The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Thursday, September 26, 2002
SCOTT WALKER - THE ROAD TO "TILT"

Part 1: Sometimes You Have To Start In The Middle
"The Electrician" in 1978 was the first I learned about the OTHER Scott Walker. I was prompted to investigate it by Chris Bohn's review of the Walker Brothers' Nite Flights album in MM, wherein he proclaimed that the four Scott songs contained on this album "make Bowie's Low sound High." I did not think that one could get any more alienated than Low, so had to listen.

Of these four songs, "Shutout" and "Nite Flights" still seem to me to have achieved that neurotic disco/pop interface which Magazine were perhaps too foreknowing to do (even though the guitar solos are the equivalent of Dave Formula's sometimes overstated and underfilled keyboard playing). "NIte Flights" in particular is the New Romantic blueprint, and the likes of Ure's Ultravox, pre-Sakamoto Japan, Simple Minds and A Flock of Seagulls constructed entire careers on the back of it (the "be my love" swooning vocal in the chorus IS Ure's Ultravox).

The other two songs are of a far more disturbing bent. Compare the use of Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll Part 2" in Walker's "Shutout" and Magazine's "The Light Pours Out Of Me" from the latter's contemporaneous Real Life. Magazine use the central guitar riff but elongate it over bar lines, as if they are trying to make it unpop; Walker takes the rhythm track, amplifies and distorts it to hell, overlays an out-of-synch, bitonal vocal harmony on top, and at the bottom adds and underscores the whole performance with a vast, terrible bass echo, as if a Bosendorfer piano had just crashed down from the top floor of the WTC. "Deaf, dumb, blind/Deaf, dumb, blind!" goes the anti-pop chorus chant - an indirect recalling of Pharaoh Sanders which is immediately brought to mind as the track suddenly but briefly opens up for a dense sustained string chord over which Alan Skidmore's bad-tempered atonal tenor sax rants through the flames caused by the sudden sunlight before being buried again.

Then there's "The Electrician." Just over six minutes long, and even in 1978 sounding like nothing else on the planet at that time, be it Pere Ubu or Sham 69. A sopranino-register atonal but shimmering string sustenato, echoed by a synthesiser, hovers like the remnants of a burst cloud over the ears of the listener, punctuated by a regular one-note, immense bass pulse. Scott and John's voices enter almost reluctantly: "Baby it's slow/When lights go low/There's no help/No." Then the drums start up, the strings become stately; it's turning into another Walker Brothers ballad - but what are they singing? "Screaming oh you mambos kill me and kill me and kill me. When I jerk the handle, you'll die in your dreams...you'll thrill me and thrill me and thrill me." A political prisoner somewhere in South America (Chile? Argentina?) strapped to the chair and about to be executed. The allegorical interface between sex and death. It stops again, with the same bass pulse, a brief shake of castanets - you have died, it is over, you are free.

And Dave MacRae's strings suddenly escalate into a lavish, harmonious major chord of release, harp cascading, Big Jim Sullivan's 12-string in the foreground. He can now fly. The song then comes to what would seem its logical close, the pain forgotten, freedom now resolved, as Sullivan's flamenco arpeggios reach concord with the orchestra and come to a final harmony.

No it doesn't. As soon as that disappears, the opening discord re-emerges, this time with distant percussive thumps (from the next cell?). The voices return with the "Baby it's slow" refrain, this time at three-quarters of its original speed. The jailers remaining prisoners? Or the equivalent of the closing sequence of Gilliam's Brazil, where Jonathan Pryce's Everyman appears to have gained his freedom, only to find that he is in reality still strapped to a chair, and will probably remain so forever. Did someone say something about a cloak of loneliness?

It's perhaps understandable that Walker elected to hand over the rest of the album to the other two "Brothers" (and it's perhaps symbolic that on every track no more than two of them appear together; there is no track featuring all three); what was in these four songs would have been enough to exhaust anyone.

