My earliest memory of celebrity death is that of Elvis. I was six and it was the summer holidays. My Dad was usually the one who was at home with me and, while I’d be bodding off and about with the kids who lived near me, I always came home for dinner. His culinary expertise was limited to cheese sandwiches and beans on toast, both of which I liked, so no complaints from me. We’d eat in the living room and he tended to have the midday news on the telly, which I also watched, even if most of it went over my head. I didn’t know who Elvis was. It might even have been the first time I’d heard of him, my parents certainly didn’t have any of his records. The news showed people outside Gracelands crying. I didn’t really have an opinion on death by that point although two of my Grandparents had died by that point, I had and have no recollection of either of them. I gathered death was upsetting, but I had no direct experience of it that I could recall or relate to it. So Elvis’ death didn’t really mean anything to me the same as my grandparents’ hadn’t. Because I’d not really had anything to do with any of them, I suppose.
When famous people pop their clogs you hear people eulogising and talking about how sad they are about it and I can sort of dig it a bit. I’m probably being cynical but I tend to think that people who get really upset about their favourite pop stars dying are pretty much having their faces thrust into their own mortality. You know, most of us feel most involved with pop music when we’re young and as most pop stars tend to be on the young side when they’re famous, when they die – especially of old age or of illnesses that mainly afflict the elderly – it beings into focus that we’re older too and that we too will die one day. I didn’t think that about Elvis’ fans, but I was only six and not especially given to much consideration about such matters. Unsurprisingly.
Still, even after that, I was never been one for weeping over people I don’t really know, no matter how much I enjoy their art. On the other hand, being a person born in the early 1970s who was mainly into music from the 1960s, made by people born in the 1940s, more or less, I don’t get the same sense of belonging that you’d get from listening to music made by people who were maybe ten years older than me. Maybe when The Stone Roses start dying off then it’ll hit me in that way, who knows?
I don’t think of myself as being a really big fan of David Bowie, even though I like a lot of his records. I wasn’t particularly upset when he died. I wasn’t pleased about it or anything – I’m not a total arsehole, at least not in that way – but I couldn’t say it had much of an impact on my life. I was nine when John Lennon was shot and killed and I vividly remember that on the morning news and the images of people in Central Park with candles and the outpouring of grief about it. That didn’t really bother me either. Earlier this year Mark Hollis, the main man out of Talk Talk died – relatively young – and I really like Spirit Of Eden but, again, it didn’t leave me bereft or anything.
Maybe it’s because all of those people’s best work was long behind them and had stopped paying proper attention after a certain point. I heard the late David Bowie singles and they didn’t persuade me to peruse the albums. I go as late as 1974 for Lennon, and even that’s only No. 9 Dream. I remember Woman being released and it being on the radio a lot and I get a feeling when I hear it, but I think that’s more to do with nostalgia for a time in my life – at Primary School in Mr Parr’s prefab in winter – than it is about enjoying the record because I find it cloying and overcompensatory. Not all memories of music are good ones, are they?
Most recently, Scott Walker died. I’d given up on Scott Walker after Scott 4. I don’t like his critically acclaimed most recent avant grade music, so I don’t feel as if he had too much more to give the likes of me. Me, me, me, eh? Makes a change…
Furthermore, I also don’t like his ‘wilderness period’ of MOR schmaltz and, to be quite honest, I don’t like everything on the first four, apparently unimpeachable solo records. But what I do like on them, I really like. I’m also into quite a few Walker Brothers’ records.
By this point, I’ve been (not) writing this for about a month and, while nobody really reads any of this tripe I gaily ladle onto the internet’s already bulging displays of self-absorption, I need to get it finished, so I’m only going to pick out – at most – a couple of songs from each era that I can be arsed to write about.
The Walker Brothers
I’ve mentioned on previous posts here that in the late 70s/early 80s, you did hear records from the 1960s being played on daytime radio. However, the records you’d hear then were, you might say, black and white records. Which is a slightly impressionistic way of suggesting that the point at which that decade began to turn from monochrome into technicolour – 1966, if you ask me, and it wasn’t like it all happened at once, there was plenty of black and white right up to the turn of the decade – was the cutoff point for radio programmers.
For clarity, the following records are what I think of as the big Black and White records that were radio staples in the late 70s/early 80s:
Dusty Springfield – I Only Want To Be With You.
Sandie Shaw – There’s Always Something There To Remind Me.
The Beatles – She Loves You / Please Please Me / I Want To Hold Your Hand / From Me To You, etc.
Del Shannon – Runaway.
Billy Fury – Halfway To Paradise.
Helen Shapiro – Walking Back To Happiness.
Everly Brothers – Walk Right Back.
The Shadows – Apache.
The Walker Brothers – The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore.
