In late 1969, the dearly departed American pop laureate turned in his Citizen Kane
“A man’s work is nothing but his slow trek to discover through the details of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.” — Albert Camus, as reproduced on the back of Scott Walker’s Scott 4.
Although Scott Walker’s own songs had appeared on records since Take It Easy, the 1965 debut album by the Walker Brothers, the first album to consist of solely self-penned material was Scott 4, released 50 years ago this November. It was also his first failure. After a constant upward trajectory in the U.K., which began when the Walker Brothers second single, “Love Her,” hit the top 20 and kept right on with his first solo album topping the charts in 1967, Walker’s career came to a crashing halt.
“The Orson Welles of the record industry”
As Duncan G. Hammons put it in his Florida State University graduate dissertation, Scott Walker and the Late Twentieth Century Phenomenon of Phonographic Auteurism, “The commercial failure of Scott 4, Walker’s first album to be comprised in its entirety of original compositions, impacted Walker’s career in a manner much like that of the backlash over Citizen Kane had for Welles, nearly crushing Walker’s reputation as a writer-producer altogether. For the better part of the next decade Walker’s work as a recording artist was tarnished by the revocation of his privilege of final cut, being relegated to the sole function as a performer of others’ material.”
Walker himself seemed to concur when he told an interviewer that he was, “the Orson Welles of the record industry…People take me to lunch, but nobody wants to finance the picture.”
VIDEO: Orson Welles Commercial Compilation
How curious that such a self-directed artist, one who had followed his own instincts to quit the Walker Brothers at the height of their success, and who had pushed to record songs by Jacques Brel that shocked their teen fans, would be seemingly so distraught over the failure of one album that he would not sing one of his own songs for nearly a decade.
Scott 4 was his most personal expression yet
Some have attributed the lack of chart success to the fact that Scott 4 was initially released under Walker’s birth name, Scott Engel. Walker himself, probably humorously, conjectured that the preponderance of triple, or waltz, time turned off kids who just wanted to dance. But the crashing and burning of Scott 4 could only have affected Walker so strongly for one reason: it was his most personal expression yet.
On Scott 4, Walker, who became famously private in later life, had finally stepped out from behind other writers in a most definitive way and had also somewhat abandoned the story-songs of the first three solo albums (“Montague Terrace (In Blue),” “The Amorous Humphrey Plugg,” etc.).
While he was still working with producer John Franz, the sound was also a bit stripped back, letting go of some of the “wall of sound” that he had learned at the feet of producer Jack Nitzsche before moving to England. In short, Scott 4 was also “Scott Exposed” and the rejection must have been unbearable. The withdrawal of support from the Phillips label, which quickly deleted the album, and Walker’s spiral into alcoholism could hardly have made things better.
His reaction becomes clearer when you realize that he was not only letting himself be vulnerable emotionally but intellectually. In the former camp are song like “On Your Own Again,” with the bruised bravery of lines like “You’re on your own again, and you’re at your best again, that’s what you tell yourself,” or “The World’s Strongest Man,” which has him pleading “And again, again, again. Longing for belonging’s here again. And I need your laugh. And I can’t pretend anymore.” “Boy Child” and “Duchess” explore similar themes of longing and belonging while also showcasing a newly limber vocal style, with Walker singing at the higher end of his expansive range and scatting confidently on several songs.
The Ingmar Bergman influence
But then you have songs like opening track “The Seventh Seal,” which marries epic mariachi trumpet and haunting Gregorian-chant backing vocals to the tale of a knight playing chess with Death as told in Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film of the same name. This was Walker revealing a long-held interest, as he explained in a 2017 interview with Jarvis Cocker: “Before I came here (London), I’d seen lots of Bergman films. I ran across it…I used to go to a theater on Hollywood Boulevard, I can’t remember the name of it. They used to show late-night movies, just stacks of them, and you go and just sit there all night. Late-night, The Virgin Spring came on, and I’d never seen anything like it. And I was about 16 or something like that. So from then on it kind of took off. From then on I started going to the art houses and watching his films.”
