by Tom Sutpen:
But Scott Walker was not, as he seemed to so many, just another strange-o with a record deal. More neurotic than all four Beatles put together (and that's saying a lot), he was openly conflicted, even angst-ridden about his ascent. In Stephen Kijak's 2006 film, Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, there's a clip of him from the Walker Brothers days . . . a bottle in one hand, the go-find-somebody-who-gives-a-damn shades black as ever . . . seeming to retail the old one about burning, inchoate creative longings and how little he cared for the riches and fame cascading down on them all. It's a line he held with single-minded consistency, regardless of how frequently (and falsely) it had been trotted out by others before him. "I will starve to get something across," he was quoted as saying a few years later, just before it all started to unravel, "I mean that. I've never settled for second best in my life. If it doesn't work, I'll give it all up."
Looking at it in the blasted, gray morning light of 2009, and taking into account Walker's full-on embrace of the avant-garde in the last two decades, it all makes perfect sense. The better angels of hindsight permit us now to hear in those words the uncompromising intention that came to inform immense (and immensely difficult) works such as 2006's The Drift or his score for Leos Carax's film Pola X (2000). But how could he have expected anyone to take him at his word in the mid-1960s?
I mean, please; don't let's be obtuse here, children. Million-selling pop music acts, despite all public ravings to the contrary, rarely sailed far from the shores of commerce; and on those occasions when they did (the most noteworthy example being John Lennon and Yoko Ono's travelling art kindergarten and agit-prop freak show of 1969), it looked so much like a gargantuan P.R. indulgence that even the fans . . . the ones who, in better days, would buy a record of these artists mowing their lawn . . . felt burned. If journalists thought about it at all, they simply took it for granted that Scott Walker was just another showbiz narcissist trying to con the world into believing that he wasn't only in it to get laid like everybody else; and given the alarming frequency with which assertions of integrity in that business assume the color of marketing strategies, that kind of cynicism was more than excusable. How were they supposed to know he was serious? The very notion of someone at his end of the Pop music racket actually charting the ambitious musical course they said they aspired to, as opposed to just talking about it because it sounded good when you read it in Melody Maker, beggared the imagination (what precedent had there ever been, after all).
This is what Scott Walker was up against as The Walker Brothers disbanded and his solo career beckoned. There was no way around it; not then. He could have taken out full-page ads in every newspaper in Britain, reading "I'm not kidding!" and it would have availed him nothing. If the music hadn't been so singular, had it not stood just at the line of departure to that undiscovered plain where it eventually arrived after a quarter century's halting journey, I daresay he might only have succeeded in becoming a laughing stock; a totem of lofty pretense the whole wide world could have some fun with.
But the music was singular; extraordinarily so. Three LPs in less than two years; each a clear advance over what had come before, each a Top Ten conquest on the album charts of the day. The approach was similar to that of the BBC series, but while its presentation there came off as wildly inconstant, almost schizophrenic, on record the elements were virtually seamless. For those who harbored even marginal illusions about MOR Pop (Middle of the Road, for non-readers of Billboard joining us today), it was impossible to tell if the slightly more traditional offerings on these albums . . . songs by Bacharach & David, Andre & Dory Previn, Henry Mancini and others . . . were meant to establish a context for his original compositions, or if Walker's songs instead were a primordium that enabled the listener to hear the rest with an ear tuned magically anew. This was forward momentum writ large and arranged for orchestra; a speculative Before & After portrait of MOR pop itself. For the truly remarkable thing about Scott Walker . . . the achievement with implications few if any have come to terms with . . . is not that he made the trip, turbulent as it was, from MOR crooner to avant-garde chanteur, but that he made it as if there had never been any meaningful distance between the two in the first place.