Scott Walker, Message to David Bowie on his 50th Birthday, 1997.
I see God in the window.
David Bowie, after hearing it.
See the dwarfs and see the giants. Which one would you choose to be?
Scott Walker, “30 Century Man.”
I. Engel and Jones
I suppose he had made some slight noise of some kind or other. It would have been miraculous if he hadn’t at one time or another. And yet, haggard as he appeared, he looked always perfectly self-controlled, more than calm—almost invulnerable.
Joseph Conrad, “The Secret Sharer.”
Start by placing them across the board from each other: two queen’s bishops, rows of squares ahead of them. One is Noel Scott Engel, born in Ohio in 1943, an American who went to Britain for fame and who stayed there; the other is David Robert Jones, born in Brixton on the day before Engel’s fourth birthday, who scrabbled for fame in Britain and, once he finally got it, left for good. Jones became David Bowie, Engel became Scott Walker. Each was precocious, ambitious, beautiful. They first met around 1966 at a London nightclub, The Scotch of St. James, when Walker was a pop star and Bowie nothing but polite aspiration.
The Walker Brothers were cool, handsome Californians who sang maudlin, shabby pop. Their hit singles were all dirges. Britain, more than any other country, took them to heart, a hint that beneath the shine of Carnaby Street and the “classless” glamour society pages of David Bailey’s Box of Pin Ups there was still a weary nation that had never gotten over the war, a Britain for whom the glum fatalism of “Make it Easy on Yourself” and the doom-struck “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,” rang more true than “All You Need is Love,” whose promise seemed extended only to the beautiful and young. The Walkers, though they looked like surfer gods, lived in darkened rooms: they suffered breakups, desertions and morning-after regrets, their albums were lonely hearts columns. The somber flavor of their songs suggested there was still a war on (and of course, there was—one reason the Walkers had left the US was to avoid the draft).
Like the spider-egg memory cruelly programmed into the replicant’s memory in Blade Runner, the Walker Brothers felt real but did not actually exist in any recongisable reality.
Anthony Reynolds, “The Hollow Men.”
Years before Bowie would create a “plastic” rock star, there was the Walker Brothers (not brothers, none of them really named Walker), who didn’t play on their records, who used different backing bands for touring and TV appearances (live, Gary Leeds used paper sticks, the actual drummer parked backstage). As Reynolds wrote, the only “real” Walker Brothers were Scott and John’s voices, “two solo singers sharing a b(r)and name…[whose] LPs were the works of a mythical beast, spawned and constructed under the laboratory conditions of Philips Studios.”
Not that it mattered. By 1966, the Walkers’ UK fan club was larger than the Beatles’ and the Stones’; Mick Jagger, sizing up the competition, tried to start a feud by flicking cigarette butts down on Walker at a nightclub. Lulu, besotted with Scott herself, recalled being unable to sleep while on tour with the Walkers because shrieking girls had the hotels under siege. The Walkers’ mid-Sixties was a reenactment of Beatlemania in miniature, more ritualized and more violent, with Walkers shows condensed to a half-hour of screams and gutter battles. One night Leeds saw a girl covered in blood from head to foot—she had crawled through a shattered window to get into the club—and he remembered another girl who wouldn’t let go of John’s hair even after being punched in the face.
It had happened by chance. John Maus and Scott Engel, who’d met in the early Sixties, got a minor hit in America and were working clubs on the Sunset Strip. John sang lead; Scott, his gloomy baritone suiting his role as bassist, was second string. Recording a new song, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill’s “Love Her,” that had been written for the Righteous Brothers, the producer Nick Venet suggested a deeper-voiced lead for the Bill Medley role, and Scott became the front man. Leeds, a drummer that he and John knew, came back from a British tour with PJ Proby with UK contacts and a proposition. The three, christened the Walker Brothers, flew to London in February 1965. Four months later, they had a manager, a record contract and hits, starting with “Love Her.”
Scott had worked in professional music since his boyhood: he was making demos and singles in his mid-teens and had been a protege of the singer Eddie Fisher. It was a life of pointed ambition, reminiscent of another boy in Bromley who started cutting singles at age 17. But unlike Bowie, Walker had only a professional interest in R&B and rock ‘n roll (with the exception of the disco-tinged Nite Flights, Walker’s oeuvre is an alternate history in which “white” popular music had almost zero African-American influence). His idol was Frank Sinatra. Hearing that Sinatra had built up his lungs by staying underwater for minutes, Walker would try to hold his breath for a block when walking in London.
His was a wary fame. He never had a period like Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust era when he savored the absurd peak of his celebrity. Instead he escaped whenever he could, enisling himself in movie theaters, where he’d watch four films in a row, or turning up at nightclubs at 1 AM and sitting by himself; he took Valium to bring himself down, uppers and vodka to get him through sessions and shows. Encouraged by his manager to write B-sides for some publishing royalties, Walker found his ideal form of escape: his songs, from the start, fabricated worlds for him to hide away in. In December 1966 he had a breakthrough, with “Archangel,” built on a Bach-inspired pipe organ figure that Scott recorded at the Odeon Cinema in Leicester Square (a moviegoer’s whim indulged), and the kitchen-sink drama of “Mrs. Murphy.” In these two songs, a B-side and an EP track, was the breadth of his imagined, inherited London: the gossipy flavor of life in a two-up two-down, where angels sometimes appear at the windows.
Walker became a dedicated expatriate: Sixties London, he later said, really was the London he had dreamed of in America, the London of Ealing Studios films, of eccentricity and “making do,” with vaguely Continental daydreams as its mild opiate. He became a British citizen in the Seventies, though living in Holland much of the time, and his attitude towards his native country has been coldness tinged with contempt. An idealized, affected “British” sensibility colored his music. Even the Walker Brothers albums were structured like provincial pantomime revues: a Matt Monro-style ballad followed by a back-to-the-Sunset Strip rocker like “Land of 1,000 Dances,” a country-style number leading into one of Scott’s compositions (a bizarre piece of sequencing on Images sandwiches Walker’s “Orpheus” between anemic covers of “Stand By Me” and “Blueberry Hill”).
Much of the music, even the #1 singles, sounded slightly off, inaccurate translations. “Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine” was producer Johnny Franz and a pack of British session players (including Alan Parker, who later played on “Rebel Rebel”) going for the full-bore Phil Spector sound, with Hal Blaine style “on the four” drums, “Holland Tunnel” reverb and instruments stacked upon each other like folding chairs. But they didn’t quite pull it off: “Sun” has so much blear and murk that Scott drowns in the mix, but the track’s also thin-sounding in places; it’s a drywall of sound.
Still, even echoes have echoes. Some of Bowie’s 1966 Pye singles, with their Tony Hatch productions, seem crafted to mimic the gimcrack cathedral tone of the Walkers’ singles. He and Walker were in different worlds: you can imagine Scott’s face on a magazine cover at the Clapham cafe where Bowie once wrote a bitter little jibe called “Join the Gang,” which he couldn’t. Where Bowie was a footnote, Walker was getting enseamed in British pop legend. When the gangster Ronnie Kray shot a rival at the Blind Beggar on Whitechapel Road, one bullet from Kray’s Mauser hit the jukebox, causing the record playing to skip: the sun ain’t gonna shine…sun ain’t gonna shine…
II. Billy Balloon and Major Tom
Scott Walker, Amsterdam.
David Bowie, Amsterdam.
Scott Walker, My Death.
David Bowie, My Death (live).
Contrary to public opinion, I hated cabaret. In the course of four years, I mentioned it to David once. That was when he was broke and unable to feed himself. Cabaret? Not likely. It killed Scott Walker.
Kenneth Pitt, David Bowie’s former manager.
Caller: Is [“Plastic Palace People”] about what I think it is?
Scott Walker: Uh, yeah.
Capitol Radio interview, 1978.
It’s a well-established arc in pop: the teen idol grows (cracks) up. Idols are a savvier lot now, and managers have gotten far better at handling the transition, but it remains a treacherous crossing, one that usually demands some sort of declaration of independence. Scott Walker’s was extremist. Consider if Justin Bieber put out a record where he sang about losing his virginity in an “mobile army whorehouse,” recalled “the queer lieutenant who slapped our asses as if we were fags” and “my first case of gonorrhea” and closed with “one day I’ll cut my legs off or burn myself alive.”
