Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Old Man, Clara, The Conducator

Last May my son studied the beginnings of the Holocaust in one of his high school classes. They were covering the ghettos when we talked about it. He said a few very interesting things.

First he said he was concerned that he wasn't more affected by it. He could understand it intellectually but he found it difficult to have an emotional response. As we talked about it it became clear that the reason his emotional response wasn't apparent was because the subject is so intense that there is no possible response that is large enough to be appropriate.

Second he said that he understood "deniers" because your mind cannot take it all in. The temptation is to dismiss the possibility.

Third he said that the only reason he felt like he could tolerate the discussion of the ghettos was because things were as good as they were ever going to be. What follows is unimaginable.

Fourth (and this is a film tangent) he referenced the Kubrick exhibit that we saw a while ago which chronicles a project Kubrick worked on and eventually abandoned that focused on the Holocaust. He said he was glad that Kubrick hadn't made the film because an artist as powerful as Kubrick doing a Holocaust film would be terrifying to behold.

I consider Scott Walker to be the Stanley Kubrick of song. He has written again and again about the brutality of various regimes. In fact, as he has increasingly distanced himself from the usual concerns of romantic pop, his work has turned ever darker and looked unsparingly at the depths that human beings will go to in order to maintain control over one another.

And just as that unfinished Kubrick project would have been almost unbearable to ingest, so do Walker's genocidal compositions defy any comfortable access to the listener.

On 1969's Scott 4, Walker had taken back his birth name to credit his songs. Noel Scott Engel wrote his first full length original album. It contained a song called "The Old Man's Back Again (Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime)" which was about what had occurred in Prague the year before and the Russian backed government that had taken charge.

Somehow Walker turned this into some kind of cool funk rock lounge dance track with a killer bassline...take a listen.

36 years later, he would write and record "Clara" for 2006's "The Drift". This song makes "The Old Man's Back Again" look like "I Want to Hold Your Hand" in comparison.

The title refers to Clara Petacci, Mussolini's lover who was executed along with the Italian dictator. Their corpses were strung up and desecrated by angry Italians. Walker recalls seeing a snapshot of this in a newsreel before a movie as a kid. It haunted him so completely that he made an almost unbearable work of art out of it.

Listen to "Clara". You won't be singing along too much. It is almost thirteen minutes long.

Just as disturbing is the track from Bish Bosch called "The Day The Conducator Died (An Xmas Song)". "The Conducator" is the Romanian word for "leader" and is what Ceaucescu called himself.

This tune is almost eight minutes long and is no walk in the park either. The lilting little Christmas coda is about as creepy as music gets and I am not even sure why. Check out "The Day The Conducator Died (An Xmas Song)".

Back to my son and his response to studying the Holocaust in school. And this is appropriate right now seeing as the new leader of Iran stood before the UN and said, "Yeah, we admit it HAPPENED in spite of what the last loser leader of our country hinted at over and over again."

See, we don't want to acknowledge our faults. Think about how truly difficult that is to do on a personal level. To say, "I did THAT. THAT wrong thing. I knew it was wrong and I did it anyway."

For the human race to do that on a global scale??? It is almost unthinkable. It seems impossible. But that is where ART comes in. Art doesn't have to be elected. It doesn't have to please constituents. It doesn't have to deliver food to the hungry or protect the weak from those who would oppress them.

But it can take the human race by the scruff of the neck and force it's stupid head in front of a mirror and hold it there until it cries and says, "I am sorry I have done such things."

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Dr. Mars: Glamour, Clamor, And The End Of Time

For many of us, Dr. Mars represents everything good we used to count on. I say "us" and "we" as if there is some kind of organization but that really isn't the case. A few groups of threes and fours roam around, rarely sixes or sevens, mostly ones and twos. Nothing is constant these days but if you can locate a radio in an abandoned storefront it's a pretty good bet you'll hear Dr. Mars coming from it.

I remember tracking a group (not nice people from what I could tell) who were collecting guns from various abandoned armories. I thought maybe I could find a way to sabotage their progress, to do something that might convince them to change their ways. Then I saw them kill an old man for a rusty pistol and knew I'd better just let 'em go.

That afternoon I heard "Are You There" coming from a novelty radio from a toy store. The sound mimics what it feels like to be alive these days. It's so familiar, it feels like it was made long ago, but it has the urgency of an immediate performance. It also brings the hair up on your neck the way you get when you sense something important ABOUT to happen. If you're clocking tenses, that's past/present/future all in one.

When Dr. Mars says, "I've been searching so long/Are you there?" you know it could be about a certain girl but you also can't shake the suspicion that there is more information woven in that is not so easily identifiable.

Indeed, in the very next song "Personally", Dr. Mars talks about "encounters of the fourth kind" and says we should "take it personally" but also talks about taking Manhattan and outer space. The desire to boil everything down to the love of one girl being enough to make it on this crazy planet gains a massive layer of melancholy when you take into consideration how few of us there are left and how impossible that kind of dream can feel in the face of obvious mass extinction.

Later in a dusty old roadhouse bar with a flashing jukebox powered by some solar cell, Dr. Mars gives me "The Ashtar Command". If I had enough time with a pencil and paper and a few cold leisurely beers, I KNOW I could decipher it, but trouble has been in the air today and I only get one quick listen. Tension seems to be running high for whatever reason and I decide to skirt the city, nestling my nocturnal journey between the abandoned high-rises and the scorched forest.

I don't know where they broadcast from. Sometimes the sound comes from up in the hills, they must have a generator up there because I can hear the amplifiers. I've been skulking, hoping for some kind of signal that something might have changed somewhere important, that they have news I need from a place I can never access again.

Along the way, I meet a wayward damsel. We hole up in the Presidential Suite of some swanky relic. Sure enough, the bedside radio brings more Dr. Mars to light, "I'll Have You Anyway", which serves as a dirty backdrop to our furtive embrace. She's on her own path, headed in the opposite direction and the temptation to alter mine to match hers is strong. But I have my own unfinished business that somehow still feels important in spite of everything I've lost.

Somehow there is glamour woven in among the gloom and doom. All kinds of treasures are just lying around waiting to be picked up and used. I rounded a corner on Highway 54 and found a cabin tucked behind a row of forsythia bushes. Whoever built it must have seen the writing on the wall because they put a solar powered gennie in the garage. There was a tricked out '32 Ford Hot-Rod sitting there, gleaming under a layer of dust, dying to be aired out and let loose on an open highway. As I gunned it up to 120 MPH the radio static transformed into another transmission from Dr. Mars, "The Last Ride". Those falsetto background vocals hang over the driving rhythm section like thunderclouds over a plain.

You drive a rig like that around and you're bound to attract company. Especially of the femme fatale variety. Sure enough she stuck her thumb out and I dropped from 120 to 0 and watched her fold her long legs into the passenger seat. Sure her hair against the sunset streaming behind us made a pretty picture but her idea of fun was shooting windows out of abandoned cars as we zoomed past. Having spent many months living inside a car like that, I had to put my foot down. The silence was punctuated by the strains of "Whatever I Say Goes" drifting up from a shopping cart piled high with anything and everything, a detritus sundae topped with a transistor radio of a cherry.

The confrontation left her shaken. She wasn't used to people sticking by her AFTER a fight like that. We camped out next to the '32 and I stroked her hair as she cried. I remembered the Dr. Mars "Neptune's Daughter" song and thought about telling her about it but she was so muddled up it might just have made things worse. I settled on helping her focus on the crickets. She drifted off to sleep. But I told her the refrain..."You don't have to keep it all to yourself."

In the morning she was gone.

So was the '32.

Easy come easy go.

I backtracked and found that shopping cart. It made for slow going but whoever had put it together knew what they were doing. Water purification, dehydrated foodstuff, military rations, basic toiletries, a few simple tools, and best of all, five pairs of brand new boots, just my size.

And that transistor on the top. Remember, it's all static now except the few pockets of pirate radio. All they have is Dr. Mars last offering, "Stars In Our Favour". As I pushed my cart in my new boots, "The Golden Age" didn't even sound ironic. Sad, yes, but still somehow hopeful.

