Tuesday 8 September 2009

Scott WALKER: Scott 2

 (#54: 18 May 1968, 1 week)

Track listing: Jackie/Best Of Both Worlds/Black Sheep Boy/The Amorous Humphrey Plugg/Next/The Girls From The Streets/Plastic Palace People/Wait Until Dark/The Girls And The Dogs/Windows Of The World/The Bridge/Come Next Spring

“As a single balloon must stand for a lifetime of thinking about balloons, so each citizen expressed, in the attitude he chose, a complex of attitudes…And so, while this man was thinking sullied, still there was an admixture of pleasurable cognition in his thinking, struggling with the original perception.”
(Donald Barthelme, “The Balloon,” from the short story collection Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, 1968)

“All they ask is where I’ve been/Knowing I’ve been West.”
(Tim Hardin, “Black Sheep Boy”)

Scott 2 stands alone in this gallery of 1968 number one albums, as alone as its creator perhaps always intended it to be. A radically different concept of the Worried Man from that of Dylan’s, and one possibly more attuned to that period’s other American viewing Britain through lovingly jaded eyes, Patrick McGoohan, the record has little in common with any of the other trends which this year covers – no particular connection with folk-rock, certainly none with what was left of the British beat boom, not much concretely to do with soul music and, despite the preponderance of cover versions and the rich orchestrations of Wally Stott, Reg Guest and Peter Knight, absolutely nothing in common with “easy listening”; Val Doonican was not apt to interrupt his musings on loneliness – never to be confused with Walker’s loneness – with reflections on “wine and piss,” as Walker does on “The Bridge.”

Yet no other number one album of its year has more in common with Sgt Pepper, and in particular its insistence upon the value of childhood and maybe even “second childishness.” Throughout these dozen songs, children and angels recur again and again – foreseeing the inevitable union of “Boy Child” on Scott 4 some 18 months later – and while the three Brel songs do not mention children at all, Walker cannot hide his childish glee at singing them; as with the startling, red meter-demolishing reading of “Mathilda” which commenced 1967’s debut Scott; suddenly he sounds shed of his lonely 1966 cloak, freed of the need to cater to all needs (or so he thought) – through his childishness he attains adulthood. And it ought not to be forgotten, the talk of Isle of Wight monasteries and moonlit flits to and from Fulham notwithstanding, that Walker was introduced to Brel’s work by a girlfriend he met one night at the Playboy Club. “Jackie” is one of the most cheerful demolitions of a teen idol’s own status ever to commence an album; banned by the BBC (despite Walker’s come-on tongue twisting of the phrase “authentic queers and phoney virgins”), he towers joyous, prepared to rule the world and even be its God, as long as he can hang on to that thing he once had, the time they called him something else, something shorter. That having been said, he doesn’t seem particularly keen on inhabiting any world he might come to rule (“’cause down below is really nowhere,” he smirks in the final verse).

Even the selection of standards seems to reflect and comment upon his renewed status; his record company did not yet feel confident about letting Walker loose on a whole album of self-penned songs and still wanted him to keep one foot pitched in the All-Round Entertainer camp (hence, amongst other things, his very moving reading of Tony Hatch’s “Joanna,” complete with characteristic Walker lyric rewrites, which made the top ten singles chart that summer and does not appear on any of his studio albums). Perhaps they had heeded the warnings posed by those Walker Brothers camouflage tracks and knew that this was a man who was doomed not to be argued with – the flugelhorn which introduces 1966’s “Oedipus” is the same one (Derek Watkins) which traces the cancerous smoke through 2006’s “Cue,” the chains which drag down 1965’s “Archangel” recur on Ute Lemper’s “Lulla-bye (Bye Bye)” four decades later.

“Best Of Both Worlds,” on the face of it a standard “him or me” MoR chestbeater – it was also recorded by Lulu but sounds as though Shirley Bassey were waiting to sing it – seems here more a comment on how Walker felt he was being perceived, simultaneously wanting to be a pop star and a closet experimentalist. His “Make your fickle mind up” is answered by a furious fusillade of French horns; he snarls the “take” of “Take your new lover” with an unanticipated ferocity (and his drawled “enjoy”s suggest a more threatening PJ Proby). Whereas this American never sounds more American than on his carefully casual reading of Hardin’s “Black Sheep Boy,” although again the arrangement comments on his self-destructive tendencies, with its unusually emphatic tambourine and the shrugged shoulder of strings which greets his singing of the title.

