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.


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