Are you getting the picture now? As I trudge I hear "You Had The Same Dream Too", some sort of elegy bound up with a tragic romance. Then "The Capsule" blasts off out of that emotional wreckage, giving me the impression that I'm not trapped here, that I can leave any time I want, that I'm not pushing a wire cage on wheels.

Where would I go in that little ship?

What coordinates would I punch into the interstellar destination locator?

Rumors from hobos hiding underneath every dusty junkyard mattress to machine-gun-toting guards at impenetrable compounds hint of colonies on some moon somewhere. Just when I scoff at the thought, Dr. Mars comes crackling out waltzing me out into that deep beyond with the desperate longing of "Europa". How could that song exist if we couldn't get there? When the horns come in I can't help but imagine Dr. Mars stepping out of a hatch onto a welcome platform, thronging masses of well-adjusted peace-loving human Europans cheering as one.

Just when that vision becomes too much for my poor little abandoned heart to take, "The Sweetheart Deal, Part Two" slides out of my radio and I think, maybe Jupiter is out of the question, but isn't it possible I could track Dr. Mars down and join? Like that old spiritual says, "He don't say nothin' but he must know somethin'".

But that's where the fear comes in because all I know about them is the way they sound. If I can believe what I hear, there must be something good happening in some secret locale. Some Hobbit hole with books and records and good wine and long stupid conversations punctuated by deliberate hilarity. I mean, somewhere you can really relax and feel like everything will be okay.

That's a big if.

Because everything is most definitely NOT okay. Whatever will be has not come to pass yet, if it ever will. You think "Europa" is hard to get to, what about the FUTURE? Only way to get there is one slow second at a time. So I push my cart and wear out my five pair of boots and wait for another cypher from Dr. Mars to tell me where I ought to be going.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Scott Walker and Catherine Deneuve

In 1964 a film was released that catapulted Catherine Deneuve to international stardom. If you haven't seen "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" I urge you to make it a priority. But don't watch it on a tiny laptop with interruptions. If you must watch it at home make sure it is on a big screen and commit to the whole kit and kaboodle.

It is a musical unlike any other. Every line of the film is sung. Small talk, conversations between incidental characters, shopkeepers and customers, how-do-you-do's and pardon-me-ma'am's are scored as lushly as the songs that erupt from the existing musical landscape.

On top of this layer of unreality, director Jacques Demy manages to create a palette consisting entirely of primary colors, every blue the same blue, every red the same red, green to green, until this impossible scheme forces you into a world as idealized and imaginary as any Disney cartoon. The double whammy of these two unreal elements (music and color) juxtaposed with the melodrama of a young shop girl pregnant by her young lover sent off to fulfill his duty to his country - well, you wind up with just about the saddest most romantic movie ever made.

I won't give much more away than that. I only explain that much to put this next link into the proper context. The Walker Brothers were on fire. They'd had two number one hits in England, both of which had also done quite well in the United States, and they had come to be seen as their own unique brand of brooding doomed romantics. The pairing of their Gothic sensuality with the European lilt of the signature "song" from "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" is, in a word, transcendent.

Now, Scott Walker was already chafing at this kind of cover song. More and more he was writing compositions that rival this one in scope and beauty and melodic power. Regardless of how he views the songs that he was "forced" to interpret during this period, I (heavy stress on that I) feel that his vocal work on these covers places him in very rare company, company you can count on both hands. Frank, Judy, Dean, Tony, Ray, Nina, Ella...I'm sure you could argue any number of folks in that pantheon but if Scott Walker had never written a song he would still be one of the greatest singers of all time.

Listen to The Walker Brothers soar to impossibly sad romantic heights in their cover of the theme song to "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" in the song "I Will Wait For You". I picture thousands of English high school girls (and boys) closed up in their rooms, tears streaming down their cheeks, wishing and dreaming of the eternal devotion promised in this gorgeous song.

Next up, Scott Walker solo sings more Michel LeGrand...

Friday, May 3, 2013

Scott Walker "Miniatures"

In audio taken from one of his BBC TV show broadcasts, Scott Walker introduces the song "Winter Night" from Scott 3 as a "miniature". The late '60's rock scene was all about excess. Everyone was trying to out-epic everyone else. The two minute thirty second hit single was seen as teeny-bopper fodder and artists were looking to move rock into uncharted territory, both in subject matter and length.

Scott Walker, as usual, was operating in another sphere altogether. Some of the song lengths on Scott 3 (of his own composition, not the Brel songs that close the album out) are as follows:

We Came Through 1:59
Butterfly 1:42
30 Century Man 1:29
Winter Night 1:45

Then on Scott 4 there is On Your Own Again which clocks in at 1:48 and 'Til The Band Comes in has Jean The Machine at 2:10 and Cowbell Shakin' at 1:06, barely a snippet.

This seems to be a trend in his work of the period. When compared with the work he's been doing over the past two decades they seem like thoughts that flicker across his mind. Song lengths from his past three albums routinely start at seven minutes at least and stretch to over twenty on Bish Bosch.

But these miniatures as he calls them are not underdone. They are fully realized. They are exactly as long as they need to be. Nothing superfluous, nothing redundant, no need to reiterate.

In fact, if I didn't point out how short We Came Through is you would undoubtedly classify it as an epic. I am linking to a video that pairs the song with a car driving up a parking garage ramp. Ground floor to roof and the song is over. The lyrics posted on the video are incorrect in one crucial spot so I'm going to post them here.

Watch Scott Walker's miniature epic "We Came Through" from Scott 3.

We Came Through

We came through
We came riding through like warriors from afar
Our black horses danced upon the graves
Of yesterday's desires
Haunted by our visions framed in fire

I greet you
For you still believe in what's behind the door
You see children freeze upon their knees
And praying to the wind
To send their grey Madonnas back again

Fire the guns
And salute the men who died for freedom's sake
And we'll weep tonight but we won't lie awake
Gazing up at statues dressed in stars

We won't dream
For they don't come true for us, not anymore
They've run far away to hide in caves
With haggard burning eyes
Their icy voices tear our hearts like knives

We came through
Like the Gothic monsters perched on Notre Dame
We observed the naked souls of gutters
Pouring forth mankind
Smothered in an avalanche of time

And we're giants
As we watch our kings and countries raise their shields
And Guevera dies encased in his ideals
And as Luther King's predictions fade from view

We came through
We came through
We came riding through

All that in under two minutes.

Miniature? Hardly.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Scott Walker Scares An Empty Studio: Rosary

After 1984's "Climate Of Hunter", Scott Walker seemingly disappeared again. "Climate Of Hunter" was a challenging work laced with a strange funkiness. The advent of English New Wave seemed to put Walker's style in a position to possibly connect with a wider audience again. But again, this didn't happen. He did a few awkward TV and radio interviews in support of "Climate" but the slick shallow newly formed MTV aesthetic was a terrible fit for him.

Eleven years pass. 1995's "Tilt" makes "Climate Of Hunter" sound like Lionel Richie in comparison. Walker clearly had decided that any kind of clinging to traditional song structure or attempt at pop melody was no longer part of his palette. He'd been there, done that.

"Tilt" is, in a word, intense. Dense jarring drum noises, gorgeous string orchestral sections laid over horribly violent imagery, a vocal approach that dispenses with verse/chorus/verse/bridge predictability and a headlong rush into a new kind of song where comforting structure simply no longer exists. I don't make distinctions between the "Old Scott Walker" and the "New Scott Walker". It all seems consistent to me. The staggering thing about it is the wide disparity between works of art that come from the same mind. It is as if Samuel Beckett spent years writing popular television, backslid to empty formulaic made for TV movies and spent the last third of his life writing his avant-garde plays.

The commercial landscape had changed so drastically between 1984 and 1995 that "Tilt" actually performed quite well, reaching #27 on the UK Album Chart. Noisy music was finally in the mainstream. Somehow Scott Walker had finally arrived at what he probably should have been all along. An idiosyncratic avant-garde boundary dissolver with a cult following. The massive success of "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore" had finally settled to an appropriate level.

This "arrival" wasn't heralded by any kind of shift in how Walker did things, however. He didn't embark on a world tour performing all his old hits in a tux and an orchestra while performing his new material with a crack punk band. He merely began the process of waiting for his next album to come to him. Which wouldn't happen until 2006.