Walker went to the Playboy Club one night in 1967 and met a German woman who worked there. Back at her place, she drank Pernod and played Jacques Brel records for him, translating the songs as they played. He fell in love, not with her. By chance, soon after that evening Walker’s friend Andrew Oldham told him that Mort Shuman had just made a translation of Brel songs for a stage revue, some of which had been recorded for a promo disc. Walker found this acetate, which had “Amsterdam” and “Jackie” and “Mathilde” on it, and, in his words, “ran with it.” Brel was his liberator, giving Walker cover, some exotica and notoriety.
So began the “shabby ’60s solo epics: fantasias of crumpled velvet” (Tom Ewing) that were the four Scott records: fervid Brel covers, MOR schlock, occasional country/folk forays and the Walker-penned songs, the latter increasingly more “lieder” than pop, with Walker disdaining hooks and choruses in favor of wandering through his endless, spiraling verses. His songs, sometimes literally art movies remembered in music (“The Seventh Seal“), were split-screen compositions (“Plastic Palace People”), flashbacks, slow-motion reveries. He peopled his lyrics with children and angels (and one in the same), tramps and toy soldiers (there was a touch of the black velvet painting in Scott’s songs of the period), squandered dreamers rotting away on fire escapes and terraces. His characters, refracted through his own brooding persona, seemed poisoned by memories, left motionless (the first side of Scott 1 is a set of remembered lost girls—Mathilde,Angelica, Lucy Brown, Joanna—that naturally concludes with ode to death). The Scotts are singular, as much out of their time as they reek of it: Scott 2 remains one of the stranger #1 albums ever released.
Late Sixties Scott can seem a schizophrenic character, hosting a lite-pop TV revue for the BBC while singing about prostitutes and archangels on his gnomic records. For some he was a tortured artist, packaged by his label and manager as a reluctant version of Englebert Humperdinck, who slipped in a few subversive masterpieces on records marketed to middle-aged bourgeois. For others he was a teen idol with bad taste, a ghastly poseur who took a sniggering adolescent pleasure in singing Brel’s bawdy lyrics. (He was easy to detest: Nik Cohn called Walker “top heavy and maudlin” in 1968 and Robert Christgau later threw up in print: “purely godawful…Anthony Newley without the voice muscles…a male Vera Lynn for late bloomers who found Paul McCartney too R&B.”)
Sure, Walker’s records are the sort of thing the couple in Paul Simon’s “The Dangling Conversation” would have on their hi-fi, and his lyrics can easily venture into Rod McKuen waters. He seemed an older man in spirit, a throwback whose main vices, booze and pills, were classic Hollywood’s, and whose interests were those of a graduate student ca. 1957: Camus, Bergman films, Bartok. The Scotts are the refined sound of the aspiring middlebrow of the Sixties, a tragic figure easy to mock today. A lost world of Cabernet, mime, mild Buddhism, poetry readings, “action” theater. Which, as it happens, was also the world of Bowie and his girlfriend, the dancer Hermione Farthingale, in 1968.
During the Scott years, Bowie was in the wilderness. His one LP had flopped and Deram stopped releasing his singles. And in 1968, a year when he didn’t release any music and nearly abandoned pop music, he discovered Walker. As with Walker and Brel, a woman was the ambassador. The songwriter Lesley Duncan had dated Walker and later briefly took up with Bowie, and Bowie found the latter’s records in her flat on Redington Road. Bowie was irritated at first, Walker seeming to mock him with his glamorous brooding Philips LP covers, but when he finally played the records he was entranced.
At first, mainly with Brel (Walker had chosen Brel wisely, as a carnival barker to get potential listeners into the tent). Bowie soon tried to make “Amsterdam” and “My Death” his own, singing them accompanied only by his 12-string acoustic guitar, but all he managed to do was cover Walker. The actual Brel, an agitated Fleming who expectorated his songs in performance, is hardly to be heard in Bowie’s various versions—Bowie’s Brel is just a shadow of Scott’s. Seeking to evade Walker, he only channeled him.
Then, through Walker’s own songs, Bowie began to craft a new persona to inhabit. He had forgotten he’d ever been a Mod and, in the words of his then-partner John Hutchinson, was now “into softer things.” Scott’s songs are in the sediment of Bowie’s late Sixties: in the bedroom of “hessian and wood” where Bowie and Hermione once stayed; in the paper-strewn rooms of the scholar who lives above an Austrian in “Conversation Piece”. And in the song that finally made Bowie? Is there some of Walker’s growing isolation and coldness in “Space Oddity,” in Major Tom’s desire to slip free from the world’s tether and just float off somewhere, like a balloon?
It’s easy to go too far in this game. There were other competing influences at work on Bowie, and Bowie’s arrangers/producers Gus Dudgeon and Tony Visconti were of a different cast than Walker’s, who were generally of an older generation. Dudgeon and Visconti were more pop-oriented, working in service to the song, favoring moody sweeps of ‘celli, using strings and horns to underscore top melodies, and while open to innovations like the Mellotron and Stylophone, kept them as secondary players in the mix. Nowhere on a Bowie record of the period is there anything like Wally Stott’s coagulation of strings, a semi-tonal quivering between G, G-sharp and F-sharp, that hangs like a storm cloud in Walker’s masterpiece “It’s Raining Today.”
It was this sound—a suspension between tonality and atonality, release and tension, fear and longing—which Walker had sought since he began making records (Derek Walmsley: “each instrument is locked into a hovering circle of vibrato, like bees moving in swarm formation“) and he would reuse it for decades to come, building and coloring his songs with variations on these shifts, with strings phasing in and out of key, players rolling out strings of harmonic and ghost notes that suddenly cohere into great clumps of sound. (On Tilt, three decades later, Walker would try to create “new chords” by having his players play major and minor chords simultaneously, aiming for “a yin and yang thing,” he said.)
The sound of “Raining Today” suggested that Scott was delving further inward. His lyrics grew more obscure, his art movie songs were increasingly meant for him alone, as if he was screening dailies of his dreams. After the triumph of Scott 3, Walker even discarded Brel, disposing of one last crutch. He went off the map as his audience fell away. There’s a telling moment in the Walker documentary 30 Century Man, when, as part of a transition montage, there’s a cut to a late 1969 issue of Melody Maker. On the right-hand side of the two-page spread is a photograph of a beaming hippie Bowie in an article about his hit single. On the opposing page, a dour Walker illustrates a piece about the poor sales of Scott 4, which Philips would delete in a year. Sun (machine) rising, sun setting.
You’ve been a wonderful audience. Now it’s time for me to go away.
Scott Walker, at the end of his first BBC TV show, 1969.
III. Ziggy and the Moviegoer
It bothered me that I couldn’t write a record. Sure. But I felt…it’s just as important to exist as write…Existence is worth everything. So I wasn’t dead, you know?
Scott Walker, interview, early 1990s.
Had my double vanished as he had come? But of his coming there was an explanation, whereas his disappearance would be inexplicable….
In the early Seventies, David Bowie finally became a star. You likely know the story: Ziggy Stardust, Ronson, the Spiders, Angela, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Tony Defries, Mike Garson, “Starman”, “Jean Genie.” Bowie still sang the Walker-Brel songs on stage but he’d long since dispensed any Scott-inspired production cues and lyrical influences, as though he’d stuffed away Walker in a box of teenage memorabilia when moving house.
As for Walker, he was hiding in plain sight. He still put out records, sometimes twice a year. The Moviegoer, Stretch, Any Day Now, We Had It All. These albums seemed intended to be remaindered, meant for dusty afterlives in charity shops and garage sales and church basements. One wonders who bought them (there weren’t many—none of the albums really sold). A fan from the Walker Brothers days, now married with children, who spied the still-handsome face on a LP in Debenhams and bought it out of some weak nostalgic obligation? A cultist, poring through the liner notes, looking for clues? Your grandmother?
Walker was blocked, creatively, and pushed by his manager to only do covers, so he grubbed out albums to meet his contracts and support his family, sometimes cutting all of his vocals in a single day, going through a bottle or two of vodka in the booth. He sang anything that he was given, sang it professionally and at times even beautifully, but with little artistry, little trace of his own interpretation. It was though he was demoing songs for other singers to do something with. Amanda Petrusich argues that Walker’s move into country music came as he was renouncing his citizenship, at the height of Watergate, and that singing country was a way for Walker to make some sort of reckoning with his past (he said in an interview that most of his family back home had voted for Nixon). It’s a solid enough theory as any. What’s more unnerving is the idea that Walker simply had no motives, had no strategies, but was just using music as a base currency. As Andy Zax said of these records, “their emptiness is startling.”
