from society's margins - prostitutes, transvestites, suicidal brooders and even Joseph Stalin (the latter on Scott 4's remarkable 'The Old Man's Back Again', inspired by Scott's outrage at the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia). 'He took music to a place that it hasn't actually ever been since,' said Brian Eno, another auteur who counts Walker as a key influence. These songs - including genuine twenty four carat masterpieces like 'Montague Terrace (In Blue)', 'The Girls From The Streets', 'Plastic Palace People', 'Big Louise', 'The Bridge', 'The Seventh Seal''Boy Child', 'The Big Hurt' and 'Hero Of The War' - were major departures from the straight pop of The Walker Brothers. Though Scott was still enough of a name that his first three solo LPs were all big hits in the UK during 1967-68, aided by a trio of bona fide classic hit singles, 'Jackie', 'Joanna' and 'Lights Of Cincinnati'. At the peak of his fame in 1969, Scott was given his own BBC2 TV series, Scott, featuring solo Walker performances of ballads, big band standards, Brel songs and his own compositions. In subsequent interviews, Walker has suggested that by the time of his third solo LP, a self-indulgent complacency had crept into his choice of material. An LP to tie-in with the success of Scott, Scott Walker Sings Songs From His TV Series - exemplified the problems he was having in failing to balance his own creative work with the demands of his manager, Maurice King, who seemed determined to mould his protegé into an Andy Williams/Frank Sinatra-style crooner.
Having parted company with King, Walker released Scott 4 in 1969. Compensating for his recent dip into passivity, this was his first record made up entirely of self-penned material. It was his masterpiece but, significantly, it failed to chart and was deleted soon afterwards. It has been speculated that Walker's decision to release the LP under his real name, Noel Scott Engel, contributed to its chart failure.
Scott then entered a period of self-confessed artistic decline, during which he spent five years making records 'by rote, just to get out of contract' and consoling himself with drink. 'Til the Band Comes In (1970), showed a pronounced split between its two sides of Scott Walker. One half featured original material (mostly co-written with Ady Semel) whilst the other consisted almost entirely of cover versions. Subsequent releases saw Walker revert to covers of popular film tunes and a serious flirtation with country music. The Moviegoer (1972), Any Day Now (1973), Stretch (1973) and We Had It All (1974) feature no original material whatsoever. All of them have some merit - they've got Scott Walker singing on them, for a start - but none were as essential his earlier work.
The Walker Brothers reunited in 1975 and produced three LPs. Their first single, an epic cover of Tom Rush's 'No Regrets' dripping with emotion was a huge hit in the UK. However, two singles from the next LP, Lines (including its title song, which Scott said he regarded as the best single the group ever released) both failed to chart. With the imminent demise of their record label, the Walkers collaborated on an LP of original material which was in stark contrast to the country-flavoured tunes of the previous LPs. The resulting work, Nite Flights, was released in 1978 with each of the Brothers writing and singing their own compositions. The opening four songs were Scott's; 'Nite Flights', 'The Electrician', 'Shut Out' and 'Fat Mama Kick' - were his first original compositions since 'Til The Band Comes In and represented significant steps away from the MOR image and sound that he had cultivated since the commercial failure of Scott 4. The extremely dark and discomforting sound of Scott's songs, particularly 'The Electrician', was to prove a forerunner to the direction of his future solo work. In spite of a warm critical reception, sales for Nite Flights were minimal and it was only subsequently - and rightly - regarded as a major influence on Bowie and others. Scott entered a period of invisibility at the very moment that his work was being rediscovered, reassessed and name-checked by the likes of Julian Cope (who released a compilation, Fire Escape In The Sky: The Godlike Genius Of Scott Walker) and Marc Almond (who wrote a warm fanboy essay for another compilation, Boy Child). Scott, meanwhile, bowed out of music for a decade after the release of 1984's critically-acclaimed Climate Of Hunter which, like Nite Flights, got some of the best reviews of his career and some of the worst sales. 'A friend of mine says I'm not a recluse, I'm just low-key,' said the singer about his extended absence. 'Generally if I've got nothing to say, it's pointless to be around.' He is said to have compared himself during this period to Orson Welles, someone whom 'everybody wants to meet but nobody wants to finance!'
By the time that Scott returned to recording in the mid-1990s, it was with Tilt, a collection of fraught, uncompromising tone poems. Variously described as 'an anti-matter collision of rock and modern classical music,' as 'Samuel Beckett at La Scala' and as 'indescribably barren and unutterably bleak, the wind that buffets the Gothic cathedrals of everyone's favourite nightmares,' it was more consciously avant-garde than its predecessor with Walker now revealed as a fully-fledged modernist composer. 'Imagine Andy Williams reinventing himself as Stockhausen,' wrote the Gruniad Morning Star's Simon Hattenstone in a profile of the singer. Walker went on to collaborate with Pulp, producing the 2001 LP We Love Life, work with Nick Cave (another long-time devotee), curate the South Bank Centre's annual summer live music festival, Meltdown and, more recently, completed the score to Natalie Portman film Vox Lux. 2006's The Drift and 2012's Bish Bosh continued to see Scott ploughing his own, unique and remarkable, furrow on the fringes of commerical pop music. Both were critically acclaimed. Neither sold very much. In 2017, the BBC paid tribute to Scott with a Proms concert at the Royal Albert Hall.
Initially working as a classy interpreter of other people's songs, Scott Walker developed his own unique songwriting skills. In a 1984 interview, though, he spoke of his difficulty in writing songs: 'I don't write songs for pleasure. I can only write when I have to - like I'm under contract, or to finish an album.' His death follows that of his former bandmate John Maus in 2011 after a battle with liver cancer. Scott is survived by his partner, Beverly, daughter Lee and granddaughter Emmi-Lee.