Scott Walker: Exit Music

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After surviving pop stardom in the ’60s, Scott Walker left the spotlight and began practicing the dark art of deconstructing songs. With his first album in 11 years, the cult hero demonstrates how to reappear completely. By J. Edward Keyes

When it comes to telling the Scott Walker story, it’s important to keep an eye on the facts. Because Walker is a legend, and legends by their very definition exist in opposition to the truth. Consequently, there’s been a tendency to exaggerate for effect, to overstate minor incidents and to add more and deeper layers of mystery to an already murky back story. Keeping all the plot points in their proper proportion requires a firm and unswerving dedication to reality.

It’s not going to be easy. Because this is a story in which a teen idol who once soundly trounced both Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney in U.K. heartthrob contests has a series of nervous breakdowns and disappears for decades at a time, re-emerging periodically to make albums, meet people in dark bars and do a bit of interior decorating. It’s a story in which records with songs about hookers, gigolos and gonorrhea-stricken soldiers breeze to the top of the pop charts. It’s a story in which a Wally becomes an Angela, lovestruck teenage girls storm secluded monasteries, and a defenseless donkey gets assaulted in the streets of a small Irish town. Without the proper measure of intellectual steadying, the whole thing could devolve into a prolonged sideshow of empty mythologizing.

Also, at some point near the middle, a world-renowned percussionist is going to beat the shit out of a side of pork. Just a heads-up.

Walker’s latest album is called The Drift. This is a fact. It’s his first record in 11 years, which is the exact length of time separating his previous record, Tilt, from its predecessor, Climate Of Hunter. In that same period, there have been three presidential elections, one impeachment and five seasons of American Idol. The delay becomes especially perplexing given that, in interviews promoting Tilt, Walker said its successor would be following relatively close on its heels. In what now seems like a clairvoyant in-joke, a 1995 article in Uncut promised that “Walker’s next album will be made not in 2006, but next year.”

“Well, I’m always foolishly optimistic,” says Walker. He’s speaking from his manager’s office in London, his voice rich, warm and smoky as brandy. “There’s really no excuse for how long it takes me to write anything, but, you know, here we are.”

In addition to frustrating fans and flummoxing the press, another effect of these decade-long delays is the portrayal of Scott Walker as a spooky, enigmatic recluse. The truth is a lot less romantic.

“It’s just a big waiting game for me,” he says. “It’s always the lyric—that’s the very devil. If I can get that right, that informs absolutely everything. And that’s the time-consuming thing. I might work on three songs over a period of years, just figuring out how each piece will fit, how it’s going to sound, how it sings. In the end, I just have to wait for it, and it’ll turn up. Somehow.”

Scott Walker was born Noel Scott Engel in Hamilton, Ohio, in 1943. His parents divorced when he was five; he and his mother moved to California, where as a teenager he cut a series of forgettable 45s under his birth name. Despite this early false start, Engel’s love of music remained intact; he eventually teamed with singer John Maus and started performing popular singles in crowded Los Angeles clubs. A young drummer named Gary Leeds was also playing around the club circuit.

“I was in a group called the Standells, and John was playing with his sister,” says Leeds. “Eventually, Scott joined John, and the two of them started playing at a place called Gazzarri’s.”

Because bands in L.A. built their repertoires around the chart hits of the day, it was common for players to jump from band to band to fill last-minute vacancies. In 1965, Leeds started sitting in regularly with Engel and Maus, and the trio developed a sound built around Leeds’ thundering percussion and the intertwining of Maus’ searing tenor and Engel’s sonorous baritone. How they were christened with their artificial surname is a classic case of pop hubris.

“That was John’s fault,” says Leeds. “John’s real name is John Maus, but in the clubs people would get drunk and go up to him and say, ‘Hey, how are you, John Moose?’ Finally he said, ‘I’m changing this to a showbiz name like John Walker.’ Since Scott was singing with him and they both had blonde hair, the management said, ‘If we bill you guys as a brother act, the Walker Brothers, we can get you into more of the discos.’ That’s how it came about, and then we were just stuck with it.”