A lot of these singles have a lot of things in common, even if none of them apply to every last one. A lot of the artists used stage names; a lot of the songs weren’t written by the artists who sang them and a lot of the artists didn’t really survive the Black and White era.
When people talk about sixties music now, they’re talking about the technicolour releases, by which I mean (and I’m aiming as early as I can):
The Beatles – Ticket To Ride / Day Tripper.
The Kinks – Sunny Afternoon / Dedicated Follower Of Fashion.
The Rolling Stones – Satisfaction / Paint It Black.
All psychedelic records are colour, even Revolver (cheers).
You did get some Black and White records in the psychedelic era, the most infamous of which is Release Me, by Englebert Humperdinck.
The point I’m labouring here is that, in my opinion, I Only Want To Be With You is as valid a representation of Britain in the 1960s as, say, Day Tripper.
And the reason I’m saying that is because it’s pretty easy to cock a snook at singers such as The Walker Brothers because, once you’ve heard I Am The Walrus and realised what a fucking exciting and cool record that is, it feels like a big step backwards to feel something similar about The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore. Which is a shame because The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore is one hell of a great record.
Going back to my little list of things that differentiated the black and white artists from the technicolour dudes, The Walker Brothers was a stage name – none of them were brothers and none of them were called Walker; none of the three non-Walker, non-brothers wrote it and The Walker Brothers sure as hell didn’t prosper in the technicolored second half of the 60s.
The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore is a record that probably could only have been produced within a very narrow time frame which means that a) it doesn’t really have much in the way of timelessness and, b) it was fashionable and consequently sounds very dated – which, partly, is my point.
Check out the video for it and let’s see what’s going on here on an obvious visual level.
Bouffant, Prince Valiant hair, chunky coats draped over both shoulders, chunky man bracelets.
Scott Walker opens his mouth and it’s a deep, thick, mournful baritone and, not even five words into the first line, he busts out a Dusty Springfield wipe of his hand across his eyes, ending in a finger point up towards 1 o’ clock. If the Phil Spector-esque production hadn’t already told you everything you needed to know, thirty seconds in, you know exactly what’s going on here: this is big, sad ballad time. The sort of thing that your maiden aunts would listen to on repeat while reconstructing second hand fantasies about being rescued by chunkily bejewelled big, sad, sensitive men with big, sad, sensitive bouffant hairdos who wore big, sad, coats on both shoulders.
It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book, but that’s because it works so well. There’s always going to be room for enormous sounding expressions of despair at abandonment because there’s always going to be a lot of people who feel sad and lonely and who can’t imagine that they’re ever going to feel any better.
In any case, The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore is a great song with great lyrics and great instrumentation. Yeah, alright, it’s as if someone heard what Phil Spector did with The Righteous Brothers and realised that they could do that too, but fair dos, eh? What a song.
Loneliness is a cloak you wear, a deep shade of blue is always there.
That’s the first verse. All of it. That’s not pissing about, is it? Straight into that enormous chorus that doesn’t so much yearn for anything as just accept the momentously bleak future and gives it the gravity that eternal darkness deserves.
Emptiness is the place you’re in, there’s nothing to lose but no more to win.
Second verse again, all of it. Same thing as the first but, if anything, even bleaker. Chorus, brief middle eight breakdown in which Scott emphasises that he needs his baby and then repeat that vast, echoing, lonely, lonely chorus forever and ever. A-fucking-men.
It’s one hell of a record and it’s great, especially for girls who enjoy a bit of melodrama, lyrically and musically. Younger girls and maiden aunts both. Not mention lonely housewives. You may note that I’m not including any males in the potential audience for The Walker Brothers’ records, most of which adhere pretty closely to this example. I’m male and I think it’s fantastic, but I appreciate that I’m pretty much in the minority at least as far as The Walker Brothers go. It’s okay for blokes (some blokes) to be into solo Scott Walker, I gather.
In short, The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore is a big record. I mean it sounds big, there’s cavernous reverb and echo all over everything, like the Phil Spector impression it is, and Scott’s voice is deep and sonorous, so the whole thing sounds important and heartbreak is important, especially to people who are feeling it. And that’s what most Walker Brothers’ records sound like: big and important.
Not that they exclusively dealt with heartbreak and loneliness, although that certainly was a rich thematic theme for them. My Ship Is Coming In deals with the end of heartbreak and the beginnings of a better day yet to come so, yeah, it’s still heartbreak I suppose, if from a slightly different angle.
Even though The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore is my favourite Walker Brothers’ record, I do particularly have a bit of a soft spot for Love Her and Make It Easy On Yourself, both of which are paeans to martyrdom.