Abruptly, however, comes the undiluted Scott Engel. Humphrey Plugg was apparently an American cartoon and/or comic strip character from the thirties, although I could find nothing on the internet or elsewhere to confirm this; certainly “The Amorous Humphrey Plugg” could have been conceived and performed nowhere except in Britain. Brass, strings and even accordion and mandolin now float in Poussinesque slow motion, as though underwater, weighed down by the impossible demands of the protagonist’s island; he comes home, presumably late from the pub (“Every night with the boys”) and, slightly pissed, slips on the kitchen floor his wife has just waxed, concusses himself and imagines himself greater than his world, exceeding himself (“I’ve become a giant”). He reflects that he would be quite happy to die at this moment “in nine angels’ arms” (as the tubular bells toll and the French horn foghorn blows, Leonard Woolf-like), away from the banal – his contemptuous “and the TELLY” hisses like a sutured scythe – but as he takes his throne with the Muses, “Doreen of the candles” summons him back (“You’re all right now”), and this would-be Reginald Perrin returns with some reluctance to his “enchanting way.” Change the world once you’ve sorted out the tax returns and the gas bill. The underlying dream, however, cannot be ignored (“Why the hell should I care?”).

Although, as I have said, childhood as such plays no part in the Brel readings, “Next” materialises like a child forever condemned to be afraid of adulthood, with its shovelling in of prostitutes with far deadlier queues. One of two songs from this year and in this tale which would benefit from subsequent, earthier readings by the late Alex Harvey, Walker starts his “Next” relatively camp, as though revelling in the notion of boy band brigadier singing about gonorrhoea and queer lieutenants, before switching dramatically in the final “And the naked and the dead” verse into his more familiar, apocalypse-anticipating severity, such that concentration camps rather than mobile Army whorehouses are brought to mind. In “Jackie” he imagines his godlike self struck deaf, dumb and blind by pity; now he is prepared to cut his legs off and burn himself alive just to avoid intimate contact with another human being.

“The Girls From The Streets,” Walker’s most overt attempt to “do Brel,” finds him still in two minds. The deliberately leaden procession of the verses, combined with words like “Snap! The waiters animate, luxuriate like planets whirling ‘round the sun,” suggest a predication of Gary Numan, but the transition into the choruses sounds a little forced and its hideous Light Programme backing singers and accordion are more in keeping with Benny Hill avec comedy beret; it tries to be greater, more ambitious, than Brel, but Walker hasn’t yet worked out how to pull it off.

Then, at the beginning of side two, Walker suddenly pulls pop off. “Plastic Palace People” offers the record’s first real hint of the tilting and drifting to come; dreamy high strings and harp sees “Billy” soaring over the rooftops, an impatient child waiting in the gathering night back down on the ground pleading, demanding, that he “come down from there.” So far, a Mary Poppins fantasy, but then the waltz stops, a 4/4 guitar and tambourine enter, and Walker solemnly declaims, as though having crept right inside our head, “PLASTIC PALACE PEOPLE,” singing about Alice, too big to crawl into her desired world, too small to get back into the real one, about predestined fate – and then the song moves into a different waltz, a distorted (Leslie cabinet plus delayed automatic double tracking on Walker’s voice) mask of horror – “the whole eternal life” sounding like an irrevocable banishment to Hell as three glockenspiel notes awaken us back to what may or may not be nocturnal reality. The song then moves through the same motions, but the stakes are higher (“My mother weeps and weaves her hair” – so why doesn’t he just go home? And why can’t “Billy” come down?) and the horrors when the distortion recurs all the greater: “They’re laughing in the halls/They rip your face with lies,” and the ambition is turned to slaughter. Walker's hideously refracted echoes of "You cry for help" echo, of all people, the still trapped Presley of "Heartbreak Hotel," and also look forward to 2006's more explicit homage "Jesse."

The clouds and the altitude finally cause Billy – who is, after all, only a balloon – to burst; with posthumous melancholy he comes down to “morning square” (or should that be “mourning”?), and, in Walker’s most defeated tones, ends up “just hanging there” – a pause to check for final signs of life – “just hanging there.” Then the strings and harp themselves become distorted, an abstract mistral of synthesised discord to underline this tale of Icarus in negative; the boy on the ground, afraid to let go of his childhood, the ambitious adolescent in the air, ready to be shot down at the slightest provocation – by drugs, by lies, by “The Land Of Make Believe” (and “Plastic Palace People” has much in common with that doom-laying 1981 chart-topper). It may well be, as Lena suggested, that the whole of Scott 2 takes place in this one square – as indeed the stories of Scott 3 and the bulk of ‘Til The Band Comes In were concentrated on one block of flats – but indeed it may well all be taking place in the mind of the same person, and that person may well be Scott Walker (though we should always be wary of making the elementary mistake of definitively confusing the artist with the subjects of his art). Or else we think of this balloon as covering the cloisters of the city which the writer chooses to inhabit; it can petrify, inspire awe, make its observers curious or resentful.