The connection could have been severed here: Walker drifting off into genteel nothingness, Bowie far off on his own path. But the line was still open on Bowie’s end. In late 1973, with the Spiders gone, with Bowie forced back onto himself and clawing his way out of a trap he’d made (he was trying to salvage at least three failed musicals), Bowie found himself listening to Walker again.
The first evidence on Diamond Dogs is a parody of Walker’s “Any Day Now” that briefly surfaces in the murk of “Future Legend.” Then, a few tracks later, comes “Sweet Thing/Candidate.” The ghoulish basso profondo that Bowie used to open “Sweet Thing” sounds like some resurrected, blighted Walker, Walker as some croaking Baron Samedi figure, pacing through Bowie’s Hunger City, looking for rough trade. It was a Walker that had never existed, one that seems instead to have been generated in Bowie’s shadow-memory of Scott’s old songs, and it’s a more frightening, vivid figure than Scott ever managed to play on his Philips LPs: a Scott purged of his middlebrow crooner affectations, clarified to base instinct and dark camp. The zombified Walker crops up again, as a lesser flavor, in some of Bowie’s other mid-Seventies songs (“Station to Station” comes to mind). It’s one possible ending: Walker ending up as one of Bowie’s characters, yet another influence absorbed. Instead, one day Walker woke up.
IV. The Electrician and the Lodger
David Bowie, he’s a very smart guy. He comes up with the goods and he makes sure of delivery right down the line. I thought, ‘Shit, if he can do it, so can I.’
Nite Flights (The Walker Brothers, 1978).
The Walker Brothers reunited in 1974, for lack of anything else to do. They got a minor hit, a cover of Tom Rush’s “No Regrets,” and stalled out. Their label GTO collapsed but there was enough money for one last record, so the Walkers figured they’d cut some of their own songs for once, using the budget to bring in some top session men (including Alan Parker and the guitarist “Big Jim” Sullivan, who’d played on hundreds of British rock records, including David Bowie).
So far, this has been a one-way tale: Bowie watching, interpreting, coveting, acquiring Walker. Now Walker, at last, was listening to Bowie, sifting through Station to Station, Low and especially the just-released “Heroes,” which Walker brought to the studio, playing it for his partners and the studio musicians (he also wanted everyone to subscribe to Gramophone magazine). The engineer Steve Parker told Anthony Reynolds that “Heroes” was “the reference album when we were making Nite Flights…we could have been more adventurous, maybe. If we’d had an Eno character in there, it would have been even more stunning, I think.”
What did Walker get out of Bowie’s “Berlin” albums? They were records of a man, pushed to his limits, who broke himself up and tried to piece himself together again, one who seemed intent on killing his former personae; Walker, after years of acquiescent mediocrity, of self-imposed artistic silence, was trying to write again, trying to make the step he felt he should have made after Scott 4. The Bowie records are also an exile’s albums, their creator roaming from Los Angeles to France to Berlin, which a fellow expatriate like Walker could appreciate. And more cynically, as Walker’s quote above suggests, he saw in Bowie someone to whom it had seemingly come easily, a man who dabbled in art rock but still got hits, one who seemed to have stolen the freedom to go where he willed. Remember that Walker wasn’t the mysterious avant-garde figure in 1978 that he’s since become. He was a pro singer who’d put out a lousy record for nearly every year of the Seventies, and whose vaunted Sixties LPs had more than their fair share of songs that could have been a Blood, Sweat and Tears album. He could still think in commercial terms, and he likely did here.
Nite Flights was front-loaded with Scott’s songs (though his fingerprints are everywhere on the record—as Reynolds wrote, the phased tubular bells and harmonized snare on Gary Leeds’ “Den Haague” are very Bowie/Eno/Visconti-inspired), which are sequenced perfectly. The opener “Shutout” is a first shot at Bowie, a reconsidering of “Blackout” with a taste of sharp violence, while “Fat Mama Kick” seems to be Walker taking Eno’s measure, writing a song that Eno could’ve fit on Taking Tiger Mountain or Here Come the Warm Jets. It’s a dark, extravagant goof, with Walker again, as with “Archangel,” busting the budget to record a colossal pipe organ (in this case, the Royal Albert Hall’s). “Nite Flights” (see below) is a maneuver where Walker met Bowie head-on.
He closed the quartet with “The Electrician,” where he pushed beyond Bowie and Eno, opening an avenue they had never considered. It begins with Walker’s favored dissonant string chords, with Walker, when he appears, groaning and bellowing as if he’d heard Bowie’s incarnation of him on “Sweet Thing” and thought, “oh, you think you can do this?“. Then, with the chorus, Walker strangles his professional voice. Considering his moneymaker baritone suspect, that it lulled the listener to sleep, he altered his phrasing and timbre, now singing lines in a straining, desperate tone that, like his love of consonant/dissonant strings, hung between being sharp and on the note. It suited the lyric, a love song about American complicity in Central American torture regimes.
There was nothing of its like in 1978. Brilliantly released as a single, “The Electrician” proffered a future that no one dared to take (Eno, decades later, groused about the cowardice of young bands who never went beyond “The Electrician,” but were just content to imitate him or Roxy Music or Bowie.)
In late 1978, Eno brought Nite Flights to Montreux, where he and Bowie had started recording Lodger. Bowie was stunned. One can’t blame him. Imagine if a great stone face to whom you’ve been making offerings for years suddenly rumbles up a response, in an approximation of your voice.
So Lodger was, in part, Bowie scrambling to acknowledge a revived Walker, from the obvious reference “African Night Flight” to “Look Back in Anger,” a song full of cold angels (at a time when Walker no longer seemed interested in them) and whose phrasing had a trace of Bowie’s old Scott imitation. But this was superficial. Bowie stewed, considered new responses. “The Electrician” proved such a challenge that Bowie played it for nearly twenty years, then all but rewrote it as “The Motel.” (But that’s a story for later.)
V. Nite Flights
Nite Flights (Bowie).
Nite Flights (Bowie, video w/introduction).
Nite Flights (The Tonight Show, 1993).
Nite Flights (Moodswings Back to Basics Mix).
Nite Flights (Bowie, live, 1996).
In the early Eighties, when Bowie pieced himself out to the world, Walker, after the promise of Nite Flights, seemed to leave it. It was here, not in his workingman’s Seventies, when he truly began to vanish. He had ceased to exist in the music press. None of his records get a mention in the Rolling Stone Record Guide of 1983, or in the Trouser Press record guides of the era; he merits a single line in a two-graph Walker Brothers bio in the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of 1983 and isn’t mentioned at all in RS‘ 1986 History of Rock & Roll. Nite Flights, rather than marking some startling rebirth, instead seemed his last roll of the dice before leaving the room.
Then Walker put out another record, Climate of Hunter. This would establish the pattern of his late work: silence, oblivion, then a new album. Released in spring 1984, a few months before Bowie’s Tonight, Climate made Bowie’s corporate nadir LP even more appalling. Climate was an actual adult pop record, Walker working with contemporary musicians and producers (Billy Ocean and Mark Knopfler, among others), but keeping his own counsel, to the point of perversity (the Ocean track, the most pop-appealing song on the record which even got a video, didn’t get a title).
For the rest of the Eighties, when Walker was nowhere to be found, Bowie endured his own public set of lost years, reduced to making records for the sake of it, losing himself, trying to purge his way back with Tin Machine. Finally, in 1992, looking for some anchorage, casting about for fresh influences or just any means to move ahead, he finally decided to take Walker on. He covered “Nite Flights.”
As with his take on Morrissey’s “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday,” there was a touch of vanity in Bowie’s choice: “Nite Flights” is the closest that Walker was ever influenced by Bowie’s music, from the “Heroes” callbacks in the lyric (“we could be gods“) to its production and arrangement, which has the taut fluency of Bowie’s great Murray-Alomar-Davis band (the hi-hat, mostly played by Peter Van Hooke (and Frank Gibson here) is the unsung hero of Nite Flights, mixed as prominently as the lead vocal).