Love Her is from the perspective of an ex-boyfriend who has realised – too late – that he’s ballsed up a relationship through inattentiveness to a girl he now realises was great now that she’s got a new boyfriend. My favourite bit is the enormously American tag that follows the final “...love her…” in each of the choruses: “…like I should have done.” It’s almost Elvis like in its rapid, mumbling slur and I fucking love it, pop pickers.
Make It Easy On Yourself is sung to a not-quite-ex-girlfriend. Scott doesn’t want to go back to Dumspville, population Scott Walker, because she’s so great but he can see it coming and, bless him, he loves this girl so much that he doesn’t want her to get upset when she gives him the boot so the whole thing’s about how she shouldn’t spare his feelings because breaking up is so very hard to do. It’s manipulative as hell and, as The Walker Brothers’ records always were, custom designed in order to appeal to lovesick girls. Naturally, I’m a big fan…
Scott Walker – solo.
None of the three Walker Brothers wrote any of their big hits, although John and Scott did write a couple of album tracks and b-sides. John never really got anywhere as a solo act and Gary was the drummer. Scott Walker though, he was a big deal for a while.
By the time of his first solo album, Scott Walker still wasn’t a prolific writer by any stretch of the imagination. He only wrote three of the twelve songs on it but at least two of them are great. The rest are covers, naturally. There are a couple of songs from films of the era and a few versions of contemporary songwriters’ material. The rest of it was taken up with three English versions of the soon to be quite well known sweaty Belgian dribbler, Jacques Brel. I’m not going to write about Jacques Brel in any depth here. I don’t mind him but I also don’t really speak the language, so I can’t really comment on the spirit of Mort Shuman’s translations of his lyrics. Of those people who give a shit, some think Scott Walker’s versions did Brel a big favour in terms of popularising his songs which dealt with unusually graphic depictions of slack morals and filth, even by the standards of stereotypical Belgians. Even compared with those who came later and ploughed a similar furrow, such as not actually Belgian Serge Gainsbourg. The rest of the people – who tend to be people like Momus (Scottish intellectual (non) pop star who might as well be French in terms of his predilection for similarly sleazy themes in his lyrics) who think Brel’s versions are unimpeachable. On his next two albums, Scott continued to cover Brel’s compositions and, to be honest, I find them a bit samey: they all sound like a horse galloping through a Gallic market with reckless abandon. Admittedly, Amsterdam doesn’t, that one sways like a drunkard three sheets to the wind who continues singing along to a band after they’ve finished playing, swaying and slurring the same three lines interminably. so no, I’m not going into Brel too much, although Scott was evidently very taken with his style, so much so that he wrote a few pastiches over the next few years.
Montague Terrace (In Blue)
I think of Montague Terrace (In Blue) as finding Scott halfway between The Walker Brothers and his Jacques Brel fixation inasmuch as it’s about heartbreak, but there’s a certain amount of Brel-ian imagery creeping in: “His bloated, belching figure stomps...”, and the (presumably) sex worker’s (who lives across the hall) “…thighs with tales to tell…” couldn’t have been written before he’d heard Brel’s depictions of squalor. Musically, it’s another big production number – chucking an orchestra at what is, really, a vignette about suffering. All minor chords and frozen condensation on the inadequate, rattling windows. It’s not about breaking up really – although it is a bit – it’s about a couple having a shitty life in their flat and they dream about living in a beautiful house on Montague Terrace and how they don’t want to break up, but their hard lives get in the way. Nonetheless, that’s some yearning going on there. The enormous drums that announce the major chords that comprise the chorus make the dream of the place and their relationship a big deal. Some nice images nestle in here too: “...swallowed in the stomach room...” does a great job of illustrating the suffocation of living in a room that’s not really big enough. As I said, it’s a bit of a transitionary record for Scott, neither rooted entirely in the past nor planted firmly in what he would soon become, but it’s well put together and it’s sad as hell.
Such A Small Love
Such A Small Love is, with hindsight, Scott beginning to really get his shit together. Neither a Brel Pastiche nor with half an eye on The Walker Brothers’ output (although the big orchestra is still there).
The title is ironic: classical in its understatement. Whatever else it was to anyone else, the love that Scott sings of was anything but small. The orchestra immediately (well, as soon as the chorus kicks in) alerts you to that and further examination of the lyrical content seals the deal.
I ought to say that I don’t rate Scott Walker as a wonderful lyricist. I think he had his moments when he really nailed what something feels like – he employed a couple of great metaphors but really, he drops far too many clunkers to be classed up there with the greats. He was a great singer, no argument from me but he could have done with another couple of drafts of a few of his songs, if you ask me.
Here, the line “…someone should have stopped… hammers striking nails into clay.” jars a bit. Who hammers nails into clay? It’s only there to rhyme with the previous line’s “...today.” Lines like that are like being woken in the middle of a dream and I’d have liked him to have sorted that out. Maybe it means a dangerous and futile endeavour, but I doubt it.
