Nite Flights both predicted post-punk and sounded older and scarier than nearly anything else that could be called rock.
Brian Eno called listening to Scott Walker’s “Nite Flights” “humiliating.” That’s the guy who invented ambient music; imagine how the Walker Brothers felt when their final album came out. Listening to the four songs on which Scott Walker emerges in his towering final form next to Gary and John Walker’s unenthusiastic attempts at cock-rock only serves to emphasize how apart from time Scott’s songs sound. While tracks like “Jet Airliner” and “Cold as Ice” ruled the charts and the other Walkers tried to emulate them, Scott reached into grim European philosophy, art cinema and Cold War paranoia, emerging with music that both predicted post-punk and sounded older and scarier than nearly anything else that could be called rock.
The unsettling strings of horror-film scores. Church organs that open cavernous spaces. War drums that seem to portend something dreadful. Visceral writing: “The Electrician” imagines a CIA torture session in the elegant, erotic language of the dance, and on “Shutout” he conjures “wailing on stone” and invents the terrific word “ratmosphere.” His language is droll and obscure: “oh you mambos, kill me and kill me and kill me,” he moans.
“Shutout,” “Fat Mama Kick,” “Nite Flights” and “The Electrician” mark the beginning of one of the most remarkable reinventions of any pop star in history. It’s shocking to realize that his records since were all mined from the same bedrock we hear here. The sound of 2006’s The Drift, one of the most stomach-churning albums ever made, is complete on “The Electrician.” The organs of “Fat Mama Kick” would define Climate of Hunter and Tilt, as would the incongruous urbane jazz-rock touches like nylon guitar and fretless bass. His obsession with dictators, corruption, war and torture is fully formed. If Climate, Tilt, The Drift and Bish Bosch seem like massive, individual, separate works, Scott Walker’s four songs on Nite Flights are the Rosetta Stone that unites them. They’re made from the same stuff.
A lot of that stuff, especially the spiky political intrigue, also went into post-punk. “Shutout” predicts Joy Division by a couple years, and the missing link is Eno and his buddies in Berlin, who loved these songs. Bowie covered “Nite Flights” in 1993 and named a track on his Berlin-era Lodger in tribute to it. It’s easy to link the dark jazz of “Fat Mama Kick” to what Bowie would do on Blackstar. These four songs written by Scott Walker on Nite Flights should be talked about in the same breath as albums like Low, Lodger, The Idiot and Another Green World on the cutting edge of European art rock.
There’s one problem: the album they’re wedded to. Though an EP of Walker’s songs called Shutout was made available shortly after the album’s release, usually we’re confronted with the disappointing songs by the other Walkers. Gary Walker never made an album after Nite Flights, and if his performances are any indication, his heart wasn’t in it; his singing rarely rises above a nebbishy whimper. John’s songs are a little better, as he sounds like he’s putting some effort into the vocals, but devil-woman nonsense like “Rhythms of Vision” align it with the classic rock ‘70s rather than the glacial expanses of time Walker conjures. It seems a little unfair to the other Walkers, but greatness of this order can’t be denied.