May 082012

Before leaving for work this morning I watched about 45 minutes of some Scott Walker documentary, 30th Century Man. It took a lot of concentration to stick with it for as long as I did, but I was doing it for you, especially those of you who profess to like the solo recordings by Scott Walker. (You’re welcome.)

I’ve heard a few of these records over the years, and I heard selections from more recent ones in the documentary I watched this morning. Clearly his records are interesting. Clearly he seems to have influenced many of David Bowie‘s failed attempts at being more interesting than he already is (eg, the long boring songs off the generally interesting Station to Station). I’ll give Walker credit for being interesting and for doing his own music better than Bowie has tried to do it.

I’m aware, on a rock criticism level, of the influence Walker’s solo recordings and, maybe more so, how his idiosyncratic career path has inspired other artists, especially shy, misfit English ones. Clearly, whether I will ever enjoy the music of Scott Walker or not, he stands for something. And that’s good; standing for something is always good. I’d read that he was “out there” as a person, but it was refreshing in the documentary’s modern-day interviews with him to see that he was an articulate, straightforward, friendly fellow. Society’s glorification of the “tortured artist” thing really grates on me. Maybe Walker’s had his struggles, but the way he tells it in this doc, he was his own man, making his own decisions with no regrets. That’s cool.

What I’d really like to learn is what fans of the music of Scott Walker get out of listening to his records. On a personal level, how do they speak to you? I hear that voice of his and those lyrics and the 13-year-0ld malcontent in me wants to get in his face or give the guy a wedgie. The reasonable, rationale adult I am today hears the music of Scott Walker as a shockingly successful and even relatively tasteful version of whatever the hell it was Richard Harris was trying to do with Jimmy Webb in the late ’60s. In one sense that’s a remarkable achievement, but nevertheless I can’t help but wonder Why?

I’m counting on you, fans of the music of Scott Walker, to tell me how his music makes you feel, what it resonates within you, both the you of today and, if applicable, the 13-year-old you carried into the future.

No facts, no figures, please. I may regret asking for this, but take me inside your skin.


  25 Responses to “Please Explain (Personally): Scott Walker”

  1. Before I happened across that documentary about 6 months ago, I had never heard of him. After watching it, I can’t say I had any desire to track his music down, but I thought the movie itself was fascinating.

  2. Yes, it was really well done. The one missing component was the human element of his audience, what I’m hoping we learn through this thread.

  3. misterioso

    Like to help but can’t. Scott Walker falls into the category of “Stuff you read about a lot in Mojo that some people get all geeked up about but I don’t really get.”

  4. shawnkilroy

    i only have a few of his records and i like them the same way i like Pink Floyd, The Doors, Bowie and late Peter Gabriel Genesis. I feel like the songs are about something bigger than the songs themselves. like a window into another cooler world. on the later stuff i like the psychadelia of it. like, the music IS the drug. On the earlier stuff, i dig that traditional thing like the Kurt Weil, Serge Gainsbourg, Phil Spector vibe.
    And I agree with that thing you said about Richard Harris. There are some sounds in there from earlier musical traditions. All the shit that died with the Beatles & Stones.

  5. ladymisskirroyale

    Okay, I’m gonna dust off my Robert Johnson Baseball Bat and step up to the plate again. Ladymiss’s man, here.

    “Getting inside the skin” is an apt metaphor when discussing a musician who has recorded the sound of punching a large slab of meat for its percussive qualities. This is the finicky Brian Wilson/Phil Spector-like attention to atmosphere that Scott Walker attends to, and it is also a quality that puts him way out in the enigmatic and alien margins.

    Some context is in order here: Scott Walker is one of those musicians who has undergone a radical and admirable reinvention and redemption (see also: David Sylvian and Talk Talk). Going from the poster-boy with higher pop chart success than The Beatles at one point in his youth, to an older and reclusive artist who can explore and embrace “the horror, the horror”.

    It’s tough to pull together some buzzwords and cliches to describe and acclaim Walker’s gargantuan and yet micro proportions. First of all, he is very far removed from rock song craft per se. Who but he knows exactly what the fuck he’s singing about, but that’s the poetry: he’s using the aesthetic qualities of language and music to evoke meanings outside of literal or conventional meaning.

