Thinking in Images: Scott Walker and Cinema

Scott Walker: 30 Century Man

By Christoph Huber

“I am forever indebted to cinema,” wrote singer-songwriter Scott Walker in 2007. “It’s always been there for me in all manner of ways. I would not have lived my life here in Europe without it. Now and then I’ve found myself wandering in dark towns or cities rather like those depicted by Kaurismäki. Have turned a corner and there was salvation looming before me in the form of a movie house. They all seemed to have a late-night screening of The Third Man (1949), but what could be better?”

Walker (née Noel Scott Engel), who passed away from cancer this March at age 76, was a unique figure in the field of pop music. Having risen to early fame as one-third of The Walker Brothers (none of them brothers, and none named Walker), he soon found himself worn out by the pressures of superstardom and unsatisfied by the artistic restrictions of his proto-boy band. Embarking on a solo career as a Jacques Brel-worshipping existentialist crooner, he released four cultishly revered albums between 1967 and 1969 (all of them titled simply with his name and a numeral) that combined an iconoclastic lyrical approach with sophisticated musical arrangements. Scott to Scott 4 formed the basis of Walker’s legendary status as a musician’s musician, one who left his imprint on generations of renowned colleagues: from David Bowie and Brian Eno to Marc Almond and Julian Cope (whose modestly subtitled 1981 compilation Fire Escape in the Sky: The Godlike Genius of Scott Walker was crucial for re-establishing Walker’s credibility at a time when his solo albums were out of print and a decade of compromises had tarnished his reputation and self-esteem); from Nick Cave and Johnny Marr to Jarvis Cocker (who got Walker to produce Pulp’s last studio album, 2001’s We Love Life) and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, among many others.

But for all his musical prowess, Walker felt closer to another art. His “first love” was the movies, and the singer-composer remained a card-carrying cinephile for his entire life, with cinema providing a more crucial influence on his art than any music (Brel excepted). “I’ve become the Orson Welles of the record industry. People want to take me to lunch, but nobody wants to finance the picture,” Walker said of his career slump that lasted for most of the ’70s. Eventually, he regained some traction, artistically at least: although grounded in the rock sound of the era, his comeback record Climate of Hunter (1983) offered a trance-like, fragmented sonic experience largely devoid of conventional melody (and completely devoid of commercial sense: half of the album’s songs are untitled). The result was a critical hit but another commercial flop: allegedly, it was the worst-selling album in the history of Virgin Records.

Walker withdrew once again, only to return with even more radical proposals. At the Kubrickian pace of one solo album per decade (there were occasional, notable side projects), he created monumental music that was perplexing and fascinating in equal measure. (Some people hardly considered it music, even though Walker saw it as a direct continuation of his early work.) On Tilt (1995), The Drift (2005), and Bish Bosch (2012), he almost completely abandoned conventional harmony, instead using “big blocks of sound” (and, crucially, silence) to dramatic effect, with classical arrangements replaced by what its creator called “texture”—music that had been “shaved down” to the essentials.

This more forbidding work represented an extreme application of Walker’s distinctively cinematic approach to songwriting, what he had described ever since Scott as “thinking in images.” Citing Camus on the back cover of Scott 4—“A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened”—Walker seemed to make both a Proustian gesture towards autobiographical cine-memory, as well as an artistic statement about the visual impulse driving his compositions. He came to insist that his music was strictly subservient to his lyrics, which, in the initial stages of writing, he conceived of as an “almost separate entity” before he began searching for the fitting orchestration. In a way, Walker approached his songs as a metteur en scène.

Like some filmmakers, he came up with a military metaphor to explain his method of conceiving a time-based artwork from words on a page: “I used to describe the look of lyrics on a page to me as kind of soldiers on a field. I can move these soldiers around. It sounds quite mysterious, but if you see it on the page…So I think the music kind of reflects that. It does happen in chunks sometimes.” On his early records, Walker imbued his lyrics with the air of ominous, highly visual short stories, intensified by sometimes lush, sometimes delicate orchestral arrangements that carried a whiff of sweeping movie-soundtrack orchestrations. By the end of his career, he was producing challenging text collages that could seem nearly impenetrable yet were also richly, maddeningly allusive, embedded in operatic (and often atonal) “blocks of sound” rather than the beguiling harmonies of yesteryear.