He did, however, agree to one momentous occasion. He agreed to perform live on a television program called "Later...with Jools Holland". Jools Holland was a founding member of Squeeze, has a very successful post-Squeeze solo career, and has been hosting a music show for almost twenty years featuring interviews, live performances and impromptu collaboration.

Walker agreed but only if they allowed him to tape his performance without an audience. The clip shows how "Later" handled this, making it appear as if Walker was in a packed studio.

"Tilt" is filled with noise as I said before. The one exception is the song that closes the album, "Rosary". It is also the only track on the album where Walker plays an instrument as well as sings. It is this stark confrontational difficult song that Walker chose to perform. He COULD have chosen anything from the album, brought an impressive bizarre orchestra to showcase the ambitious sonic scope of the album.

Instead Walker chose a song that is so bare, so stripped of recognizable traditional song structure that the result is almost embarrassing, like watching someone in a private moment that they would never want you to see.

I almost never read comment threads but I perused these just to see what people thought. Old fans were dismayed that he was abandoning melody and beauty, those unfamiliar with him wondered how a man who couldn't sing or play guitar got on a TV show and even new fans wondered why he would choose THIS song to sing.

But again, Walker wasn't interested in presenting some IDEA of himself. He'd lost the ability to do that years ago. He was only capable of the performance that was as close to authenticity as he could possibly muster. It is a very disorienting performance. The music seems to be barely written, as if some kind of savant had discovered an electric guitar sitting next to him at a moment of great crisis.

I am not sure of the origin of the following quote but I recently became aware of it through Ricky Gervais' twitter account, which I highly recommend. The quote I refer to is, "If you want to lead the orchestra, you must turn your back on the audience."

Scott Walker took it a step further. He made them leave the room.

Watch Scott Walker perform "Rosary" live from 1995.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

One Minute Forty One Seconds Of Infinity

The documentary that kicked my Scott Walker obsession into being is called Scott Walker: 30 Century Man which is the title of a song off of 1969's "Scott 3".

The song is an anomaly in the Walker catalog. The first side on the vinyl Scott 3 LP consists of seven lush orchestral impossibilities. Each seems to be more beautiful and sad than the last. Each is dense to an almost pathological level. They are hothouse rainforests of melody. They envelop you in such a complete sonic landscape that you almost feel as if you are suspended within them.

Now flip the LP over.

30 Century Man cuts everything away. A simple acoustic guitar strum. A song that is as basic as they come. When I learned it on acoustic guitar I was shocked at how basic it was. The chords in it could be learned in 20 minutes by someone who had never played guitar. Compared with the strings and horns and complexity of the first side, this song is like a flat rock on top of a flat rock.

The lyrics are equally gigantic and immutable. There is a philosophy at work here that cannot be denied. Walker deliberately strips all distraction away from the words. He sings them without inflection, without emotional resonance, another flat rock on top of the slab. Posting lyrics as a way to explain the ideas contained in a song usually seems like a perfectly acceptable way to convey an opinion but in this case there just is no way to approach the MEANING of this song without the whole package working together.

Here's what happened to me while listening to it.

I'd heard the song dozens of times and didn't pause to consider it much. It works on such an obvious level that it is easy to underestimate it. But after a while, it slowly turned in my heart like a key inside of a secret lock. It spun in my orbit like a satellite, catching varied imagery from some distant unimaginable place and filtering them so I could understand.

In short, I got religious about it.

To put this into context and perspective, I am not really religious about anything. Except my own pursuit of art. But this song pierced my atheism and brought me to my knees. Not in despair but in supplication.

Why? Who knows. I could try to describe my conversion to you. But I know how I respond to like descriptions from others. I respect that they experienced something but I cannot begin to climb inside of their response. When I hear this song I feel comforted in a way I imagine a parish to feel while fire and brimstone rains down on them from the pulpit. The content is terrifying to behold but the faith you contain is strengthened through the fear.

My father used to wonder whether Vincent Van Gogh actually saw the world the way his paintings look. A friend of an ex scoffed openly at this notion, claiming that it robbed Van Gogh of the credit he rightly deserved for his genius. I thought she missed the point which was that everyone has a specific vision of the world. But not everyone can articulate it so perfectly.

This song is Starry Starry Night or The Potato Eaters. It synthesizes the human experience into a microcosm. I don't mean to go even further out on a limb but 30 Century Man, to me, makes the most sense when you imagine that God is singing it to you. The trick that Walker somehow manages to pull off is to leave the song so open-ended that it can hold whatever that brings to mind. God will sound differently when speaking to different people.


But somehow, through this song, I achieve a kind of faith, I travel forward to the time Walker evokes so effortlessly with the simplest three chords in any writer's arsenal. If this song were an invention it would be the wheel. Just think what we could do with a wheel.

Listen to 30 Century Man and inch us towards infinity.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Scott Walker Sings A Show Tune

Scott Walker's parents divorced when he was quite young. His father worked in the oil industry as some sort of geological engineer which led to a vagabond youth. One of the stops was New York. Here Walker made his first foray into professional entertainment. Between the ages of 11 and 13, Walker (then named Noel Scott Engel) acted in two Broadway musicals, neither of which lasted very long or are remembered at all.

Pipe Dream ran from November 30, 1955 to June 30, 1956. Plain and Fancy ran from January 27, 1955 to March 3, 1956.

This is a footnote at best in his career, something that is barely remarked upon. But as a professional actor I know how hard it is to book even ONE part, let alone several in succession, especially in the almost hermetically sealed world of Broadway theater.

Within a year of these appearances, Walker had recorded almost an entire album worth of teeny-bopper rock and roll, clearly influenced by the swagger and croon of Elvis Presley.

But what was that year of professional acting like? A typical Broadway show rehearses for a couple of months, then goes through an out of town run to gauge audience reaction, followed by a short preview period and finally opening night. Then the play runs as long as it is financially viable.

Pipe Dream ran from November 30, 1955 to June 30, 1956. Plain and Fancy ran from January 27, 1955 to March 3, 1956.

Obviously Walker couldn't have originated whatever role he played in both shows as the runs parallel each other. But IBDB (the Broadway version of IMDB) lists him as acting in both.

To double back to my earlier point, the fact that Walker managed to audition for and execute actual performances of these plays is a testament to his musical gifts. This is no talent show where any sort of effort is rewarded. Marks must be hit, blocking executed, musical scores to fulfill and whatever story element he was involved in done properly. This was Broadway, after all, and you simply do not roll out of bed and wind up there. You pursue it wholeheartedly and once you get there you must deliver. The fact that Walker did that for two different productions within the same year is actually quite an accomplishment. I've been an Equity actor for almost twenty years now and it still hasn't happened for me!!!

I can't help wonder what that must have been like for a young boy on the verge of puberty. The backstage world, for the uninitiated, is unrelentingly ribald, filled with open emotional display and intensity. I recently did a play with a ten year old and no matter how hard the cast tried to censor themselves the boy was still witness to many adult interactions that he never would have been without being in a play.

The psychological effect notwithstanding, he certainly grew up to record many songs that could be considered "show tunes". Where most of his contemporary pop competitors were discovering scratchy old blues LP's, Scott Walker was going back to that other great American song book...the show tune.

Here are a few great examples from the album he released containing songs he'd sung on the BBC on his own show:

You're Gonna Hear From Me
The Impossible Dream
Lost In The Stars

In just a few numbers, he established himself as one of the finest interpreters of this sort of highbrow material. But rock and roll was storming the world, leaving all other forms in the dust. Thankfully Scott Walker left a few breadcrumbs on the trail back to Broadway.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Bowie, Fatima Mansions & Walker Brothers: 3 Versions of Nite Flights: Original/2 Copies

Only one way to fall.

The title track of The Walker Brothers swan song is the incredible "Nite Flights". While it doesn't open the album, the fact that Walker doubled it as the name of the album speaks volumes about the importance of this particular song.

The song on its own merits is stunning. A sleek propulsive bass line propels the rhythm, descending against a rising layer of keyboard shimmer. Cymbals hiss, the snare pops, and the overall effect is somehow like something out of a science fiction film.

Put in the context of the musical landscape of 1978 and the song takes on even greater significance. England was exploding into punk rock and new wave, both of which are left in the dust by the genre-less edifice this song effortlessly erects.

