Scott Walker’s Scott 4 at 50: what relevance today?

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Scott 4

As Scott 4 gets a reissue for its half century birthday, Getintothis’ Cath Holland talks to musicians about the album’s role in 2019.

The story is often retold of Scott 4, the fifth of Scott Walker’s solo albums.

A beautiful, dark baroque pop record with deeper themes than commonly found in the charts back in 1969.

The decade of free love was dying. Time to grow up, face the fallout and reality. Prepare for the black and white and grey, of the 70s.

And yet, released under his birth name Scott Engel in a fit of petulance, perhaps, commercial indifference to Scott 4 led to a swift, brutal deletion by record label Philips.

Contrary to popular myth, it was a challenge but not entirely impossible to find copies in the decades that followed, but true that all except the very hardcore of fans from his Walker Brothers days and solo work fell away.

His four thrilling contributions to the reunited Walker BrothersNite Flights album in 1978 served to confuse even more after the artist himself sleepwalked through the years leading to it, squeezing out beige, middle of the road albums recorded for filthy lucre.

In Nite Flights, Scott met long time fan David Bowie‘s ‘Berlin’ albums head on, and stretched his money-maker baritone voice beyond previous limits.

Indeed, Lodger, recorded a couple of months later, is Bowie‘s riposte to his hero’s tribute.

1985’s wonderful but strange and poor selling Climate of Hunter threw the public further off course and pointed unashamedly at the avant garde direction he was headed. To be a fly on the wall when this album was delivered to Virgin would be worth paying good money for.

Scott’s profile took off again in the early 1990s thanks to a compilation album of Walker Brothers hits, reissues of his back catalogue on CD, followed by the magnificent solo album Tilt in 1996, his first fresh release after eleven years, save for occasional songs for European film.

It was Tilt, and then his true creative home at 4AD, which gave him permission to experiment in an even darker, starker world.

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Despite the stops and starts and frustrations following Scott 4 – or maybe because of them – the album took on a mythological status over the decades and feted even more following his death earlier this year.

This week the album gets a deluxe anniversary half-speed remastered reissue, carried out at Abbey Road Studios, no less, in the shops 6 months after his death give a day or two and costing the best part of thirty quid.

Fandom of the record in the wider public is mired in nostalgia, a yearning to when Scott made elegant, beautifully orchestrated records to swoon and snog to, and contemplate the meaning of life with a furrowed brow.

Julian Cope‘s much-lauded compilation of Scott‘s self-penned work from 1960s, Fire Escape In The Sky – The Godlike Genius of Scott Walker, came out three years after the revelatory Nite Flights, and failed to reignite interest in that, or build an audience for the forthcoming Climate of Hunter.

There’s a definite feeling by some that he went and ruined things. Regret that if only he’d carried on following an easier path, what tragic beauties we might enjoy today.

Fans told him so, and often; he was even confronted angrily on the Tube by an irate stranger.

But what about today’s musicians? And what relevance does Scott 4 have to them, or anyone, in 2019?

Tom Fleming – One True Pairing

When Tom Fleming launched his post-Wild Beasts solo project One True Pairing a few weeks ago, he factored in Walker’s Climate of Hunter as a presence.

‘I love his later stuff I didn’t want to put something like The Drift on there,’ he laughs of his list of inspirations.

Climate came as a shock to many, but it shouldn’t have, the clues were there already, even in an album as dreamy as Scott 4.

‘I think the lyrical stuff is the most obvious thing. The Seventh Seal is so obviously heading towards the Climate of Hunter stuff, and The Old Man’s Back Again (Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime) goes into the politics of Old Europa which he’d get into again, Mussolini, Srebenica…. Musically there’s rather more, y’know, DREAD than on the previous ones,’ reckons Tom.

‘I suppose I might be reversing this in, but it does feel rather darker and more uneasy in tone than Scott 3, which at times isn’t exactly a chortle a minute itself.’