Bowie’s cover took the fractured disco of the Walkers and smoothed it out, deepening the song, gave it a steadier foundation (with Nile Rodgers’ fine rhythm guitar, starting in the second chorus, providing some friction). Just as with their Johnny Franz Sixties singles, the Walkers record, despite its pedigreed cast, had a feel of being scraped together at short notice, trying to approximate a sound they’d heard elsewhere. Bowie made “Nite Flights” a thick curtain of music, lessening the dramatics (Walker makes the out-of-key change to B-flat on “blood-lite” seem to portend something awful, while Bowie just breezes by it). Where Walker strains, gasps, acts as though he’s only got a few moments before something terrible happens (is he the air, about to crash? both he and Bowie shared a fear of flying), Bowie sings the bizarre, violent lyric (“the dark dug up by dogs!…the raw meat fist you choke!…broken necks!“) as if it was a love song, making it even more surreal, delivering each phrase with a poise that makes Walker seem like a madman. Bowie takes the first octave leap—“it’s so COLD!“—without blinking, where Walker seemed to bleed while doing it.
Covering Walker shook something loose in Bowie, reset his ambitions, made him commit to one last push into the avant-garde, to try to give audiences not what they wanted but what they didn’t know they needed. And in 1995, as Bowie was putting the final touches on Outside, a record that Reeves Gabrels has said was made under the influence of Walker, Walker popped out of the void with Tilt, a record so abrasive and baffling and ahead of its time, that it made Outside seem like a pop record. (Again, more later.)
VI. Walker and Bowie
I was in time to catch an evanescent glimpse of my white hat left behind to mark the spot where the secret sharer of my cabin and of my thoughts, as though he were my second self, had lowered himself into the water to take his punishment: a free man, a proud swimmer striking out for a new destiny.
Starting with Nite Flights and on through Tilt and The Drift (and, from what I’ve heard of it, Bish Bosch), Walker eradicated himself, exiled his past lives. There remains some continuity of sound (the dissonant/consonant strings, while a ghost of the flugelhorn in “Orpheus” appears in “Cue”, and a few basic lyric images: he’s still obsessed with the movies—“Clara” began with his memories of seeing Mussolini’s corpse on a newsreel as a child) but otherwise Walker has, more than anyone else of his generation, hived off his past, has made it of no relevance to him. He’ll never revisit his former work, nor flog it on stage nor give it deluxe CD/DVD reissue treatments (Walker has said he’s never listened to any of his records since he’s made them). The tremulous Anglophile of the Scott records, the jaundiced pop singer of Climate of Hunter, are well in the grave. The Walker of today keeps to the edges, looking for margins within margins. The Drift, in 2006, found him hiring top percussionists to punch slabs of beef and rub thimbles across wooden blocks. He sings his inscrutable lyrics, hinting at future fascisms, ethnic cleansings, plagues, in a voice that he seems to keep purging and bleeding; he’s become increasingly medieval.
Bowie, after his last trek into the attempted unknown in the mid-Nineties, fell back into his past. At the turn of the century, as we’ll see soon enough in this survey, he revived some of his oldest songs, remade them, like an older man reading aloud some faded letters; he drafted wills, put old debts to right, arranged his estates, then went out by playing his old music with fervor, as though he was a young man again. And he praised Walker effusively, again and again, his fandom ripening with age. Hearing Walker merely wish him a happy 50th birthday left Bowie close to tears. Whereas with Walker, whenever he mentioned Bowie (not often) there was simply gracious reserve, the quiet complimentary manner of an artist to his occasional patron.
So add up the sums. Walker, apart from a few Walker Brothers hits, has never produced work that a mass audience has loved, in the way that they have loved “Changes” or “Life on Mars?” or “Heroes,” or will still run to a dance floor whenever “Blue Jean” or “Let’s Dance” comes on. Bowie, despite his best intentions, was a populist at heart. As Lloyd Cole wrote about Low, there was always too much with Bowie, too much melody, too much love of pop, too much need to be heard, so that he never could cram himself down into being just an “artist” (it’s akin to how Bowie never could make a coherent “concept album,” as much as he hinted at it). Walker began standing in the center, a treasured photograph on a teenage girl’s bedroom wall, and wormed his way out, seeking nothing, throwing away everything that he once carried, occasionally sending some new transmission from somewhere far off the grid, seemingly not caring whether it even gets heard.
Consider two planets in the same system. One has been more favored by the sun, a rich world with a host of lesser satellites that wheel around it. The other is a smaller, less hospitable, furtive planet, which goes on long elliptical orbits, vanishing for years then appearing again in the sky without warning. Sometimes the two have been in sync, pulling on the other, eclipsing each other. But their dance is over. The larger world has stopped moving; it just hangs suspended now, having become a preservation of its better days. The lesser orb goes on its way.
In the next two months, Scott Walker will turn seventy and will release a new record, one which appears to be as weird and ominous as his other late works, while David Bowie is out of the game. His name only surfaces in quickly-disproven rumors of a return, to the stage or studio (a deluxe boxed set of Low is about all we can hope for). It’s a shame that their story, which had run for so long, through so many editions, is over, but all stories end: you know that. It was fine while it lasted. Secret partners, rivals, sounding, sounded, carriers, receivers, exiles, electricians. Engel and Jones, Bowie and Walker.
The Walkers recorded “Nite Flights” in February 1978 at Scorpio Sound, UK. Bowie’s version was cut ca. summer/autumn 1992 at the Power Station and/or Mountain Studios, Montreux. A remix was released as a UK promo 12″ single (Arista HOME 1) and later included on the reissued Black Tie White Noise.
Sources: The Wire‘s recently-issued essay compilation No Regrets: Writings on Scott Walker (edited by Rob Young) was essential. I’m particularly indebted to Derek Walmsley on Scott 3 and 4, Amanda Petrusich on Walker’s wilderness years, Ian Penman’s meander through Walker’s befuddled early Seventies and Damon Krukawski on Climate of Hunter. Anthony Reynolds’ The Impossible Dream is a first-rate bio: many quotes and facts are taken from it, as well as from the Bowie-produced 30 Century Man documentary (Kijak, 2006). Thanks to @Discographies (Andy Zax) for entertaining theories and offering insights and music.
Top to bottom: Scott Walker in 1966, 1969, 1972, 1984, 1995, 2006; Bowie in 1966, 1969, 1973, 1977, 1984, 1994, 2006.
Thanks for the credit. There was originally a whole appendice on the Bowie/Walker correlation in ‘The impossible dream’ but it was edited out and I can’t seem to find it on any of my hard drives. The above is a good as version of the links between the two as I’ve ever read, though.
One thing I remember : I met (Mary Ann Hobbs)? The DJ who hosted Bowie on a special for his 50th…She told me that they had to edit out a chunk of ‘dead air; after DB was played Scott’s recorded message, as the former started crying once he heard it..
Ah..one other thing ; Irene Dunford (60’s Model) told me it was her who played Bowie Scott records…
I’m aghast on the floor. Seriously. One of the best most comprehensive articles I’ve ever read. Your book is shaping up to be the Bowie bible.
thanks–turns out the Moodswings info is not correct–Martyn Watson’s setting me to right on it, so will correct soon.
Thanks very much! This is an essay full of insights, I am amazed. I don’t know much about Walker but I am trying to get into his music. For now though, it seems that Tilt and The Drift are a bit much at first. So I’m going to try Nite Flights next. Also, good timing, as the new Scott Walker album is about to be released!
Adam Curtis’s blog and this – of a piece. Precise. Frank. Fatigued by all of it, in particular the residues. But dutiful, scholarly out of respect for all that time absorbed by the consumption of pop.
The one thing I look forward to the most when I open up my email in the morning is an email saying that there’s been a new post on this blog. Fantastic writing as usual.
Really enjoy your writings. For me too, can’t wait to see on my phone that a new article has been posted. Keep up the good work please 🙂
Simply wonderful stuff. I’d pay now for this blog if I could. And i cannot wait for the article about The Motel
Incidentally has anyone heard the cover of Nite Flites by The Fatima Mansions.. Singer cathal coughlan a long time Walker fan (also covered Long About Now)
Well well worth a listen (walker and bowie fans may prefer his later solo work thereafter… Similar deep voice at work)
the Fatima Mansions cover was one of the many things left on the cutting room floor for this very overlong entry…it’s very good (cover, that is)
other stuff cut: Walker–Anthony Newley–Bowie (via “Humphrey Plugg”); “Climate of Hunter” vs. “Tonight” (could not get anywhere with this); the role of John Maus w/r/t Scott; Bowie’s TV apps c/w Walker’s. All the “Tilt” stuff got shelved for later. Too much to write about!