The group’s first single, a sparkling confection called “Love Her,” went nowhere, so Leeds proposed they move to England to try their luck there. The gamble paid off. The group logged three top-10 hits in 1965 by following a simple, stunning pattern of echo-drenched vocals and cinematic string arrangements. Though commonly pigeonholed as a Righteous Brothers doppelganger, there’s something more sly and decadent about the Walkers’ wall-of-sound heartbreakers. Their 1966 triumph, “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,” reads like a blueprint for Pulp and the Divine Comedy, with Engel playing the part of the handsome oracle warning a foolish man of the perils of love. Engel invented the role of the dashing intellectual, instilling each song with romantic longing while giving interviews in which he praised the work of Jean-Paul Sartre. But the insane disparity between actual mortal teenagers and outsized icons began to manifest itself in awful, ugly ways.

“The problem was that Scott got bigger and bigger as a pop idol and he absolutely hated it,” says singer Jonathan King, who had a 1965 chart hit with novelty song “Everyone’s Gone To The Moon.” King would bump into Engel on the sets of British TV pop programs such as Ready, Steady, Go!, and their shared love of literature led to a fast friendship. “I rather enjoyed being a celebrity, but Scott hated the fact that the adulation was simply because he was a good-looking guy and not really because he was a brilliant singer.”

It was a crisis that escalated as the Walker Brothers’ fame grew to meet—and momentarily surpass—that of the Beatles. This sat particularly badly with Engel, who spoke frequently and candidly about his dissatisfaction.

“He became more and more depressed,” says King. “He was also terribly nervous about going onstage; he developed terrible stage fright. He kept either not turning up or turning up late and refusing to go on.”

“Of all the people you’d want to hear sing, it’s going to be Scott and John,” says Leeds. “But it didn’t matter to [the audience]. They just liked the way you looked. As soon as you got onstage, it was just screaming and yelling. It started to get a little unsafe, because the girls would start to rush onstage and they’d have to shut all the safety curtains.”

The mania progressed from out-of-hand to outright dangerous in lightning speed. In Ireland, a mob of rabid worshippers flipped over a car containing the Walker Brothers, pinning the trio to the vehicle’s ceiling for hours. When Engel took off to Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight in 1966 to study Gregorian chant, his frenzied admirers tracked him down, relentlessly banging on the monastery’s door until the perplexed monks had no choice but to turn their charge loose.

“Scott was a very shy person and hated the adulation,” says King. “But things took a slightly different turn when his nervousness became so great that he actually decided it would be much easier to kill himself.”

It’s unclear exactly how many times Engel has attempted suicide, but the most widely reported incident occurred in August 1966, when he was found face-down in his London apartment with the gas stove on and the windows closed. His unconscious body was carried out the front door past a throng of horrified teenage girls who had been hanging around in the hopes of getting an autograph. In an interview with Melody Maker shortly afterward, Engel ascribed the incident to a personal problem. “Pressure wasn’t the only reason,” he said at the time. “Nobody has the right reasons. [The truth is] I don’t remember a thing.”

Nine months later, the Walker Brothers disbanded.

In a striking case of art mirroring reality, the first Scott Walker solo record was titled Scott. Released in 1967, it teamed him with former Walker Brothers producer John Franz and a gifted arranger named Wally Stott. During the late ‘60s, Stott came to realize that his birth gender was a gross fallacy, a circumstance he set aright when he appeared at one of Walker’s recording sessions as Angela Morley. Stott/Morley had worked with Franz to write string arrangements for a number of crooner heartthrobs, but her experience with Walker was markedly different.

“Usually I’d go to the office and there would be the artist, and Johnny Franz would sit at the piano and play for them and they’d sing,” says Morley, who underwent gender reassignment surgery in 1972. “One day, I walked into the office and John was sitting behind his desk and Scott was sitting on the floor. The floor was covered with sheet music, and Scott was strumming a guitar. I had to start taking along a tape recorder because there would be no music on paper. The only way to get the songs would be to record everything Scott did.”

Though Walker was still ambivalent about his role as a teen idol (in a 1968 Melody Maker interview, he speaks of wanting to get out of music to work in a “beer factory”), his records from this period are pop masterpieces. In addition to Morley’s sumptuous arrangements, the records’ defining feature is Walker’s discovery of the back catalog of Belgian singer/songwriter Jacques Brel. Saucy, scabrous and surprisingly existential, Brel turned life inside-out, scraping off layers of myth and folklore to uncover the ugly reality underneath. Brel’s “Next,” which Walker masterfully covers on 1968’s Scott 2, describes the fate of a soldier who catches a venereal disease from a hooker hired by the army to make men of its officers. As an amusing result, Britain had a top-10 record containing the lyric, “I swear on the wet head/Of my first case of gonorrhea.”