    His work is an emission from the darkness, from the chaos of the soul, as he struggles with spirituality, in the Dostoevskian sense. He composes from skeletal parts and from orchestral majesty. I love that portion in “30 Century Man” where he gets a roomful of guitar players to sound like dive-bombing stukas (much like Glenn Branca or Rhys Chatham).

    There is really no place where this music “belongs”, and that’s part of the appeal, the virtue of its originality of vision. It is not to be danced to, nor to be wallpaper in the background. He’s not making things for those reasons.

    His recordings require work. He himself works hard at them (and I assert that the work is in fact evident in the sound), and he expects/challenges that the listener will work as hard with his material as well.

    And then there is THAT voice. The voice of a wounded angel (his real surname, Engle, means angel in German). It is poetic and widescreen cinematic. It swoops, it howls, it whispers, it croons, and it is never too emotional, nor too deadpan. It engages us and leaves us a little changed afterwards.

    There is much to be loved in early Walker Brothers, and in Scott’s solo excursions, but I would recommend starting with “Tilt” from the early 90’s. Listen to it as an experimental gesture, a work from a searching and creative soul who is using his voice and other elements of sound to explore what exactly it is that he’s needing to convey, whatever that is.

    Scott Walker (to paraphrase Rimbaud) has made a long, boundless, and structured disorganization of the senses. He searches in himself for all forms of love, madness, suffering, solace. He exhausts in himself their quintessence, he sings them hauntingly, and we are invited to listen and come to the conclusion that “I like him and I get him”.

  6. Good stuff, shawnkilroy – and personal. That’s what I’m talking about!

  7. Mr. Royale wrote:

    Some context is in order here…

    Nooooooooo! Although your context was awesome and necessary for those who did not watch the 45 minutes of the doc I watched this morning, it skirts my request to share what his music means to you. I know you do elsewhere (eg, “THAT voice…”), but I’m poking at you as an example to others who may feel the need to list more details and don’t want to put themselves on the table.

    I thought of you at one point in the doc, when they compared the landscape of his music to the landscape of Francis Bacon’s paintings. Your paintings, in my limited understanding of art history, seem to mine a similar territory. I was figuring you dug Walker and could help stimulate this conversation. Thanks.

    It’s also funny that you mention the dive-bombing guitars of a Glenn Branca. The documentary showed a piece from a film he scored that had exactly that type of music. I had no idea he could get heavy. I liked that, and I liked much of his music. Still, “THAT voice” was tough for me to bear. At one point in the doc he talked about his preference for singing without typical singer inflections, which isn’t a bad idea. Then every time I heard him sing his “natural” style seemed loaded with artifice. No one really sings that way, do they? But whatever. Taste is taste, and tastes can develop. The doc really helped me get a better feel for the guy and where he’s coming from.

  8. I’m looking forward to more Townspeople with personal associations with this artist: tales of making love to one of his albums or cooking a fantastic meal or tripping or locking oneself in a dark room for a weekend down among the ashes. Shadows and light. Maybe someone’s seen him live. Whatever, but please do your best to keep it personal. Thanks.

  9. I’ve tried, several times, even watched this entire very well made documentary (and enjoyed it as such), BUT….total disconnect when it comes to the music…and especially his signing. His music just doesn’t speak to me…and I’m fine with that.

  10. *”singing”, I meant.

  11. ladymisskirroyale

    Yes, his “natural” style is very Jacques Brel/Anthony Newley (another one who Bowie emulated)/Theatrical. I like it in “The World’s Strongest Man” or “It’s Raining Today” but it often smacks of a musical, which I hate.

    Groups like The National, The Last Shadow Puppets, Cousteau, and Eric Matthews have used this approach as a template, and I like their sound.

    What Scott Walker “means” to me? As a big fan, I would say that his approach and execution do in fact present me with a kindred spirit, and he does in fact present me with a similar landscape on which to play out my…it’s gonna sound corny here…existential meanderings. I like listening, I like singing along with him, following his vocal dynamics as if surfing.

    Is it fair to say that we live vicariously through our musicians, and that we (I’m allegorically speaking here) “surf” the ups and downs of our singer?

    Why do we enjoy listening to downer songs, love gone wrong, people facing the brink? Why is Francis Bacon’s work appealing? Why the Guernica? Crime and Punishment?