I got that impression from the article. The long wait after the last entry suggested something big was cooking. Well worth the wait
a great piece of writing on the Walker-Bowie extravaganza. Nicely done. Well worth the read, insightful, informative and very entertaining. Looking forward to your writing on the later Bowie periods, Outside, Earthling and so on. Cheers.
Brilliant. Possibly your finest piece so far. I think I said before there is a fascinating book to come out of the Bowie/Walker relationship. There’s more than enough material here to be more fully interrogated, never mind the stuff you left out. Please keep that in mind for the future. In the mean time thank you very much for a truly great piece of work.
wow. great stuff.
Absolutely magisterial entry, Chris; two gods in one browser window! Perfect timing for Scott’s new… moonshot? And great to see Anthony Reynolds (with whom I’m presently spending much time here in Cardiff, and who is, of course, the first Anonymous in this thread) so extensively cited.
“Magisterial” is right. Now I have to give Walker another chance after years of thanks-but-no-thanks.
Absolutely epic, as the kids say. As a huge fan of Scott and Dave both, I look forward to the expanded version in the book, as indeed there are many areas to plumb in the fascinating relationship between the 2 artistes.
As far as the song goes, along with Jump They Say, Nite Flights at the time seemed to be BTWN’s major raison d’etre. For me, this track in particular seemed like it could have slotted in comfortably on Station To Station. In recent years, having gotten to know the original, I have to say it pales. Scott sounds terrified where DB is merely imperious. Still, both are great in their own way. Again, great, scarily astute comparison of the 2 recordings.
Gobsmacked! One of the finest things I have read on the subject.
splendid work. marvellous song, a standout on BTWN
So….does anyone prefer Bowie’s cover?
Yes, I do – which probably doesn’t come as a great surprise. I like the original though – this is the first time I’ve heard it.
First time I’ve heard either (I think) and I also very much prefer DB’s cover. As said , wouldn’t have been out of place on Station to Station. Apart from the Walker Bros singles and a BBC doc about him , I’m not that familiar with SW’s solo stuff. Bowie had a certain vocal style which originally came partly from Anthony Newley but later yes you can hear SW in it too.But the descriptions of his later stuff like TILT and The Drift kinda scare me a bit.. Cue image of Steve Martin in Little Shop of Horrors saying “Wait I’m not numb!” as the dentist drill approaches. I’m sure I’ll check it out some time.
By the way, is there a way to subscribe to email updates to a specific comment thread without actually leaving a comment? I’m already subbed to a few earlier posts and new ones but the pop up prompt seems to just want me to “Follow” the blog, which I’m already doing.
Well – for days on end I would log onto this blog, hungry for the next entry, only for Rowan Atkinson’s rubbery face to stare mockingly back at me. As the frustrating days piled up, I suspected that you were working on something BIG, and I also intuited, I think, that it might be Nite Flights. But having said that, I was completely unprepared for something this epic. Keep up the great work.
Fantastic! Very interesting, well documented, positively prolific!
Also, i thank you for the pictures.
Well, the “summit meeting” between David Jones & Noel Engel has been done! that was an amazing “occurence” principally for Bowie. Having heard Scott’s message to David (Scott was born 1 day after David but 4 years before), i thought it was really “affecting” & sincere ! In the same recording, Bowie has confessed his admiration to another extraordinary Artist (this is my opinion), Robert Wyatt – his own “Shipbuilding” version, an Elvis Costello’s 1983 song… described as one of the “most beautiful”…, the “most tragically beautiful song” (it mades our Generalist cried…). Some specific Wyatt’s (in his Soft Machine days) gimmicks or stylistic options were used by DB.
As i’ve already wrote it earlier on the blog, i’m a Huge Fan of these Artists. A lot of Bowie recordings & a lot of Scott Stuff are & will stay masterpieces to me !
Good version of “Nite Flights” on BTWN…, well played live in 1995 during the Outside Tour. I also liked Scott version (another trip, a different feeling catched at the end of the 70’s).
“his admiration for another”, “it made; sorry i’m often too French…
Wow, Chris. You’ve really outdone yourself here. Kudos! It’s about time that somebody did an in-depth piece on the Bowie/Walker connection, and you’ve filled that gap quite nicely.
I’ve recently become a really big Scott Walker fan as a direct result of my David Bowie phase. Hearing the cover of Nite Flights on Black Tie White Noise intrigued me enough to do some reading and investigating on Walker. And when I clicked on the Walker Brothers’ original version on YouTube, that set me firmly on my path! One heck of an adventure, I’ll tell you! First of all, last year I asked my younger brother to get me a copy of the Walker Brothers’ 5-CD box set Everything Under The Sun for Christmas – primarily because I wanted to get my hands on the Nite Flights tracks. Granted, not everything the Walkers did was exactly my cup of tea – to say the least! (And I really found most of the No Regrets and Lines reunion-era stuff a surefire cure for insomnia.) It was quite a slog getting through all 5 CD’s, but I managed to assimilate it over several months and found much of it a very rewarding listen (particularly the Nite Flights tracks and Walker originals like Archangel, Orpheus and Mrs. Murphy).
Eventually I found out about the existence of the other 5-CD box set of Scott’s solo work, 5 Easy Pieces, so I asked that very same younger brother of mine to get that for me for my birthday present! And an even more rewarding listen that was! I primarily got into the later songs from Climate Of Hunter and Tilt, as well as the Ute Lemper tracks from 2000 (Scope J and Lullaby), but I really got into the earlier Scott 1-4/‘Til The Band Comes In stuff as well, particularly taking a liking to The Seventh Seal, The Plague, Plastic Palace People, Boy Child, 30 Century Man, Little Things, The War Is Over, The Amorous Humphrey Plugg, The Girls From The Streets, Rosemary, Rhymes Of Goodbye, Angels Of Ashes, Thanks For Chicago Mr. James, and of course those Brel covers (of which only Funeral Tango was omitted).
Next on my list was The Drift, which was even further out there than the songs I heard from Tilt! (Think Penderecki meets Beefheart on the soundstage of Pasolini’s Salo…) Definitely an acquired taste, but one which definitely grew on me. Favorite moments include Cossacks Are in its entirety, Clara – especially that breathtaking “His enormous eyes as he arrives” part – and that “Ja-da ja-da jing jing jing” bit from Psoriatic, which quite miraculously manages to groove, despite Walker’s stated aversion to making “groove” records.
Eventually I also got the 30 Century Man documentary on DVD (funniest bit would be Marc Almond’s “I hate Tilt!”). Then I ordered myself copies of Climate Of Hunter, followed by Scott 1-4 and Tilt. I had to order a $69 mint copy of ‘Til The Band Comes In on Amazon, but I feel it was worth every penny. (Hey, I can’t do without Jean The Machine, man!) As of right now, I await Bish Bosch with bated breath. From what I’ve heard in the trailer, it sounds like it definitely picks up where The Drift left off, but if anything it actually feels like it could be just a tad more accessible. (Or maybe The Drift has just acclimatized me to whatever comes next…)
Have to go now. Might be back with another post…
Scott is the Voice, his world is fantastic, “une rencontre incroyable!”
Tilt, The Drift, some tracks of Climate of Hunter, the OST of Leos Carax “Pola X” (one sounds like Branca’s “Fuck Yourself” circa 78/79) & his work for a “weird” dance Company (… go to the ball… ), songs from “Nite Flights” which feat. Scott on Lead Vocals yell a really modern “pathos”, perhaps post-modernism itself in the acception of the concept created in the 70’s by Jean François Lyotard. (Funny was the tribute to “Bernard-Henri Levy (wrote Bertrand-Henri Levy on the booklet)…, one of the most famous French new Philosophers, a character i just can’t bear, “un poseur”…, according to Deleuze (a Master for me), the man who invented a certain kind of marketing-full philosophy).
The rest of his work’s got a lot to do with a kind of Classical & also more popular culture… i’m a great fan of the early period, it always will stay an incredible reference to me.