“Brel changed my life,” says Walker. “He opened every door for me. Before this, I had been writing these strange b-sides for the Walker Brothers, but when I heard Brel, I didn’t feel like such an alien. I thought, ‘It can be done, and this is a guy who’s doing it.’”

At the time, Walker described his music as a merger of Franz Kafka and Gil Evans, but the reality was far more complex. Walker was smuggling tales of compassionate hookers, macho misogynists, cross-dressers and 30th-century men into British households in a package of Puccini strings and a peerless vibrato.

The grand experiment crested with 1969’s Scott 4, Walker’s best work of that decade and the first album written entirely by him. Thirty-seven years on, it remains a fascinating exercise in deconstruction, a snapshot of the exact moment where the singer begins to peel away from the song. There’s a tangible element of subversion in the way he sings, pushing against the sonic chiaroscuro with pointed questions about the existence of God and the rationale for war. “The Old Man’s Back Again” is an appraisal of Stalinist Russia set against a thumping bass and a ghostly choir; ballad “Boy Child” has a soft, ethereal glow. Taken as a whole, the album sounds like a message from another dimension. Scott 4 was a sales disaster, not even grazing the bottom of the pop charts.

“The record company started clamping down on me,” says Walker. “They only wanted me to record this middle-of-the-road dross, and my manager said, ‘Just do it, and after a while we’ll be able to record originals again.’ Of course, that never happened.”

Walker spent the early part of the 1970s drinking his way through a series of schlocky, uninspired covers albums. He didn’t write again until 1978, for an album by an unwisely reunited Walker Brothers. The group was able to leverage the success of its 1975 comeback single, an unimaginative cover of Tom Rush’s “No Regrets,” to gain complete creative control over what turned out to be Nite Flights, the Walker Brothers’ final record, .

“The label liked ‘No Regrets,’ so when we said, ‘We’re going to write this album,’ they had no choice but to go with it,” says Leeds. “They weren’t worried because they’d heard Scott’s other singles. Of course, when they finally got the record, they were all paralyzed.”

The first four songs on Nite Flights are written by Walker, and they mark the point at which his compositional style began another dramatic shift. Songs such as “Fat Mama Kick” are terrifically formless, built around skronking sax and icy percussion, prefiguring the bleak terrain David Bowie would soon travel on Lodger and Scary Monsters. By far the most arresting of Walker’s contributions is “The Electrician,” a horrifying monologue delivered by a torturer to his captive. Over a nauseating bass throb, Scott emotionlessly sings, “If I jerk the handle, you’ll die/If I jerk the handle, you’ll thrill me.”

The reunion ended a few months after the album’s release. It’s at this point that Walker assumed what has become his most identifiable characteristic: his penchant for disappearing. Though Fire Escape In The Sky, a 1981 compilation curated by Julian Cope, did much to keep Walker in the public consciousness, it was six years before he turned up again, looking for work as a producer. Longtime Walker fan Ed Bicknell, a manager who at the time was guiding Dire Straits from one commercial success to another, tried to persuade Walker otherwise.

“I would meet him at the bar at the Kensington Hilton because it was the darkest bar in London,” says Bicknell, who became Walker’s manager during the 1980s. “He’d get there first, and then I would look around until I spotted a pair of sneakers. I could go into the booth, and Scott would be sitting there with a glass of warm beer. He’d be four feet from my nose, and I couldn’t see him. And we’d have our conversations in this kind of gloom.”

Eventually, Walker absconded to a house in the English countryside to write 1984’s Climate Of Hunter, but he laid down strict rules about the conditions under which he’d work.

“The record company was, in a nice way, banned from the studio,” says Bicknell. “He’d become so nervous of singing in public. On one occasion, I inadvertently walked in when he was doing a vocal; he stopped singing and would not sing while I was there. Scott was standing in the studio delivering some doomy vocal to a battery of flickering lights.”

