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A deliberate alternate music history, Rock 'N' Roll 5-0 looks back five decades at some of the most notable, and notably overlooked, albums of the time. A break from the Beatles-Stones-Dylan feedback loop, this monthly series explores the less heralded, the disregarded, the ignored and the just-plain-great records deserving of reappraisal, exploration and celebration. From groundbreaking releases that stumped the normies to genuine gems rarely discussed in contemporary criticism, Rock N Roll 5-0 goes deep in the service of inclusivity, diversity and eclecticism. Pay attention; this is 1968.
The 50th anniversary series’ third installment dives into one of the strangest pop records of 1968. Baroque and bizarre, the sophomore solo record from this unlikely singing sensation offers a case study of the compound effect of artistic influence and the utter madness of pop.
David Bowie didn’t just come from outta nowhere, a starman-cum-showman already fully formed and ready to dazzle. All artists great and small benefit from influences, however obscure or indirect, whether via predecessor or contemporary or progeny. The chameleonic singer-songwriter crafted memorable personas with iconic monikers, holistically reinventing himself again and again in ways that ultimately warranted a touring museum exhibition that has lasted some five years. Yet while all those outfits and mannerisms and lyrics and minutia unspooled from a singular genius mind, Bowie’s lengthy and storied career is but a brilliantly effective sieve.
Simply put, you don’t get Bowie without Scott Walker. The American expat turned British pop star unwittingly bestowed upon the South London native one of his signatures: his voice. According to Carlos Alomar (as told in Dylan Jones’ David Bowie: A Life), the guitarist who played on just about every one of Bowie’s albums between 1975 and 2003 as well as both of the Iggy Pop Berlin records, the former Thin White Duke admitted as much to him while recording a cover of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” for 1984’s critically maligned Tonight.
Yet even without such candid if cheeky disclosure, the commonalities should be grossly obvious to anyone presented with their respective works side by side. Throughout his discography, Bowie never shook Walker’s performative baritone, its distinctly dramatic flair ebbing and flowing but never fully receding. Though it seems less obvious amid the hard rocking fare of The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust, their similarities prove glaring by Station To Station, with Bowie vamping left and right. With only four years separating the two singers, their contemporaneous maturation meant the analog continued into their golden years, with the grim jazz of the Blackstar swan song bearing resemblance to Walker’s latter day scriptures like 2012’s bewildering Bish Bosch.
Vocal tone aside, nowhere in Bowie’s repertoire is Walker’s omnipresence more apparent than on “Port Of Amsterdam,” the Jacques Brel penned B-side to 1974’s Pin Ups single “Sorrow.” By 1968, the renowned Belgian chanteur was already a staple of Walker’s solo songbook, thanks to a fortuitously early possession of Mort Shuman’s translations of the original French material utilized in the off-Broadway theatrical production Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. That first mover advantage gave him an edge in the immediate wake of the breakup of the Walker Brothers, a trio that found chart success in both the US and the UK with overwrought yet unbelievably catchy hits like “Make It Easy On Yourself” and “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore.” Coming hot on the heels of the group effort Images, 1967’s Scott 1 opens with a suitably ornate interpretation of Brel’s “Mathilde” and closes with his soused sailor tragedy play “Amsterdam.” There is a ridiculousness to Shuman’s English versions, something lost in translation made more absurd and over-the-top through the conduit of Walker. He delivers Brel’s tunes with a bawdy braggadocio, all ribald ribbing and unseen though felt gesticulations.
For 1968’s Scott 2, Walker pushed the envelope further by leading with Brel’s racy, opium-laced tale of ambition “Jackie.” Musically, it resembles a gonzo Bonanza theme; lyrically the contents of a pimp’s filthy tongue. That latter characteristic led to the single’s inevitable banning by the BBC, though it still charted in the UK at No. 22 and the full-length topped the album charts. That triumph speaks volumes of Walker’s popularity at the time, a spectacular state of affairs for a guy from Ohio who capitalized on the British rock invasion in reverse only to pivot to risqué francophone pop. So confident in his pop powers at the time, he went back to Brel twice more on the album, with a titillating yet robotic virginity loss retelling on the militant “Next” and a checklist of bodily fluids for “The Bridge.”
