The long look back at Scott Walker’s discography is more akin to searching through the troubled childhood that formed a serial killer.
Hindsight is cruel and hilarious. Our previous rundowns of Parliament-Funkadelic and Joni Mitchell focused on the hard climbs to career peaks. The long look back at Scott Walker’s discography is more akin to searching through the troubled childhood that formed a serial killer.
When Take it Easy with the Walker Brothers came out, the Walker’s record company must have been flummoxed. Rich, but flummoxed none the less. Philips Records had found three dreamy American boys bouncing around England with budding musical talent and just enough mouldability for their multinational owners to reshape them into pop stars. The precocious young Scott Engle was doing session work as a bass player in California and a self-described “continental suit-wearing natural enemy of the Californian surfer” nerd. The exact dork that would be thrilled at the idea of moving to England. So when when he met Gary Leeds and John Joseph Maus and heard their schemes, he was in. Maus had been calling himself John Walker since he was a teen, and the canny trio decided the fake-familial route might help their press. So Scott took up the name Walker and the triumvirate made an exploratory trip to England. After their demos landed in the hands of Philips A&R wizard Johnny Franz, they released a smattering of unsuccessful singles with John as the frontman.
The group and label, sensing something needed to shift, pushed Scott to vocal duties and instantly landed a smash hit. “Make it Easy on Yourself” was an ornate Burt Bacharach tune made famous by Impressions alum Jerry Butler. When the Walker Brothers got their hands on it, they turned it into a full baroque suite. The Beatles’ Rubber Soul was still a few months from being released, so nothing even remotely this luxurious was on the radio. And, of course, there wouldn’t be anything like Scott’s voice on the air waves. Much as the ‘60s were a safe space for baritones before tenors completely took over male-lead pop, Scott’s resonate bass had no equal.
But in our high-minded, definitely utopian future of 2019, we also now know the signs of Scott slowly tinkering with the pop formulas he was handed. “Make it Easy on Yourself,” with a few lyrical references to Ingmar Bergman, would have fit like a glove on Scott IV, but a majority of Take it Easy amounts to armchair psychologizing the roots of Scott’s wonderful madness. The hedonistic strings and smooth horns were already here, but far too polished to be any direct connection to his later work. And hearing them cover Marvin Gaye’s “Dancing in the Street” is surreal, but not in the Bish Bosch way, more in the “Wow, the record company really thought this was a good idea?” way. Same goes for “Land of 1000 Dances,” though hearing Scott shout “The mashed potato!” sounds pretty apropos for his later incoherent interjections.
The only song with a Walker credit is “You’re All Around Me,” which Engle wrote with latter-day Pink Floyd associate Lesley Duncan. It was the start of Engle’s slow about-face, both becoming The Walker Brothers’ creative force and eschewing snappy pop hits for morbid ballads. The tension between Scott and Philips was in place, but Take it Easy reached number three on the UK charts, confirming that the masses were clamoring for Scott’s melodramatic bass. So if he had a few eccentricities, who cared? Philips was raking in the cash. How little they knew.