Thematically, it’s still about heartbreak and loss. Death, even. The death of a friend. A friend who shared debauched nights of drinking with him. “…Dago Red…” means cheap red wine, even though it sounds a bit like “Dayglo Red“. Scott’s at the funeral in his “...one suit…” and a girl’s crying. It’s full of regret and sadness at the world and it works. Jacques Brel couldn’t have written this – it’s too sensitive, although he did write a song about a funeral that Scott covered later, so perhaps the germ of the idea was Belgian in its origin – and, even though it’s right up the maiden aunt’s street, I can’t see that it would have troubled the singles charts very much. The album did well though (number 3 in September 1967, at the end the summer of love, which goes to show that while it’s tempting to assume that the whole of Britain was striding down some sort of lysergic road to Damascus realisation and enlightenment whilst wearing crushed velvet purple bell bottoms, the reality was that the black and white singers were still a very big deal, inconveniently for pop culture historians in search of a clear dividing line).
Hot on the tails of Scott 1, the imaginatively titled Scott 2 was – as far as I’m concerned – a marked step forward for the boy Walker. I’m not in the majority of Walker worshippers with this opinion. I’m not much of a fan of Scott 3 and most other people seem to think of 2 as being a misstep, corrected by 3. Scott 2 contains definite remnants of his Spectorish Wall Of Sound which had pretty much disappeared by Scott 3. Maybe that’s it, I don’t know. In some ways Scott 2 is the perfect title for it as it is very much a repeat of Scott 1‘s mixture of film songs, contemporary versions of songs and Brel covers plus, this time four self written songs. Maybe Scott 3 should have been called something else.
The Amorous Humphrey Plugg
I’ve written about this before, as it’s a bit more baroque ‘n’ roll than a lot of his records, even if not by very much. It’s one of my favourite Scott Walker records though. It’s all about escapism and a more fleshed out depiction of it than Montague Terrace (In Blue). Life’s boring most of the time and the titular Humphrey Plugg’s sick of being a house husband (possibly, but it’s a radical concept for early 1968. There is a possibility that Humphrey’s dreams of more excitement are more tangible and they comprise going out and getting pissed with his mates and it’s his wife who sings some of the lines (…”You’ve become a stranger, every night with the boys…“) and dreams of anthropomorphic household objects encouraging him to go out and find himself. Whichever is the case, it’s about stultifying adult life and responsibilities weighing heavily on his shoulders. Possibly leading to later heartbreak, who knows?
The Girls From The Streets
Now this really is a song that couldn’t have been written before he was exposed to Jacques Brel’s sordid tales of grotty debauchery. To be fair, it doesn’t gallop but, possibly in a nod to mainland Europe, there is a rather pathetic accordion that fails to bring in the chorus with any great aplomb before it burbles ineffectively throughout the chorus, unless that’s the point of it. Who knows? Fucking accordions, eh?
Lyrically, it seems to be aiming for grand metaphorical statements which can come off as being a little bit unwieldy – which Walker had a slight tendency towards. “...Moustache large like smoke from his cigar / Coughs up a joke and laughs a net of sound…” I know what he means, but it seems a bit clumsy for a song about having a shit time and cheering yourself up by going to a cathouse. A brothel.
Still, I do like it. Even though it’s a bit cheesy in most ways. It almost sounds like a Two Ronnies’ Musical Sketch set in a bawdy pub with men in comedy lederhosen, offering up double entredres in rhyming couplets. It feels homely, which might not be the greatest recommendation for a record you’ve ever read, but as it’s thematically about finding a home of sorts, however tawdry, it all works well. It reminds me of the sort of story that you think is fantastically funny when you begin relating it and then, three quarters of the way through it, you suddenly realise that, actually, it’s a boring story and nobody’s going to laugh at the denouement, yet it’s too late to stop telling it.
Maybe that says more about me than Scott Walker but there’s an element of that – being most of the way through a story that you’ve belatedly realise is going to fall flat – that, on some peculiar level at least, I quite enjoy. You can take your enjoyment of social awkwardness too far, can’t you?
My least favourite Scott Walker solo album from the generally highly critically rated first four. I don’t know why that is. I guess I just don’t really like many of the songs. The arrangements aren’t Spectorish by now, as I said, but the Spectorisms have been replaced by something far less appealing to my ears. It’s bordering on Mantovani in places. Actually, I wouldn’t really know what Mantovani actually sounds like, having never listened to any, but it’s cloying. A bit saccharine for my liking. A bit Broadway and not good Broadway either, if that’s a thing.
