Scott Walker at the BBC Proms – women, Joseph Stalin, and thighs

Scott Walker press Jamie Hawkesworth/4AD

Scott Walker

As Scott Walker’s first five solo studio albums are celebrated at BBC Proms this week, Getintothis’ Cath Bore examines why his work was and is so unique.

Popular myth dictates that the arrival of Scott Walker’s adult solo career in the late 1960s, in the form of those glorious albums Scott (1), 2, 3, 4 and ‘’til The Band Comes In – as  celebrated by Jarvis Cocker, Richard Hawley, Susanne Sundfør and John Grant this week at BBC Proms, was an unexpected shock.

The initial quartet of baroque pop beauties tell tales of doomed love, seedy urgent sex and loneliness, and explore narratives people in polite society didn’t talk about back then. They and the Walker-penned songs on 1970’s ‘til The Band Comes In (the remainder being record label compromises) are both beautiful and unsettling, but to say they were a surprise is stretching the truth.

The bizarre comparison between The Walker Brothers, the group that made him a star, performing big melodramatic ballads The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore and Make It Easy On Yourself, and boybands such as Take That is frequently cited as an example of how much of a leap it was for Walker to throw off his shackles and become a creative auteur.

Yet both the blithe boyband comparison and lone godlike genius existing in a vacuum concept can’t be more wrong. There is no shame in being in or loving the work of a boyband; one day the world will realise that just because records are marketed to teenage girls it doesn’t mean they are not worthy, and listening to The Walker Brothers now, a combination of Scott’s own songs and cover versions, there’s a wider emotional breadth and scope than the casual observer might think.

On the band’s first three albums, Take It Easy With The The Walker Brothers, Portrait, and Images, there’s attempts at upbeat party tunes – Land of a Thousand Dances, Tell The Truth, Lonely Winds, and others. Omitting those and songs without Scott on lead vocals gets shut of a chunk of the blander output. The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore et al serve their pop function well, but what we are left with once we remove those too, are songs that wouldn’t seem out of place on Scott’s first or even second solo album.

Take a listen to Take it Easy With The Walker Brothers album from 1965, the doom laden cover of I Don’t Want to Hear It Anymore, (listening to this it sounds like Randy Newman wrote this for Scott alone to sing, although Dusty Springfield‘s 1969 version is superb).

In Portrait (1966) the loneliness of the narrator in In My Room and Where’s the Girl are made doubly devastating by the Scott Walker treatment on words written by others. By the time Images came out in the following year, Scott’s own Orpheus and Genevieve predict he’s leaving his Brothers behind soon enough, his own songwriting sitting easily alongside Michel Legrand and Jacques Demy’s I Will Wait For You.

We start sailing in deliciously dark waters at this point. The songs are linked by an invisible thread. Everyone feels lonely sometimes, even if they are surrounded by people who love them, and here we see – and hear – Scott Walker acknowledging that. And the fans loved it.

So no, The Walker Brothers did not make music for stupid people.

There’s an increased maturity in his vocal delivery, as we listen to his recordings in order of release. Scott Walker’s voice on ballads, his easy listening-style recordings and performances on his short lived television show is often described as crooning. Wrong. Scott Walker has never been a crooner. Crooners are soft and reassuring, they soothe and placate; Walker sings with drama, blood and heart. The easy listening output is gentler around the edges, yes, but still he paints an aural picture with grey clouds looming up ahead.

When Scott started his post-Brothers solo career – as a teenager in the US he made saccharine pop records as well as some actually very good rockabilly, then later played bass as a session musician – he shifted comfortably from songwriter to composer.  His themes expanded further into exploring the darker side of the street, down alleyways few wandered, the flipside of life, if you like.

In 1967, when Scott (1) was recorded and released, the British social landscape was very different from today. Single women could access the contraceptive Pill for the first time in ’67, so the world said sexual liberation ruled OK, the summer of love had everyone happy at the drop of a acid tab; imagine all those new things, a lifetime of possibilities! Truth was, many didn’t have it so good, and women in particular. ‘Free love’ led to rape and free flowing STDs more commonly than the romantics admit, and many missed out on the new freedoms by months or years, the ones stuck at home as housewives and mothers when they didn’t want to be, frustrated at seeing younger sisters or even daughters enjoying what they couldn’t. The housewives in suburbia drugged up on a Valium chemical cosh to keep them in line were kept silent.

