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The arbitrary cult status of Scott Walker

Bish Bosch - review.

Bish Bosch (4AD)
Scott Walker

It must be tough being Scott Walker. Somewhere down the line the world has decided you’re a genius, based on a handful of hits 45 years ago that were written by other people. You spend your life labouring under what Marianne Faithfull once called the “tyranny of cool”, retreating further into the avant-garde, and every album you put out is met with hope that you might some day return to the “lush Sixties balladry” you were known for. As though there’s a great bank of Bacharach-style classics shored up inside you but you’re just choosing not to let them out.

Walker is a symbol of the arbitrary way that cult status attaches to some people and grows like a creeper, strangling and obscuring its host. He was a medium-weight pop star performing cover versions in a musical setting that was relatively conservative for its time – an interpreter of songs, not a revolutionary creative force. He has released four albums in the past 30 years and is quite prepared, when he gives his rare interviews, to admit that writing has never come easily (“I don’t write songs for pleasure. I can only write when I have to – like I’m under contract,” he said in 1984).

Yet major labels put out the kind of music from him that they’d never tolerate from anyone else (The Drift, released in 2006, notoriously featured a percussionist punching a dead pig). Critics consistently meet his output with words such as “entrancing”, “intriguing” and “mystifying”. He has been described as a visionary, a “Halley’s comet”, and the man responsible for completely redefining what music is.

This month brings us Bish Bosch, a 71-minute song cycle featuring a large family of instruments that include a scraped machete and a “tubax” (a sax/tuba hybrid). In a strange castrato voice very different to his more familiar baritone, Walker sings lines such as, “If shit were music, la la la, la la la, you’d be the brass band” (from the 21-minute “SDSS1416+13B [Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter]”). In an interview with his record company 4AD, he explained that the song is set in the palace of Attila the Hun, “which he regards as an immense toilet”. Another line – “I’ve severed my reeking gonads and fed them to your shrunken face” – recalls Lou Reed’s last offering, Lulu, a rock-metal opera written with Metallica and based on a German play about a prostitute, which begins: “I’d cut my legs and tits off when I think of Boris Karloff”. You’ve got to admire their cartoon images of venom and disgust. Both men are under pressure to maintain a chasm of understanding between themselves and their public, lest – God forbid – we should realise there’s a regular, 70 year-old human being behind it all.

It’s not Walker’s fault that no one will call the emperor’s new clothes. He is a vessel for Sixties nostalgia and one of the select few male singers that red-blooded men are allowed to have a crush on (well-dressed, moody, monochrome figures go a long way in a certain world – look at Serge Gainsbourg). His cultural influences were the same as Donovan’s (the films of Fellini, beat poets, good boots); and in his luxuriant delivery, knack for covers and primetime TV show, he rivalled Andy Williams and Glen Campbell. But, like Johnny Cash, Walker wore his personal discomfort openly. His refusal to return to the music of that time suggests a disdain for the whole persona and artists with an aversion to themselves become cult heroes.

After the Walker Brothers’ hits “Make It Easy on Yourself” (written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David), “My Ship Is Comin’ In” (Joey Brooks) and “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore)” (Bob Crewe and Bob Gaudio), Scott went solo, recording highly successful Jacques Brel covers including “Jackie”, “Mathilde”, “Amsterdam” and “If You Go Away”. The album Scott 4, released in 1969, and which was entirely self-composed, featured clunky but intriguing songs such as “The Old Man’s Back Again (Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime)” – and failed commercially, as did subsequent solo records. The Walker Brothers’ biggest hit during their 1970s reunion was another cover, “No Regrets” by Tom Rush.

Walker threw himself into an intense study of classical music – well you would, wouldn’t you? – building on an interest in German lieder and Gregorian chant. Over the past 30 years, the intellectual paraphernalia around Walker has formed a protective wall. The 1981 compilation Fire Escape In The Sky: the Godlike Genius of Scott Walker, compiled by Julian Cope, kicked off a revival of interest, and a generation of music journalists just a little too young to understand him the first time round discovered his “underrated” solo records as if they were buried treasure. In 2000, the man who hasn’t performed live in 34 years was asked to curate the Meltdown festival at the Southbank in London (next year it’s Yoko Ono). In 2006 he got a lifetime achievement award from Mojo magazine, which cited “a spectacular career on a global scale”. Walker’s whole life must feel like those dreams where you’re about to go into your French A-Level and you’re saying, “But sir, I’ve never studied French and I’ve not been to school in 50 years! Sir!”

Four years ago, the Barbican staged a performance of Walker’s recent music with Jarvis Cocker, Damon Albarn and other guests. A packed house watched as an opera singer re-enacted the assassination of Mussolini accompanied by a 42-piece orchestra straining like a swarm of bees (for the song “Carla”); they were hoping for a glimpse of the maestro himself but he never appeared on stage.

I’d bet many of that rather young and fashionable crowd wouldn’t go to see a John Adams opera or a work by Schoenberg or a modern ballet. Sting wrote a stage show about Robert Schumann a couple of years back and it became the latest in a long line of artistic pretentions he’ll never live down. But if Walker had written it, there’d probably have been a West End transfer. Judging by the life, and the music, it’s not been a painless ride. He could be free from it all and running a boat yard in Eastbourne by now. But it’s not that easy to let go, if people won’t let go of you.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's features editor. 

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Will Europe ever go to war again?