In the hands of a media juggernaut, this album could have been some kind of international blockbuster. It was obviously blazing new sonic ground and combining this with the unlikely history of The Walker Brothers seems like an alley-oop. But the company was folding and the album made a brief appearance, affected a few of the cognoscenti, and that was that for The Walker Brothers.

I can only make analogies to somehow explain what this might look like were it to happen today. Imagine that Hall & Oates released an album tomorrow that alienated all of their fans from back in the day but that in 30 years would be looked upon as the pinnacle of musical achievement of the era.

After all, in the film 30 Century Man, Brian Eno holds up a copy of "Nite Flights" and says, "We've come no further than this. It's shameful!"

Listen to the original "Nite Flights" off of 1978's "Nite Flights" by The Walker Brothers.

The album did not have the kind of commercial success to match the critical lasting effect it had on musicians.

Elsewhere on this blog you will find my 50 Greatest Albums series. One of these is "Viva Dead Ponies" by a little-known Irish band called The Fatima Mansions. They had a moment in the sun in the early '90's and "Viva Dead Ponies" is one of the great political manifestos ever put to sound. On the follow up "Lost In The Former West" is a cover of "Nite Flights". I've had the song for almost twenty years but never knew it was a cover, let alone that it was written by Scott Walker. It was my favorite song on the album.

Listen to "Nite Flights" by The Fatima Mansions off of "Lost In The Former West".

The second copy of the original comes from David Bowie who has honored Walker as one of his heroes. He executive produced the movie about Walker and it is obvious that much of his singing style was influenced by him as well.

Listen to "Nite Flights" off of David Bowie's "Black Tie, White Noise".

Again I must return to the element of fear that is somehow present in Walker's work. The imagery is so startling, so perfectly realized, and so unlike anything you are used to witnessing in pop song form that there is a kind of vertigo that ensues. This sensation when juxtaposed with the aural oddity is unsettling in a way that is impossible to quantify. Walker has said that he starts with the words and that they inform his melodic choices. Read "Nite Flights". I don't know what it means but it terrifies me.

Nite Flights

There's no hold
The moving has come through
The danger brushing you
Turns its face into the heat
And runs the tunnels

It's so cold
The dark dug up by dogs
The stitches torn and broke
The raw meat fist you choke
Has hit the bloodlite

Glass traps open and close on nite flights
Broken necks
Feather weights press the walls
Be my love
We will be gods on nite flights
Only one promise
Only one way to fall

Glass traps open and close on nite flights
Broken necks
Feather weights press the walls
Be my love
We will be gods on nite flights
Only one promise
Only one way to fall

On the nite flights
On the nite flights
On the nite flights
Only one way to fall

On the nite flights
On the nite flights
On the nite flights
Only one way to fall

Thursday, April 18, 2013

SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)

I don't need my music to be intellectual. I'm as much a sucker for melody as the next guy and I have no problem with a catchy tune even if it is about the silliest of topics.

But I also am fascinated by the boundary pushers, by the fringe dwellers, by the writers who will risk alienating the listener with atonal progression or with lyrical subjects that go beyond what is traditionally covered in mainstream pop music.

No one goes further in this direction than Scott Walker. Until 1995's "Tilt" his catalog is bizarre from time to time but there is always a melody to hang your hat on. Lyrically he might be challenging or difficult but his singing and the orchestration could always be counted on to settle into something pleasing at the very least and achingly beautiful at the best moments.

From "Tilt" onwards, Walker has been steadily exploring areas of music that are farther and farther away from traditional song structure and melody.

Atonal music can seem the refuge of the melodically challenged. So when someone with the melodic gifts of Scott Walker goes down that road, it carries more weight for me. It's like Charlize Theron in "Monster". When you consider how she COULD have looked to play the part, how she COULD have portrayed herself, the invisible absence adds power. Scott Walker is simply no longer interested in traditional melody.

Many of his original fan base find this trend to be deliberately off-putting. They long for the killer combo of challenging lyrical content with impossible orchestral beauty.

But Scott Walker has other things in mind.

Take "SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)" from last year's "Bish Bosch". I would post a link but it is almost twenty two minutes long. It opens with Walker's voice alone and then goes places that are so out there that they seem alien, past humanity. The difference between this and a normal song is like the difference between an episode of "Seinfeld" and Matthew Barney's "Cremaster" cycle.

I won't even attempt to describe the sounds. To really grasp what Walker is after, you must know the intellectual underpinnings that keep the song from collapsing in on itself. The SDSS14+13B in the title is actually the name/location of a brown dwarf, the "SDSS" standing for Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

Zercon is the name of an actual human dwarf, a jester in the court of Attila the Hun. He is not a fictional character. His name is contained in records kept by Chinese emissaries sent to engage in diplomatic negotiations with Attila.

And "flagpole sitting" was a fad in the early 20th century where someone would make a platform on top of a flagpole and sit up there for as long as they could stand.

How are these three disparate things connected? Walker doesn't leave this to your imagination. In the liner notes to "Bish Bosch", he explains his thinking. Zercon is performing for Attila. The conditions are heinous. In spite of his exalted position, he is still exposing himself to derision and scorn with each performance, his master is one of the more brutal figures in history and any kind of escape to comfort is impossible.

Zercon, while enduring taunts and jeers,through his imagination attempts to raise himself out of the Hell on earth he is trapped in. He projects himself forward in time, searching for a higher position. He manages to locate the early 20th century, becoming a flagpole sitter. But here too he must endure the taunts of onlookers so he projects himself higher and higher. Eventually his despair propels him so high that he is transformed from a human dwarf into a brown dwarf.

But the irony is that brown dwarves are stars that have cooled to the point that they no longer emit light. Or, in other words, they are dead. His attempt at escape, while spectacularly successful in a variety of ways, is ultimately his undoing.

So now that you've been properly warned, here is a link to a youtube video of the whole song in all of its twisted glory.

Scott Walker's "SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)".

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Ingmar Bergman and Scott Walker: The Seventh Seal

The year was 1969. Scott Walker had been on an incredible creative streak. He'd released three albums in quick succession, each a massive success. "Scott 3" had consisted of ten Walker originals with four Brel songs, dispensing with the show-tune standards and country croon. Sales had dipped slightly but there was no reason to assume that was anything but a small hiccup. His next was to be his first entirely original album. He was primed for his masterpiece.

He delivered.

And no one was listening.

The liner notes to "Scott 4" contain a quote from Albert Camus, "A man's work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened."

Twelve years earlier when Scott was an American teenager crooning silly love songs underneath a pompadour, Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal" was released to international acclaim. Perhaps Walker's teenage heart opened upon seeing it because he opens "Scott 4" with his own version, a lyric masterpiece that somehow rhymes the entire film to a great melody.

Walker has said that he was most excited about moving to Europe so that he could be in the midst of European cinema, and that one of his heroes was unquestionably Ingmar Bergman. This album, for Walker, was not the tail end of a period of work, it was to be the beginning. He was finally out from under the shadow of "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore", he'd shaken off the silly trappings of fabricated boy-band fame and now he was about to declare himself as a writer for the ages.

The tragedy is that he did so in such definitive fashion that he alienated whatever fan base he had left. His musical vision is uncompromising, academic, intellectual and foreboding. In an era when male sex symbols in music were delving into the blues and allowing audiences vicarious hedonistic pleasure, Walker was writing about fascism, existential angst, the political fallout in post Holocaust Europe and the magnification of personal pain by larger societal forces.

Not exactly "come on baby light my fire".

To wit, listen to "The Seventh Seal". If you haven't seen the film, know that this is a spoiler of the most drastic sort since it somehow tells the entire movie in five minutes.

In some other universe, this album would have sent Walker into the stratosphere of worldwide success. Instead it was a penultimate swan song of sorts, and it's failure meant that it would be his only all-original album until 1984's "Climate of Hunter".

This gives the music a tragic tint, the slight tinge of what might have been, what never was.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Time Operator/Answering Machine: Westerberg and Walker

There are almost no musical connections between Paul Westerberg and Scott Walker. Aesthetically they could not be further apart. Westerberg is all rawness and emotion, Walker is all finesse and intellect. Westerberg rarely does more than one take because he literally loses the meaning of the song if he has to recreate anything, Walker is so meticulous that you can listen to his entire oeuvre and not hear a single intake of breath.