Wheile the hippies grew their hair and beards, donned love beads, and turned on, tuned in and dropped out, Scott Walker looked in a different direction. ‘I don’t want my fans walking around like drugged zombies. We must own up and face life,’ he said at the time.

His team who worked on the first albums included producer John Franz (Dusty Springfield, Frankie Vaughan) , and arrangers Peter Knight (Morecambe & Wise Show, Tess) and Wally Stott (Stott later underwent gender reassignment surgery, and became Angela Morley, the first openly transgender person to be nominated for an Academy Award, for The Little Prince in 1974). With their expertise and collaboration, blowing the lone genius theory out of the water, Scott’s solo recordings were more tense and dissonant than the Brothers’ efforts. Scott pushed it further lyrically and semiotically, he sang about things that people weren’t bothered about or didn’t consider much; it’s easier not to think about the bad stuff.

He wrote to, and about women so often and so well. We’ll leave aside the gross The Girls And The Dogs from Scott 2, original lyrics written by Jacques Brel; Walker quickly dismissed that entire record as ‘the work of a lazy, self-indulgent man’. But he’s being over dramatic here, as he is wont to, not to mention harsh on himself.

Rosemary on Scott 3 is the story of a woman trapped and suffocated by in her own life, who has one solitary and fleeting love affair; a massive metaphor for those left envying the young and free, maybe. Big Louise follows it on the record, and portrays the loneliness of an ageing trans woman, as she mourns a lost youth, and what could have been.

in Hero of The War on Scott 4, he imagines perfectly a mother’s loss at losing a child, that loss whether or not through actual physical death, after returning home; we’re left wondering whether the hero in the song is the son or the mother. Duchess is for all women, I think. That’s how I read it anyway. That’s the thing about his songs, you can imagine them trailing off into different narratives, the mood pulling you this way and that.

Two Ragged Soldiers on Scott 3 may romanticise the destitution of men returned from war, but for a pop star in 1969 to acknowledge such people existed at all gets him credit.

Songs about dictators weren’t on too many pop albums back then, but Scott changed all that with documenting Joseph Stalin in The Old Man’s Back Again (dedicated to the Neo – Stalinist Regime). He’s returned to the subject with a reassuring regularity over the past half century.

Montague Terrace in Blue on Scott (1) is a song of hope, a promise that things will get better, because they have to.

Listening to ‘til The Bad Comes In, one imagines oneself resigned to life in a grim bedsit, an unfortunate whose wife has the kids and, tellingly, the house. The dripping tap and mournful cello, keys scraping a lock, and squawking children in Prologue sums that up in the first twenty seconds. And it goes on from there; that’s the mere starting point.

These five albums throw up uncomfortable images and shine light into the shadows, but act as a comforter too. And in many ways they are like a trainer bra, early days, a preparation of sorts for later Walker albums which challenge even more and, let’s be honest here, often disturb. They perhaps show a little more of the man than he intended – he sang about thighs a lot during this ’67 – ’70 period, and still does. I’ll leave any reasons why that might be to your own imagination. Thighs in the more romantic – in the broader sense – are in Montague Terrace in Blue, The Girls From The Streets, Boy Child – to less so in Rosary from 1995’s Tilt, and The Drift’s Cue in 2006.

It will be interesting to hear what Cocker, Hawley, Sundfør and Grant do with the songs they pick or are chosen for them at the Proms. After 2008’s Drifting and Tilting show at the Barbican in London featuring Cocker, Damon Albarn, Dot Allison, Gavin Friday and others garnered mixed results, we hope they do them justice.

‘Make it as new as you can, that’s the only thing I can say, otherwise it goes into karaoke,’ was the advice Walker gave to Cocker on the subject of how to approaching the songs, in an interview for 6 Music.

Thinking about it now, maybe the world hasn’t progressed so much these last fifty years; many problems remain the same, the things Scott Walker sang and wrote about in that period are still very much evident. People’s lives still have sadness in them, for sure; Chester Bennington‘s death just days ago is evidence of that.
So we look forward to see how these four musicians plus supporting cast including the Heritage Orchestra translate and interpret Walker’s work for 2017, and maybe give it new life.