Every prophet, it seems, must spend time in the desert. Scott Walker’s The Moviegoer from 1972 sits at the start of his isolation, his bleak wandering away from the polished façade of the pop charts and the slow, often fully private transformation into the visionary artist so justifiably celebrated today. Scott 4 whilst critically acclaimed, had failed to generate the kinds of revenue and attention Walker might previously have garnered and the failure of his follow up, ‘Till the Band Comes In was a further nail in the coffin of Walker’s bankability. Even with the distance Walker had endeavoured to put between his career and the trappings of the past, The Moviegoer stumbled commercially, hampered from the outset by Walker’s lack of creative control and the, perhaps understandable, lack of faith from the record company. Walker must have seemed an increasingly strange investment to company execs of the time: the crooner, light entertainer and – let’s face it – oh-so-pretty pop star who seemed to want nothing more than to walk away from easy money and focus on art?
But perhaps a better way to approach The Moviegoer today is not to see it as a mark of failure, one of the “useless records” of this period, as Walker put it, but instead as both an attempt to make sense of his career to this point and, perhaps, as part of a longer view of what might just be possible for an artist so interested in extending his practice beyond all expectations. The four solo albums are all statements of reinvention, the idol attempting to revise his art and force open the pop song format for other kinds of content, introducing European thinking by stealth, as it were, and it might just be possible to view The Moviegoer in the same light.
When asked about the album in an NMEinterview from the ’70s, Walker commented that “I thought: ‘if they don’t want me to write anything, fuck it.’ So I just sat back and copped money for whatever they want me to do. If they want me to do movie themes, man, I would pick the best movie themes that I thought were possible and I would do them – Sinatra-type stuff. I’ll imitate anybody.” A question might then be ‘why these songs’ – out of all that could have been chosen at this time in order to make an album that would popularly bridge the gap between light entertainment and cinema? Certainly, The Moviegoer includes some film tunes that had charted before Walker’s versions: “The Summer Knows”, sung by Peter Nero, made it to 21 in the US charts in 1971, while Andy Williams’ version of “Speak Softly Love” topped 34 in the US and 42 in the UK in 1972. But this is also the period of The Graduate (1968), Midnight Cowboy (1970), Love Story (1971) and even Shaft (1971), all of which produced top 10 hits of their own and none of which Walker seemed interested in approaching. And yet, for all of Walker’s ‘fuck it’ attitude, the fact remains that the songs he selected are not the ones one would cover if making a quick buck was the primary motive.
Listened to again and with the clarity of hindsight, The Moviegoer makes a different kind of sense than it did upon release. Now, the songs are largely separated from their films that, in some cases, few will have even heard of, let alone seen. This means one can treat them more like Walker’s compositions and, in this way, hear continuities between these and those of his solo albums. The strings that start the album and lead into “The Way Mary” match the atonal strings from “Plastic Palace People”, the voice that opens the album unchanged in tone and inflection. From the outset, this is a Scott Walker song and his gentle “this way Mary/ come Mary/ share the world with me” comes from the same singer who asked “wake up Rosemary/ and wipe your teary eyes” on Scott 3.
The urban pop-country chops of “Joe Hill” could be a companion to “The Lady Came from Baltimore” from Scott, similarly mixing pedal steel guitars and harmonicas, the lyrics drawn from a poem by the screenwriter Alfred Hayes (who had previously helped Vittorio De Sica with the script for Bicycle Thieves), while “All His Children”, from Sometimes a Great Notion is much more of a traditional country track, a reworking of a Henry Mancini tune. Walker was to include a second Mancini track in The Moviegoer with “Loss of Love”, from Sunflower offering a more familiar light orchestral vehicle for Walker to croon elegantly across. “Glory Road” originally by Neil Diamond and written for the 1970 film WUSA completes the trilogy of country numbers and these tracks signal a growing interest of Walker in country music overall.
“The Ballad of Sacco and Vanzetti” from the 1971 Italian film Sacco e Vanzetti by Giuliano Montaldo, was written by Joan Baez and Ennio Morricone. A simple acoustic guitar opens before the now-familiar atonal strings provide the means for the mid-tempo folk pop rhythm to carry Walker’s vibrato across the lines “Give to me your tired and your poor/Your huddled masses, yearning to be free.”
“Come Saturday Morning,” the Oscar-nominated theme from the 1969 film The Sterile Cuckoo, similarly hearkens back to the gentler moments of Walker’s solo albums, the orchestration echoing the phrasing of “It’s Raining Today” from Scott 3. Separate versions were later recorded by, amongst others, Liza Minelli and again by Chet Baker (whose version is perhaps the most surprising for those unfamiliar with the sheer breadth of Baker’s output), both of which garnered more commercial interest than Walker’s. Finally, a nod to light jazz can be found with “Easy Come, Easy Go”, from They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, and the orchestration here is as delicate and refined as anything Walker had produced previously.
Ultimately, The Moviegoer remains unavailable, despite a number of the tracks turning up on different compilations, and the very keen can compile a close-enough playlist with most tracks available on YouTube, while torrents of the album can be found without difficulty and vinyl on Ebay. The Moviegoer might not be an essential Scott Walker album, and it’s certainly not one he appears to have taken very seriously and yet listened to again (should one go to the trouble) it sits comfortably against the other albums from this period. The songs carry with them echoes of Walker’s solo albums and represent an attempt to find depth amongst the same banal content he had spent so long working to remove himself from. It might be overly generous but, when looked at in this more favourable light it would seem that even when Walker, exhausted by the grind of commerciality, gives the industry the dross it appears to want, he can’t help himself from working to keep some vestige of his hard-won practice intact.