There is only one moment of intersection. Each incorporated a pre-recorded message from the phone company on a song.

Fifteen years and a continent apart.

On 1970's overlooked masterpiece "Til The Band Comes In", Walker wrote a song called "Time Operator". Given the mystical nature of most of his work, the first thought the title invokes is some kind of exploration of temporal dislocation in the face of modern alienation. But, no. In England, you could call a certain number and a "time operator" would literally tell you what time it was.

The song opens with a recording of the BT Speaking Clock over a lonely late night string figure which segues into a sax trill. Walker begins his trademark croon and the song shifts into a piano bar shuffle in which he asks the time operator to meet him since they are both awake. It is a sexy lonely tune. It ends with Walker saying "I wouldn't care if you're ugly/'Coz here with the lights out I couldn't see/You just picture Paul Newman/And girl he looks a lot like me".

This might be the first reference to phone sex ever recorded. The picture Walker paints is that of a lonely brooding man unable to connect with anything concrete. He calls the anonymous speaking clock and tries to seduce the voice he hears. Buried deep here is a kind of humor, since clearly there isn't an actual woman on the line but merely a recording of one. Walker is essentially talking to himself.

In Westerberg's "Answering Machine", as might be expected, this whole situation is inverted. Westerberg is calling a specific girl, she isn't there, he gets her answering machine. He always gets her answering machine. He has so many things he wants to say. Knowing that he will merely be putting his voice on tape leaves him lost and lonely. He wails, "Try and free a slave of ignorance/Try and teach a whore about romance/How do you say I miss you to an answering machine?/How do you say good night to an answering machine?/How do you say I'm lonely to an answering machine?/Message is very plain/Oh, I hate your answering machine".

As this sentiment snarls inside of the distorted guitar figure that propels the song, an impersonal female voice emerges, asking "if you need help if you need help if you'd like to make a call please hang up and try again".

The effect is devastating. It moves past the literal occurrence of trying to reach someone and gets at the panic and loss that you feel when you are isolated. The song becomes the inner monologue of someone contemplating the end of something, not the pain of trying to get in touch. The guitar sound is anthemic and soaring. The sound of it immediately cries out for drums, for a guitar solo, for the song to explode into the rock and roll triumph that is obvious in the melody and singing. But it never comes. Westerberg is alone at the heart of it.

These two writers are about as far apart stylistically as you can get. They are also my favorites.

Listen to Scott Walker's "Time Operator" off of 1970's "Til The Band Comes In" and The Replacements "Answering Machine" off of 1984's "Let It Be".

Thursday, April 11, 2013

I'll Be Home, Cowboy: Nilsson, Walker, Newman

After years and years of dwindling interest in music, 2011/2012 brought a double whammy of melodic obsession. First I discovered Harry Nilsson through the documentary "Who Is Harry Nilsson?" which is still on Netflix and you should see if at all possible.

I spent the next few months buying used cheap versions of his albums, reading all about him, and generally freaking out that I hadn't really even known who he WAS before. His career seems unthinkable when you examine it for even a split second and if you listed everything he did and everything that happened to him, you would think he lived to be 150 years old.

Nilsson inadvertently led me to Scott Walker. Here's how that happened.

I was having trouble watching narrative film. I had been spending most of my time either listening to or reading about Harry Nilsson. But I was too tired to read and it was too late to play my guitar. I had a mini realization. Hey, I liked that documentary about Nilsson. Maybe there's another cool music doc about someone I don't know much about.

The Walker doc had been on Netflix for a short while and I'd noted it in passing without giving it too much thought. The name rang zero bells. At least with Nilsson I knew the NAME even if I had no idea what songs he'd sung or written. With Walker it was a complete blank.

I watched it and obviously it had a large effect on me or you wouldn't be reading this.

However, it took me several months before I realized there was more of a connection between Nilsson and Walker than just ME watching the documentaries in quick succession.

While delving into everything Nilsson, I bought his landmark 1969 album "Nilsson Sings Newman". Nilsson had shot to prominence a short time earlier when The Beatles had named him their "favorite American band", which is hilarious when you think of it. So what does Nilsson do with this megaphone he's got pointed at a giant audience? He decides to sing an entire album worth of Randy Newman songs.

To put this into some kind of perspective, this would be like Adele deciding right now to record an album of MY songs.

The resulting album was not a giant success. It seemed out of step with the times which were getting louder and more rock and roll than ever before. This album was as far from that as you can get. Newman plays the piano, Nilsson sings. That's it. No jams, no psychedelica, no extended drum solos, nothing trippy. Were you to sit a family around the piano in 1903 (like the song on the album imagines), and have them sing all these tunes, they would hardly seem out of place.

What's all this got to do with Scott Walker, you ask? Well, after his career had been torpedoed and he was coerced into abandoning his songwriting, occasionally Walker seemed to put his foot down and demand a level of quality in the song choices. Granted, he sang some terrible songs. But mixed in with the dreck are some gems.

Two of these gems are songs taken from the Nilsson/Newman collaboration.

Clearly Scott Walker had heard it. So forty years before I would become obsessed with these two artists almost simultaneously, they were already connected.

The two Randy Newman songs that the Nilsson and Walker catalogs share are "I'll Be Home" and "Cowboy".

I love both versions and am including all four here for you to enjoy.

Nilsson "I'll Be Home"
Nilsson "Cowboy"
Scott Walker "I'll Be Home" (Skip to 11:25 of this link)
Scott Walker "Cowboy"

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Scott Walker: The Next Great Crooner, The Last Great Crooner

By the time Scott Walker left The Walker Brothers to go solo, the tradition of the tuxedo clad handsome man standing in front of a similarly clad orchestra singing "standards" was so all-pervasive that YOUTH REBELLED AGAINST THE VERY IDEA OF IT. It had somehow come to represent the status quo, it had taken on a political meaning, and that meaning wasn't of the forward thinking radical, it's meaning was more the cop showing up to bust the party than the party itself.

Make no mistake, Scott Walker was being groomed to follow in the footsteps of those men, of Sinatra, of Dean Martin. The success of "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore" catalyzed a vast swath of teenage girls who were now as open to Walker singing softly as they were to the hip-shaking beautiful vulgarity of Mick Jagger. Whatever Walker had tapped into went very deep and the people in charge of his career smelled the proverbial blood in the water. Here was a mystery man, here was a person with the rare combination of sheer physical talent and impossible-to-quantify charisma. Add that to the strange songs of his own writing and you can see why they thought they had a gold mine on their hands.

When you say the word Sinatra, a certain style is automatically evoked in your mind. It involves red velvet walls, light glinting off ice cubes perspiring with brown liquor, evening gowns held lightly by gloved fingers to ensure that high heels don't snag, all class, all sophistication. Now, you can puncture that vision with any kind of deep gaze but Michael Buble is proof that the pudding still exists. Scott Walker's record company saw gold in them thar hills and Walker was their claim to it.

Thus, his first three solo albums are peppered with standards, with songs that wouldn't be out of place in a set by Judy Garland at The Rainbow Room, or from Sammy Davis, Jr. in the desert of Las Vegas. As that style of music must be, these recordings are immaculate. They are intricately staged set pieces of romantic imagination. Taken on their own they are some kind of pinnacle, but when paired with the OTHER work Walker was doing and would do, they become almost talismanic, they ARE the fantasy and they EVOKE the fantasy at the same time.

Watch him sing "When Joanna Loved Me" on the Dusty Springfield show. The song is from Walker's debut solo album "Scott".

The sound of this falls into some vague adult contemporary category, the world where Mel Torme and Englebert Humperdink live, the world where Steve and Edie sing the classics side by side and everyone's fears about the future are assuaged. There is no room for the radical there, the edges, the underbelly. The audience who was clinging to this type of music was desperately AFRAID of rock and roll, found it to be threatening in a fundamental way.

But Walker was a hybrid, the ultimate beatnik, a crooner who could pull off the formal emotional sweep of a show-tune like "When Joanna Loved Me" but who could also write his own material stranger than any experimental rock and roll anthem.