For the record, “Ja-Da” is a nearly 100 year old song that Scott was quoting. Presumably ironically.
Wow. That last post of mine went on a bit, didn’t it…? 😉
As far as Bowie’s cover of Nite Flights is concerned, in my humble opinion it’s not quite a match for Scott’s. And it must be said, the Fatima Mansions’ version utterly clobbers Bowie’s. But while I may personally have a preference for a straight-ahead rock take on the song, Bowie (and Nile Rodgers) definitely give it a slinky, darkly sensual groove that cannot be denied. I really kind of prefer the edited-down version of the Moodswings mix from the 2003 Sound + Vision set, because it’s got that eerily phased “dang-a-dang-a-dang-a-dang” (ascending E-F#-G-A) on the “It’s so cold / The dark dug up by dogs” section. (What is that, BTW?? Guitar? Keyboard?)
BTW, getting back to Walker…I say ‘Til The Band Comes In doesn’t get near enough love! I mean, for all intents and purposes, it is Scott 5! Yeah, it’s got those five cover tunes tacked on at the end, but that’s actually fewer cover tunes than 1 and 2 have – and none of them are exactly awful. Yeah, okay, maybe Reuben James doesn’t really gel, but Stormy is borderline funky, and What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life? is really quite beautiful. And that cover of Jimmie Rodgers’ It’s Over very movingly shuts the door on the heyday of Scott’s early solo years in much the same way as Just Say Goodbye bade farewell to the Walker Brothers. As far as the originals go, Little Things, Thanks For Chicago Mr. James, Joe and The War Is Over are quintessential Scott, the ballad Long About Now (sung by Esther Ofarim) is breathtakingly gorgeous and Jean The Machine is an uproarious one-off exercise in burlesque which is totally unique stylistically to the Walker canon. (Another example of a one-off Walker eccentricity would be Experience from the Walker Brothers’ Images, with its inspired mixture of Tex-Mex horns and German oom-pah trinklied).
Looking forward to getting Outside! 😉
Sorry, I cannot abide those kinds of mistakes…
(Another example of a one-off Walker eccentricity would be Experience from the Walker Brothers’ Images, with its inspired mixture of Tex-Mex horns and German oom-pah trinklied).
Looking forward to getting Outside! 😉
I have never heard the Night Flights record, and did not know of it having a “Heroes” connection (my favorite Bowie album). I eagerly downloaded Nite Flights wile reading your super post. Now I will pour myself a drink and have a listen, thanks.
Wonderful post. I especially like the two planets metaphor.
Note the “White Lines” bassline (or a slight variation thereof) makes its second appearance on BTWN starting from the first chorus of “Nite Flights.” It was featured more prominently on “The Wedding.” Undoubtedly, Niles was attempting to keep things at least mildly funky while David was doing his art rock thing.
Overall, I think the cover is competent and respectful but a little superfluous because David doesn’t reinterpret the song or make it his own. He was probably too in awe of Walker to take any liberties with the song.
The “White Lines bassline” was the “standard” rhytm in ’93. The New Jack Swing-area with the drum machines and the likes. Listen to Duran Duran’s cover of White Lines, you will hear it will follow the pathern too.
re: your slight reference to Justin Bieber. The other day I was in a bookstore searching unsuccessfully for “David Bowie – Album By Album”, when a young clerk who was stocking the shelves asked if she could help. I replied no thanks, but that I found it a little depressing that there were two books about Justin Bieber, and nothing on David Bowie.
Expecting her to look at me blankly, I was surprised when she laughed instead and agreed that it was ridiculous, before adding that he looks just like a girl doesn’t he. It struck me as ironic that back in the day an army of aggrieved parents (mine included) levelled the same criticisms at Bowie. Maybe when Bieber stops schilling zit cream, and takes the time to write something as good as “Life On Mars’ I’ll cut him some slack.
Dear god. Also must just chime in to express appreciation of this amazing piece of writing. Thank you so very much for this.
Haven’t heard the message from Walker to Bowie before and it’s adorable.
Walker is someone I’d like to get into at some point but haven’t managed to yet, despite two of my very favourite artists (Bowie & Marc Almond) being admirers of his.
Maybe this piece will help me. I’m a bit scared by its length but I’m sure it’s brilliant as usual, or even more than usual, as I scroll through the comments…
Are you familiar at all with the work of Peter Hammill? I, for one, am a huge fan. He’s the once and current frontman of cult UK prog godheads Van Der Graaf Generator, and in many ways his songwriting and theatrical vocal style put him in the same neighborhood as Bowie and Walker. (They sort of have a “trinity” status in my mind.) VDGG is yet another one of those great obscure bands not generally known or acknowledged by the general public at large, but is known and beloved by a wide variety of recording artists (a la Eno’s comments regarding the VU) – including John Lydon (Sex Pistols, PiL), Bruce Dickinson (Iron Maiden), Julian Cope, John Frusciante (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Vavala (Mars Volta), Michel “Away” Langevin (Voivod)…and Marc Almond! In fact, Almond has recorded covers of Hammill’s solo tracks Vision and Just Good Friends.
I’m a Peter Hammill fan. Not sure if I see much of a Scott Walker connection with him.
David Sylvian sounds quite Walker-ish these days.
Peter Hammill’s a great fave and got me through a few of those lean Bowie years where I just couldn’t relate to his pap. I always thought Bowie was impersonating Hammill during the 78 tour. Something about the expression. And of course one learned that Bowie got into Van der Graff at some point in the 70s. And I have a photo I clipped from a French rock magazine in the 80s that has Bowie and Fripp sitting at a table for a Roaches concert in France. Hammill sat alone in the back. So I’m sure the three were aware they were there. Hey there’s three roaches and three rock stars. One wonders what kind of music was made later that night….
Fantastic writing and analysis as usual. Re Nite Flites and the Berlin albums, you might be interested in the following quote from Scott Walker in the NME, 19 August, 1978:
“I think what Bowie and Eno have done is very good indeed, but I think I was doing a lot of that too, before they began, and I think I would have gone this way anyway. There are a lot of comparisons to be made, but my work has simpler instrumentation. They used a lot of gizmos. In 3 of my songs I used no more than 4 instruments. It’s a more basic blocky sound, more black and white. I chose a shuffle because I wanted to drive the songs along, a John Lee Hooker kind of thing.
Q..HAD BOWIE STOLEN HIS PITCH WHEN HE HEARD LOW AND HEROES?
Not at the time of LOW. By Heroes I’d already written 2 of the songs for Nite Flights. But I felt they’d got closer to my pitch. I’m not worried about them now. I don’t think they are even near my songs now.”
I note definite similarities between the openings of The Electrician and Warszawa which seem to my ears non-coincidental.
I also remember in an interview around the time of Lodger, Bowie said he’d offered to produce Walker’s next album and he’d politely declined. A Bowie-produced Scott Walker album that probably would have come out around Scary Monsters – we can but dream!
Then again Scott did work with that other Berlin alumnus Eno but they never got beyond backing tracks before Scott pulled a Syd Barrett, walking out of the studio never to return. But I think the genesis of Manhattan from Tilt might date from those sessions, as it’s referenced as being written in 1987 whereas the other Tilt songs are 1995. Manhattan, by the way, has that other Scott compositional through-line that dates back to Archangel, the huge organ sound…
I hear a lot of Scott Walker on Station to Station, as you note. His histrionic cover of Wild Is The Wind is exactly the kind of thing Scott might have done back in the mid-sixties, on Scott 2 for example.
Just a brief comment to reiterate what others have said above – this was an excellent piece of insightful writing. Keep up the good work!
I don’t want to be glib but this is beautiful. You turn Bowie’s life into this endless constellation of narrative and poetry and you breathe wonderful new life into all his work. Good job!
What a splendid piece of writing. Thank you
Well done Chris. If you don’t mind, I’ve quoted the ending part on Bowie Downunder and provided the relevant link back here. Cheers, Adam.
that planet analogy at the end was fuckin brilliant man.
Thanks for the link to the Scott/David birthday message. I’d not heard it before and found it surprisingly moving!
Not sure why, but I’d not investigated the original Nite Flights until today, but it’s far superior to Bowie’s cover, which I used to love in the 90s.
