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.
As a huge Scott Walker fan, I’m absolutely flabbergasted by this! But then it would explain a lot about some of his bizarre choices in the 70s, and it also tallies with the reports of others about his total disinterest in his music and career during this time. Apparently he had a habit of turning up to sessions drunk as well. A complete wilderness period for him.
Those 70s albums are terrible, too – the only gaps in my Scott Walker collection, and ones I can’t be at all bothered to plug.
Did you have any dealings with Clive Selwood at CBS? HIs memoir “All of The Moves and None of the Licks” is a hugely entertaining read, and it occurs to me that your time of employment there crossed over with his.
I knew Clive Selwood from his days at Elektra when it was a Polydor label. He and I had a bit of a run in when I was at Music Week because I was critical of The Incredible String Band’s rambling style, but tipped them for top 40 album sales. For some reason he thought that was ridiculous. Things were a bit scratchy when we both turned up to start work at CBS on the same day, but we got on fine. His book was remaindered quite quickly, and I picked it up for a fiver. Very entertaining.
Fantastic – I would be genuinely interested to know what he’s up to now myself. I found a couple of the singles he put out on his Birds Nest label recently, including one which unexpectedly had a hand-written letter from him inside the sleeve (addressed to a music journalist and asking for a review).
As for Scott, the title of this song he recorded in 1999 is also relevant to this entry: http://youtu.be/NCt4O4gJifQ
I have always wondered why Scott has been so coy about those years. I have “We had it all” on LP and hate it. I’m sure Scott would be the first to admit today that he lost the plot – both in his private life and his career. Cut him some slak, all this happened 40 years ago. Neither you or him are the same people today. Good article, enjoyed it. PS his recent music is brilliant but very devisive, which i suspect is what he wants.
Bit of a coincidence seeing this entry getting bumped with a new comment, as while I was out Christmas shopping earlier this month I chanced upon a bargain section copy of “The Impossible Dream”, a biography of The Walker Brothers penned by Anthony Reynolds. £2.50 for a book I was going to buy anyway, written by one of the most under-rated and unjustly obscure nineties songwriters – a result!
Anyway, he goes into some depth about the CBS years but it would appear that Scott’s main beef was not having material forced on him, but CBS welching on the original deal. Apparently they promised him the opportunity to record original material of his own, then did a sharp u-turn once the ink was dry and asked him to record covers. I distinctly remember him claiming in the press that some of the covers were “pushed” on to him, so I’m not doubting your version of events, but the Reynolds penned biography doesn’t repeat that accusation and seems to conclude that his main resentment lay elsewhere.
After that, you’re left with the distinct impression that he couldn’t have given a shit for most of the seventies and just released any old rubbish to keep his mortgage paid, though Reynolds is quite charitable and claims there is the odd gem here and there. For instance, I’ve owned this B-side for years and agree that it’s undeservedly buried: http://youtu.be/seRkrBsAkyE
I have that book that you’re talking about and like it very much. I know about the story behind the CBS deal and believe it. What many people forget is that Scott – like many artists from the ’60’s – didn’t make alot of money, he was ripped off during the ’60’s. By ’72 he was married and had a child to support and had to do something to support his family. If it is true that CBS changed their tune after he signed to them and “forced” him to do covers the man who wrote this article can finally put the record straight if he so wishes. And you are right “My way home” is a gem – it is an outtake from the underrated “Till the band comes in” written by Scott himself and his manager at the time.
The bit of this that doesn’t compute for me is, if CBS had promised to give Scott free reign to record his own material (I have no idea; I wasn’t involved in the signing) then it makes no sense to welch on that, but allow him to make a terrible country record of songs of his own choosing. We certainly didn’t want that.
My beef is, he blamed me for pushing the country album on him!
As for cutting him some slack, Edward, I agree with you that he and I will be very different people now.
But these are my stories. More people listen to Scott than to me, and he’s told his stories.
He behaved badly to me, told Melody Maker ‘a guy at CBS’ forced these country songs on him, and his manager tried to bully me.
So I’m more inclined to believe either that there was no agreement for him to record only his own songs – or, that he hadn’t written enough songs so blamed everyone else.
Just because someone is a great artist doesn’t mean they’re good, or nice, or even trustworthy as people.