You are on page 1of 6

Scott Walker: The Original God-Like Genius

Richard Cook, NME, 17 March 1984

"I LIKE to watch people throw darts."
But where have you been all this time? "In a trance. I've been here drinking!" Scott Walker sits at a table in a hotel bar and sips gingerly at a very modest scotch and soda. He thinks back to the period between 1978 – when we last heard from him – and now. "Well, time flies when you're not working. I haven't been doing anything that anyone else wouldn't be doing. Movies, reading, music, everything...some travelling, but nothing exotic like I used to." Amused, a little nonplussed at the attention. He's turned 40 but looks ten years younger: the same sweep of gold hair secrets no greyness and only a pair of steel frames alters his unchanged teen idol features. Scott Engel Walker can't really understand what the fuss is all about. It's about an American singer who won a brief, explosive acclaim as the lead voice of a group of sentimental crooners nearly 20 years ago; who went on to track out the decade with four astonishing, unsurpassed solo records that match a consummate musical and songwriting mind with a voice of vast strength and power to affect the emotions; and who got lost in a wilderness of neglect, wasted opportunity and – it seemed – final withdrawal. When The Walker Brothers lazily reformed in the late '70s, Scott Engel gave one further indication that his powers were undiminished: four songs on the Nite Flights LP that demonstrated a chilling grasp of a modern dynamic, graphically intense slabs of darkness and tumult. Then he was gone again. NOW, AT last, he surfaces once more. First there was a single, 'Track Three', and now an LP called Climate Of Hunter falls into a pop world that has nurtured his name through its maverick tributes: Julian Cope's Fire Escape In The Sky compilation. Marc Almond's loving touch-up of 'Big Louise', secondary echoes of his sumptuous melancholy drifting through most of the romantic pop of recent times. Seven or eight years ago I paid 90 pence for a second-hand copy of his 1967 solo debut Scott. Walker's grip on a lover's passion – as translated with his tempestuous charge through Jacques Brel's 'Mathilde' and 'My Death' and his own 'Such A Small Love' and 'Always Coming Back To You' – left me numb. I scoured the city until I had everything else he'd ever breathed on. Since then this voice and music have been a constant resource: they inspire fanticism. None of those records have been in catalogue for years, and if Cope's choice made a fine collection it's only a shadow of the achievement that Walker pulled off. He fashioned an impression of a young man's journey out of the awkwardness of adolescence into the loneliness of maturity through music that incredibly fitted the severest of pain and disrepair inside a skin of rare grandeur. If Scott agonised and flaired, he kept his head. If he was indulgent and occasionally mawkish, his experiments with form – the huge music of the great ballad singers brought to bear on 'pop' concerns – remain unique, unanswered. This was a most splendid isolation. As the few who stood by him always insisted, there is no music like this. Its mystery makes idiots call it pretentious; its delivery doomed it to esoterica, an arcane quirk in the annals of