I hope everyone has spotted this rather fantatstic Soulwax tribute to Bowie: http://vimeo.com/53207758
I agree with all of the above. Fabulous piece
This is probably your best entry yet. I remember reading an article in 1996 by Ian Penman, basically dissing Bowie and bigging up Walker and Eno. I wasn’t aware of the connection between Walker and Bowie then.
Talking of dissing, what are your thoughts on Piero Scaruffi’s less than flattering regard of Bowie?
as the guy claims that Rick Wakeman plays keyboards on Ziggy Stardust and that “Station to Station” is an “amateurish” rip off of Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine,” my thoughts are not that charitable.
I’ll be fair: the most outrageous bullshit in his reviews, like “Hang On To Yourself stole the progression from the Ramones,” and “Lady Stardust [is] almost a sendup of Warren Zevon” appears to be courtesy of his translators.
Of course Zevon’s “Nighttime in the Switching Yard” bears a close resemblance to Bowie’s “Stay”, although that kind of disco/funk sound was very it in around 1976/7…
I thought that the main riff of Station to Station part 1 might have been a lift from Phil Manzanera’s Diamond Head, actually, not that it really matters…….
Nice entry and good to be reminded of ‘The Electrician.’ It really is the most chilling, strangest song. Love it.
Spot on with the observation that Bowie is essentially a populist. So much of his music, from ’76-’80 especially, nudges at the avant-garde, only to retreat from the precipice (this being, generally, a good thing).
The problem with/wonder of Scott Walker is that he seemed to use up all of his anodyne pop chops in the sixties (not to say there weren’t a few decent songs amidst tedium like the cover of Hurting Each Other) and was left with little other than dissonance & abstraction by the time of Tilt & The Drift. Impressive stuff, but hard to swallow either in one sitting. I find myself putting on Captain Beefheart for something poppier or Leonard Cohen to cheer myself up.
Actually, looking at the rather lovely cover to The Drift, it’s only just occurred to me that every Bowie album (and lots of the singles) have his mug on them. I’m sure the rest of you knew this.
Just brilliant – great writing. Walker needs more love. Also I don’t think the story is over from Bowie. There will be more records. Not for a little while though, but there will be.
I want to believe, Jeremy, I do, but I feel it’s been too long with absolutely nothing.
Bowie takes his role as custodian and curator of his oeuvre pretty seriously. This either means he refuses to further tarnish his reputation with shoddy releases (especially as the critics seem to have agreed to write off the eighties as a thank you for the seventies and be mostly polite about the nineties and thereafter) or he’s saving himself for something special (in his mind, anyhow). I suspect the former.
If all the stuff about him being a dedicated family man these days is true, good luck to him.
I remember reading an entry in Robert Fripp’s diary dated Saturday, 15th October 2011, which read:
“Dropping off along (the) way to visit David Bowie, and it gradually appeared that David had some remarkable new ideas in process, not yet public…….Eno also got involved, and what a flowering of ideas”!
As you can imagine this was a pretty exciting thing to stumble across at the time, but I haven’t heard anything more since. Can anybody else shed some more light on this?
pretty sure that turned out to be an old diary entry from the Seventies mistakenly considered to be a new one.
no, now I remember. It was Fripp only recounting a dream he had: that’s the consensus. Sneaky bugger. http://www.illustrated-db-discography.nl/forum/viewtopic.php?f=7&t=2250
“Dropping off along (the) way to visit David Bowie, and it gradually appeared that David had some remarkable new ideas in process, not yet public…….Eno also got involved, and what a flowering of ideas”!… “Heroes” again, just for ??????????
Hopes for such a Projekct!
Interesting that he may be collaborating with Eno as his career trajectory hasn’t been all the dissimilar to Bowie’s: long seventies highs (Warm Jets – Bush of Ghosts) then a later, longer period of diminishing artistic returns (Coldplay, U2, for god-sake). I daresay Eno could do with recapturing some of the old magic as much as Bowie.
‘Remarkable ideas’ doesn’t bode well. I imagine Outside seemed a remarkable idea. I’d settle for remarkable tunes. Who knows?
thoughts about it: “When i live my Dreams” & not “When i leave my dreams”; let’s have a look on the Shadow man…
folks, don’t get your hopes up. the DB board is right. He’s talking about a dream: Rising from traveling adventures, in ‘planes and cars. Dropping off along to way to visit David Bowie, and it gradually appeared that David had some remarkable new ideas in process, not yet public..etc.
compare with another entry from the same period: Rising from a very strange encounter with Tom Jones and Englebert Humperdink In daily rising life, sometimes strangely called normal life or the real world, I have met Mr. Tom of the Valleys on only one occasion;…”
It’s better this way.
So it’s just a false alarm then?! Well, that’s disappointing. A bit of a cheeky tease by Mr. Fripp to get our hopes up this way by passing off a dream sequence as a diary entry. I guess I’m just not handling Bowie’s retirement very well……
Still thinking on Walker & Bowie (really good entry).
This is sketchy, but where the likes of Zappa or Tom Waits seem have always struck me as playing at being outre or marginal, Bowie’s ‘imperial phase’ forays into higher modernism seem earnest, born of genuine interest and commitment but ultimately stymied by pop instincts (Scary Monsters is partly an apology for Lodger; Low’s sequencing gave the option of not listening to side two; Station to Station reaches a fourth act of real elation that, for me, makes a mockery of The Thin White Duke and his darts, that really might be love).
Scott Walker, on the other hand, has been the real deal for two decades now. Musique concrète aside, I can’t think of much music so compellingly indifferent to the listener’s likely enjoyment (Clara, anyone?).
Whoa — wait a minute. How is Bowie stifled by pop instincts. I’d say it’s the tension between his interest in pop hits and his art inclinations that produced his greatest songs. And he’d agree!
That’s not what I said. I find that for the most part his pop instincts win out, but I agree with you that the frustration of his more progressive, dissonant (he’s very, very rarely dissonant) or avant-garde tendencies by those instincts makes for some of his best songs (though only some, of course; great tracks like Heroes, Sound & Vision, Be My Wife, Wild is the Wind, Young Americans, Teenage Wildlife are a little bit off-kilter from the mainstream, but hardly experimental).
And Bowie’s agreement is neither here nor there. Given your willingness to use the term ‘product’ to demystify the text, you’ll also be aware that the author is dead and the artist’s take on their work is no more valid than the audience’s.
There you go again…separating ‘art’ from ‘pop’; they’re one and the same thing. His greatest songs, such as ‘Golden Years’, are merely ‘greater art’ than his lesser songs, such as ‘Little Wonder’. Simple, really.
I didn’t mean to give the impression that I believe there’s any separation between pop and art, and I certainly have no time for notions of high or low art. I do think it fair, though, to suggest a degree of disparity between the popular and the avant-garde, the latter rarely being the former, and then usually in some diluted capacity. My tastes tend toward the popular, the consonant, if anything.
Sorry Vanus; my comment about ‘art’ and ‘pop’ was directed at humanizingthevacuum. He’s got ‘form’ on this subject! We can all agree to disagree…but one of us is right!
Whoops! I don’t even know my own name, let alone concepts of art and commerce..!
Vanus: Of course! Which is why I rule and Bowie doesn’t.
Bowie rules because he’s made so much quality music. You, I assume, have not. But your opinion of his music is no less or more reliable than his.
Yes, a fab piece of writing. I’d flitted around Scott without doing him properly and this really made me want to. I was struck by the similarity between The Electrician (which I’d never heard before) and the slower end of Wire, specifically Feed Me. I knew Lewis liked Scott, and now I can hear it…..
found on the Guardian Site:
“Scott Walker is to release his first studio album since 2006. The 69-year old former Walker Brother plans to let the nine track record, titled Bish Bosch, see the light of day in December.
“I was thinking about making the title refer to a mythological, all-encompassing, giant woman artist,” Walker said.
On his label’s website, the record is described as a “tauter but more colourful experience” than 2006’s The Drift, “with greater emphasis on processed, abrasive guitars, digital keyboards and thick silences”.
One track, The Day The ‘Conducator’ Died [sic], involves the execution of Romanian president Nicolae Ceaușescu in 1989. “I’m fascinated by dictators,” Walker tells Rob Young, author of the recent study No Regrets: Writings on Scott Walker, on the 4AD website.
The album is said to feature cameos and fleeting glimpses of further historical figures, including Donald Rumsfeld, Attila the Hun, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Among the instruments that Walker has employed on the record are a set of machetes and a type of horn known as a “kudu shofar, a monstrous natural instrument used in ancient times”.
