It doesn’t matter how much music you listen to or how knowledgeable you think you are. At some point, you’ll stumble across someone and wonder how you could possibly have not known about them. Better yet, you’ll listen to this artist’s work and say to yourself, “ooooh, so that is where (Bowie/Eno/Iggy/Nick Cave/Joy Division/etc) got it from….
Which is what I’m saying now after finally paying attention to Scott Walker and listening to some of his work. (No, not the ignorant governor of Wisconsin. The other Scott Walker, whose non-brother band The Walker Brothers was hugely successful in England in the late 1960s.)
Walker has shown up on the edge of my radar a couple of times in the past few years. He had an impressive track on the Plague Songs compilation, which also featured new and excellent tracks by folks like Brian Eno and Laurie Anderson, each written around one of the Biblical plagues. His name also came up in some reading I’d been doing about David Bowie’s later work; Bowie covered his song “Nite Flights” on his 1992 album Black Tie White Noise, which many including me regarded as his first decent release in a decade or so. And then a few weeks ago I saw a copy of the documentary Scott Walker: 30 Century Man in a Syracuse record store and almost bought it. Instead I rented it on iTunes and finally got to watch it on the bus this morning.
The Walker Brothers’ hits were bombastic and over-produced, and Scott could be positively painful with his deep voice and soulful looks — picture Tom Jones if he could sing like Roy Orbison. Check him out singing Frankie Valli’s “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore)” from 1965.
But fast-forward to 2006, and watch this video of “Jesse” from 2006’s The Drift. Spare guitar, stunning digital animation, and genuinely terrifying lyrics.
Jesse are you listening?
It casts its ruins in shadows
Under Memphis moonlight
Jesse are you listening?
In the dream
I am crawling around in my hands and knees
Smoothing out the prairie
All the dents and the gouges
And the winds dying down
I lower my head
Press my ear to the prairie
Alive, I’m the only one
I’m the only one
In the documentary, we watch Brian Eno listening to the original version of “Nite Flights,” which he brought to Montreaux where he was working with Bowie on the Lodger album, shaking his head and marveling that music has hardly progressed since its 1978 release. He talks about the way it combines electronic and experimental music with pop songs, and then he takes off his glasses and shakes his head.
“I have to say, it’s humiliating to hear this,” he says. “It is! Christ. We haven’t got any further. You just keep hearing all these bands that sound like bloody Roxy Music and Talking Heads.” (Mind you, Eno was a pivotal figure in both bands.) “We haven’t gotten any further than this,” he continues. “It’s a disgrace, really.” Meanwhile, Bowie, who largely financed the film, just laughs and shakes his head, confessing to not fully understanding Walker’s lyrics but simply falling in love with the imagery.
Bowie’s Lodger was clearly influenced by Walker, and not just in its song “African Night Flight,” although the Walker Brothers album was in turn very strongly influenced by Bowie’s mid-70s work from Young Americans through “Heroes”. Bowie’s cover of “Nite Flights” itself is an eye-opener; his vocal follows Walker’s original rather closely, but on the other hand, is distinctively Bowie. I’ve listened to the two of them back to back quite a few times today and I feel like Walker is the missing link in Bowie’s vocal development, the link that connects the crooners of the fifties to the punks of the 70s.
For the last year or so I’ve been returning to the experimental music I listened to in college, but very selectively. I’ve been thinking a lot about what I don’t like and why (Kraftwerk, but not Tangerine Dream; 1984 King Crimson but not 1970-anything King Crimson; Peter Gabriel but not Genesis; Jon Hassell but not Jan Garbarek, etc) and Scott Walker is a good illustration. Dark, pretentious, sometimes completely more noise than music but — musical. Songs. Lyrics, powerful lyrics. He has a gorgeous voice but thankfully also knows that singing should not always be pretty. Most of all, he’s building these spaces — sparse music, incredible imagery, silence, noises — all of it combines into something amazing and architectural. In the end that’s what matters; his music grabs me and won’t let go.