on my own. well. forcing the inspiration. C'mon you old bastard. "It started off as a situation that that we thought might be amusing. "I was trying to get some studio work on the quiet but. "Then last year I got a fairly hefty publisher's cheque and I had these bits and pieces and I thought I had to finish it. but I was doing something that was complete to myself again. an LP of some kind." He clenches his fist. I get very disheartened if nothing's going to happen. I was very worried about it but once I started it was easier than I've ever found before. at least start talking to Virgin again. no. a coupla years ago.. I didn't know if that was the problem – they didn't realise I had to have money to complete it. Then when GTO fell apart Virgin approached me and I signed with them. "But everybody just got sick of each other again. Then I found this management through Al Clark. But I knew I had to find it this time even if I never made another record. until the Walkers reformed in 1977.lost pop singers. This is the best age to sing at – until you reach 50. Scott hasn't been interviewed in a long time." It sounds like Gissing: the artist in a garret. something more than the Scott we remember – darker." Was he rusty. keep moving! "A meeting was arranged for me with Eno who wanted to do a record.I rented a cottage in the country. so I had to work on that too. waiting to be made? "No. even though I've waited a long time for this interview. "So. I asked Virgin to send me some producers' tapes because I thought I'd be behind with all the studio technology. when it starts to go down. I couldn't seem to get anywhere in my life until I'd done this – completely leave or murder myself or anything. I put all of Climate Of Hunter together down there." And the voice? "That was the great thing. "And I made it. I knew I had it." The story is eked out slowly in a lot of broken senteces. until the late stages. It's like everybody was working in the dark on it." Wasn't there a list of songs from the lean times." he recalls. It has mirrored and cast light on a young person's experience with the world more than any other vocal music I know. making a record again? "That's what I was worried about. I looked in the paper and saw this workman's cottage near Tunbridge Wells. And I can't tell you why.. and you have to make that stuff work for you. To me it doesn't have to compete: it's work that stands as alone as the private and abrasive figure that Engel seemed to portray. I thought his stuff sounded more total. "I've been doing that anyway! It seemed like everything was crumbling around me each time I tried to get started. I keep in touch with the guys every week. even more ." THAT VOICE is peerless. uh. so I rented it for two months.. They said. I was pretty broke. Slowly we picked up the pieces of a career that looked in ruins: mere MOR fluff for Philips and CBS followed Scott 4 in 1969. His soft Californian accent is untouched by his many years living quietly in London. I work very much on a one-to-one with everything – no crowds in the studio. But I thought rather than destroying his career too I had to do one on my own (laughs)." But still nothing happened. why don't you finish your contract? I had a bad history – I'd lost three flats just as I was gaining any kind of impetus – but they said.I didn't know who to go to. But he dispels anxiety. Right now you're at your peak. That's how I got Pete Walsh. I WAS AFRAID to meet its maker. And I'm not one of those people who sings at home. I never write without a definite project.. The physical act of singing is very hard. When we're not working together it's fine. I told Virgin I'd have it ready in two months – I had to run a bluff on myself.

"People say I must. For me it was just that the lyric was complete and adding something later on was totally unnecessary." Didn't he see it as an opportunity to (ahem) come back? "No. When Walker's voice looms out of the dense thundercloud of sound at that moment on 'Rawhide' all the indecisions and false starts of his battered career are obliterated in an instant: Walker has come back stronger than ever before. These songs – lyricised in the most abstruse poetry. the improvising saxophone genius Even Parker. I don't know what they'd be like. of all people. I guess I was embarrassed by it. It's just a record I had to get done. "Yeah.. But rock is atomised and reshaped in this record: the songs swirl out of widescreen orchestrations or paradoxically sparse rhythms and take substance through a jangle of harsh. since I didn't know anyone who's connected with it.thought.. but Evan was very worried. It stems from a tiny group of players. like Gene Hackman." he admits. Perhaps the urgent propulsion of the Nite Flights songs recurs again in 'Track Three'. what I want you to do. I don't have the records." Um. I wasn't bombarded with it. Does he follow Anthony Braxton's dislike of titles." ALTHOUGH HE is reticent about it.. It maintains his position outside.finely controlled. But one play was enough. And then he got into it. including older associates Mo Foster and Peter Van Hooke – and. It sounds like." He laughs in some amazement when I tell him that Almond began his Christmas shows with 'The Plague'." Scott smiles. freezing images. Yeah. "As the heat in your hands/Carve the muscle away/And he grins from a break in the backflash". or whatever. "It's the old story of the guy who made it seeing flaws. "I love his playing. you can do better than anyone else. when it's just one guy doing it. thing which introduce emotional or sentimental connotations which might be misleading? "That's very well explained. the results are different.. for there is practically no precedent for this new music. Four songs are named simply for their position on the record – 'Track Three' and so on. I think a lot of it was absolutely awful. Walker's reappearance was first signalled in the attention that suddenly came his way in 1981. put to music that turns rock upside down – have him at the height of his powers. I said. He's a marvellous guy. hey that's not bad. because I wasn't ready. we related perfectly. "I don't listen to the old songs. They take in vistas and delineate detail like a slow-motion blink. I knew he'd be perfect for it." . Whatever was expected of Climate Of Hunter.I can't think about that too much. That's not false modesty. But the time I wasted after those first records was shameful." he responds immediately. What was his reaction to the refreshed cult status triggered by Cope's Godlike Genius? "Well. People don't believe that. but I say you can come and listen to my apartment. Even this isn't a 'comeback'.. "Unless I'm ready to go at any time for anything it would take a bear to drag me out. Getting him out of the house is a problem. I wasn't aware of it until then. Some of it was very good. I was sent Cope's compilation and I put it on and listened to this young guy singing. but he's an instrumentalist. it's absolutely true.. You know." What of Marc Almond's interpretations of neglected Engel songs like 'Big Louise' and 'The Plague'? "I haven't heard them. I didn't know if it had been done before. And I didn't know what to think.

