Sometimes pop artists you associate with youth surprise you with a new vocal persona that suits them as they get older. (Think Robert Plant on Raising Sand.) But in the case of Scott Walker, he never really sounded like a young man to begin with. Sure, he was a teen idol back in the late ’60’s who appeared in shades and all that. (See above picture.) But his low voice and refusal to bask in the flower power youthful exuberance of the summer of love made him sound like an old soul who stood apart from a generation that used to say, “never trust anyone over 30.” Rather than join that chorus, Walker wound down the ’60’s with “The Old Man’s Back Again: Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime.” I’m not sure quite what he meant by that. But I took it to have something to do with a sobering reminder of the terrifying persistence of state power that has proved to be only too prophetic. It made “Back In The USSR” (which I also love) sound comparatively reassuring.
Even his love songs were heavy. One of my favorite string arrangements of all time comes from the song It’s Raining Today, released in early 1969 on his album Scott 3. The strings shimmer when the song comes in. But their brilliant dissonance bring something of the flavor of a horror movie into this reminiscence of a first encounter. This was not puppy love. Walker has said that the 3/4 tempo in which he wrote this album led him to become something of a pariah to the commercial industry that once swooned over him.
Brian Eno has held up Scott’s work with The Walker Brothers on 1978’s Nite Flights as the vanguard of progressive rock music. In the great film that was made about Scott in 2006 called 3oth Century Man, Eno says, “we still haven’t gone beyond [it].” David Bowie loved this record and ripped it off to make much more outgoing and lucrative effect. He could capitalize on Scott’s ideas more than Walker could because a relatively hit single-sounding song like the album’s fantastic title track Nite Flights didn’t really sound like a piece of youth culture. Even as the song soared, Scott reminded us that there’s “on the night flight, there’s only one way to fall.”
His baritone never let you forget about the forces of gravity. No amount of botox can defy them forever. I can’t say the same of the voice of The Thin White Duke. Walker appears as gracefully balding and modestly thoughtful in the interviews in 30th Century Man. I don’t mean to slag Bowie, he helped bring this great movie to us by acting as executive producer. But he does appear to have dyed blonde hair in his also thoughtful interview segments in the film. During one of these, he tells a funny story about feeling jealous of Walker when he was dating a woman who used to go out with Scott. He said he used to feel mad when he’s see Walker’s records lying around her apartment. You can see something of the creative jealousy, which seems to linger to this day, despite the financial disparity.
Scott didn’t put out a record between 1978 and 1984, a period of time which saw him cross the meridian of his 40th birthday. He hasn’t exactly been prolific since that time. But he has managed to pull off a feat I consider to be unique among artists of that age: he hasn’t put out a less than excellent record since. (Walker has said that the long gap between his last 3 records is partially due to difficulty in obtaining the necessary funds. I got the following quote from Wikipedia: “I’ve become the Orson Welles of the record industry. People want to take me to lunch, but nobody wants to finance the picture…I keep hoping that when I make a record, I’ll be asked to make another one. I keep hoping that if I can make a series of three records, then I can progress and do different things each time. But when I have to get it up once every 10 years… it’s a tough way to work.”)
First came Climate of the Hunter in 1984. It shows the mark of the kind of 1980’s production that is now considered to be as misguided as the pastel colors and shoulder pads of fashion of that period. But I think his voice suits that stylistic era very well. ’80’s music, in all it’s sterile slickness – yes, you can sound sterile in the analog realm – never sounded convincing as Rock and Roll in the sense of raw youthful exuberance. But Scott never aimed for that. His music was always heavily orchestrated. The fretless bass, “dughe-duh-duh-duhge” rack toms, glassy digital synths and synthetic reverb sheen suited the alienation his music conveys so well. It also managed to make all that clear sheeny space sound majestic, perhaps inspiring youtubers to choose the following kind of video.
Scott waited eleven years before coming out with his next album, Tilt. The 80’s touches were gone from studios by then. His work departed more from his baroque ballad style and began to remind me more of modern classical music. My favorite song from the record is Bouncer See Bouncer. It’s actually one of my favorite songs, period. We hear a single pounding kettle drum, a pick scraping over strings behind the bridge of an electric guitar, and an ominous synthesizer. The bed of strings we hear on many of his songs is not there. His voice sounds even more heavy without that lightening touch. We don’t get to the “chorus” of the song until 4 minutes and 55 seconds into the song. Here we do hear some softer strings and harp – for a bit. Then we’re back to the kettle drum stomp, which carries on straight through to the end of the song at 8 minutes and 47 seconds. No matter how long, not a second seems extraneous. I couldn’t find a youtube clip of that song by itself, but the title track’s not bad either!
Drift came eleven years later (again!) in 2006. In the interview that’s right at the start of the above trailer for 30 Century Man, Scott says that things continue to be stark, and that he and his producer have just managed to refine that quality. In the interview below from that same time, he agrees with the journalist from the BBC that his music has become harder because the arrangements are shaved down to “noises and big blocks of sound.” But he says that the mood remains the same.
My favorite thing about 3oth Century Man is that you get to see Walker recording in the studio. (You can see some glimpses of these moments in the above BBC story.) He constructs a 5 foot high plywood cube and records the sound it produces when he rubs a metal trash can back and forth on top of it. You can see how much pleasure this gives him, the fun of discovery he’s having even in his ’60’s. It’s also a blast to watch him give careful directions to a percussionist from behind the glass at the mixing board. What is the drummer playing? Oh, a huge slab of raw red meat seated on a piano bench. There’s no sense this is a novelty trick. He gives careful directions as though the percussionist were playing a symphony with an orchestra. One comment on the youtube video that follows claims that Jesse features repeated edited recordings of the planes hitting the twin towers. I think Alfred Hitchock’s films would have been much better with this on the soundtrack:
And then there’s Clara, which clocks in at over 12 minutes. I love how you can’t escape his voice.
In the above BBC interview, Scott says he’s working on his next record. That was 6 years ago. Here’s hoping he finishes it. He’ll turn 70 next year. I can’t think of too many people that age whose new records I would be waiting for. No Steel Wheels here!