As far as the songs go, Scott’s hit a prolific seam, writing all of them except the last three, which are all Brel covers, none of which I can be bothered with at all. Scott’s own “We Came Through” fills up the place of the usual Brel horse gallop here and it’s alright if you miss that sort of thing, which I don’t. Perhaps it’s the lack of variety of writers that I miss, but Scott 4‘s my favourite and that’s entirely Scott Walker written, so who knows?
It’s Raining Today
I’m pleased that the cover’s on that video I’ve linked here – it’s the colour of the eyelashes that appeal to me. It seems as if they been individually painted, which they might have been, unless there’s some sort of eyelash brush or mascara that does that. Again, I’ve never really looked into it, but I like it. Perhaps something for the future…
For once, Scott manages to not go overboard with his metaphors and sticks to simple imagery which work really nicely. The “Train window girl...” “Cellophane skies…” are less laboured even if they’re a bit Beatley.
So far, so good. However, the middle eight (“I’ve hung around too long...”) is indicative of the mush that clogs up most of the rest of the album. Like I say, a bit Broadway for the likes of me.
Apart from the middle eight, the music’s restrained and halting, like rain halting a cricket match. Good stuff, although if it was on 2 or 4, I don’t suppose I’d have written about it at all.
30th Century Man
The shortest song on the album and also the one without any orchestration on it, which might explain why I quite like it. I don’t love it but, again, in comparison to the rest of it, yeah, it’s great.
It’s just a three chord acoustic guitar strum along, but the guitar sounds nice enough and, Jesus, I can’t cope with half an hour of Broadway crud, about which I’ve written enough.
It’s about how everybody dies, no matter how important or rich they are (“Even Charles De Gaulle…). The 30th Century Man is about the idea of (presumably) some sort of cryogenic freezing technique and he mentions “Saran wrap“, which I’ve only just been bothered to look up – it means clingfilm, so I suppose that’s going along with the preservation theme of the song.
It’s not deep really which, given Scott’s tendency to overcook metaphors, is quite surprising. Perhaps I should be grateful for small mercies…
Of the people who rate Scott Walker’s solo albums, generally Scott 4 is held up as his masterpiece. It’s certainly my favourite of his. What went right? Well, the Mantovani/Broadway cloying strings have gone, even if he slips occasionally back into somewhat clunky lyrics from time to time. Mainly what went right was his songwriting which peaks here. Unfortunately, as everybody who cares already knows, Scott 4 sold fuck all. Perhaps because he decided to release it under the name Noel Engel, which is his real name. Why he continued the Scott numbering system, I have no idea. Scott 3 sold well, reaching number 3 in March 1969, although apparently sales were on the wane already. Still, to go from number 3 to absolutely nowhere is some going. Especially as the songs and arrangements are as good as most of them are on this.
To be fair, in the gap between Scott 3 and 4, he’d had a television series and released an album of (cover) songs from that (July 1969). By the time Scott 4 came out, November 1969, perhaps it was just overkill – three albums in eight months might have been a bit much for the maiden aunts and melodramatic girls who comprised his core audience. On the other hand, some of the songs on this album bear such little resemblance to his previous records that maybe he just left his audience behind with his new direction. It’s sort of a shame but it also isn’t because it’s hardly a lost album.
The Seventh Seal
If his intention was to leave behind his mawkish audience behind, then this was as good as any other. Romantically inclined melancholics who enjoyed handsome men martyring themselves were hardly likely to be too enthralled with what is, essentially, a precis of the plot of Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film of the same name which might be most famous among philistines like me for inspiring Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey. I heard the record before I’d seen the film and didn’t realise what was going on until then. As it is, it’s a bit of a “What I did on my holidays” story on the first day back after summer, written by a primary school kid who thinks that the most important thing to do is to list everything that happened and not to go into any of it.
The arrangement is great though. Beginning with a mariachi trumpet and Spanish guitar flourish (oddly enough for something inspired by a Swedish film), it – like a couple of other songs on the album – borders on funky, without ever actually getting there: for reasons I’ll go into shortly.
As usual, there’s an orchestra here but its arrangement bears no resemblance at all to either Spector’s Wall Of Sound or to the Mantovani/Broadwayisms of Scott 3. All the way through Scott 4, the orchestral arrangements punctuate more than they support. If the orchestrations on 1-3 were a lush feather bed, here they’re more like a Greek chorus, intervening occasionally and even then only to provide clarity to the story that’s being told.
Which is another point about Scott Walker’s solo records in general. Whereas The Walker Brothers’ songs generally followed the early Beatles’ lead in terms of personal pronouns – all you, me, I, we, us – in his solo work, his songs were generally stories about third parties. Not always, but generally on 1-3 they were. On Scott 4, there’s a little bit of both going on. The Seventh Seal is told from a third person’s perspective – a narrator’s really. The Amorous Humphrey Plugg, even though it utilised the first person perspective, it was obviously not about Scott Walker and had him playing (more than) characters, sometimes explicitly, sometimes not.