" Tough work. They've gotta get that pressure off and this is the time to do it. It's just not worth it as something to do – if it's not happening in the studio then it's not happening. Reference points to other music are hidden or overturned. I'm not that kind of writer. please." The best time? I thought this was a time when there was no dissonance. That was my problem." Is this work designed entirely for a studio context? "I wouldn't know how to do it outside. I have to work at it and. you just have to modify things. Elvis Costello doesn't seem to have it. like with Michael Jackson. The problem I have is this basis as a pop musician which is something you can never drop. if they can pull it off. uh. But I think they've got a long wait. The '70s were a real dry gulch but now everyone can make the record they want." demurs Walker. The great spread of sound suggests a bathos that the melodic strength of the songs never admits. even the '60s. I'd do it if anything happened with my record. If you can find a polemic in there. The output of the record industry today has created more diverse situations. The voice was recorded absolutely purely. they can do it. Nowadays it seems you can put anybody on a stage and make them sound great." In Walker's songs the sequences sound inconceivable at first: but hear 'Dealer'. I don't cut up. "The idea is that if you're a strong enough singer – and I know that that's not stylish today. I wanted a hi-fi sound. When I started. But it's to get this resonating factor going. but it's all . "Artificial techniques can be good. "Performing is one of those things I don't like to do. I can just tell you that. someone else work at it when they're listening. If they want to make it. There certainly weren't in the '70s. But now. like flying. "You've not had people like Costello or Almond making records before – that's what makes this time different. Now you can take your time.What's the greatest difference in making records now. getting the melodies to match – then I know that if I'm there I can sing the songs no matter what. But it's a hard question. and see how a cinematic jumble of images eventually focuses.. all smoothness.. Like Rudy Van Gelder (Blue Note's master producer) – a sound where everything is as pure as possible. And we found that the songs virtually mixed themselves." How far can you go in giving a song weight? "It's all down to taste. it's not easy. That's part of the magic. We did everything live – everyone was in the studio at once and I'd be running back and forth as co-producer.well." Does the finest music develop from a great literacy in the form? "I think you should know as much as you can but it doesn't necessarily help to make anything better than something else. A phial of metaphysic! "The idea is to make it resonate. Before there was an inability to pull it off. just a couple of places where it was compressed for the lyric. instead of then? "You don't have to do it live. but that's why I worked so hard on the lyrics and getting it right. But the prime way of making records hasn't changed. now is a perfect time to make records. good for you (chuckles). "If there's pressure on them then I know what that's like 'cause I had pressure on me too in the '70s. isn't it? You can hit a sequence of things in a song that will somehow match up and work. There were good records and maybe there were moments like The Sex Pistols. You can use other disciplines. if you know how. You can make great pop records that way. I'm not advocating just making studio records because surely I can go out and sing tomorrow – but everything has to be right. a bland obedience to some idea of 'modern pop'? "But then that's the kinda of record they're going to make anyway.

