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.

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