When asked to explore his attraction to the Swedish master’s work more deeply, Walker had this to say: “I like the photography first of all, it’s fantastic. He claims that he was copying Kurosawa and you can see a lot of that there, so I was fascinated by that. Just the time that everyone was allowed to do things in European films. The atmosphere of the time, I liked very much.” What he means by “time” is not the period details, which are, after all, fairly sparse in those early Bergman movies, but rather the pacing —long-held shots, pauses in dialog, etc. This ties into Walker’s own suspension of time in his phrasing, which finds him imposing a breadth –and breath – reminiscent of a sweeping Mahler adagio on pop songs. You can even hear this on the fairly banal songs he covered in his short-lived BBC show, from which audio has again surfaced in a crucial reissue of Live On Air 1968-1969.
“I was interested in all things Russian”
If in “The Seventh Seal” Walker was making unexpected connections both cerebrally and musically, he went even further on what may be Scott 4’s greatest song, “The Old Man’s Back Again (Dedicated To The Neo-Stalinist Regime),” a critique of post-Khrushchev Russia, which seemed to be falling back into Stalinist ways, especially with the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The lyrics reference superstar Soviet poet Andrei Vosnesensky and his 1964 poem, “Anti-worlds”: “And Andrei V. he cries, with eyes that ring like chimes/His anti-worlds go spinning through his head.” After Scott 4 was released it’s easy to imagine one stanza from “Anti-worlds” resonating with Walker: “I like my dear critics best/The greatest of them beats the rest/for on his shoulders there’s no head/he’s got an Antihead instead.”
Other verses have an observational quality not unlike Dylan’s “Hard Rain,” such as: “I seen a woman standing in the snow/She was silent as she watched them take her man/Teardrops burned her cheeks/For she thought she’d heard the shadow had left this land.” Powerful stuff, but what other songwriters – not to mention rock and pop fans – were thinking about Russian politics? The perspective was worldly and the metaphorical approach demonstrated a command of the material that would likely give Vosnesensky pause. Perhaps part of Walker’s feeling of otherness came from perpetually being the smartest guy in the room. The genius of his art comes through at the end of the song when he utters the killer closing couplet: “His mother called him Ivan/Then she died.” Devastating, even if you don’t know exactly what Walker is talking about. Clues point to Dostoyevsky’s classic novel The Brothers Karamazov or Tarkovsky’s film, Ivan’s Childhood, both of which were no doubt familiar to Walker.
VIDEO: Scenes from Ivan’s Childhood
As it happens, Walker’s engagement with his subject matter came from first-hand experience. He told Cocker: “By the time the fourth album rolled around, I was interested in all things Russian. In fact, I went on my own to Russia. Solzhenitsyn had been published then, So I was reading that. I was listening to a lot of Russian music, Shostakovich, etc., although that’s not reflected in the record.”
Tour de force arrangements
The stunning drama of the arrangement of “The Old Man’s Back Again,” credited to Peter Knight, puts all the sonic virtues of Scott 4 on full display. Anchored by an emphatically strummed guitar, spacious drums, and a dastardly bass line that seems to crawl up and down your spine, the augmentation of sweeping strings and massed backing vocals make for a tour de force throughout. Credits are thin on the ground on Scott 4 but signs point to either Herbie Flowers or Dave Richmond as creators of that marvelous bass part.
The guitar was likely Walker himself and it’s also probable that he provided ideas for the arrangement as well. As he noted to Cocker, “I wrote them all guitar in those days, because I didn’t have a keyboard. While I’m writing, I’m arranging them in my head. I can’t help it. In my head I’m always thinking kind of as an arranger…So I’d be writing down ideas for the arrangements as well as getting the basic thing together.”
While Walker and Knight were true collaborators, Walker’s willfulness and assurance about what he wanted caused clashes in the studio, which was run a bit like a factory. “It was four tunes in a three-hour session,” Walker noted in the same interview, ” The Beatles changed all that when they did the Sgt. Pepper thing, but John Franz was very much a studio-company man. Dems was the rules. It was four tunes in a three-hour session, so we had to stick to that.”
