The Electrician - By Volume

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The Electrician

Gabriel reflects on the might of Scott Walker, a star who knew how to spell the word pop, and little more. Author: on March 18, 2014
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Part I: Feigned Uniformity

In my make-believe neurological calendar, Sunday the 27th September 2009 has a metaphorical pin jammed into it. Though it mostly consisted of drinking my parents’ wine and watching uninspiring pre-watershed TV, it has, in retrospect, come to be recollected as one of the most earth-shattering nights of my life. Everything before that night is now just a footnote. My life is now divided into two distinct segments: Pre and Post Walker. Back then – at the mercilessly puzzling age of 18 – my parents’ house was my house, and I found myself killing time until I had to make the dreary three-train journey back to college the following morning. However, at around 9pm, my father walked into the room. A music nut enough to make John Cusack in High Fidelity look like a disorganised shambles, he collapsed on the adjacent sofa and asked what I was watching. Within a second of my ‘nothing really’ response, he shot back with ‘I’ve got something recorded’ and before I could blink, the screen was black. A small title card faded in. Here we go, another extravagant Sky Arts nostalgia-fest; the memory of another bygone has-been indiscriminately wrenched from the recesses of the past into the eager minds of those who can be bothered to remember. Scott Walker: 30 Century Man.

“Who the hell is that?”

“He was a singer-songwriter in the 60s. Do you know the Walker Brothers?”

“No.”

“Well he was a baritone singer with a kind of crooner-like voice. He made these very lush, baroque-pop albums. I was a big  fan.”

“Ok…”

Considering the world’s collective sycophancy toward the boundary-pushers of the 1960s, I was positive that if a singer-songwriter from the era was no longer in the public consciousness, they – both literally and qualitatively – weren’t going to be up to much. With one hand on the edge of my laptop screen, I got ready to up and leave, but as my foot hit the floor: well, “Cossacks Are”. It was raw. Pounding snares, gnawing guitars and a strained pseudo-croon lumped on top. It was sheer brutality pumping through the speakers. It froze me to the spot. I looked over at my dad. “I’ll ask again; who the hell is this?”.

2014 marks the 50 year anniversary of the formation of The Walker Brothers, and it is both a matter of history and of musical philosophy that I wish to address in this piece, what is essentially an open letter to Mr Walker, a man who has done as much for the avant-garde scene as essentially all those before him. A selfish performer in the most fervent sense, those familiar with any ‘era’ of Walker’s work will be fully aware of his disinterest in commercialism or fame, or even being liked at all, for that matter. In fact, a distinct moment from what I later discovered was Steven Kijak’s marvellous documentary 30 Century Man has stuck with me from that first viewing; a 30 second cut of grainy handheld footage of the Brothers on tour in 1965 (none of whom were brothers, nor originally bore the name Walker). Acquiescing with the cameraman and tour crew, Gary Leeds and the late John Maus sit slouched in cheap metal foldout chairs:

“It’s just pop music. It’s just pop music, and pop backwards spells money.”

“No, pop backwards spells pop.”

The camera pans up to reveal the Walkers’ own incarnation of Banquo’s Ghost stretched out across the dressing room table; with a face obscured by Aviators, a solemn figure with a funereal growl mumbles;

“I’m in it for different things. I’m really not in it for money. I don’t care about money which sounds ridiculous – but I really actually don’t. I’m in it strictly from a creative point of view.”