    To me, the key in appreciating Scott Walker, and so many others, is to hear a kindred spirit expressing him(or her)self with more élan than I can, and still leave enough mystery to seek out more.

  12. Beautiful! See, to me, these kinds of reactions mean as much or more than lurid tales of an artist possibly once having been addicted to…drugs! We’ve got too much of that shit in our rock dialog, our artistic dialog.

  13. ladymisskirroyale

    Okay, I like to paint to “The Cockfighter (where his howls somehow remind me of Rutger Hauer at the end of Bladerunner)”,”Bouncer See Bouncer” and “Cossacks Are”. They set the tone for what I’m working on in the studio.

    Making love or cooking? Uh….no.

  14. For a second I thought you watched a director’s cut, featuring scenes in which Walker used sign language to record his “vocals.”

  15. Nope, just a typo…but who knows, I may have appreciated him more as a signer.

    Now you’ve made me curious to see if there are any “signing” albums out there…Hey, there are a bunch of ventriloquist albums, so it’s not completely outside the realms of possibility!

  16. Not that I mean to mock Mr. Walker, because I don’t. He’s definitely an interesting artist. I don’t really have anything against him, and I think I get what he was trying to do, but it just doesn’t do it for me (so far, anyway).

  17. Happiness Stan

    Hmm, I love Scott Walker’s voice, and Scotts 1-4, and the Walker Brothers singles.

    I was on a fairground ride with “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Any More” playing when I first spotted the first girl I fell in love with, so it was inevitable that I’d work fairly hard at his music.

    Being in the position of owning “Scott”, “Scott 2”, “Scott Walker Sings Jacques Brel” and a pile of singles before Julian Cope compiled and released his “The Godlike Genius of Scott Walker” compilation, I was also able for a while to feel insufferably smug about already being a fan when it quite unexpectedly became trendy to do so. It also helped that my then partner, whom I have mentioned previously in the context of Laura Nyro, was also into Brel in a big way, so there was a whole lot of teenage stuff going on as I was really getting into his stuff.

    For me, his is the ultimate male pop voice, unmistakeable and commanding, I find it practically impossible to do anything else while listening to him singing. Hearing him at his best IS like experiencing the voice of God being piped directly into my brain. I haven’t listened to his records in a while, but can clearly recall several times in my life when Scotts 3 and 4 have felt like the only touchstones I had with reality.

    I saW that documentary a few years back with Mrs H, and while I remember it being interesting but not really satisfactory, Mrs H disliked it intensely, I don’t remember enough about it to clearly remember why.

    There are, however, as many reasons why I struggle with Scott Walker as why I love his music.

    Firstly, and most significantly, he has made a lot of truly terrible records – and the sheer quantity of awful records outweighs the good stuff possibly three, four or even more to one. The pre-Walker Brothers singles, most of the Walker Brothers albums, (in fact just about everything except for “Make it Easy on Yourself”, “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” and “No Regrets” is almost uniformly dreadful), and the four “classic” albums were bookended by a load of MOR tripe with poor production values from TV shows and the like.

    And then there are the later albums, beginning with “Climate of Hunter”. I bought “Climate of Hunter”, and my goodness I persevered with it, and every time I heard it I liked it less. I don’t doubt that there are folk who genuinely get pleasure from that, and “Tilt”, but they leave me stone cold. I have no doubt that he is absolutely sincere in what he is setting out to do, but to me they sound cold, and so alienated from humanity that they are not so much shocking and thought-provoking as being so devoid of life that I am not able to relate to them on any level in any way, and find them so lacking in humanity as to be ultimately very boring. Neil Young might be an ornery and contrary old cuss, but compared to Scott it’s as if he’s not even trying.

    Which does not detract from my enjoyment of the four “Scott” albums. The first two were above average TV/MOR fare, interspersed with a few of his own compositions and some Jacques Brel, the third was almost completely self-penned but ending with a trilogy of Brel songs, the fourth was all his own work.

    “Scott 1” is a great collection, with huge ballads, the two Brel songs Bowie covered when he mattered and done a lot more convincingly, plus “Montague Terrace in Blue”, which demonstrated that he could write a power-ballad quite the equal of anything else being done at the time. “Scott 2” has its moments, but has always been my least favourite of the four. “Scott 3” has “It’s Raining Today” and “30 Century Man”, and while there’s not a lot of filler the songs are not terribly catchy, although I always enjoy it whenever I hear it. Next up came “Scott Walker Sings Songs from his TV Series”, which is entirely dispensable, and then came the unexpected one.