While the obvious cinematic references in Walker’s work are helpful as a means to gauge his auteurist sensibility, they only get you so far. Sure, his lyrics contain numerous allusions to films, he dabbled in cover versions of movie songs, and he contributed a select few himself to films that are mostly excellent (which is presumably pure coincidence). Notably, there are also three soundtrack albums: Pola X (1999) for Leos Carax, and Childhood of a Leader (2016) and Vox Lux (2018, which mixed Walker’s orchestral compositions with original songs by Sia), both for Brady Corbet. Although Walker insisted that writing movie music necessitated a completely different approach (“You’re at the service of someone else’s images, and that’s the key to a successful score”), his soundtracks do provide an interesting through-line (compositionally and thematically) with his own solo work.

However, it is the intersection of cinema with Walker’s life (and thus his art) that seems the most persistent driving force in shaping his aesthetic. Contradicting F. Scott’s Fitzgerald well-worn dictum (from his ciné-roman The Last Tycoon) that “there are no second acts in American lives,” Walker provided at least four—rise to stardom–solo success–fall from grace–rise from the ashes—each of which showcased different aspects of his art. Act One even starts out in Hollywood, where the teenage Scott Engel decided to settle down with his mother in 1959 to pursue a musical career, singing undistinguished bubblegum du jour and honing his skills as a studio musician on bass guitar; among the outfits he played in were the instrumental combo The Routers, who are seen in the background of Surf Party (1964), which would be Walker’s lone, and uncredited, feature-film appearance.

Given that he defined himself as a “continental, suit-wearing natural enemy of the Californian surfer,” an unabashed aesthete interested in the progressive jazz of Bill Evans and Stan Kenton and European cinema by the likes of Robert Bresson and Ingmar Bergman, it seems ironic that Scott got his breakthrough as a handsome blond teen idol from the sunny American beaches, once he teamed with singer-guitarist John Maus and singer-drummer Gary Leeds as The Walker Brothers. Strategically, the Brothers moved to London, which for Scott meant not only avoiding the Vietnam draft, but living on the continent of his filmic obsessions. He recounted his delight in finding England to be “exactly like in the movies” that he loved, i.e., Ealing Studio comedies and the kitchen-sink dramas of the British New Wave. The trio caused a stir in the UK with their Spectorian Wall of Sound-style musical palette (amply demonstrated by their hit single “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore”), and they soon rivalled The Beatles in popularity (even though their US success remained limited). However, the initial high wore off quickly. As Scott started writing songs (mainly to secure publishing rights) and progressively took on lead vocal duties, his ascension in the band caused frictions with John, while the hysterical fan reactions grated on his nerves, driving him to depression and, ultimately, into a withdrawal from public view that would only add to his later mystique—a self-exile that feels downright Malickian.

The breakup of the Brothers brought an end to Act One, and Scott set out to find greater depth in solo work. His intellectual ambitions fortified by a fondness for Sartre and Camus (there’s even a great Walker B-side called “The Plague”), Walker also regularly retreated into cinemas for inspiration. A list of favourite films he programmed while curating London’s Meltdown Festival in 2000 may be seen as indicative of his ambitions at the time (and gives a glimpse of his ongoing preferences in the subsequent decades): The Shanghai Gesture (1941), Un condamné à mort s’est échappé (1956), The Leopard (1963), Gertrud (1964), The Round-Up (1965), The Rise to Power of Louis XIV (1966), Hunger (1966), Persona (1966), Chinese Roulette (1976), Passion (1982), Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatiana (1994), Casino (1995), and Drifting Clouds (1996). However, Scott’s most significant breakthrough was his discovery of the distinctive story-songs of Jacques Brel, whom he declared “the world’s greatest singer-songwriter.” Walker’s first three albums give pride of place to his English-language Brel interpretations, mixing them with other covers (including movie hits like “You’re Gonna Hear From Me” from Inside Daisy Clover [1966], or Henry Mancini’s title tune from 1967’s Wait Until Dark) and an increasing amount of self-penned songs with vivid, impressionistic lyrics. “Montague Terrace (In Blue)” from Scott, for instance, uses the Brel method to convey Walker’s own brand of kitchen-sink drama, its poetic imagery a cross-section of sad squalor embalmed by universal and futile longing, enveloped in a sublime orchestral arrangement of expectant strings, cracking drums, and an overwhelming, brass-backed chorus.

