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  Scott Walker: 30th Century Man
Stephen Kijak

Barb Jungr
posted 27 June 2007

Whatever the year was, somewhere in the mid-sixties, there we were at Della Fahey’s party, a gaggle of giggling schoolgirls dancing around the TV, to the Walker Brothers. ‘Which one’s the best?’ was the question as we watched. Somehow, even then, everyone sensed that Scott was just that little bit different.

Looking over the web during the process of reviewing Stephen Kijak’s film about Scott Walker’s history and present work, to see what his compadres from the old days were doing, I was astonished to see that John, the brother who was the lead singer until Scott’s baritone was discovered on ‘Tell Her’, was touring and performing his ‘hits’. The difference between these parallel careers is as pronounced now as it was in their Walker Brothers days, as a tiny but rather prophetic scene in the film reveals. John and Gary talk about pop as ‘money’ till the camera turns towards Scott, apparently reclining on a window ledge, all trademark shades and handsome demeanour, ‘I’m not interested in money’ he says; he just wants to be able to continue to make good records. The seeds of Scott Walker’s development as an artist, and not simply a pop performer, were clearly sown very early.

Largely chronological, Scott Walker: 30th Century Man is a pretty excellent documentary about the much mythologised singer and contemporary composer, and it’s a must see for anyone interested in pop music history, Walker and his extraordinary career, as well as contemporary music production and the questions of celebrity versus art. Utterly absorbing, it very successfully includes all the usual ingredients of a seriously good BBC music doc while somehow transcending the limits of that genre.

Narration, clips of musical aficionados, magazine editors, pop stars, arrangers, producers and collaborators, old television footage and photographs are strung like a necklace along the thread of an interview with Walker in 2006 and clips of him recording his most recent album, The Drift, in the studio. The man himself is intelligent, personable and funny – as one would expect of any artist capable of diving so deeply into the darkness of the soul.

Slowly the picture builds of a bright man struggling to find expression in a mad world at a mad time, finding himself liberated by the songs of the late, great Jacques Brel. From then on it’s plain sailing; well, except that interminable years pass between the making of the later recordings. There are clearly long spells of creative ennui, of simply waiting for the words and the music to come, and Walker reveals not exactly the process, but certainly his experience of trying to find his own way of delivering his musical vision. There’s a mysterious and mystical quality running like veins through a bruise throughout all of his work.

The scenes in the recording studio are alive, and fascinating for the obsessive quality that surrounds the bringing together of each recorded piece. Only Walker has the whole song in his head. There are no demos, there’s no ‘groove’. The musicians come in and serve each small piece of a picture that only becomes whole in the mixing process.

I remember someone once said about the film maker Ken Russell, ‘I don’t like his films, but I’m glad he’s making them and I’d fight for his right to go on doing so’. Walker’s last three albums, Climate of Hunter, Tilt and The Drift, are about as far from easy listening as its possible to travel, but they have expanded the contours of recording so dramatically that Walker will surely soon be regarded as one of Britain’s leading contemporary composers. Though he may not be working with a conventional score, in terms of what he’s doing with wild string arrangemenets, chordal experimentation, voice, sound, production and text, he’s out there on his own on the far boundaries of the musical landscape, as Jarvis Cocker cleverly observes.

But all that pales beside the phenomenon of the beautifully timbred and soul-filled voice of an archangel, a rich and honeyed sound that was there right from the start in that skinny and beautiful young man who stole teenage hearts across the country. In a rare moment Walker talks of the seductive quality, the power, of the baritone voice. Clearly the gift he was given has been a double-edged sword. But this film reveals that he’s learned to wield that sword in a unique manner, and out there on the edges of music, where he walks alone, he’s leaving a magical, fairy tale trail that many may wish to follow, but few can.


Barb Jungr will be singing a selection of songs by Bob Dylan at the Almeida in London on 23 July and the Queen's Hall, Edinburgh on 20 August 2007.

 

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