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But ex-Girls Names guitarist Philip Quinn who now records under the name Gross Net, a experimental electronic project – doesn’t see many indications in Scott 4 of what as to come, arguing it points towards his MOR years, with its ‘introduction of some rock/pop/country norms hitherto unexplored on previous records’.

A slightly controversial view from Philip, but he does concede ‘that being said The Old Man’s Back Again  is potentially the earliest example of an overt political reference in his work which became much more prevalent on later records eg Clara or The Day the Conducator Died, and the plucked melody from Boy Child could be shorn of orchestral ornamentation and slowed down slightly to fit on either The Drift or Bish Bosch.’

Gross Net – Philip Quinn

Philip finds Scott 4 a comfortable listen, and highlights its accessibility.

‘There are probably people who don’t really like Scott that love Scott 4 due to its accessibility, so it’s probably loved on its actual content more than a sense of exclusivity… I consider all his albums to be hidden treasures yet so many of my friends love him too, perhaps his records have an aura of exclusivity that doesn’t really apply. Scott 4 is undoubtedly the easiest one to draw influence from as it’s a bit more guitar based, and thus easier to ape the songwriting style even without an orchestra, the others are somewhat more opaque in that regard.’

Mark Morriss solo artist and of The Bluetones, did a cover of Duchess from Scott 4 on his 2015 Taste of Mark Morriss album. His interest in Walker was thanks to the efforts of his mother, a fan from the 1960s – she named her other son Scott after the singer – and reignited later via the Cope compilation and reissuing of the solo albums.

Duchess, a country-tinged song, is simple and romantic on an initial listen, even the reference to menstruation is subtly placed. But Scott Walker himself in his Sundog lyric book, published by Faber in early 2018, revealed the original lyrics include an unambiguous reference to the female orgasm, the recorded version on Scott 4 sadly rather more vague on the issue.

 ‘I heard Duchess on one of those compilation cassettes that they used to give away on the cover of music magazines, and I was utterly smitten by it’s melancholic and elusive lyric. It was always a song that enjoyed singing to myself and noodling around with, so it was an automatic choice (to cover),’ says Mark.

Dylan Hughes – Ynys

Former Race Horses member Dylan Hughes kicked off his solo career under the moniker Ynys earlier this year and came to the Scott Walker appreciation fold via discovering Scott 2 a few years ago.

Of Scott 4, he finds an appeal in the arrangements.

‘For me, The Old Man’s Back Again (Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime) is the stand out track from Scott 4. The combination of the rhythm, the Morricone style cinematic strings, and the haunting chorus choir, just takes you to a different world. It’s one of my favourite Scott Walker tracks,’ he says.

When Richard Hawley performed The Old Man’s Back Again at the BBC PromsScott Walker Revisited in 2017, his interpretation was more satisfying than imagined. Hawley‘s voice is warm and baritone – not to the extent of Walker, of course – and he wisely dodged Scott‘s jazzy scat singing, but the loyal arrangements combined with his sincerity worked.

‘I really like the instrumentation on the album,’ adds Dylan. ‘It’s really sort of just drums and Spanish guitar but with a full-blown orchestral arrangement on nearly every track. No one could really afford to make this album these days!’

Temples (James Bagshaw, far left)

James Bagshaw,  frontman of psych rockers Temples unexpectedly ended up in Lightning Seeds’ live lineup nearly ten years ago for a tour and a Glastonbury appearance after selling Ian Broudie a vintage electric piano.

‘Fast forward another six months, we were driving around in London in his car and Scott Walker was on and I was, “what’s this, is this modern?” and he was “no, it’s from 1960 whatever”.

So Ian introduced me to (the music of) Scott Walker. I’ve still got his Scott 3 actually, which he probably wants back….’

James picks The Old Man’s Back Again for comment as well.