For a few short years, Walker seemed on the cusp of becoming a superstar combination of the two mutually exclusive genres. But the culture was rocketing away from the croon faster than Walker could work. By 1970 and the two albums that I consider to be masterpieces, he was seen as outdated, square, for parents. In a terrible perverse irony, he then spent eight years making music that was just that.

For a brief moment he'd been Sinatra in front of the orchestra. He paid for it by having to remain there as Mel Torme.

Monday, April 8, 2013

A Murder In Ostia

In Ostia, Italy on November 2, 1975, a seventeen year old hustler named Giuseppe Pelosi climbed into a car owned by Pier Paolo Pasolini. At the time, Pasolini was one of the most celebrated radical filmmakers in the world, certainly the premier director in Italy. Pelosi ran over Pasolini. Then he ran over him again. Then he ran over him again.

Roughly twenty years later, Scott Walker released the harrowing album "Tilt". It was his first album in eleven years. His last had been "Climate of Hunter", released in 1984, a slick strange pop collection of macabre funk laid over sensuous bass lines and even stranger melody.

"Tilt" would make "Climate of Hunter" seem like a Hall & Oates record.

The first song on "Tilt" is called "Farmer In The City (Remembering Pasolini)". Walker takes a translation of a poem by Pasolini and modifies it, layering it over an orchestral composition that can only be described as bleak. I don't know what he was trying to say about Pasolini, I don't know what the hell he is talking about in this song. At several points he seems to be an auctioneer and a bidder at the same time..."I'll give you 21/21/21/Do I hear 21/21/21". A further couplet states that he "can't go buy a man in this shirt", either referring to actual slavery or to purchasing the services of a male prostitute.

Again, I have no idea what Walker is talking about here. All I know is that by including Pasolini in the title, by referencing the name of the town where he was brutally murdered, and by invoking the specter of human trafficking of one degree or another, you are placed in the uncomfortable position of being a denyer, of having a truth-teller grab you by the back of your neck, forcibly keep you from turning away from what you most desperately wish to avoid, and having them snarl at you, "Look. Do not turn away."

But all the while, their voice is hypnotic. The bed of music that cradles it is epic and lush. No matter how many times I hear it, I am unprepared. I cannot take it in.

Nothing is mentioned in the song of what the young hustler felt as the wheels crushed the life out of the body of a great artist. No attempt is made to link the lyrical content of the song to the occurrences that led up to such a horrific end. Walker doesn't try to feel the pounding in the chest of the murderer shifting the car into reverse to increase the damage to the corpse. Shifting it back into forward, heart pounding with what? Exhilaration? Regret? Triumph? Relief?

The song might not even be about that occurrence. Walker isn't saying. He makes a bunch of sounds in a recording studio and forces us to say it for him.

Watch "Farmer In The City" off of Scott Walker's 1995 masterpiece "Tilt".

Friday, April 5, 2013

Dusty Springfield And Scott Walker: Velvet Perfection

The clip opens with Dusty Springfield in close-up, grainy black and white so that her blond bouffant seems to be dissolving slowly around her head, her facial features blurred, her speaking voice emerging from the confusion like a long high-heeled leg out the slit of a tight skirt.

At first blush she seems nervous until you realize that she is breathless, excited. She says, "Mm, there's a funny thing, when you've been working with two other people, as I did, with The Springfields, to suddenly leave and try and do something on your own, for a change, and this is exactly what's happened to my guest tonight, and I'm sure, this is practically, I would imagine his first appearance on television on his own, and I think he's really marvelous, we sometimes sort of pass in corridors of recording studios and that's about as close as I get to him which is a pity. His name is...Scott Walker."

The text hints at what is obvious in her delivery. Her voice quavers. She seems caught in a private moment. If you weren't looking at her on the screen you might think you'd inadvertently opened the door between hotel rooms to find her writing in her diary about an illicit kiss.

The camera pans left to a strange set that seems like the inside of some kind of darkly glittering dome. Walker emerges from behind Dusty and the dome brightens, sparkling to life with his arrival. Even though Walker is quite tall, he seems like a little boy in a Lord Fauntleroy suit. With skinny legs that always seem on the verge of buckling beneath him, he hurtles toward the microphone, alone in this cavern of light, and proceeds to sing one of the most deceptively upbeat songs of all time.

His hair is all wrong, he seems vaguely uneasy, but then he starts to sing and it is extraordinary. There doesn't seem to be enough time in the song for all the words he says and yet he is never out of breath, never enunciates anything less than NOT out of breath is he that you don't even get the impression that he is breathing at all.

Watch Dusty's scorching intro and then Scott Walker singing Jacques Brel's "Mathilde".

Springfield and Walker were labelmates on Phillips, an offshoot of some German conglomerate that had mostly been releasing classical titles but was moving into the pop arena. The classical catalog paid great dividends for Walker as he had access to arrangers and producers who could achieve the sophisticated compositions he was about to undertake. The lush nature of Dusty Springfield's catalog would not have been possible with some ragged rough rock and roll recording environment. Her stuff, like Walker's, is IMMACULATE.

Her BBC show which this clip is from was a smash hit and must have paved the way for Walker's a short while later. The format was simple. The artist hosts the show, sings a couple songs of their own, invites a guest on who performs a number or two, they team up for a duet and then the host finishes on their own. It was a way to keep the artist in the public eye without the rigors of touring, which at the time was almost medieval in its crudeness.

Later in the show, Dusty invites Walker to sing with her. There is no video of this clip that I can find, the BBC in their infinite wisdom never saved any of these shows, taping over everything because, shoot, why would anyone care that Dusty Springfield's work be preserved?

There is, however, audio.

The exchange is playfully flirtatious and deliberately humorous, with the two of them talking about how these kinds of scripted conversations usually go and how much they didn't want to do anything like that. Then they launch into a wonderful duet of "Let It Be Me".

At this point in time, Scott Walker appearing solo was giant news in the UK. It would be almost as if John Lennon announced he was leaving The Beatles and then appeared singing a duet with Shirley Bassey. Legions of young fans bemoaning the breakup of their favorite boy band now got to see Walker and Springfield seduce each other on live TV.

This kind of sophistication and craft were battling with The Stones, The Who, The Kinks and other rock and roll bands for the cultural mountain top. At this point, the pinnacle was in sight for both factions. In a few short years, however, Walker and company would still be looking up at the snow-peaked apex where the rock and rollers hung out, where those rough and tumble bands grabbed onto low flying jets and took over the world.

But for a brief moment captured between the sultry beehived English chanteuse and the slim-hipped mysterious American, velvet perfection almost jumped the line.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Fugitive Kinds: Scott Walker, Marlon Brando, Tennessee Williams

Scott Walker reclaimed authorship of his career after 1978's Walker Brothers swan song "Nite Flights". But what kind of career did he have? The Walker Brothers, after an improbable comeback, had finally ceased to be viable. Any remnant of his solo cultural impact had long since dissipated and the insider appreciation for his work didn't have any commercial manifestation.

In short, he was at very loose ends.

His next album wouldn't come out for six years. Between 1965 and 1978, Walker, either solo or with the band, had released fourteen full-length albums and countless stray singles and b-sides. Thirteen years of churning out product.

Then six years of complete silence.

Rumor has it that during this time he turned down the opportunity to have David Bowie produce an album for him. That sessions with Brian Eno did not satisfy him. So he hadn't entirely disappeared, but he was certainly unwilling to put something out that he wasn't completely happy with.

1984's "Climate of Hunter" ended the self-imposed exile. The first seven songs on the album are Scott Walker originals and if you can imagine Simple Minds being forced at gunpoint to play Nine Inch Nails songs you can get a vague idea of the direction he was headed in. Gone are the '70's string-drenched country covers, schmaltzy balladry and gauzy anthems.

But there is one song on the album that Scott Walker didn't write. And it was written by, surprise surprise, Tennessee Williams.

In 1959, Williams wrote the screenplay for the film based on his stage play of 1937. Brando stars as a drifter named "Snakeskin" who flees New Orleans and gets into trouble in a small town. Williams collaborated with Kenyon Hopkins to write a song that Brando sings, the character accompanying himself on guitar.

Watch Brando sing Kenyon Hopkins and Tennessee Williams' "Blanket Roll Blues".

Scott Walker must have seen the film at some point. He enlisted Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, at the time one of the biggest stars on earth, to play spectacular lone acoustic guitar to accompany his incredible voice, which would never be so straightforward again.