" Though it doesn't sound as if you made as much money as them.. It's everything I've been telling you. This is a waiting game.I thought I'd get some kicks with the guys at GTO. He might even have a hit again. "I thought if this was the first record I'd done in a long while I thought it'd better be something I could live with a little longer." . I have no idea.. When asked about his old fixation with Brel he dismisses its relevance. I think if I did another record I'd have to do the video myself. The slothfulness and.according to the thing you do originally – everything will work around that. just sometimes. But I have to wait. It's so damn hard. varispeeding it. but in the end you have to work for yourself." He looks back again. What kind of recognition I'll get." What kind of recognition does he want now? "It's a cliché. It's another apparatus that's grown out of this business and I have to have control of it if I'm to have it all right.. I want to see what's going on. why not? And then the kicks didn't work out. the only way I can make records. I could have done this whole album with just a bass tracked a few times. but they changed their minds and it was tawdry and I gave up there. I'm not doing a lot of interviews. unprompted." Why not do that? "Well. I don't know. "People wanted to sign you as a singer. Very Tarkovskian. It's come to me like that. I just had to pull myself together. Is he prepared to embrace all aspects of a pop culture once more? "I did a video the other day so I've embraced that much.and I feel unlucky when I have to discuss it. Richard. The money escaped me. This is the only way I can do it now.. I was trying to remember how I'd done this before and how I was going to compound it all. "So I went to Virgin and got a hassle because I didn't bring an album in in two months! That slowed me up.. The CBS thing went wrong and I kept on going with it when I should've just walked out. sure. I have a totally different record I want to do now because I discovered all the new things I can use in the studio now. He respectfully concurs that his own songs might have a similar role for others. It's not bothered me a whole lot." YOU MAY detect some reserve here. I can't tell you what a fight it was to make those first records.. " see. Credibility all down the line. "It's easier to be selective." Does he ever wish he'd started like Townshend or Davies. I deserved it. as you know. Now I think I'm better off. and it brings it all back to me. on a lot of levels.well. Generally speaking people who buy this record won't be interested in who you're shacked up with or whatever. Even though they were charting.. Walker politely turns away from discussing the flesh of his work. they maybe. it would've been easier. anyway. You really have to do it on your own." The scrutiny is still the price of a pop star. Yeah. It was like those people at Philips were just waiting to say. But he won't talk about them. "I'm just gonna check this out. "I'm a little loath to discuss material. you know. That's another thing that's easier about today – you have a choice." he smiles. But I'm not doing too much. What was on my mind was getting it to flow together. a beat group leader instead of a crooner? "Well.. no more of this shit! I went to CBS and the bad fate started – they said first I could do my own songs. at a career that might have been a mere cabaret turn. and used some percussion.

"Or I could be good at just doing nothing.. and then." © Richard Cook. and it's something I'm glad of. 1984 Citation (Harvard format) Scott Walker/1984/Richard Cook/NME/Scott Walker: The Original God-Like Genius/18/09/2013 14:09:05/http://www. but it's Scott 4 – and now Climate Of Hunter – which renews one. if it's resonating in the same way. but I return mostly to a deeper seam. Sometimes you think.Maybe a good Lionel Richie or Michael Jackson record is as important. The finality of everything. "The best analogue is film: Syberberg works to evoke a seriousness." I know what he means. maybe nobody's seen it this way before. his voice as languidly rich as his singing. I like The Art Of Falling Apart.rocksbackpages. only realeasing a film to certain cinemas and so on. This deeply private man might not be a Godlike genius." he adds. Either way. but he is as equidistant from being a pop artisan grafting for hits. say. . NINETY MINUTES with Scott Walker allowed no penetration of the certain mystery that succours his work. I like movies that make me laff. a Godard or a Bergman. "But I want it to be placed in the right setting. If they work – a record by John Coltrane or Michael Jackson can become the same thing. he embodies a particular aloneness. it's the same thing. there's no reason why you can't go see Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid and let it put you on the deck. "There's a lot of things I'd like to do still. It might always deny him the status he once had. it might sustain a unique insight.Is there a particularly valuable thing his work can do for other people? "Not more than a good record by anyone else can. please email us." Scott listens for a moment to the chatter of drinkers and darts players. As far as joy goes.. back to LIST OF SCOTT WALKER ARTICLES back to LIST OF ARTICLES ABOUT ART ROCK AND AVANT-GARDE back to LIST OF ARTICLES BY RICHARD COOK click for PRINTER FRIENDLY VIEW back to LIBRARY COPYRIGHT NOTICE If you are interested in the syndication of this or any other article on Rock's Backpages.