Perhaps not quite as admired or cited in retrospect as its revelatory antecedent or its pair of chronologically numbered 1969 successors, all of which include Brel numbers, Scott 2 charted the highest in the UK and serves as an exemplar of just how utterly strange popular music had gotten by 1968. Mere months prior, Californian psych practitioners Jefferson Airplane had scored a Top 10 hit on the other side of the pond alongside R&B diva Aretha Franklin, occasionally mustachioed balladeer Engelbert Humperdinck, garage one-hitters the Music Explosion, and New Jersey safety soulsters the Young Rascals. None of this shit made any damn sense next to the rest of it, amounting as a whole to a grotesque menagerie of confounding noise.
Music documentaries, articles, and books of the last couple decades have conveniently glossed over much of the late 1960s truly egregious pop schlock by romanticizing the cool of the hippie movement and Motown’s boom. As such, records like Scott 2 that are unflinchingly of that time now find themselves clustered as cult fare or kitsch for the bored collector. Yet Walker wasn’t a fringe character like Tiny Tim or some fly-by-night mash-up dreamed up by an opportunistic studio executive. His strange music had an audience, albeit one concentrated in the UK, and even landed a TV series on the BBC.
Despite the apparent hopes of his handlers, Walker wasn’t destined to be the next Sinatra. Ol’ Blue Eyes’ 1969 outing My Way made Brel palatable in a way the twentysomething never would. Sinatra’s take on “If You Go Away” simmers with nuance and gravity, replete with somber strings and a tempered vocal. Walker’s version on Scott 3 finds him unable to contain his croon, trilling flamboyantly to the bitter end. While management appeared to be grooming Walker for bigger things, his albums instead showcased a musician looking to rebel deeper and deeper into strangeness.
Compared to Sinatra’s work around that time, Scott 2 proves a confounding and alien album. He builds up an embittered ballad of marital cosplay for the disconcerting original “The Amorous Humphrey Plugg” and creepily likens his protagonist’s brazen womanizing to the functionality of a giant sponge on “The Girls From The Streets.” There’s a pervasive darkness to Walker’s Brel-infused worldview here, one that gobsmacks and then desensitizes listeners into detachment or, worse, voyeurism. Furthermore, the perversions lurking behind much of the material receives curious cover by the ornate baroque arrangements of Wally Stott, Reg Guest, and Peter Knight.
Though Walker’s admiration for Brel was as genuine and sincere as Bowie’s was for Walker, his repeat patronage of chanson seems strange and quite a bit pretentious for a 25 year old. Brel had fourteen years on the kid, and the narratives woven on his French-language originals suggest life experiences that generally aren’t accessible to folks in his acolyte’s age group. Walker glamorizes the scuzz and machismo of his hero across Scott 2 to the point of fetishization. It is unreasonable for any logical thinking person to presume that he can live the sort of sordid lives Brel constructed his catalog with. Nonetheless, pop music has long been the domain of fantasy and Walker’s reality has little to do with how his songs were received. Authenticity often takes a backseat in the consumption of such fare, and his penchant for the dramaturgical grants Scott 2 quite a bit of leeway.
Apart from Bowie, Walker’s legacy encompasses everyone from synthpop sophisticate Marc Almond and chamber pop act Destroyer to stadium art rockers Radiohead and drone metal doomsayers Sunn O))). Still actively composing and recording, his contemporary output reflects a career largely maintained on his own terms, pacing himself between albums following the busy period of the 1970s. The orchestral gestures have evolved into engrossing avant-garde experiments. His voice has gone gloopy and affected to an extreme, that youthful confidence in his throat now akin to a elongated moan.
Judging by difficult listens like 2006’s The Drift and the aforementioned Bish Bosch, Walker clearly chose a different path than his devotee Bowie, ultimately rejecting pop and rock in the service of his art rather than wrap his grand ideas in something others could understand. When he passes, nobody will curate a grand collection of his life’s work for museum display. Yet if someone were to try, Scott 2 at least captures what made him one of pop’s most unique and inscrutable figures.
Born, raised and still living in New York City, Gary Suarez writes about music and culture for a variety of publications. Since 1999, his work has appeared in various outlets including Forbes, High Times, Rolling Stone, Vice and Vulture, among others. In 2020, he founded the independent hip-hop newsletter and podcast, Cabbages.