By the mid 60s, Scott Walker was every inch the pin up pop star. His groups, The Walker Brothers (none of them related kids) were riding high with hits like, ‘Make It Easy on Yourself’ ‘The Sun Aint Gonna Shine Anymore’ and ‘My Ship Is Coming In’ but Scott, the lead singer, was not enjoying the fame game one bit.
He was looking to break away from the restrictions of the pop machine, and to go and make ‘grown up’ music of the kind he was listening to at home, such as the work of the Belgian Jacques Brel, among others.
Scott’s first solo album ‘Scott’ was released by Philips in 1967 and peaked at number 3 after seventeen weeks in the UK charts. Songs by Brel like ‘Mathilde’ ‘My Death’ and ‘Amsterdam’ were included, supplemented by tunes such as ‘The Lady Came from Baltimore’ by Tim Hardin and a couple from the pen of Waker himself, ‘Always Coming Back to You’ and “Montague Terrace (In Blue.)
The follow up ‘Scott 2′ was eagerly anticipated then and that is my choice this time around as my latest classic album.
It saw the light of day in May 1968 and it ran into trouble immediately. A single from it, ‘Jackie ‘ once again from the stable of the great Jacques Brel, was sent out in advance of the album. Only it contained the line ‘authentic queers and phoney virgins’ and those in charge of such things at Auntie Beeb got a touch of the vapours and promptly banned it.
Which was a shame for all concerned, because it is a belting tune performed at a galloping pace and it opened the album. American singer/songwriter Mort Schuman provided its English lyrics and they conjure up the life and times of one ‘Jackie’, in turn, a drunken, singing gigolo, complete with Spanish bum, who runs a bordello selling opium. I believe this was the first cover of the song and through work like this, Walker would help popularise Brel and his songs here in the UK.
The production is by John Franz. A full orchestra is heard giving it plenty and we are simply invited to hang on for the ride.
The melancholic ‘Best of Both Worlds’ is the next track, with Scott in extremely fine voice. Co-written by the legendary lyricist Don Black, this comes in at a slower pace and details the tale of a woman being asked to choose between two lovers. If you love strings, as I do, this is one for you.
Tim Hardin’s ‘Black Sheep Boy’ is the third section. The tale of a family outsider, seeking to live his life away from any interference. This song has a stripped back feel to it, the acoustic guitar picking style verging on Country and Western, however, Walker’s baroque style vocal rescues it from drowning in schmaltz.
Hello Mr Big Shot. A Scott Walker original follows next, interestingly entitled ‘The Amorous Humphrey Plugg’, which immediately puts me in mind of Antony Newley’s work around this period by its title alone. The orchestra is back, as we hear of a life of domesticity by day – ‘playing with your kids in the park’ – followed by dressing up and hitting the red light part of town at night – ‘Oh, to die of kisses.’ Marvellously evocative lyrics, beautifully sung.
Next is, well, ‘Next!‘ It is the tale of a young army conscript undergoing his medical before entering national service and is based on Jacques Brel’s real-life experiences. Schuman decodes the song into English, detailing the loss of virginity in a ‘mobile army whore house’ as well as subsequent sexual encounters. God knows what Auntie Beeb made of this one. The Alex Harvey Band memorably covered this song a few years later.
A Scott original, ‘The Girls From the Streets’ opens with a slow, almost death march, with lyrics conjuring up imagery of a ribald night in a run down Parisian bar, the glint of an ageing barmaids gold teeth hitting you square between the eyes. Midway, we trot into a waltz, spinning you around and around as a squeezebox pipes up. Faded glamour, decaying decadence. This has the lot. Bravo.
Side two opens with the fabulous ‘Plastic Palace People.’ Again, sounds swirl around your mind as Scott softens his voice, drawing you into the tale of a young Billy floating across the rooftops like a balloon, a string tied to his underwear, securing from getting clean away. A tremendous piece of epic whimsy with added throat yodelling. It also has a very unsettling ending that once heard, is never truly forgotten.
Another fine songsmith Henry Mancini has a hand in ‘Wait Until Dark’ a song from the film of the same name. It opens for all the world like a Nat King Cole record from the mid-50s. Easy listening, though on an epic scale. Walker could really put these type of songs across nicely. His vocal style is beautifully matched by the full-blown orchestration, beautifully arranged by Wally Stott, later known post sex change, as Angela Morley. Reg Guest also scored songs on this album, having previously worked with Dusty Springfield.
Brel and Schuman signal a change of pace with ‘The Girls and the Dogs’, which is a strange tale of a desperate, unrequited love for a woman. She, in turn, treats ‘you’ terribly. Of course, ‘you’ keep coming back for more, though in truth, ‘you’ are totally baffled why. Whereas a dog, well, you know where you stand with a dog. They couldn’t really care too much one way or the other. I sum it up like this; ‘you’ obviously care too much, which leaves you open to exploitation. If only ‘you’ were like a dog. Then ‘you’ are finally called in by the woman, and ‘you’ kick her dog out to make way! Keeping up? Good.
The marvellous writing partnership of Burt Bacharach and Hal David provide ‘The Windows of the World’ and Walker does a fine interpretation of the song here. The lyrics gently remark on the futility of the then on-going Vietnam War. Lyricist David had two sons nearing draft age at the time of writing this, so it was a very personal song for him. Tenderly and beautifully handled by all concerned. ‘Everybody knows when men cannot be friends, their quarrel often ends, where some have to die, let the sunshine through…’ Amen.
Walkers’ ‘The Bridge’ for all the world appears to be a gentle poem set to a gentle waltz. Only in reality, it’s the tale of Madeline, the madam of a brothel, whose ‘sailors stained her cobblestones with wine and piss’ and whose girls ‘would lift their dresses high’ and ‘where doves turned grey and flew away.’ Juxtaposition at its finest.
We finish with ‘Come Next Spring’ the title song from a 1956 film off the same name. A hefty slice of the middle of the road if ever there was one. But man, can Walker sing that genre well. Is he up there with vocalists like Sinatra, Bennett and Cole? Maybe not, but on songs like this, he ain’t that far behind for my money.
In total, Scott Walker recorded and released two more albums in that late 60s period, namely ‘Scott 3’ and ‘Scott 4’, and they too are worth you investigating, if you don’t know them already.
I used to play this album heavily on rotation to the general and genuine bafflement of my mailroom co-workers, at the company where I was employed in the early 2000s.
So, Brian and Vince, if by chance you are now reading this, consider those endless afternoons listening to it as the price of education. And there is no charge for it.
The Mumper of SE5