Listen to Scott Walker and Mark Knopfler go about as deep into a blues song as you can possibly go. Walker lets Knopfler ruminate on the melodic figure of the song, creating a sparse landscape that seems lifted out of a John Steinbeck novel. Almost a full minute and a half go by before Walker begins singing, and while it is subtle and understated, Knopfler's guitar work here is as amazing as the most soaring of Hendrixian or Van Halen solos.

"Blanket Roll Blues" from 1984's Climate of Hunter is just one more remarkable achievement from this staggeringly under-appreciated career.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Scott Walker: Mrs. Murphy

Listen to The Walker Brothers Mrs. Murphy from their 1966 album "Portrait".

This song is an entire melodrama in three minutes and twenty four seconds. Apartment complex neighbors Mr. Wilson and Mrs. Murphy flirt. Mr. Wilson complements her dress, she says this old thing. As they talk, Walker pulls his camera a flight up to a lone boy stretching on his bed in a languorous state.

Cut back to Mr. Wilson and Mrs. Murphy. Mr. Wilson asks if it is true that the Johnsons are expecting a child. Mrs. Murphy says yes, but word is out that Mr. Johnson is NOT the father. The true father lives in apartment 22.

Walker then returns to the lone boy (now placing him in apartment 22, letting us know that he might be a father soon) who is lost in a daydream of adventure on the high seas.

Mrs. Murphy describes the Johnson's marriage in scathing terms, criticizing Mrs. Johnson, implicitly sanctioning Mr. Johnson's infidelity.

The final line of the song is perfectly succinct.

"Upstairs he sits
He hears a knock, and nothing more
Come on in, you're late
Well, don't just stand there
Mrs. Johnson - close the door"

Now, what is interesting about this song, apart from the incredible string arrangement and cavernous melody, is that you would think the most dramatic subject would be the BOY, or Mrs. Johnson who is pregnant from an extramarital affair with a boy "less than half her age".

But, no. The song is about Mrs. Murphy, the gossip. She is talking with a man who is obviously NOT her husband, ostensibly Mr. Murphy. We don't know anything about Mrs. Murphy. She seems to be close enough with this Mr. Wilson that they openly and immediately jump to salacious stories of their fellow tenants.

This is a major component to Walker's appeal at the time. The repressed sexual drive of the English housewife who longed to be swept off her feet in some doomed romance but was trapped by propriety and societal pressure into remaining a dutiful wife. So while Walker clearly self-identifies with the "boy" upstairs, he removes the narrative from his own perspective and puts it into that of an observer.

This also may be the first modern musical appearance of the Cougar. Compare this song to the great "Maggie May". Imagine "Maggie May" somehow being told third hand, the focus of the song shifting from the young boy trained and burned by the older seductress to two completely uninvolved strangers discussing the affair.

This seemingly minor shift in perspective gives the song a much wider context, gives the personal a layer of society, forces us to watch what is unfolding as part of a larger collective. In "Maggie May" you are Rod Stewart and that's that. Here? Who are you? How do you get inside the story? You are forced to CHOOSE something.

Not many pop songs force that kind of rigor. Plus, good lord, listen to the damn song. Walker was very young, 23, and already he was pushing at the boundaries of pop music, chafing at what was expected of him. This discomfort would eventually catapult him about as far into the musical wilderness as anyone has ever gone.

Here? He's just stretching his legs.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Scott Walker In The '70's: 8 Years In Easy Listening Hell

In the three years after The Walker Brothers broke up, Scott Walker wrote, produced and recorded five full length albums. Most artists of the era tended to release an album a year, a pace which Walker almost doubled even though he was also hosting his own weekly BBC show during one of the years in question. Now, volume doesn't necessarily equal quality so there is an element of subjectivity here, but the sophistication and intricacy of these albums is, to my opinion, staggering.

The first three albums each charted quite high, with "Scott 2" reaching number 1, no small feat in an era dominated by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and countless other foreign acts. The special compilation compiled from the BBC program was released while Walker was preparing his first fully original album, the first three having been peppered with standards and Jacques Brel translations among his own compositions.

"Scott 4" was released in November of 1969. "Scott", "Scott 2", "Scott 3" and "Scott Walker Sings Songs From His TV Series" hit #3, #1, #3 and #7 respectively.

"Scott 4" didn't chart at all. His next album "Til The Band Comes In" was a compromise for Walker as he was forced by his record label to record songs that he didn't write in addition to his own material. It, too, failed to chart.

This hardened the resolve of the record label. There was nothing in Walker's contract that gave him the right to decide what songs went on the albums. He has never described exactly how this unfolded but the result was devastating.

In the five years spanning The Walker Brothers career to the failure of "Til The Band Comes In", Walker wrote upwards of fifty songs.

From 1970 to 1978 he wrote none.

Eight years. None.

Oh, he sang. Quite a bit. The label was attempting to rediscover the romantic niche triggered by the swell of "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore", trying to tap back into the repressed female English libido that had sent legions of young girls hurtling at Scott Walker's frail tall body as he tried to sing through the screams.

Walker disconnected JUST enough to be able to do the job, to sing the treacle. Sure he was still involved in the studio and arrangements but his fire had been dimmed. These eight years see Walker release four solo albums and two with the oddly reunited Walker Brothers. A total of sixty four tracks. None of them original.

Now, there are factions within Walker's fans, as with any artist of note. Some followed him into the treacle and incorporated it into their view of him. These fans are invariably downright disgusted with his output since then, wishing that he'd return to the lush melodies that he wrote in the '60's. Then there are the modern punks who have no use for the MOR (middle-of-the-road) product he churned out during this cruise control and who are thrilled at the avant-garde boundary that he has sped past into uncharted waters.

I find the easy listening period fascinating, like watching a great actor in a terrible movie. These are not crude productions, they are lush affairs with perfectly executed string sections, brass trills, orchestral bombast. Walker's signing is impeccable and quite stunning. It all sounds effortless but if you try to match him note for note you are out of breath in an instant and he just keeps going and going and going.

There is an extra layer of meaning that these songs have accrued over time when you factor in what COULD have been. The weight of these weightless confections is somehow painful because you can't help but wonder what he would have done with all those resources in excavating his OWN strange and eerie vision.

Imagine Fiona Apple hidden inside a Celine Dion album.

It reminds me of the end of Being John Malkovich, with John Cusack trapped for eternity without a voice, doomed to watch all that he had loved just outside of his grasp.

And yet, somehow, against all probabilities, beauty remains in the trap.

Listen to Sunshine from 1973's "Stretch".

Monday, April 1, 2013

James Bond and Scott Walker: You Only Live Thrice

In 1967, The Walker Brothers were superstars in Britain. Their concerts seldom lasted very long because raging hordes of English teenage girls stormed the stage and tried to love them to death.

The fact that they were American boys who had chosen England as their adoptive country made them mysterious, the deep moodiness of their balladry opened other unlocked secrets in the hearts of these mostly female followers. They were a band but they weren't really rock and roll. They weren't rough and rowdy but there was something dark and dangerous about them all the same.

So it wasn't surprising when the James Bond team of MGM, Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman asked the band to sing the title song of the next James Bond flick, which was to be titled "You Only Live Twice".

The Walker Brothers declined.

On listening to Nancy Sinatra's version, it is now impossible for me to stop imagining what this song would have sounded like with Scott Walker's airless croon instead of Nancy's perfectly acceptable but pedestrian performance. Take a listen to the theme song to You Only Live Twice with it's incredible and instantly recognizable violin decrescendo.

The match of material to talent would have been electric. If The Walker Brothers had decided to record "You Only Live Twice" for the film they might have shot to international superstardom. Why did they say no? I have only read one book on The Walker Brothers called "The Impossible Dream" which is full of anecdotes but when it comes to the real inside scoop it seems to be as in the dark as we are.

Stranger still is the fact that that same year a film was released starring Elke Sommer called "Deadlier Than The Male". Scott Walker wrote the theme song of the same title. The movie is about a female spy. This song is also fantastic. In some perfect universe this film would have been a box office smash in the United States and the song would have broken the group in their homeland. But, as you can see from the opening sequence, "Deadlier Than The Male" has only one good thing in it. The song.