The Seventh Seal would have stuck out like a sore thumb on any of his earlier albums, but here it provides a fitting introduction, especially in terms of the rubbery bass guitar that pops up on several tracks, lolloping along, probing and driving everything else along. It might not always succeed, especially in terms of driving everything along, but its propulsion is an important aspect of the record as a whole and, I would go so far to suggest, is one of the main factors in the love that this album receives today. Who was the bass player? There have been a few suggestions although the player’s identity remains in some doubt. Why? It was a session player and nobody’s credited on the album. As it sounds very much like the bass playing on some Serge Gainsbourg records of the era, there’s a suggestion it could be Dave Richmond – who began with Manfred Mann and later played with Elton John, and Bread, neither of whom would have really needed from a bass player capable of getting as funky as whoever played on Serge Gainsbourg’s sixties records. Possibly it was Brian Odgers, who is listed – along with Richmond -on session notes on Histoire De Melody Nelson. In terms of that French classic, Richmond claims it was him. Some suggest it was Herbie Flowers, whose most famous session bass playing is on Walk On The Wild Side, Lou Reed’s sleazy classic. As Scott himself played bass (at least live) for The Walker Brothers, some suggest it was him. Scott couldn’t remember either but he was asked about it and his response was that, whoever it was, it was a might fine bass player. And that’s what I reckon. I don’t know who it was, but whoever it was was shit hot.
On Your Own Again
A song of two halves. The first part features a meanderingly plucked steel strung acoustic guitar with Scott setting the scene. A slightly melancholic scene that begins with him asking, rhetorically, “Wasn’t it a good year?” However, the next line throws you a bit, “Wasn’t filled with talkin’” which is an unusual way to qualify his first statement. Note that he sings, talkin’, not talking. Not unusual in the world of pop singers but he’s always seemed to emphasise the lack of the ‘g’ when he sings. And talks. I’ve not read much about Scott Walker (my favourite Scott Walker fact is that, in the late 1960s, he owned the world’s biggest dog – a Saint Bernard. Verified by no less an authority than the Guinness Book Of Records, so there you go) but when I’ve read interviews with him, he’s always, always, reported as dropping his ‘g’s. And he does, but noticeably.
Anyway, at the 50 second mark, when he sings the word “...love,” in the line, “Heroes died in subways left behind, far behind like our love,” the orchestra enters. Not with a bang, as it tended to on 1-3, but it slithers insidiously across the track, like an unwanted and aggressive plant smothering its host. It does it beautifully, make no mistake, but it brings an air of mournfulness with it. Which works perfectly because it’s a story about pretending that he’s better off on his own than in a relationship that he obviously valued. The final line’s great too, “Except when it began, I was so happy, I didn’t feel like me.” Which adds another layer to the whole thing. A neat trick. One that suggests that, like the subject of The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore, emptiness is a cloak Scott wears, and one he likes wearing because it suits him. In fact, it is him and the whole story of the song is a lie that he tells himself. Yes, himself. The song’s chorus is “You‘re on your own again…” Scott’s trying to kid himself and he doesn’t really succeed. Not in that way, at least. The song – all of it – shows us what the truth is, even as he’s lying about it. Beautiful.
The World’s Strongest Man
Another – sort of – lie. The title’s positive but crucially he sings, “I’m not the world’s strongest man“. I don’t know why he didn’t include the negative in the title, but I suspect it’s there to throw the listener – again, after the previous song played a similar trick, although he subverts it yet again towards the end. Its position on the album, following On Your Own, is perfect, which I’ll get to.
It’s a straightforward song of – yet again – heartbreak, loss and regret. He’s lost his girl and he wants her back. Maybe she’s not too great – he doesn’t really say, it’s all about him – hence he ought to be stronger. Perhaps she messed him around and he feels weak, trying to get her back, but he doesn’t care.
The line that brings it quite cleverly back to the previous song is, “And I need your love you know I can’t pretend anymore.” A neat, linear link that wouldn’t have worked anywhere near as well had it followed any other song. I’m a big fan.
Finally, the coda of the song finds Scott engaging in a bit of scat singing, which I quite like on the whole. Dweeby-doob-da-boo-do, sort of thing. He’d not really engaged in any of that previously and it crops up several times on Scott 4.
The next two songs, for me, represent a bit of a sag towards the middle of what is quite a short album. Angels Of Ashes is widely loved, but it doesn’t quite make it. It’s not dissimilar to On Your Own Again, at least in terms of its arrangement – starting out with plaintively picked steel strung acoustic, shortly joined by sweeping strings. It’s better than anything on Scott 3 but it’s still a bit lush for me. It sounds a bit drunk, but that’s probably the slurring strings. Lyrically, the imagery is religious and, while I generally quite enjoy a bit of religious imagery in pop songs, it’s a bit much for me.