    “Scott 4” is the truly indispensable album in his canon, no longer than any of the first three Ramones albums, but not a note of filler. Entirely self-penned, only the third album gave any clues to what might be coming in this one. “The Seventh Seal” makes you want to go and re-watch an old and very slow black and white movie in Swedish, and is possibly the most upbeat song on the album. Only the orchestration lifts the mood to the sunny side of Leonard Cohen’s “Songs of Love and Hate”, and the orchestration is perfect – without it the songs would just be too much, but as a whole it stands as one of the great classics of alienation, and one of the most accessible too. Listened to late at night it is the equal of “Songs of Love and Hate”, “Songs From A Room”, “White Light White Heat”, or “Closer” – although if they are not your bag then “Scott 4” will probably not be either.

    That, for me, is Scott Walker. Three peerless singles, four very good albums, one of those a truly great one. I can overlook the rest, and actually hope that he does go on making the occasional unlistenable album just to demonstrate that he’s still there and is still bloody-minded enough to genuinely not care if anyone likes his music or not.

  18. BigSteve

    Monsieur Royale: “Yes, his “natural” style is very Jacques Brel/Anthony Newley (another one who Bowie emulated)/Theatrical.”

    I am now cured of whatever faint interest I may have had in hearing Walker’s music. I generally don’t have much patience with music that professes to explore The Darkness. Gothiness usually strikes me as comical. I like the idea of Scott Walker as the tortured atrist, but not enough to become the tortured listener.

  19. tonyola

    I remember the few hits the Walker Brothers had in the mid-’60s, but I had no special interest in them, nor would I have in Walker’s solo work in the late ’60s and early ’70s even if I had heard it (very few people in the US did). However, until I watched the documentary recently, I had no idea that he wrote and originally performed one of Bowie’s very best songs of the early ’90s – “Nite Flights”. Wow!

  20. ladymisskirroyale

    Oh, thank goodness! I don’t think I want Scott Walker in bed.

    Taking back my avatar from my very expressive husband, I can say:
    1. If you’ve seen Mr. Royale’s paintings, you will understand why he resonates with Mr. Walker.
    2. I like SW’s voice, I like his pushing the envelope in his production of music. I like how personal his music is to him.
    3. But…I don’t enjoy listening to it as much as my husband does. He loves to paint to the introspective, dark wanderings of the soul-type music. (See Godspeed You! Black Emperor) Me, I would rather listen to something with a bit more form or melody. If I’m going to choose to listen to psychotherapy through music, it will be Kristin Hersh, Jim White or Spirtualized.
    4. If you asked me how does the music of Abba make me feel, then I would wax a bit more poetically.

  21. ladymisskirroyale

    I once was in a performance of the song “Hello Dolly” during which we danced and signed the lyrics.

  22. If there was an audio-only document of the signed performance, then you’d really have something! An ex-girlfriend of mine was once in an all (white) girl Catholic school production of “The Wiz”. I’d pay good money to see some parent’s video recording of that performance!

    I was disappointed to find no “signing” albums in my internet search…my faith in human absurdity has been severely shaken. I’m gonna go listen to my Shields & Yarnell album now…

  23. My son’s predominantly white high school just did The Wiz! I thought the same thing. He doesn’t participate in theater, so I didn’t get to see all the kids in blackface:)

  24. When I first heard Scott Walker, I thought he was sort of a sixties version of Sinatra. There is a “cool” feeling I get from his music: like watching a Bergman film. Still, I get a jolt of electricty from listening to him.

    The best place to start is with Scott 4: all of the songs are his, no covers, which I particularly like, because his songwriting departs in a major way from the kinds of songs he covers: his songs are tougher, more precise in their emotional and harmonic range.

  25. cherguevara

    I am a big fan of Walker. Been very busy lately, but luckily ladymisskirroyale said it first, and better, than I ever could.

    Nite Flights has to be the most uneven albums of all time, the way it drops off after Scott’s front-loaded songs. “The Death of Romance,” has nothing going for it and it doesn’t get any better after that.

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