Walker’s paralyzing stage fright, caused both by the terrifying fan adoration during his days in the Walker Brothers and the inability to get a perfect mix in a live scenario, has abolished any possibility of live performances in the near future. Walker admitted to journalist David Hughes in 1968 to being “afraid of audiences,” and his performance on a 1995 episode of TV program Later … With Jools Holland was contingent upon Holland’s agreement to clear the studio when Walker played. As Bicknell dryly puts it, “The thought of stadium gigs had receded from my mind.”

Though hailed by critics upon its release, Climate Of Hunter is a mixed bag. The album marks the first tentative steps toward the blank-verse songwriting that would define the latter half of Walker’s career, but it’s larded with the same ‘80s art-rock production that torpedoes records by Neil Young and Bob Dylan. Walker’s radically reconstituted writing style takes a firm axe to his image of romantic existentialist, moving away from direct, literate sentences toward more of an impressionistic sense-language. (“It must have been that all the art films I’d seen finally started to kick in,” jokes Walker.) One of the album’s more trivial delights is the fact that Walker somehow convinced Billy Ocean to sing the line: “Delayed into headlong/Resembled to breaking point.”

Needless to say, Climate tanked. “I remember playing the record for (Walker fan-club founder) Lynne Goodall,” says Bicknell. “This is a woman who in her youth probably screamed and wet her underwear for the Walker Brothers and who’s now listening to Climate Of Hunter. And I’m watching her face, and I’m thinking, ‘Who the fuck is going to buy this?”

After Climate, Walker disappeared into everyday life. It’s a widely propagated myth that he’s an odd, brooding, recluse holed up in some dusty Gothic castle with the blinds drawn. But the truth is more mundane.

“I hadn’t heard from Scott in about two and a half years,” says Bicknell. “One day he just showed up in the office and plopped himself down in a chair. And I said to him, ‘What have you been doing?’ And he said, ‘I’ve been painting.’ And I said, ‘Really? Oils or watercolors?’ And he said, ‘No, man. Walls.’ He’d been working as a painter and a decorator.”

Walker spent the next decade in artistic hibernation. Two projects Bicknell planned for him—one singing songs written for him by popular artists of the time, the other a collaboration with Brian Eno—went nowhere. The latter project devolved into such a bad state that Eno took to writing Bicknell long, hand-scrawled memos about how the recording process was “completely breaking down.”

“Scott was not communicating with Eno about how the songs were supposed to sound,” says Bicknell. “There were periods in the music where it would stop, but because the musicians didn’t know what the tempo was, they couldn’t count out the rest period. So nobody knew when to come back in.”

Eventually, Walker phoned Bicknell to inform him that he wouldn’t be returning to the studio. According to Bicknell, his relationship with Walker “eventually just petered out.”

Walker returned in 1995 with Tilt, a stunning record that moves past simple verse/chorus/verse conventions to create a barren aural landscape. The album is a triumph before it’s even five minutes old, thanks to mournful opening track “Farmer In The City.” Against a slow, dirge-like string arrangement, Walker recounts the final moments of life for Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini, who was repeatedly run over by his own car, which was being driven by a male prostitute he’d hired. Walker’s voice takes on a tone of total terror, and he strings together isolated images to create a bleak collage of sorrow and memory. By the time “Farmer In The City” reaches its haunting, inevitable conclusion, it’s clear what Walker has accomplished: The song is the sound of someone’s life passing before his eyes.

Tilt’s haunting timbre and aversion to conventional structure made it a critical success, and a domestic 1997 release by Drag City secured an audience with indie-rock aficionados. Though separated by a full decade, The Drift (4AD) expands on Tilt’s barren landscape. Where ribbons of melody periodically churn above Tilt’s bleak surface, The Drift is more primal and percussive. “Jolson And Jones” begins with a violent organ stab and what sounds like a drum being thrown down a flight of stairs and peaks with Walker threatening to punch a donkey in the streets of Galway, complete with the sound of that very beast crying out in pain. “Cue” is made up of little more than squiggles of horn and a grim, heartbeat-like rhythm.

“This album is different from the others because there are no real arrangements,” says Walker. “It’s just basically big blocks of sound and noise. I stripped out everything that was superfluous.”

This led to what has become the most notorious moment of the recording session: Percussionist Alasdair Malloy was instructed to bang out a rhythm with his fists on a hunk of pork.