Crucial to Walker’s poetry is an aural equivalent to what Manny Farber termed “negative space,” allowing the listener’s imagination to fill in the blanks. Consider, for instance, “Plastic Palace People” from Scott 2, in which a handful of abstract lines (“Over the rooftops burns Billy / Balloon sadly the string descends / Searching its way down through blue submarine air / The polka dot underwear / To meet the trees, in morning square / Just hanging there, just hanging there”) suggest an entire story of failed yearning, tied together by the romantic tissue of characteristically manic-depressive musical accompaniment. Over time, Walker would come to intensify the abstraction and absurdity of his lyrics, rejecting romanticism and autobiographical investment (exemplified by the sorrowful “It’s Raining Again” from Scott 3) as his elective affinities moved from Sartre and Camus to Kafka and Beckett.

Part of Walker’s early romantic ideal surely came from his relative youth, but there’s also his misunderstanding of Brel, a quite different kind of performer whose sweaty appearance underscored the ingrained hilarity of his ironic compositions. Walker comes close to capturing this quality in some of his jauntier Brel covers, but his descent into grand emotional despair on the doomier tracks is touchingly off-mark, although it has its own beauty (a bit like the Kuchar Brothers repurposing Hollywood melodrama for their arte povera “spectaculars”). Still, Walker’s affinity for Brel derived not only from his own fondness for exploring tortured, often sadomasochistic relationships, but also with his filmic orientation. While Walker never made true on his late-’60s dreams of embarking on a new career as a filmmaker, Brel (a sometime actor) actually realized two features that are genuine oddities; one could imagine both movies as Brel or (very different) Walker songs, mixing absurdist humour with touching observations and a deeply felt but distant look at human folly. There’s a submerged streak of passionate madness in both the seaside-resort love triangle Franz (1972) and, especially, in the metaphoric fantasy Le Far-West (1973), in which Brel stars as a self-styled cowboy (opposite Michel Piccoli’s Indian chief) building his own Wild West counter-world to contemporary Belgium, which, in the finale, is wiped out Alamo-style by the invading tanks of the national army. One is inclined to think of the ecstatic martial rhythms of “We Came Through” on Scott 3, which comes across like a super-short exercise in frenetic movie montage, even as its political allusions (“And Guevera dies encased in his ideals / And as Luther King’s predictions fade from view”) surely baffled the handsome pop star’s core audience of teenyboppers and housewives. What was lurking behind Scott’s irresistible baritone incantations and alluring orchestral arrangements? When the definitive answer came with Scott 4, they weren’t listening anymore.

Fully self-composed and originally released under Walker’s birth name Scott Engel, Scott 4 opens with a highlight of Walker’s cinephilic career: “The Seventh Seal” condenses the 1957 Bergman film into five swooping minutes of carefully crafted rhymes with a foreboding accompaniment, with mariachi-style sounds lending the medieval imagery of the lyrics a startling spaghetti-western atmosphere. (Is it possible that Walker drew his inspiration here from his first solo soundtrack contribution, recorded that same year: “The Rope and the Colt,” for Robert Hossein’s excellent oater Un corde, un Colt…?) The remainder of the album pondered abstract sentiments like existential angst and societal pressures, along with taking aim at complacent homefront militarism (“Hero of the War”) and, in “The Old Man’s Back Again (Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime),” the Soviet Union’s 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia.

The unexpected flop of Scott 4 sent Walker into a funk that led to Act Three, a phase of heavy drinking and uninspired, middle-of-the-road output that, however, still yielded some intermittent charms, as demonstrated by this period’s most pertinent cinephilic artifact: The Moviegoer (1972) collects Walker’s film-music covers, including songs by Legrand and Mancini, as well as Nino Rota’s title theme for the same year’s The Godfather. The choice of material hardly corresponds to Walker’s filmic tastes, but the album ends up with more hits than misses, including a superior cover of Joan Baez and Ennio Morricone’s theme from Sacco and Vanzetti (1971). Ironically, it was a Walker Brothers reunion that got Scott back on track. Following two middling efforts, No Regrets (1975) and Lines (1976), the group was given artistic carte blanche for what would turn out to be their final album, as their record company was about to go broke anyway. Rising to the occasion, for Nite Flights (1978) Scott produced a handful of outstanding solo compositions such as “The Electrician,” whose uncanny, minimalistic lyrics and orchestration would prove prophetic not only for Act Four of Walker’s career, but for the shape of romantic synth-pop to come. (If Walker had clearly been influenced by Bowie’s Berlin collaborations with Brian Eno, Bowie would take up the baton from Walker and run with it in the ’80s.)