Walker began writing material for this new album three years ago. He has lived in the UK since 1965, becoming a British citizen in 1970.
Bish Bosch will be released as a double LP, CD and will be available to download on 4AD on 3 December.”
Utterly phenomenal. Thank you.
Who are you? Where have you come from? This is brilliant stuff; I know Bowie but after reading your all encompassing encyclopeadia I feel like I’m just getting to know him!
I’m sure he’s following too…
Who am I? well, start here if you’d like: this is what I did in the ’00s. http://inkhornterm.blogspot.com/2010/02/buddy-holly-changing-all-these-changes.html
Thanks, Chris. You’ve merely compounded my already burgeoning sense of inferiority! Where did you get the time for all this reading? To listen to all this music? Do you ever leave the house? I’m speechless. When you get into print with this epic study the fame and the fortune will surely follow.
This is the only blog I’ve felt compelled to participate in and though Bowie was the initial bait, it’s your incredibly meticulous and comprehensive research, allied to your fine writing, that’s keeping me here, keenly awaiting the next essential cultural missive. Very pleased I stumbled into this dame!
Jacques Brel for a Frenchie as i use to be… means a very charismatic Figure putting his Guts on the stage or behind the microphone when truly expectoring Fantastic Songs which tells about living distorted existential States…, Life itself!
Jacques de Molay is tin man
Belgian. ; )
This is a stunning piece of work, Chris.
Hi – just want to say, marvellous blog.
Scott on the brain as I am trying to work out how I can afford “Bish Bosch” as soon as possible. Very compelling entry, this. The parallels/connections between Walker and Bowie are legion, but then, I tend to see Walker as an influence on many of my favorite artists. I’ll add that when I heard “Heathen” for the first time, my impression was that Bowie had been spinning “Tilt” heavily and taking fevered notes. Then “Sunday” ended and that theory quickly eroded, but it was a nice fantasy. But “Sunday” definitely sounds like a stab at the Walker-zone from Bowie.
This was such a joy to read. Thank-you!
I remember hearing Brian Eno interviewed on the radio when Tilt came out (possibly on the show Mixing It). He said that they were finishing up making Outside when Bowie phoned to say “Brian, listen to this. He got there first” and held the phone to a hifi speaker playing Tilt.
Except that “Tilt” is a brilliant and powerful album. I have to pick “Outside” as my most disappointing Bowie album ever. I simply can’t listen to it all the way through. The bad ideas it contains completely undermine the 5-6 good songs on it. But have I mentioned how this post was staggeringly impressive? Enough times??!! This is writing that is exciting as Bowie or Walker at their best.
I love Bowie’s cover here. I’m glad to have been turned onto the Walker Bros. Night Flites album, too, from the 30 Century Man doc. But after Climate of Hunter, Scott Walker becomes unlistenable for me. When he was able on NF and CoH to sustain a tension between pop and his darker-artier inclinations, it was very interesting. He left the tension though and fell into a dark pit. Bowie, I guess, sorta veered the other direction in the ’80s for a while and lost the plot in the other direction. Maybe Scott and DB should’ve worked together at that point.
Although Bowie’s Jacques Brel covers may be more like Walker than Brel, I think there’s still a lot of Brel in Bowie. Five Years and Rock’n’Roll Suicide are both cousins of songs like Quand on n’a que l’amour (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EpMg97Wr_4M), both musically and lyrically. Musically, they have something of the declamatory style of chanson (as do other Bowie songs like Time) and build to the climax, while lyrically the ragged, battered world of Brel is close to those Bowie has inhabited.
There are similarities to other writers of chanson in a pre-rock’n’roll style, eg. Jean Ferrat with Potemkine (http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xclcgm_jean-ferrat-potemkine_music) but also to other European traditions, eg. Mikis Theodorakis (and Ioanna Forti) with San Erixa from March of the Spirit (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bk3lxcsPYb4). I sometimes think Bowie belongs to that Continental tradition as much as to any rock’n’roll one (as did Bryan Ferry in the seventies).
Just wanted to say that that was a lovely essay that made me interested in an artist I barely know. Bowie’s Night Flights unfortunately does not do it for me, but I’m glad it inspired such good writing on your part.
an absolutely brilliant article
Great write-up! David Bowie is one of my all-time favorite artists and I am sure that he would love this post.
I keep on returning to this post. It’s so terrific. I am looking very forward to the book.
Strange! How Scott Walker is quick to praise Bowie or anyone else that takes his fancy. Sadly, I have yet to find a public tribute from him anywhere on the internet re his Walker Brothers partner, the late John Walker/Mause – without whom (and Gary) and the success of the Walker Brothers, he would not be known today and more importantly, would not be able to gain recognition or indulge in his current musical fantasies
With all respect to Scott Walker, I don’t like the original. I don’t know how to explain it, cause I’m not familiar with musicial terms, but when I listen the original Nite Flights, I get frustrated. It’s like he doesn’t sing the vocals to the rhytm of the music, like he’s singing the lyrics one second too late or too fast. feels awkward to listen to.
Especially the chorus. The chorus makes me annoyed. The Rhytm-Lyrics are off in the original.
Bowie did it better, IMO.
Bowie murdered Nite Flights. Sorry David, but you know that true.
Murdered might be a little strong, but the original is damn near perfect. Besides all of Bowie’s great music the best thing I’ve gotten out of being a fan is Scott Walker and specifically the Night Flights album.
It’s funny. Reading this again at this point it has moments of a eulogy on Bowies career and yet, we were just a few months away from Bowie shouting “I’m not dead yet”. And us, some of the most rabid fans didn’t have a clue what was going on.
Indeed. “Their dance is over” it said, but we still had yet to hear Bowie’s song “Heat”, which is one of the most Scott Walker-y songs he’s ever written. Their dance was far from finished.
What about now? I hope not. I can only imagine the masterpieces we’d get out of a Bowie-Walker collaboration.
Read this for the first time today, not long after absorbing Scott Walker’s fascinating latest album (his collaboration with Sunn O))), even as David Bowie has just come out with yet another career retrospective album. Absolutely great piece that rings still more true now.
Amazing blog, but Im glad that the assumption that Bowie was finished (“out of the game “) turned out to be wrong.
This comment puzzled me, until I realised that it was made in 2015. I agree, it’s an excellent read – the description of Walker as a rogue planet stands out. Now he’s orbiting alone, with perhaps David Sylvian and John Foxx as little distant moons.
Ashley Pomeroy – Nice call. The John Foxx + The Maths track “Evidence” struck me as his most Walker-esque track ever, but the conceit of writing a song from an Alain Resnais film title [“Hiroshima Mon Amour”] also reveals a Scott-like focus that had been there from the earliest days.
Just re-read this central entry having picked up Black Tie White Noise again the first time in 2 decades. 1: this is the best piece of writing on this blog or anywhere else they choose to discuss Bowie. 2: now this story is definitely over, but we can still wait for Scott Walker’s next step. Who knows.
Backstar. on first listen, felt to me like such a Walker homage – but with the melody intact. On later listens the overt links are less clear to me, as the Backstair songs have a life of their own, but I think this blog deserves an update for that album.
I have recently crawled out from under a somewhat porous rock into Bowie’s body of work. Nite Flights got my attention as a weird and fabulous (and irresistible) piece. Inexplicable, which is familiar as a Bowie follower, but then to see it’s a cover (!). To read this bit on the connection between them is quite a treasure. Thank you all.
Amazing piece, Chris, likely the best on this already outstanding blog.
I’ll be honest, I had never heard of Scott Walker until a couple of years ago when I heard the radio message from him to Bowie on his 50th birthday on yt and was blown back by Bowie’s reaction…who was this man that had nearly (or completely) driven my idol to tears (Walker’s message really was something though, warm, sincere, understated and most of all, cool). On to google I went, and another wonderful artist discovered to me via Bowie.
As for Nite Flights, I don’t think you can’t beat the original, but the more I listen to the cover, the more I warm up to it…my main qualm with it is the opening synths that make it sound unbelievably dated, but once it gets past that it works…the smoother, silkier sounding production of the cover contrasts well with the darker lyrics and themes, and Bowie’s vocal delivery is among his best…lush, yearning, fevered.