The Song Sommelier Presents: Great Scott

Scott Walker had the best male voice in pop, bar none. My introduction to his music came from the Midge Ure cover of No Regrets, but it was the purchase of the Boy Child compilation in 1990 that exposed me to his long deleted solo catalogue. The best £7.99 I have ever spent on music — every single track was genuinely memorable. His neglected backstory and artistic image were also off-the-scale cool — I still have a soft spot for black roll-necks.

Words and curation by Mark Webb, Portrait by Mick Clarke

Our musical story starts in 1965–66 when his group, The Walker Brothers, had two number ones and a number three in the UK with Take It Easy on Yourself, The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore and My Ship Is Coming In. Commercial returns dropped off over the next year and creative differences ensured they were over by early ’67 when Scott started his solo career. From the off, Scott was supported by fantastic production from John Franz and arrangements from Ivor Raymonde, Reg Guest and Wally Stott. Without their creative input it is unlikely that Scott’s music would be as loved and venerated. This is no middle of the road muzak or wall of sound mono mud — Phil Spector eat your heart out.

As Scott’s solo career took-off he continued to add his own compositions to a collection of standards. Montague Terrace (in Blue) and Such A Small Love are just beautiful. To this mix Scott now added three Jacques Brel covers — a pattern he would repeat on his next two records. This was the introduction to the colourful world of Brel for many including David Bowie and Marc Almond…and unfortunately probably Terry Jacks as well.

Scott 2 included the Brel song, Jackie and even Scott nay-sayers must admire him for sneaking lyrics about opium, authentic queers and phoney virgins into 1968 front rooms via a Frankie Howerd tv show. Titter ye not though, as this galloping classic was banned by the BBC and limped home at 22 in the charts. By Scott 3, in early ’69, Scott had taken more control and the first 10 songs are all his own compositions, with three Brel covers tacked on at the end including his superlative version of If You Go Away. This gloom & doom epic was introduced to me via the even more dramatic version Marc Almond recorded with the Mambas on their Untitled album.

Remarkably, given their challenging content, Scott’s first three solo albums hit numbers 3, 1 and 3 in the album charts. His profile was buoyed by more accessible non-album singles — Joanna and the Lights of Cincinnati — a typical record company strategy in the UK at the time. At this point the BBC gave the 25 year-old a tv series of his own — resulting in an album of covers from the programme appearing in July ’69. And this is where his trajectory changed for the first time. It wasn’t a radical change in music, but in success. Despite being his best regarded album, Scott 4 failed to chart. This could have been due to releasing three albums in one year, using his real name (Scott Engel) or the MOR punters getting bamboozled after the easier listens of Scott 1–3. Either way, it contains many treasures from the Bergman quoting Seventh Seal to the standout funk bass on The Old Man’s Back Again and the rock-out (Scott style) on Get Behind Me.

Stung by this failure Scott got a new manager who, in echoes of Brian Wilson, managed to get co-writing credits on his next LP — 1970’s ’Til The Band Comes In. It also contained a side of mediocre covers — a direction Scott was to follow for his next four (non-charting) albums. Scott could sing the phone book and make it worth listening to, but he has blocked these albums from CD re-release — referring them as his “wilderness years”. Their contents have been gradually exhumed, if not rehabilitated, on box sets and compilations over the past 15 years. I’ve included one song from this era — This Way Mary by John Barry and Don Black.

To try and halt the decline and generate some income, Scott agreed to a Walker Brothers reformation in 1975. This resulted in the hit single and album, No Regrets. It only included covers and few highlights — a formula largely repeated on the following years Line album. However, two tracks from Lines standout — the title track and Inside You. Both are excellent and sound connected with Scott’s earlier work.

1978 saw the next inflection point. Scott contributed his first self-written material since 1970 to the Walker Brothers Nite Flights album. Clearly influenced by the times, there is a bleached funk backbone to The Shutout and the title track. The Electrician is held up as a genre breaking track and setting the future direction for the next 40 years of his career. The impressionistic lyrics are about a CIA torturer, making it a daring choice for a single! He also adopted a more strained, operatic, singing style at this point. Whether through necessity or choice, it seems a waste. No new releases came for the next six years. However, Julian Cope compiled a set of prime Scott cuts from his solo albums, “Fire Escape to the Sky — The Godlike Genius of Scott Walker”. This did well on the indie chart and rekindled enough interest for Scott to get a record deal with Virgin.

I remember Scott being interviewed on The Tube in 1984 and saying that some of the tracks on Climate of Hunter had numbers rather than titles because a title would unbalance them. Fair enough, but unfortunately he’d also pared back on the tunes! This album and his three subsequent ‘avant-garde’ releases, are very well regarded by critics, but they are tune-light to heathens like me. Farmer in The City is the exception and like the man himself, exceptional.

Playback notes: play in order, no skipping Scott!

Mark Webb’s funk & soul series is coming to www.songsommelier just in time for the summer…standby.

Brought to you by the Song Sommelier.