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".

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