Part 2: As With Lanark, We Now Have To Return To The Beginning

I didn't seek out any of Walker's back catalogue at the time; it was mostly unavailable apart from extremely naff-looking MoR cover version albums. There were other things I had to sort out then. Only when, as a Teardrop Explodes fan, I read Julian Cope in the NME in early 1981 telling Morley about how brilliant Walker's solo work was and announcing his intention of releasing a compilation called Fire Escape In The Sky: The Godlike Genius Of Scott Walker, did the man come into my orbit again.

The compilation, in its slate-grey cover with green lettering, deliberately devoid of "persona," eventually came out in August of that year. I had been bereaved a month previously and was about to start university a month hence. At the bridge, therefore, between my previous life and the next one. I bought it but for various non-musical reasons didn't get around to playing it until I actually was at university. It hit me like a thunderbolt, right from the opening track "Such A Small Love," which begins with another unresolved string drone from which Walker's voice emerges like a foghorn. "Mist falls," he says, decisively and unpushingly. I was hooked right from there, as was everyone else to whom I played it.

In the fullness of time the four albums which he recorded for Philips in 1967-9, Scott 1, Scott 2, Scott 3 and Scott 4 (the determined minimalism is a hallmark of Walker's approach) did become available on CD. Listening to them in sequence is a fascinating exercise, if only to assess how quickly and with how much determination Walker developed the sort of aesthetic which he wanted to project to the world in lieu of himself (or even to the inside of his own soul). Scott 1 contains perhaps the most tortured songs he came up with at that time, "Such A Small Love" and "Always Coming Back To You," both laments for dead love affairs (or, in the latter, perhaps a dead lover?) in which he constantly questions whether, even in his ruin, it was worth lamenting. The other aspect of his work at the time - and doubtless a consequence of his fascination with Jacques Brel, two or three of whose songs appear on each of the first three albums - was illuminating and sculpturing a luxurious vision of redemption from the world of lowlife. Consider "Montague Terrace In Blue," a touching hymn to belief in the strength of a relationship having to be lived in a dump of a bedsit. "But we know, don't we?" Or do we?

Scott 2 moves away from this angle slightly, to project a more cinematic, perhaps less immediately personal but no less passionate picture of the subjects of his songs. Consider the harassed Perrin-like businessman of "The Amorous Humphrey Plugg" who, after slipping on his kitchen's "newly-waxed floor," appears to fracture his skull and die, in the course of which he has visions of the afterlife, of "dying in nine angels' arms," of his relief in leaving the world behind, of not quite having left it yet but on his way to the next, better one ("Doreen of the candles"). Or the lament for a balloon in "Plastic Palace People," which doubles as an allegory for the corruption of innocence, as though something unspeakable has happened to the child who is supposed to hold the balloon. As in Bucks Fizz's "The Land Of Make Believe," an avowedly anti-Thatcherite song sung unknowingly by Tory voters, the reality behind the sugar-coated facade will ultimately kill the child (listen to that girl reciting the poem at the end of "LOMB": "He came today, but had to go...to visit you? You'll never know" as though she has already been murdered).

Scott 3 fuses these two aspects of his music and provides some closure to his work thus far, and is of the three the most satisfying of them, largely because, apart from three Brel covers at the album's close, he avoids the cover versions (from Tim Hardin to Tony Bennett) which take up a good half of the first two albums, and which, though fine in themselves, divert one's attention from the main thrust of his work; even with the Brel stuff, you want to hear what Scott himself has to say. Scott 3 started out as a vague concept album about individual lives in a block of flats, and this is still largely apparent in the album. Nothing startled me, though, as much as the shock of hearing, at the beginning of the opening track, "It's Raining Today," the exact same sustained string discord which opens "The Electrician," but here incorporated into a post-Sinatra ballad musing on the impermanence of relationships and even of people ("The street corner girl's a trembling leaf").