Mancini's "Wait Until Dark" appears to provide an artful line back to "normality" - "a cheerless day may bring us little dreams" contrasting with the preceding multiplying nights of the balloon - but even this song is taken from the 1967 film of a murder thriller starring a blinded Audrey Hepburn (as "Suzy Hendrix"), such that Walker's titular enticements adopt a tone of menace; the plot turns on a stash of heroin hidden in a doll, which in itself could sum up the subsequent four decades of Walker work. The concluding waterfall of strings and acoustic guitar plunge into an eddying Hades.

"The Girls And The Dogs" is the third and most uncomplicatedly cheerful of the album's Brel readings, and the last occasion on the album where Walker appears to be having fun; essentially a sprechtesang list song of the "can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em" variety, the singer's alternating tones of bemusedness, fake boldness and palpable self-pity point directly to Billy MacKenzie's - did someone sing something about a doomed "Billy" soaring over the rooftops before bursting? - performance on the Associates' "It's Better This Way."

Then Bacharach and David's "Windows Of The World," a gentle reminder of the times in which this record existed. The record's two main thematic axes, children and angels (as the Brel and Brel-derived songs demonstrate, angels are sometimes barely distinguishable from devils but both are capable of crying "angels' tears" disguised as rain), are subtly united here; the rolling marimba and long, rhetorical pauses between verses serve to rack up the tension as Walker slowly moves from personal reflection to the rain which in 1968 seemed to be drowning the world (see also Fogerty's subsequent "Who'll Stop The Rain?"). "Let the sunshine through," sings Walker with infinite patience - although at the time of Scott 2 he was actually busy coordinating the UK branch of the Democrats Abroad campaign for votes to secure Robert Kennedy's nomination - and the high string unison which concludes the piece seems to suggest the intrusion of rays.

"The Bridge" is the album's last Walker original, and perhaps the most enigmatic (and certainly the quietest); on the face of it, he is looking out at a bridge which he is already personifying as a woman, mournful with memories of his Madelaine. White doves combine with cobblestone-staining sailors as Walker views the aftermath of this high Brelian life; the world has moved on, and so has Madelaine, but he hasn't - and by his bitter recollections of a more sinister departure ("Before the bottle dulled my eyes/And made me so I couldn't stand"), he reveals himself as an incurable exile; did he send Madelaine away by force, or did she simply drift off, without ever noticing or even remembering him? Lyrically the sequence and expression of the imagery owe a great deal to that seldom-cited influence on Walker's work, Leonard Cohen, but without the winking get-out clause; one feels that he would be the ideal subject of "Dress Rehearsal Rag."

But not everything is quite lost. "Come Next Spring" is a cathartic closer, Walker, the man who at the start of this record loudly wanted to rule the world and be God, now serenely accepts that all he wants is to be loved, by just the one person (not counting himself). In any other 1968 crooner's hands this would be a sentimental Cinemascope finale, but Walker's hopes remain by definition autumnal; he looks forward to a fresher, clearer year to dawn, he surrenders to his own vulnerability, wants to be touched and held and kissed again; unlike the dead eyes which ripped through the previous album's "Always Coming Back To You," he is now prepared to offer himself a happy ending; the iceberg created by the furrowed frost of "Such A Small Love" displays signs of melting - and since then he has continued to look for that happy ending, even if it means an unanswerable loneness, perhaps beyond life itself ("The Electrician"), or simply leaving everyone and everything else behind ("Blanket Roll Blues"), admitting "I gotta quit" at the end of Tilt, finally acknowledging Dylan's notion of the lonely room - although 1968 has already seen three of these, Walker's will turn out to be the loneliest and most alienated - in 1996's reading of "I Threw It All Away," through to the pestering but conclusive whisper of "It's OK" he gives himself at the end of The Drift. His is one of the greatest careers this tale has to tell, and also, by automatic association, the most confounding; almost alone of the subjects of this story, he has constructed his own path, defined his own parameters, defied logical gravity such that we are led to think that it is we who don't know our left foot from our right - and he is usually right.

"But it is wrong to speak of 'situations,' implying sets of circumstances leading to some resolution, some escape of tension; there were no situations, simply the balloon hanging there -- muted heavy grays and browns for the most part, contrasting with the walnut and soft yellows. A deliberate lack of finish, enhanced by skillful installation, gave the surface a rough, forgotten quality; sliding weights on the inside, carefully adjusted, anchored the great, vari-shaped mass at a number of points. Now we have had a flood of original ideas in all media, works of singular beauty as well as significant milestones in the history of inflation, but at that moment, there was only this balloon, concrete particular, hanging there."
(Barthelme, op cit)