Things came to a head with Wally Stott (later known as Angela Morley after a gender transition), who worked on the arrangements for “You’re On Your Own Again” and “Boy Child.” As Walker tells it, “I think Wally considered me to be a bit of an upstart. Because I was always pushing him, I was quite demanding, he was used to coming in and doing sort of [comic singer] Harry Secombe records, you know…He was not used to having people interfere with the process. I think the conflict worked out well for us – to my knowledge he never did better arrangements than he did for me, so I think the conflict kind of helped.”
Some of the issues with Stott were over subject matter: “When we did the first record [Scott Walker, 1967] with the Brel stuff, he was very prudish about the language, you know, he was very, “I really don’t know if I want my name on the record because he’s singing this…” Finally, he said, OK, I’ll have my name on the record. The record went to #1 and after that he was very happy to have his name on my records.”
Even so, the opening notes of “Boy Child,” played on a cimbalom and one of the master-strokes of Scott 4, was definitely Walker’s idea alone: “I got that from Bartok,” he remarked to Cocker in another glimpse at his remarkable mind for music, “And he took it from folk music.”
Bartok, Shostakovich and Dylan
Besides Bartok and Shostakovich, Walker was also listening to a lot of jazz. While Tim Buckley, Walker’s fellow adventurer in song, was attracted to jazz for its improvisational freedom, Walker was more drawn by its musical complexity, noting: “Look, folk music is perfectly fine with me, but I was never that interested in it. It was too limited in its musical content for me, you know, it was just not challenging enough, in any kind of way.” Even so, the Dylan influence is unmistakable on a song like “Duchess,” which has as its opening lines, “It’s your bicycle bells/and your Rembrandt swells/Your children alive and still breathing/And your look of loss/as you’re coming across/makes me feel like a thief when you’re bleeding.” The weeping pedal steel seems right out of a Nashville session, too.
There really is no weak song on Scott 4, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention “Get Behind Me,” as staggering an achievement as “The Old Man Is Back Again.” Walker sings the opening verse accompanied solely by hypnotic finger-picked guitar and delicate tones from the cimbalom, which only makes it more impressive when the strings and rhythm section kick in, this time featuring not only a percolating bass line but snarling fuzz guitar, cutting through like a barbed wire through butter. The chorus is Walker at his most inspirational as uses the language of gospel music to get himself out of a dark hole, singing “Remind me to remind me not to go back there again,” like a mantra. While we’ll never know exactly how personal Scott 4 truly was, Walker was nothing if not committed to its many messages, and when he sings “Lord I really need a friend,” it certainly doesn’t sound theoretical.
Scott Walker tributes
If he felt friendless during the ensuing decade, the 1980s found him gathering quite a following, from David Bowie, who freely expressed a stylistic debt and covered one of his songs, to Julian Cope, who compiled the immodestly titled The Godlike Genius Of Scott Walker, in 1981, which was my introduction to the first solo albums. Then, in 2017, came one of ultimate tributes: The BBC Proms presented The Songs Of Scott Walker (1967-70) at a packed Royal Albert Hall, with a full orchestra and chorus backing Cocker, John Grant, Richard Hawley, and Susanne Sundfør performing songs from that era including eight from Scott 4. The concert is a complete triumph, reaching its apotheosis when, after a long ovation, the four singers return to trade lines on a transcendent encore of “Get Behind Me,” with Walker in the audience soaking up the love.
Fifty years on from Scott 4’s release it’s hard to find a discouraging word said about the album, except from Walker, who revealed himself as his own harshest critic when he told Cocker: “With any past recordings I’m sort of like Don Quixote being confronted by the knight of mirrors. All I ever do is hear the faults, I never hear anything else, so I never listen.” But we can listen, and do, marveling over and over at just one of the singular statements in Scott Walker’s most singular career.
AUDIO: Scott Walker Scott 4 (full album)