Soundtrack to the Apocalypse?
“The ultimate cult artist, it is hard to think of another American who had such an impact on rock music as a whole while being almost completely unknown to his countrymen as Scott Walker.” – film Press Release
Any time I get depressed about my work not being recognized I take comfort in the fact that one of the musical geniuses active during my lifetime is almost completely unknown to the general public.
At the Silver Docs Film Festival at the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring, MD Saturday night I was among the 81 people who were fortunate to see the DC area premier of Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, a film by Stephen Kijak. In so doing I gained a glimpse into the life of this hermetic enigmatic artist by seeing him at work in the sound studio (the first time he’s allowed anybody watch in eons), inner cut with an interview, plus interviews with a multitude of luminaries from Brian Eno and David Bowie, to Radiohead, Dot Allison, Alison Goldfrapp, and guitarist Johnny Marr.
One talking head credits Scott Walker with creating the first 21st-Century music. Perhaps that’s true.
For those who aren’t familiar with the man’s story— Noel Scott Engel (now 64) from Ohio began performing at about 15 years old. He was a pretty boy who fell in with another musician/singer John Maus and they set about playing LA as a duo--Scott on bass, John on guitar. They met Gary Leeds, a drummer who had been to England during the initial British Invasion, and so the trio invaded London together dubbed The Walker Brothers and in some weird colonial exchange became as big as the Beatles and Stones. Because John, the lead singer, couldn’t hit the notes on “Love Her” the B-side to their first single, the vocals fell to Scott’s baritone, and once the song hit, he became the featured vocalist from that point on, as well as a teen idol--a role he very much resented. In the film we learn that after one concert the teenyboppers flipped over the Walker’s van and had to be stopped by police from literally ripping the vehicle apart to get to the band.
Scott became default songwriter because they couldn’t find enough material to fill the albums and that’s where he began to drive things off the rails because the public adored him for “Make it Easy on Yourself” and “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” and really wasn’t ready for songs like “Orpheus” and “Archangel.”
I could go on and on. They toured top billed to Jimi Hendrix and then music shifted and boy bands with heavy strings and horn arrangements were passé. The Walkers went out with a whimper. Scott went on to record four solo albums—Scott, Scott 2, Scott 3, Scott 4. This isn’t singer-songwriter stuff. He discovered Jacques Brel via a Playboy Bunny he was seeing in London and became obsessed with the man. His versions of Brel’s “My Death” “Next,” and “Jackie” surpass the originals. His own compositions grew increasingly strange. He wrote about half the songs until Scott 4 in 1969 (which is all self-penned) flopped commercially. The teens who loved him fled in terror of “The Plague” (from the Camus), “The Seventh Seal” (a Bergman tribute), “Big Louise” (his sad saga of a large transvestite) and “The Amorous Humphrey Plugg.” And few knew what to make of songs with titles like “The Old Man’s Back Again (Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime).”
Though a critical success, the public failure of Scott 4 led to drink and depression. He had a TV variety show which lasted about six weeks. He did movie soundtrack music (and still does). Everything from Deadlier than the Male to the Bond film The World is Not Enough. His version of “In My Room” is in a Fassbinder film. The Walkers reunited and went semi-country and had a hit in 1975 with a cover of Tom Rush’s “No Regrets.” Just before breaking up again they were offered one last album as the company was folding. With one last shot all three Walkers wrote their own stuff and that album Nite Flights appeared at the height of punk in 1977.
Walker’s compositions on the album are unlike anything else. “The Electrician” is from the POV of a Latin American torturer. The voice is still there but the lyrics--my god this man can write. “If I jerk the handle you’ll die in your dreams/If I jerk the handle you’ll thrill me and thrill me and thrill me.” Eno in the documentary calls Walker one of the premier lyricists alive today. This is not hum along car music. This is a brick in the face wake-up call. Bowie, Eno, Daniel Lanois, Laurie Anderson, David Sylvian, Robert Fripp, all of them went damn, what is this? And as is said in the film—this was the beginning of the realization in the music world that a lot of pretenders who thought they were cutting edge were from that moment on simply the emperor’s new clothes.
Julian Cope assembled an anthology of Scott’s solo work in 1981 called Fire Escape in the Sky: The Godlike Genius of Scott Walker. Partly to reclaim him for the new generation. Scott has recorded three solo albums since then. He does one about every decade. The voice is still there though a little more ragged and human. And he still calls what he does “Songs” but any relationship your ears might have had to “Montague Terrace (In Blue)” or the concept of song with a verse/chorus is disappearing rapidly in Scott’s slipstream as he races past solar system into galaxy and further beyond the dwarf planets of Captain Beefhart, Nick Cave, and Tom Waits, with each successive offering.
Climate of Hunter –1984. Though minimalist and a continuation of Scott’s vision from Nite Flights this transitional album now seems almost conventional compared to what’s come since, and features folks like Mo Foster, Mark Isham, Billy Ocean, and Mark Knopfler. The songs “Track 3” and “Track 7” feature guitar solos but “Rawhide,” “Dealer,” and “Sleepwalker’s Woman” are abstract soundtracks combining allusive meaning and music that alternatively lulls or jars. “Track 6” is particularly spooky. The final track, “Blanket Roll Blues,” is by Tennessee Williams.