Reinventing himself as an artist of uncompromising vision, in the ensuing decades Walker strived to purge his work of all unnecessary excess, citing Bresson as his ideal: “I see his films, it’s a visual version of what I want to get. He never uses real actors. If a person is laying down their hand, he just wants you to know a human being is laying down their hand. It’s the phenomenon of being human…” It’s this idea of recognizing a universal humanity that marks Walker’s late work: much like a Bressonian “model,” he even tried to remove the personality from his unmistakable singing voice in order to not stand in the way of the song’s essence. In the same interview, Walker describes Bresson in a way that pertains to his own musical development: “Un condamné à mort s’est échappé is the first film where his style is almost fully realised, especially in the use of sound. At this point he hasn’t completely done away with music: later he will realise that music—especially what he calls ‘glorious music’ (Mozart, Bach, Lully, etc.)—actually makes the images seem flat, whereas a sound effect will give them depth. But no other director makes us concentrate more on the bare enigma of the human being.” To that end, it doesn’t matter whether this human being is an unknown, or Marlon Brando—whom Walker saluted with a track on Soused, his grand 2014 collaboration with Sunn-O)))—or Pier Paolo Pasolini, the subject of Tilt’s magnificent opener “Farmer in the City,” which translates passages from Pasolini’s poem “Uno dei tanti Epiloghi” (written for the artist’s young lover Ninetto Davoli) and then integrates them into an allusive framework that points to something larger and universally relatable.

Indeed, Walker was reluctant to interpret his own lyrics, saying that whatever the listener came up with was more interesting than his own initial intentions. “What I really like about his songwriting is the way that he can paint a picture with what he says,” an enthusiastic Bowie says in Stephen Kijak’s conventional but useful documentary Scott Walker: 30 Century Man (2006). “I have no idea what he’s singing about and I’ve never bothered to find out, and I’m not really interested. I’m quite happy to take the songs that he sings and make something of them myself, and I read my own reasoning into the images. So his songs are really useful…for everyday living!” While Kijak’s film, which includes new interviews with Walker as he records The Drift, is understandably remembered mostly for its evidence of the lengths that Walker goes to in search of the right sound—including bringing a side of beef into the studio for his virtuoso percussionist to pound on with his fists, constructing an elaborate plywood box to give a brick hit the desired resonance, and spending a year searching for the correct donkey bray—it’s also a study of the artist trying to remove himself from the equation, letting the artwork speak for itself.

Walker even claimed in a late interview that he had long forgotten “those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened,” although he would admit that The Drift’s “Clara”—a “fascist love song” about Mussolini’s lover Clara Petacci, who chose to die with the dictator—was inspired by a newsreel of the couple’s dead bodies being defiled by an angry crowd which Walker had seen as a kid. This may indicate the clear distance Walker managed to establish towards his subjects over time. Even his soundtracks—although treated as commissions—resonate strongly with his own work. Pola X, which uses excerpts from Tilt’s “The Cockfighter” for its opening bombardment, surely spoke to Walker with its theme of artistic crisis. Although he served this wounded, unwieldy epic with alternately dreamy and dark orchestral cues bespeaking his love of Michel Legrand (and Bernard Herrmann, whose influence he explored more extensively in his Corbet soundtracks), it also hews close to Walker’s more violent musical impulses (notably felt in the industrial-performance warehouse scenes presided over by Sharunas Bartas as a creepy conductor-cult-leader). In the end, Carax’s film is about what the musician identified as the key themes of his (late) work: “frustration and failure.”

Lest all this gives the impression of Walker as a humourless, ivory-tower artist, it is worth pointing out that he loved to plant jokes even in the most demanding stretches of his albums (see the carefully applied fart noises on Bish Bosch’s “Corps de Blah,” which contains the immortal line “a sphincter’s tooting our tune”). After all, Walker adored Hellzapoppin’ (1941), justified his love for Kaurismäki with “He’s Bresson with laughs. Not easy to pull off,” and liked to relate how Kafka would read his stories to his friends and would get furious when they wouldn’t laugh. Surely Walker had the last laugh, considering that his final releases were the two soundtracks for Corbet, modestly underscoring topics close to his heart. If the arty Childhood of a Leader mostly serves as a reminder that Walker was drawn to analyses of totalitarian rulers (from Mussolini and Stalin to Ceaușescu) and the work of Michael Haneke, then Vox Lux, with its at times hilariously over-the-top portrayal of the modern world through mediated experience and toxic pop-stardom fallout, is something else, ultimately creating an image that’s almost a cathartic negation of what Walker was up to. As a fan of ambiguity, he surely must have approved.