Rediscover is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that have flown under the radar and now deserve a second look.
Scott Walker occupies an unusual place in the pantheon of ’60s musical legends, that of the forgotten idol. For all of a career that’s stretched over five decades and has influenced the fabulously influential themselves, Walker remains curiously unheralded outside his own fervent following. He’s practically the definition of a cult figure, a musician that’s done everything from Bacharach ballads to avant-garde percussion involving punching sides of meat. His reputation remains more spoken than his music is listened to; when I mentioned that I was looking forward to writing a Rediscover article on his 1967 solo debut album, Scott, it was commented that it was practically being discovered for the first time. Being the nerd I am, I had to instantly respond that Scott had actually been a hit record in its own time, a top 10 record in the United Kingdom that was followed by a number one album and preceded by a slew of hit singles. So how did it ever get forgotten?
Perhaps it’s simply that Scott sounds supremely of its time and yet like, nothing else produced then. It’s a record that veers wildly in tone and intensity while maintaining a perfect integrity of sound; it’s bombastic and melancholic, both gloomy and strangely joyous. Walker sings of doomed romance and death, drunken whore-mongering sailors and the fury of a lover once scorned all while sounding completely immersed in the complex rich arrangements of Wally Stott (who also collaborated with Dusty Springfield and Shirley Bassey, two similarly incomparable singers). Scott was released barely six months after the singer’s erstwhile group, the Walker Brothers, released their final (until a reunion in the ’70s) album, Images: a deep desire to strike his own path, to shrug off the teen-pop image that had made him famous informs this album to an enormous degree. As the lead singer of the Walker Brothers, Walker covered Bacharach and Leiber and Stoller. As his own man, he covered Jacques Brel and Tim Hardin. The distance between the two is merely a man trying to find his own voice and hitting it on the first try.
The album opens with “Mathilde,” the first of three Brel covers and a well Walker would eventually return to so often that a compilation album, Scott Walker Sings Jacques Brel, would eventually be released. A joyous fanfare of bright horns bursts into life, silencing to a suddenly ominous percussive rattling and the hum of strings- Walker sings of a lover returned, but in such simultaneously enraged and longing terms that you can’t tell whether he feels relief or hatred. When he tells himself, “You’ll start to shake again/ When you remember all the pain/ Mathilde’s come back to me,” he can’t help but remind, “You’ll want to beat her black and blue/ But don’t do it, I beg of you.” It’s not exactly the love song that listeners in 1967 accustomed to hearing him croon “Blueberry Hill” were used to. Nor is “Montague Terrace (In Blue),” one of his most accomplished early compositions. A sheer wall of liquid chimes and rising strings, all climaxing in a thunderous chorus that could shake an unsuspecting listener, it would be remarkable enough in of itself with Walker’s own expressionistic lyrics of an apartment building full of desolated, debauched souls.
Each song on Scott is remarkable in its own right; the funeral balladry of “Angelica,” the Sinatra-smooth lounge of “You’re Gonna Hear From Me” and the folk country inflections of “The Lady From Baltimore.” Walker even somehow is able to wrest control of the standard “When Joanna Loved Me” away from Tony Bennett, transforming a piece of melodrama into true tragedy and longing. His second original composition on the album, “Such a Small Love,” doesn’t quite reach the heights of “Montague Terrace (In Blue),” narrated by keening, ominous strings and a mournful lyric, but does show his swift mastery of his own voice.
And what a voice- Scott’s sound is anchored by Stott’s amazing instrumental arrangements, a wonderfully lush array of orchestral drama, but it’s the voice that raises it to the sublime. Deeply rich, full of vibrato and echo, Walker has rarely since sounded in such fine form as his debut, managing to give full weight to both love songs and drama. Sounding more confident and mature than any 24 year-old singer on their first solo outing ever should, Walker takes to his material like a man who knows that what he’s recording is a sheer marvel. And well he should. The album closes with a cover of Brel’s masterpiece “Amsterdam,” which would also later be taken up by a young Walker super-fan who had only recently re-dubbed himself “David Bowie.” With the conviction of a young genius, Walker sings of whores and rotten teeth and “A sailor who eats/ Only fishheads and tails,” somehow making the finest of baroque pop music out of darkness and filth. Amazing as the music is, it’s even more amazing that so few should listen to it nowadays. Or perhaps not.