Boy Child ends side 1 and I don’t really like that too much either. Again, I’m in the minority but part of me suspects that it’s mainly a certain type of (older) male who enjoys Scott Walker’s solo records these days and I think the lyrical content appeals to the boy children who listen to them. It’s about the power of lurve and how it can make men young again. I can see its appeal, in the same way that I can see that Breaking Bad‘s a good television series, I just can’t be arsed with either of them. I’m not trying to be contrary about anything, it’s just a bit self-serving and valiant, I suppose. I don’t mind it.
Hero Of The War
A sarcastic sort of anti-war song that deals with the aftermath of war: what about the soldiers who are left broken and disabled after it? The hero of the war is a quadriplegic who has returned to his mother’s house. She’s pleased he’s home and colour is added because she’s also pleased that the girl who he was keen on before he went to war is no longer interested in him. Which appears to be good news, at least as far as his mother is concerned – “Once you couldnt keep that whore from hanging ’round,” an unusually brave slant for a pop song – tackling the idea that “Nobody’s good enough for my baby.” It also turns out that his father had died in a previous war, hence the story goes on and on. It’s the ordinary people who suffer and who are expected to pick up the pieces of their lives once they’re no longer of any use to the warmongers.
Finally, the emptiness of the title ‘Hero‘ is explicitly revealed. He nobody’s hero really. The war was a waste of time and life, like most wars.
The Old Man’s Back Again
Possibly the best Scott Walker solo record and a significant part of that is due to the bass playing on it. One of my favourite descriptions of it was somebody on the internet who said it sounded like a soldier at a checkpoint rummaging through someone’s bag. I don’t know if I entirely agree with the description, but I enjoy it all the same. Other people have described it as redolent of Panzer tanks rolling through pedestrian streets, but that’s probably more related to the lyrical imagery of the song. For me, it sounds like something sinister that’s just crawled out of a sewer, in control of more legs than it knows what to do with. It prowls malevolently, like an living embodiment of wickedness for wickedness’s sake. It’s a funky bassline, certainly the funkiest thing on any Scott Walker record but the track itself, as a whole, lacks the funk – like The Seventh Seal also does and the reason is because of the drums which are pedestrian, hitting only on the offbeat. Periodically, there’s a flourish here and there, but I can’t help but wonder what a genuinely funky, funky drummer might have brought to the table, so to speak. Perhaps that’s what they were going for and I’m missing something – let’s not rule it out. Still, a missed opportunity if you ask me.
The subtitle of the song’s Dedicated To The Neo-Stalinist Regime, which relates straightforwardly to Khrushchev’s Russian government and, specifically, to the events of the Prague Spring of 1968 which found Czechoslovakia adopting a slightly more liberal government and attitude than was acceptable to the Russians, who crushed it (“Just like a beast“) with tanks and soldiers who shot civilians.
The eponymous old man is Stalin, back again in the guise of Khrushchev. The last verse, like in Hero Of The War, relates to the price that the individuals who fought the war paid. When asked about it, Scott said that he didn’t take sides and he thought both sides were wrong. Again, an unusual perspective for a pop star to take, especially in those heady days when revolution appeared to be in the air.
Once again, the song ends with Scott scatting. Despite the undercooked drums – a classic.
The final three songs on the album fit together beautifully. At the time, country rock was resurgent – everyone was at it. Possibly as a result of Dylan’s example that began with John Wesley Harding in 1968 and which reached its zenith with Nashville Skyline and The Band‘s first couple of albums. The last three songs border on country rock, at least in terms of the pedal steel guitar that decorates them.
Duchess is a beautiful song,beautifully recorded and sung. Once, having played this album for a girl I was seeing, I explained what The Old Man’s Back Again was about – at her behest, I didn’t just volunteer it – and she seemed quite impressed by somebody with at least a cursory working knowledge of post WWII Eastern Bloc history. When Duchess was playing, she was immediately taken by it and asked what it was about. I had to be slightly more vague and told that I didn’t really know, but I thought it might have been about a woman who Scott Walker felt a bit guilty about not impregnating – “Makes me feel like a thief when you’re bleeding...” a gauche reading of a delicate issue, I suppose, but it’s the best I can do. This girl expressed disappointment at my vague and, realistically, vulgar impression of it, especially considering how erudite I’d been about The Old Man’s Back Again. I pointed out that The Old Man’s Back Again was helpfully subtitled Dedicated To The Neo-Stalinist Regime which offered a pointer in the right direction, but she didn’t seem too impressed by that. In terms of my having ‘cheated’ with the Stalin subtitle or by my lack of insight into Duchess.
