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.