The reason this image has stuck with me is hard to pinpoint. Perhaps it was that in spite of his weathered outlook, this shying, peripheral level of input to the trio was no barrier to Scott’s meteoric ascension to notoriety. It felt strange to me that in a band headlining Sunset Strip gigs ahead of Jimi Hendrix and Cat Stevens, this lanky, socially disinterested recluse first usurped Maus as lead singer and then promptly ignited rumours of his imminent departure from the Brothers, a story picked up by the front pages of numerous national newspapers. So once his fellow Brothers were eventually shaken off and Walker headed into the studio alone for the first time, it was more a case of a hermit crab amongst the pigeons than a smooth transition. A pervasive sense of unease lent a distinct edge to Scott 1, Scott 2 and Scott 3, a collection of truly magnificent, magniloquent solo albums. But when – and this was always destined to happen – Walker cast the commercialised shackles into the darkness and let rip for Scott 4, this unstoppable force of music met the unmoveable object of reality. From here, it was a combination of bad luck, missed opportunities and pure, unsolvable mystery that foreshadowed the modern-day Icarus’ abrupt fade into oblivion. Yet it was this very same oblivion that spawned a despicably terrifying monster; retiring to a monastery on the Isle of Wight, a string of unsuccessful albums and a suicide attempt has given the world the most wonderful, unique and ultimately inspirational angle on an art form that I for one was unaware could plumb such depths.

Walker is perhaps the prime example of how misfortune can be the ultimate artistic catalyst. Though his music would become far, far more unconventional in the following decades, Scott 4 was still – at the time of its arrival – a bold move. After three best-selling predecessors overflowing with sumptuous orchestral arrangements and opulent crooning, its still-inexplicable failure to chart and subsequent deletion has given us a lingering reminder that even a slight derivation from the norm is going to cost you dearly in one way or another. It wasn’t even that outlandish –  there was a sudden downpour of Morricone-esque trumpets, and the Vegas-style lugubriousness had been heavily downplayed, Walker instead opting for a cleaner, less affected baritone, which alienated his most loyal demographic. In 2006, a series of interviews with Walker in his home finally addressed the mystery of Scott 4, which Walker had fervently avoided for the past 40 years.

In the many years since his eponymous albums, Walker had become exceedingly difficult to track down. He made a few fleeting appearances in the 1980s, an age of youthful reform for music journalism. Gum-chewing TV presenters conducted offhand interviews from abandoned warehouses under the M25, the strobe lights reflecting off the liberally-applied gel in their mohawks. They were, for all intents and purposes, ‘edgy’, and asked straight-up, no-nonsense questions. Despite his last activity in the business coming a mere 6 years previously, Walker was clearly an artist from a different era; this new age would no doubt push Walker’s already fragile buttons. To coincide with the release of Climate of Hunter in 1984, he found himself a brief interviewee on the now-iconic The Tube on Channel 4. A man seemingly more suited to adorning a dinner jacket and retiring to the drawing room, here he was, perched anxiously on the edge of a tattered leather sofa, his ‘escaped-convict’ look completed by a giant blue-grey duffel coat and translucent aviators. He shifted awkwardly in his seat until Muriel Gray, reclined nonchalantly beside him, coolly asked;

“Now I hate to use this word ‘comeback’, but why choose this particular time to make a comeback?”

It was a harmless question. As much as it was a literal question, it also implicitly asked about the failure of Scott 4: ‘what went wrong?’. The phrasing had already made its mark. Walker’s eyelids dropped slightly, and, smiling uncomfortably, he replied;

“Comeback? Oh… I don’t use the word comeback either, I just try to think toward the next album.”

At that moment, I sensed Walker wishing the door of publicity would slam shut for another 6 years. Another 60 years, even. It suddenly seemed to visually flood back to him, his unremitting hatred of the spotlight. Steven Kijak, however, by playing ball with Walker’s publicity habits, actually managed to wrangle out his two cents on the ill-fated Scott 4. As perhaps should’ve been expected of a man who tunefully pontificates on ‘sphincters tooting a tune’, his response was enigmatic and self-deprecating;

“Well it was written mostly in 3/4, and I think it just didn’t lock on to anybody, and y’know, by the time the fourth album came round, people will think ‘Yeah, I’ll pass on that’. Every time I make music, including currently, I always think that people aren’t going to like it.”

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  • Jack

    A stunning and brilliantly written analysis of a mysterious and intriguing artist who for all his daring and dangerous experimental music is still the man who sang ‘Make it easy on yourself’ and breaks my heart every time I hear it.

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