“In a way, it’s kind of a child’s sense of humor where we try to get Alasdair to do ridiculous things,” says Walsh. “Scott wanted the sound of punching flesh, and I jokingly said, ‘Why don’t we go to the butcher’s and get a side of pork?’ It was one of those things where the second after I suggested it, I thought, ‘Why the hell did I say that?’ I didn’t think it would actually happen.”

It’s a humorous visual, but its purpose in “Clara” is decidedly chilling. Clara Petacci was a young Italian girl who was Benito Mussolini’s mistress; she eventually becoming so enamored of the dictator that she insisted on being executed alongside him. After they were killed, their bodies were suspended from a rope in a Milan piazza so that citizens could vent years of suppressed anger by pummeling the corpses with sticks. This is the sound that the punching of the pork is meant to replicate.

“I don’t like out-and-out protest songs,” says Walker. “I wanted to find another way to keep the conversation of fascism going, and this was a way to do that. It’s a truly great love story because she could have left, but she wouldn’t because she was this incredible airhead fan.”

Walker is similarly topical on “Jesse,” turning the destruction of the World Trade Center into a metaphor for existential emptiness. “I wrote that a month after September 11,” says Walker. “I was looking for a metaphor for the Twin Towers. That structure was a bit of American hubris because we love skyscrapers, but they have no reflective quality.”

Walker chose to pair the image of the towers’ destruction with the image of Elvis Presley talking in the night to his stillborn twin brother Jesse. “Because Elvis never saw his brother, he has no spiritual reflection either,” says Walker. “So it becomes a kind of starvation situation.” The song is a structural marvel. It opens with the same two chords that kick off “Jailhouse Rock,” but they’ve been radically detuned to sound sick and sorrowful. In the place where the song’s two drum kicks belong, Walker whispers the word “pow”—first in the left channel, then in the right, mirroring the two jetliners striking the buildings in lower Manhattan.

What enables Walker to communicate such complex ideas without sounding labored or sloganeering is his ruthlessly minimal writing style. On paper, it’s a jumble of words: “As the grossness of spring/Rose a tumor balloon/To squeak against the window.” But in the context of the record, the fragmentation is undeniably potent.

“Sometimes I wish language would break down more,” he says. “I think when people start to take apart what they say, they see it more clearly. By pulling it apart, we can understand how valuable language is, what a gift it is. That’s why when I’m working with words, I’m pretty sparing.”

Walker has likewise stripped his voice of all signifiers, keeping it free of emphasis and intonation. “I want to keep the emotions as neutral as possible,” he says. “I’ve just become a man singing. There’s no affectation.” The singular, stunning power of The Drift lies in its mighty blankness, in getting past empty sentiment to discover the icy, immovable truth.

Some say that if Walker had buckled to industry expectations and continued churning out the kind of unimaginative covers albums he was making in the 1970s, he could’ve surpassed Frank Sinatra as one of the world’s foremost vocalists. Walker finds this idea repugnant.

“I make records for myself, because I’m interested in seeing where they’re going to go,” says Walker. “I think all artists do that, whether they’re trying to alleviate some kind of pain or whatever. If I can achieve what I’m after, then I’m speaking authentically to you, another human being. We’re all in this together. Hopefully you’ll pick up on what I’m trying to say and carry on from there.”

Walker has built a body of work on this principle, making records that unnerve, provoke and inspire. There’s no gloomy recluse, no weird warlock seeing visions in storm clouds. There’s just a man with a clear artistic vision, a bad case of stage fright and an unbreakable dedication to craft.

This is Scott Walker. These are the facts.

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4 Comments

  1. Posted February 24, 2011 at 4:58 am | Permalink

    You’re out of your mind, child. There’s so much emotion in that line…”If I jerk the handle, you’ll die in your dreams.” Listen to it again, this time without applying so many adjectives.

  2. linda
    Posted March 29, 2011 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

    i think its time the man did some concerts for his ageing fanbase who still buy his music

  3. Posted March 30, 2011 at 2:38 am | Permalink

    you are missing 1982-83 scott produced three songs with John and Brandy walker for rough trade records published by Acuff Rose in London

  4. ed johnston
    Posted June 18, 2012 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    I appreciate Scott Walker’s sincereity to his art but think that most of his material is wierd and not digestable by the masses. He should revert back to his days as an entertainer and enjoy life a bit and not take himself so seriously.