Tilt—1995. Scott’s cryptic fractured lyrics are now married to an
unclassifiable aural assault that shocks even people who like
“difficult music.” This is pure unadulterated artistic vision married
to the freedom to explore new sonic soundscapes. “Farmer in the City”
with its auction “Do I hear 21, 21, 21” repetition works its way into
your head like the libretto for some dark dream-world opera. And indeed
the song is about controversial Italian film director Paolo Pasolini,
who was slain under mysterious circumstances. “The Cockfighter” will
make you jump out of your seat with Nine Inch Nails intensity. Here
Walker marries transcripts from the trials of Adolph Eichmann, and
Queen Caroline of England, together with cockfighting.
As Tony Cornwell says in his review of Tilt for of all places the World Socialist Web Site:
Even more remarkable, the album was recorded without sampling, click tracks or guide vocals. Normally, to keep constant tempo and show chord changes musicians record listening to a “click” track and a “guide vocal” through headphones. Each part is then stitched together like a quilt, sometimes almost a note at a time. More insidiously, using a sampler means “bum” notes can be “bent” to pitch. While technically exact, interactions in timing and emphasis that we call “feel” or “soul” are lost. These techniques tend to homogenise the music making nearly every contemporary pop song seem familiar—a product of the domination of recorded music over the recording of music. Walker rejects this approach, bringing spontaneous musical ideas from musicians.
“I like to do things live with the musicians... so we’re discovering together as we go along,” he explained in a rare interview. “The way I work, the top line of the song is notated, with the chords. A lot of musicians say, ‘what am I doing? Why am I making this sound? Against what? It’s against nothing. I can’t hear a vocal. I’m playing against nothing, and you’re asking me to do this.’
“It’s hard for musicians that way, but it keeps them from grooving. I don’t want anyone playing licks or grooving; that’s not my interest... it tends to characterise the track, which is not what I’m after. I want each piece to have an intensity of its own. So it has a kind of febrile quality. Like Gil Evans—early producer of Miles Davis—I want the orchestra to breathe and to use space.”
The Drift –2006 on 4 A.D.-- Most of the studio shots in the movie are from the sessions for the atrocity exhibition that is the latest album and they are mind boggling. A man punches a side of raw meat for percussion effects. (And when you realize that “Clara” is about the last bloody moments of Mussolini and his mistress Clara Petacci it makes sense.) A giant sound box is built in the studio so that cinder blocks can be dropped on top, or other objects can be dragged across it a la Fred Frith. Sounds are jigsaw-puzzled together by lots of curious classical musicians. “Jesse” marries the 9/11 attacks to Elvis Presley conversing with the ghost of his stillborn twin brother. “Psoriatic” speaks for itself though cloaked in medieval footnotes re. the “Silver people.”
The documentary sprinkles snippets spanning Walker’s career throughout the soundtrack, along with video clips from the 60s and on. It’s quite the musical odyssey.
Re. technique: Walker likes to extend individual notes and chord sequences, to play off the difference between chordal music and discordant by holding onto and extending notes until the listener is unable to identify which is which. This requires some heavy lifting. But if you manage—and believe me parts of The Drift are like a trip through music hell, then the words float in and about and illuminate and reverberate on a nearly cellular level. There are moments of crystalline beauty buried in the wall of trance. (Light years beyond Phil Spector’s ideas.) Plus there’s disturbing humor—a demented duck-like vocal for “The Escape,” “A Lover Loves” finishing with Scott saying “Psst, Psst, Psst” to a solo acoustic guitar.
Scott Walker’s unlike anything you’ve ever heard. He will challenge you and change the way you listen to music. He will force you to empathize, to feel. You will love it or hate it. It’s not for the meek or faint of heart.
Whatever. He’s never going to sing ballads again. Get over it. And Scott never looks back. He hasn’t listened to his old CDs ever and is forced to for the film. He’s also refused to work with all of the hip rock musicians listed above. They’ve all tried. Sigh. I wish he would because I’d love to hear those sessions but his artistic vision is a stark solitary effort. But that’s like imagining any of this music on the air waves. At least at the rate he’s creating we may get lucky and he’ll complete two more albums before we’re all gone.
That said he’s been very active this past decade. He wrote two tunes for Ute Lemper’s album The Punishing Kiss (and made her work hard as she notes in the movie). He recorded a soundtrack for the 1999 Leos Carax film Pola X. (There’s an amazing recording sequence from that soundtrack in the documentary--like coming upon the slab on the moon in 2001 only to find a hole in the floor filled with musicians.) He was host of the Meltdown Festival 2000 (London) where he programmed two weeks of musical acts. Jarvis Cocker talked him into producing Pulp’s We Love Life CD. And the British magazine Mojo gave him an Icon award last year.
So, if Scott Walker can’t garner the public’s attention, then what hope is there for the rest of us?
Bravo Scott. Surprisingly he comes across in the film as one of the most honest, normal, un-pretentious artists ever. I’m just glad to be alive while giants like Scott Walker roam the planet.
Or as Laurie Anderson says about the film:
“A staggering movie! Scott Walker is one of my all time favorite musicians and the movie is big and generous and totally absorbing. An introduction to the beautiful and radical work of a genius.”
See the film. Listen to the music. Play it loud.