‘It’s not as layered as stuff that he’d done before, it’s got a very instant back beat to it which is very not Scott because usually everything is very orchestral. The timing of it will alter throughout the song so he has this almost hip hop grove going through that track, and the bass is the funkiest I’ve heard on his tracks, and it’s tasteful.

‘It’s a very good pop effort, I think, (laughs) which is rare for Scott. Even his singles prior to that were not necessarily the most (laughs again) accessible.’  

Mersyside singer, poet and artist Beija Flo discovered the joys of Scott Walker when in a Liverpool bar, hearing It’s Raining Today from Scott 3 played and interrogating the barman to find out out who it was. As with James and Dylan, she is taken by the arrangements, and enjoys how they enhance what Walker is saying.

‘I truly love the theatrics of this album. One of the main things that draws me into Scott Walker’s world, is his approaches building his songs. I’ve always been a fan of dramatisation, but have never been a fan of being dramatic just for the sake of it,’ she says. 

‘Lyrically, the album poetically portrays strong imagery and emotion. Walker approaches musicality is similarly from an acting perspective. Vocal and performance aside, he uses instrumentation to support and emphasise emotion, rather than to decorate. I have always been drawn to artists who take a similar approach and have always strived to achieve this in my own music. I think the stories Scott 4 tells would be a lot less believable if the arrangement had been different and approached in a more mathematical approach.’

Beija Flo (photo credit: Lucy McLachlan)

Her favourite song on Scott 4 is On Your Own Again.

‘I’m always been a sucker for a short song – there’s something about being able to catch a big feeling in such a short amount of time. On Your Own Again is a great example of this. The whole album flows seamlessly, but I’ve always loved the connection between On Your Own Again and The World’s Strong Man, which directly follows on the album. On Your Own Again (to me, anyway) is about the mundane changes in day to day life, in the year that follows a breakup. The song ends triumphantly and sarcastically, describing watching someone who’s fooled themselves into thinking they’re ok.

‘The song ends and flows into The World’s Strongest Man, an honest recollection of missing a ex-partner. What I love so much about On Your Own Again, is the way it captures the self righteous anger that often occurs when left heartbroken.. before realising, sadly, you’re still in love with this person.’

Dylan Hughes‘ point about cost is a valid one, the record deleted before it could hemorrhage any more money. And yet, recouping the album was always going to be difficult. There are practical reasons for indifference, the name was unfamiliar, and Walker himself admitted people couldn’t dance to the songs.

Tom Fleming has ideas about why it didn’t flourish from a musical standpoint.

‘I suppose again it’s those adult themes – war, fate, death and all those cheerful jukebox favourites,’ he says.

‘He might also be a victim of his time? Maybe his style was considered a bit old hat, even as he himself was moving towards something rather different. I don’t want to insert a narrative that isn’t there, but it was the arse end of the 60s and things were probably changing pretty rapidly.’

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Mark Morriss sees the record as having a timeless quality.

‘For me, Scott 4 is still my favourite of all of Scott’s solo work, and in 2019 it still retains all of its majesty and intimate power. It’s an album loaded with themes of the personal and the grandiose, woven together seamlessly in ambitious arrangements around that utterly captivating voice. It’s not an album that will ever age. When I first heard it I thought it sounded like it was made before 1969, and now I listen to it and it sounds like it could have been recorded just weeks ago,’ he says.

‘It’s an album that feels like it was flown in from another dimension, like Love‘s Forever Changes. Existing completely within its own universe and timeline.’

Scott 4 is reissued by UMC/Mercury/USM.

One True Pairing‘s debut album available through Domino Recordings, in stores and tour to follow; Ynys plays YES in Manchester 10 Oct, The Dalston Victoria, London 11 Oct; Temples‘  third album Hot Motion is released on 27 September via ATO Records; Mark Morriss‘ new album Look Up is out now through Reckless Yes, Gross Net‘s Gross Net Means Gross Net is released via Felte, Beija Flo has new singe Nudes, via Eggy Records.

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