Scott 3 is where Walker found a conduit to connect the emotions of Sinatra's unassailable Capitol ballad albums of the '50s with Gordon Jenkins (particularly 1959's shattering No One Cares, which, though marketed as another Sinatra saloon song album, should have had a cover of Sinatra weeping at a gravestone; it really should have been called Songs For Dead Lovers, a Kaddish for the bereaved) with the bedsit fixations of those who were to follow him. Walker's portraits of losers here are sharp but never mocking, always compassionate; the sad old maid of "Rosemary" ("That's what I want - a new shot at life! But my coat's too thin, and my feet won't fly") or the transvestite of "Big Louise" ("Didn't time sound sweet yesterday? In a world full of friends, you lose your way"), ultimately the Other ("Winter Night," the closest he comes to a homage to Sinatra/Jenkins) and beyond that himself, in "Two Weeks Since You've Gone" ("and if I close my eyes long enough, will you happen to me again?"). With the final performance of "If You Go Away" it is as if Walker has done his work here and is ready to move on.

Scott 4 is where he starts to become, in one sense more abstract ("Boy Child" and "Angel of Ashes"), in another sense more overtly political, for the first time ("The Old Man's Back Again"), in a third sense more carnal ("Duchess," or what happens to the previous album's Rosemary from the Other's perspective should her dreams come true). And for the first time he leans more in a "rock" direction.

Part 3: By Necessity, An Intermission

No need here to go into the wreckage of Walker's subsequent career in depth: it would be unkind and unhelpful. No real compulsion to stay and observe the unfocused reruns of tracks 1-10 of 1970's 'Till The Band Comes In, most of which sound like rejected outtakes from Scott 4; nor the nice but purpose-free MoR cover version ventures like The Moviegoer (unlike Sinatra, he could never really lose himself in other people's songs, he was in some ways too imposing); nor the attempts at C&W-goes-existential on records like Stretch and We Had It All (GPand Grievous Angel, in a nutshell, they weren't); nor even the momentarily successful MoR comeback with the Brothers in the mid-'70s with "No Regrets" and which, as detailed above, terminated with Nite Flights.

The next brief stop has to be in 1984, hot on the heels of an unexpected cameo in a Britvic TV advert (exactly the sort of second-guessing thing you'd expect him to do), when a new solo album, Climate of Hunter, finally emerged on Virgin. Appropriately the cover shot makes him look like a startled rabbit.

And, while naturally applauding an album which can leash together Mark Knopfler, Evan Parker and Billy Ocean under the same roof, Climate has never seemed to me an entirely satisfying record, and perhaps even a step back from Nite Flights to explore the implications of Scott 4 further. Now it seems like a transitional record, a dry run for the astonishing one which was to come 11 years hence. The lurid close-up imagery of the opening "Rawhide" is certainly powerful, and the succeeding "Dealer," albeit a more measured-out rerun of "It's Raining Today" (musically if not lyrically), works largely due to what goes on behind Walker's voice, notably Evan Parker's surprisingly lyrical soprano solo (sounding more like Steve Lacy than Parker) and the Riley-esque minimalist double-tempo horn fanfares which appear towards the track's end. "Track Three," which incredibly was released as a single (as was, even more incredibly, "The Electrician"), does indeed feature quick-fire pointillistic backing vocals from Billy Ocean, shortly before he enjoyed his second career wind with "Caribbean Queen" et al, but sadly this makes the song sound like Joan Armatrading. And there are far too many dreary steppes of rock guitar on this album to climb over (mostly from Ray Russell - a pity Walker couldn't have worked with the incendiary Ray Russell who recorded Live At The ICA 1975 with Gary Windo, Harry Beckett et al), too much '80s flanged bass and treble-heavy drums. The record makes most impact when at its quietest: the ominous hum of "Track Six" which Parker's multiple saxes ignite with punctum, and the deadlier quiet of the closing reading of Tennessee Williams' "Blanket Roll Blues," where Walker is accompanied only by Knopfler's acoustic guitar. "And I took nobody with me/Not a soul" he concludes, meaningfully. Much as I'd like to believe Steve Lake's comments in MM at the time of this album being "a shotgun marriage between Scriabin and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer" - and how I wish this record was - it sadly isn't. Not quite.

The next one was, though.

Part 4: Tilt

Another 11 years we had to wait for this, following aborted sessions with Brian Eno, David Sylvian, Daniel Lanois and others. Sometimes it can take a quarter of a century for a butterfly truly to develop its specks.