As love songs go – and I suppose it is a love song – it’s not especially lyrically romantic. “Rembrandt swells” and “Old girl’s grace” don’t strike me as being great lines to offer the object of your affection. Unless you’re trying to piss her off. Maybe he really believed he was at his best when he was on his own again, to call back to the second song on the album. Maybe he was always being dumped because he obliquely called his girlfriend fat and old. Yet again, I don’t know. Somehow I doubt it, but what do I know, eh?
Despite its unusual lyrical content, it’s a beautiful song, one that Bobby Gillespie regularly includes on his compilation cds and, despite that as well, it’s fantastic.
Get Behind Me
More strident steel strung acoustic guitar picking introduces this widely – and bizarrely often misconstrued – song before the chorus is slammed into your earholes with the introduction of the kitchen sink: strings, drums, fuzz guitar and, for the final time on this intermittently almost funky album, utterly ludicrous bass guitar. The Old Man’s Back Again gets all the plaudits – deservedly so because the bass is outstanding on that – but for me, this is that bass guitar’s finest few minutes. Starting high, it trips and stumbles downwards, doing the exact opposite of what 99.9% of all bass players ever would play. Give it a listen, it’s fucking ace.
I mentioned that it’s widely misunderstood, you know, like I’m some sort of authority but in this case, it seems so obvious that I don’t understand why so many people have suggested that it’s along the lines of Get Thee Behind Me Satan. The chorus goes, “Get behind me… you know I really need a friend...” It means, ‘get behind me’ like supporters of anything or anybody get behind them: supporting somebody. Maybe I’m missing something equally obvious, but it’s a call for help as far as I can gather. Like The Band’s “The Weight” but less grouchy about doing it, possibly because Scott’s the one putting a load on some other bastard and not the other way around.
Whatever it’s about, it’s great and, yet again, Scott scats his way out of it as it fades out.
Rhymes Of Goodbye
The final song on the album and the third of the country rock tracks, it’s also further evidence of the careful though that went into sequencing the tracks on Scott 4. As far as it goes, putting tracks in order seems like a fairly minor part of putting an album together, but it can make all the difference. I’m a big fan of The Queen Is Dead by The Smiths, but it’s appallingly sequenced. I can see what they were getting at, but it’s like deciding to eat cornflakes for breakfast, dinner and tea Monday to Wednesday, sandwiches for each meal Thursday to Friday and Sunday dinner for six meals at the weekend. Spread it out, you know? The best albums tend to be sequenced the best as well. It might be even more important than the songs in some ways. Other perfectly sequenced albums? The Stone Roses and Forever Changes, both of which comprise songs that could be seen as being a bit same, but which work perfectly in the order they’ve been sequenced.
Later Scott Walker
Nothing. Truly. I know Jarvis Cocker suggests that the first half of When The Band Comes In, the record that followed Scott 4 might as well be Scott 5 and it’s right up there with this, but I can’t hear it myself. It’s alright, but a significant drop off in quality following Scott 4. I think it’s wishful thinking, personally.
After that, he went MOR country and western, as perhaps suggested by the final three tracks on Scott 4 but not really. They were country and western alright – and I like a bit of country, but they weren’t up to much.
Later, The Walker Brothers got back together and hit the charts with their cover of No Regrets, which I’m not interested in. Then came another Walker Brothers album on which Scott started to display his avant garde tendencies and that’s the furrow he ploughed until his death about a month ago.
As far as I’m concerned, he reached his peak songwriting on Scott 4 and the failure of that meant that record companies encouraged him to return to the pay dirt of his earlier, commercially successful material, which meant cover versions. My perspective is that he suffered a crisis of confidence and stopped writing. Once that happens, it’s difficult to pick it up again and I think that’s why he went down the avant garde route when he began writing again. I don’t think he knew how to write songs like he had on Scott 4. Maybe he didn’t want to do that again, having done it once, I don’t know.
The later avant garde musique concrete experiments he carried out were, in some ways, throwbacks to his earlier, rather clumsy tendency to cloak his lyrics in clumsy metaphors. I don’t dislike the avant garde by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve got Stockhausen records, Yoko Ono records, a fair bit of Free Jazz and I’m into it. Not all the time, but it’s not like everything has to have a tune or a groovy beat for me to dig it. I just don’t think Scott Walker was very good at it. I’m pleased he found some sort of audience and recognition for what he did, but I don’t want to hear any of it again.
Unlike his work with The Walker Brothers and quite a lot of Scott 1-4, which, to half quote one of his earlier songs, (I’m) Always Coming Back To You.
What was it like when we were young
Sleeping in each others arms
Walking in each others dreams…
Scott Walker, captain of The Love Boat, I’m glad you were around.