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.