So. One year. Two spy movies. The Walker Brothers turned down covering "You Only Live Twice" to sing an original song for "Deadlier Than The Male." All in the same year.

It would be 32 years before James Bond and Scott Walker crossed paths again.

1999. David Arnold is putting together the soundtrack for "The World Is Not Enough" with the fantastic title track by Garbage. He writes a song called "Only Myself To Blame" and seeks out Scott Walker to sing it. In Arnold's mind, this song was the fitting conclusion to the failed romance between Bond and Elektra King, who winds up trying to kill 007.

Arnold saw the song as the finale. Director Michael Apted felt it was TOO somber, too down. The song is relegated to the soundtrack. Once again, the blast of recognition and distribution that normally accompanies a song from the Bond canon eludes Scott Walker. In fact, so obscure is the track that I just tried to find a youtube link to a video with the song and it is blocked by Sony in a copyright dispute.

It is worth the .99 cent download to hear Scott Walker sing a terribly sad song over a piano, an upright bass and a delicately brushed snare drum. He seems to be singing back to his younger self, back to that strange time when his band turned away from the spotlight and refused to become part of film history. They would never come that close again.

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Cognitive Dissonant

Cognitive dissonance is defined as the feeling of discomfort when holding simultaneous conflicting beliefs. In music, the meaning of dissonance hearkens back to the Latin, whereby a "dissonant" chord is considered "unstable".

The work that Scott Walker has been producing since 1978 is increasingly dissonant, it increasingly contains contradictory elements that are impossible to assimilate in a unified way, and it has become increasingly more terrifying to behold.

Most modern purveyors of fear in musical form attempt to achieve their desired result through intimidation, volume, or the shock value of violent lyrical content. Examples include Marilyn Manson who creates giant spectacles of fascism, Slipknot who dress like they are all meeting at Hellraiser's house later, and a whole gaggle of gangster rap artists who brag and boast about how cold blooded they are.

These are sunny walks in the park compared to Scott Walker.

Now, don't get me wrong. I actually KIND of like Marilyn Manson and I have plenty of gangster rap on my iTunes. Slipknot I have no use for because their aesthetic is so juvenile and stupid and so devoid of humor that the only appropriate response is laughter. I mean, is anyone really frightened by Saw XVIII?

But the brand of terror that the above dole out is inclusive. The result is more a prurient vicarious thrill witnessing someone instilling fear than truly inspiring actual fear. Actual fear is not thrilling. Actual fear is messy and humiliating. True fear results in a reversion to infancy, to a state where you cannot control your bodily functions, to the feeling you get when you know that you have absolutely no control over any aspect of your existence.

This is the kind of response that Walker achieves.

His is a fear born of ideas.

The indie record label 4AD is one of the most influential record labels of all time. Their most famous client is The Pixies. In the mid 1990's they signed an aging former crooner to a record contract. Outside of England no one cared. They have essentially insured that Scott Walker could attempt the masterpieces that were floating around in that terrifying brain of his.

In 2006, 4AD planned a compilation called "Plague Songs" with various artists each writing a song corresponding to one of the ten plagues of Egypt. For whatever reason, Walker drew the Plague of Darkness.

Does Walker use volume and bombast to affect us? Does he use thundering drums? Distorted screaming guitars? Violent imagery? No, there are only three elements used in the song.

A tambourine. A female chorus. And Scott Walker.


Take a listen.


Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Strangest Pop Hit Single In History

The Walker Brothers had broken up at the height of their fame. Their run only lasted from '65 to '67 but the breakneck pace of recording and touring made it seem much longer. Tensions in the group were high for all the typical reasons, but a crucial one was the burgeoning songwriting talent of Scott Walker. He'd started writing B-sides to singles as a way to increase revenue for the band. It worked. But it also showed that Walker was the true visionary.

Still having a Japanese tour to complete as a vestige of their contract, The Walker Brothers broke up. Walker immediately set to work writing and recording his debut, simply titled "Scott."

Walker had, through a German Playboy bunny he'd met at London's Playboy Club, discovered the music of Belgian superstar Jacques Brel. The first song on "Scott" is an incredible cover of "Mathilde" which Walker sings as if he is belting out the finale of some strange musical where a skinny American kid winds up on the BBC in love with a supermodel who drives him mad.

By default, the second track on the album is Walker's debut as a solo writer. It is also, as the title of this post states, the strangest pop hit single in history. (Get used to hyperbole; it is really the only appropriate response to the eccentricity of this man's work.)

This video is not an official one, someone matched old post-war Europe footage to the moody strains of Walker's imagination. The result is fascinating.

Watch "Montague Terrace (In Blue)".

The album was a smash, rising to # 3 and staying there for seventeen weeks, an eternity for an album. "Mathilde" and "Montague Terrace (In Blue)" charted as singles but the ALBUM was the thing in those days and Walker had a massive hit on his hands. This sent his career into the stratosphere, immediately dwarfing the one-hit-wonder nature of The Walker Brothers. He became a cultural phenomenon, a cult-hit who also achieved mainstream success.

"Montague Terrace (In Blue)" shows why. But what makes it work so well? Is it the strangely dissonant string figure that way back in 1967 felt like a sample but was obviously organic? Is it the harsh consonant clash of the lyrics against that lush bed of violins? Or is it the gunshot crack drum explosion which kicks off the soaring drama of the chorus?

As usual, with Scott Walker, it is impossible to put your finger on just what is going on and why it is so effective. I am also struck by how ENGLISH this song seems, how BRITISH. It animates a cloudy fog-ridden England in the mind's-eye, ancient, foreboding, sexy. It was written by a 24 year old American.

Scott Walker had arrived.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Blue Bell to Bish Bosch: Engel to Walker

In 1958, a teenager from Hamilton, Ohio named Noel Scott Engel arrived in Los Angeles to pursue pop stardom. He cut 20 tracks or so for the tiny Orbit label and achieved regional success with the single "Blue Bell".

In 1965, The Walker Brothers had a # 1 hit in Britain with the moody ballad "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore", sung by bandleader Scott Walker. They briefly had more fan club members than The Beatles. None of them were brothers. None of them were named Walker.

In 2013, a seventy year old man from London, England, named Scott Walker released the song "Epizootics!" from his fourteenth studio album "Bish Bosch". "Epizootics!" is a term which refers to epidemics in the animal world. The song is over ten minutes long with a video directed by Olivier Groulx, an Icelandic director who has worked primarily with Sigur Ros.

Noel Scott Engel and Scott Walker are the same man.

Scotty Engel, 15 when he recorded "Blue Bell", washed out as a teen idol by the early '60's and found himself playing bass around Hollywood in "discos" and nightclubs. One of the outfits he joined was a band led by a tall handsome guitar player who lived across the street from Brian Wilson. His name was John Maus but for some reason he'd begun to call himself John Walker. Scott Engel must have figured, why not, and they began appearing as The Walker Brothers.

Then they did something even crazier than that. Signed to a small recording contract with a company that had a London office, they pooled their funds, packed up, and moved to London. The London office didn't know they were coming. They shared an apartment and started recording.

Since then, Scott Walker has been in the United States for less than three months.

I discovered Scott Walker through a documentary that was briefly available on Netflix called "Scott Walker: 30 Century Man". As this post shows, that documentary was a rabbit hole that I have not emerged from over a year later. His career is so strange that trying to describe it all in one sitting feels like what it must feel like for true believers to try and chip away at atheism.

In fact, the three links that I show above completely ignore the period from 1967 to 1970 when Scott Walker left The Walker Brothers to go solo. His fame skyrocketed and the five albums he released in those three years are, in my opinion, unparalleled. As in, if I had to put my money on a Mozart/Salieri outcome, Walker is Mozart and everyone else is Salieri.

He has unquestionably become my favorite musical artist of all time. And it is not even close. In the 1980's, a British musician named Julian Cope put together a compilation of Walker tracks to help restore what was by then a career that had faded into obscurity.

Cope called the compilation "The Godlike Genius of Scott Walker".

So, heathens, non-believers, look upon his works and despair. The Beatles gathered the world together in worship. The Rolling Stones led the hedons in revelry. The inscrutable voice of God emerged through one man only.

A man named Scott Walker. A man NOT named Scott Walker.