It begins as undemonstrably as a record could begin, with a distant hum of 'celli, a plain minor chord and Walker's distant voice slowly approaching us: "Do I hear 21, 21, 21? I'll give you 21, 21,21." A farmer's market or just a meat rack? Remember how much Henchard sells his wife for at the beginning of The Mayor of Casterbridge. Something else - or more accurately someone else - is being bought here.

It is a slow lament for the Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini, a nighttime pick-up of a would-be lover. He may be driving to his death (as happened to the tormented homosexual Pasolini, beaten to death at hands still unknown in 1975). He seems to be surveying the talent on offer: "Don't go by a man (the sleeve says, though you could just as well substitute "buy" for "by") in this shirt/Go by (buy?) a man in that shirt." "Paolo (Walker sobs) take me with you...it was the journey of a life" even though the narrator "knew nothing of the horses/nothing of the threshers." Signified is piled upon signified in Walker's words now; there are no easy lonely-bedsit scenarios for the casual listener to grasp. He has gone beyond that. As with Beckett or Calvino, once you summon the nerve to climb that one extra step to understanding, you will be as one with the author's soul. This song is the nearest thing to a Scott Walker you might previously have known.

Doubters bail out at the next track, the uncompromising "The Cockfighter." Starting with Walker howling indistinctly at the moon, like the tramp in Scott 3's "Two Weeks Since You've Gone" who's "picking dustbins in the alley." But the careful intrusion of a celeste brings to mind another antecedent - Skip James, and his none-more-desolate blues laments of the early-mid '30s (never has anyone sung the words "I'm So Glad" with less uncertainty). Then a near-silent but sinister instruction "click...click

AND THE WHOLE FUCKING THING EXPLODES INTO AN INDUSTRIAL HOLOCAUST EVERYONE SAYS NINE INCH NAILS BUT THIS IS MORE TEST DEPT SPECIFICALLY THE UNACCEPTABLE FACE OF FREEDOM BRITAIN BEING DEMOLISHED IN 1986 SNOW BUT

OH YES

it's a beautiful niIIIIIIGGGGGHHHHHTTTTT yeah! Walker suddenly leers in your face.

It's the sex/death interface again. Excerpts from the transcripts of the trials of Queen Catherine and Adolf Eichmann are interspersed, linked: "Do you swear the breastbone was there? I saw it and made my escape." The song violently vacillates between studied quiet and howling torment, immense articulacy and inarticulate horror spectation.

As yet again the strings seem to indicate that the song will resolve into a major key to end, Walker says "she opened the tent to take a morsel of air" - the "breathe again" string harmony reappears - "before the sun came out..."

AND IT SMASHES ITS WAY TO OBLIVION ANDREW CROWSHAW'S WIND INSTRUMENTS SQUEAKING HOWLING HOARSELY BEHIND THE GRIND OF BODIES BEING COMPRESSED BETWEEN TWIN AXES

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"Bouncer See Bouncer" is punctuated by a booming yet distant percussion refrain (McGoohan's Rover preventing escape). "Spared - I've been spared," celebrates Walker's voice, "all the nickels and dimes...the trumpet Gabriel" with sudden violent exclamations of "DON'T PLAY THAT SONG FOR ME! (echoes of Aretha Franklin?) You WON'T play that song for me." What's important in this track (as with, in another dimension, Prince) is what Walker leaves out of the music. Listened to organically and joining the invisible dots, this could almost be a straight slow blues; the meter and vocal delivery fit exactly. But there is nothing in between other than a gaping space where humanity presumably once lurked.

Then, again, that string harmony suggests another brief respite; the narrator, rising above his circumstances, croons, beaming, "I love the season...right foot crossed to the left, left foot crossed over to the right." A prisoner, then, in bondage, strangely glad that he doesn't have to worry about earthly things any more, but equally glad that he hasn't been killed. The bouncing balloon motif returns. This song could go on forever.

"Manhattan" remains unclear to me. No doubt, with its references to "chief of police" and "white shirt, arms (or arm's?) in there somewhere (or even military "arms" in there somewhere)" one could envelop it with a lot of spurious post-9/11 relevance. The music arches grandly, however, the resonant organ of Westminster's Central Methodist Church sounding immense canyons before again disappearing into harmonic uncertainty.

