Scott Walker, eh?
I know, I know. You love him. I know you do!
Well I don’t, and I’m going to tell you why.
But first, some background so you understand where I’m coming from.
I joined Music Week two months after Sgt Pepper was released. I was 18.
Within a year I was the go-to guy when it came to new talent. It was hard work, but very exciting. Apart from an already alcoholic news reporter who didn’t really like music, I was the only writer under 30 and the only one raised on The Beatles. I understood what was going on post-Revolver.
I was the first to review a James Taylor album (earning a telegram of thanks from Apple Records’ Derek Taylor). I raved about the Bee Gees and Creedence Clearwater Revival, promoted the interests of Al Stewart and Roy Harper, interviewed American folk giant Odetta, and then followed up her tip to quickly acquaint myself with Richie Havens.
My joy was in being able to write about these people, and knowing that almost every record dealer (remember them?) in the UK would read what I said. So when the record company rep walked into the shop and tried to sell in records by Creedence Clearwater, Tyrannosaurus Rex, Al Stewart, James Taylor, The Incredible String Band, or Hawkwind the dealers knew they should pay attention.
I did this work for five years and my track record did not escape record company notice. Which was how I ended up working in the A&R department at CBS Records.
One of my tasks as an a&r man was to find songs for the artists on my roster. One of my artists was Scott Walker.
At the time, I thought of him as blessed with an exceptional voice. Beyond that, I found him embarrassing, a precocious child who felt he was not getting the attention he warranted. The whole Jacques Brel thing lacked authenticity for me. This was my critical evaluation before I met him.
In 1973 Walker was at a low point. He had tried, with Scott 4, to kickstart a new era under his birth name Noel Scott Engel. The album bombed, despite the fact that in the year it was released – 1969 – he had his own BBC tv series.
That is truly spectacular, A* failing; the kind you really have to work at. Like changing your name on a record. Genius.
But now he had a new deal with CBS Records, which is where I came in. It should have been a fresh start.
So I took myself down to Nova Studios, near London’s Marble Arch, where Del Newman was producing Walker’s first album for CBS, Stretch. The singer did nothing to endear himself to me – which was fine; why should he? But I watched him closely, and my sense of him was of simply not caring. Del Newman worked hard, as ever, contributing some of his trademark beautiful and carefully crafted arrangements. But the song choices were desultory at best. This album was not going to change Scott Walker’s life.
As I studied him, Walker seemed more interested in betting on this that or the other – the spin of a coin, the turn of a card, anything – rather than engaging with the music. I left Nova thinking: “This is a guy who needs some exceptional songs to reboot not only his career, but also his sense of himself as a major figure in music.”
I’m not going to drag this out. I found three songs for him. One of them was The Air That I Breathe, by Albert Hammond. Another was (You Keep Me) Hanging On, which I had heard in a brilliant version by Ann Peebles. Both of these were later hits – by The Hollies (Air) and Cliff Richard (Hanging On).
Scott turned them down. He wanted, he told me, to do an album of Bobby Bare songs. Bobby Bare was a country & western singer, in the days before country & western became ‘country’, when it was still frowned on and lampooned.
I gave up. Scott got on and did what he wanted. He didn’t make a Bobby Bare album. But he did do an album of c&w covers. He called it We Had It All. In fact we had nothing, not even a potential hit single. It didn’t make the album chart.
Which you might think would be the end of that. But then he was interviewed by Melody Maker and asked why he had made, of all things (Shock! Horror!) a country & western album. He blamed me! The gist of what he said was, “I didn’t want to, but the guy at the record company made me do it”.
Next time his manager called me up, ranting that we weren’t looking after his artist, I put the phone down.
He called me back. “Did you just put the phone down on me?”
“Yes. I. Did. And if you continue to rant at me, I’ll put it down again.” Which he did, so I did.
Five minutes later, managing director Dick Asher, a very hard-boiled Noo Yawker, was at my door. “Did you just put the phone down on Avi?” He was furious. But I just said, “Yup. Twice. If he wants to talk to me, tell him to show some respect.” I think my lack of contrition amused Dick. I never heard from Scott Walker or his manager again.
In 2006, he was still peddling the same self-serving crap. Talking about his career immediately post-69 he said: “The record company said you’ve got to make a commercial record… I was acting in bad faith for many years during that time… I was trying to hang on. I should have said, ‘OK, forget it’ and walked away. But I thought if I keep…making these bloody awful records… this is going to turn round. And it didn’t. It went from bad to worse.”
Yeah, right Scott.
Which brings me to this week’s song, which was written after my recent divorce. It’s called All Done and is about accepting responsibility for your life and moving on. One of the lines is: “When all is said and done, you have yourself to rely on“.
As I wrote about my experiences above, it occurred to me that the song could equally apply to Scott Walker and his career.
Mind you, I’d still like to hear his version of The Air That I Breathe.
All Done is from my 2012 album, Now That’s What I Call Divorce!!! available at https://itunes.apple.com/gb/album/now-thats-what-i-call-divorce!/id496551833 and also from Amazon.