"Face On Breast" is unequivocally about uncertainty of the Other. Casual sex or something else? Like everything else on this remarkable record, it achieves the feat of being sonically vast (Peter Walsh's production really does sound as if the music is occurring all around you) whilst being concerned about tiny actions in small, cramped spaces (Kafka!), the smallness conversely being amplified by the musical immensity. "You know how to whistle don't you/You just put your lips together and blow...THAT'S WHAT IT SAYS!" Walker's idea of a love song clearly being to drag himself beyonf cliche, a different angle from Scritti's "The 'Sweetest Girl'," but with the same intent. "What if I'm only pledging my love?" Walker paraphrases the doomed bastard Johnny Ace in the chorus. Pounding tribal drumming which could almost fit in with then-relevant drum 'n' bass; the askew whistling three-quarters of the way through the track underlines the fact that this is what Peter Gabriel COULD sound like if he were really serious about experimentation.

Things go deathly quiet for "Bolivia '95," a Greene/Lowry-like portrait of a ruined dictator, waiting for the world to close in on him. "Lemon bloody cola," he grumpily moans in the chorus (although sometimes seductively so, very like Prince on some of the choruses) while asking his "doc" to "sponge you down."

This is followed by "Patriot" which is subtitled "A Single" but never was (was he being ironic?). Over a shimmering Blue Nile major-teetering-on-minor sunrise-or-is-it? chord, carefully policed by John Gibling's bass (superb playijng from Gibling throughout the album, incidentally). Walker declaims at his own Customs gate "I brought nylons from New York...some had butterflies, some had specks." The song is of course about what the "patriot" is smuggling in beneath the nylons as the "chorus" makes abundantly clear. Again with a superb grasp of dynamics, the chorus roars in with John Barclay's undulating atonal trumpets, conjuring up memories both of Mongezi Feza on Wyatt's "Little Red Riding Hood Hit The Road" and Parker on Climate's "Track Six," Walker exclaims, "he'll sell his arms to anyone." Arms to Irag? It was 1995, so this could have been on his mind. Once again the grandeur dissipates into small, whispered, snatched, atonal gestures patrolled by a piccolo and military drum, in which Walker repeatedly insists (reviving the drunkard from the beginning of "The Cockfighter") that he "never sold out." The tripartite structure is then repeated, but this time Walker reflects on "crippled fingers - some had clinging vines, some had specks" - the result of his arms-dealing. And for the final goodbye, the horror found on a "back road" with hordes of butterflies flying around what we daren't look at.

The most obviously "rock" track here is the title track "Tilt." Hard not to think, when listening to the unresolved guitar chordings and near-identical rhythmic approach, of what Jeff Buckley could have achieved had he not been so damned reserved. Here Walker laments a man who "when they made him, he broke the mould," to whom, again, something unutterable has happened (not Pasolini?). His mother stands in the green grass from "Farmer In The City," waiting for him and betraying nothing with her face. Guitars scream to fadeout something that Walker cannot.

And the logical conclusion of the whole quarter-century is that Walker is finally on his own. The epilogue "Rotary" is him and his guitar alone, though the latter sounds almost as if it is being hammered, like a dulcimer. A quiet, near-medieval lament - John Dowland waking up in Ground Zero - Walker will "string along" but will simultaneously "bite holes in the bullets." Where has all this got him? How many lives have been saved? Can we stop "it" from "bristling" or "pimpling"? All Walker knows is, "I've gotta quit." And, with those words, he does.

Envoi: Get You Back Home

My impression is that the logical thing for Walker to do next would be an entirely solo album, just him and his guitar, his own Oar. Perhaps if we are worthy enough to hear it, he will let us have it.

For how something positive can be drawn out of nihilistic environments, you will need to listen to how Walker produced Pulp's We Love Life, in many ways the transverse and yet the ultimate affirmation of Tilt. My review of this can be found on:

www.freakytrigger.co.uk/pulplovelife.html


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