Mr. Dawson required a clear head to contemplate the latter career of Scott Walker. Just the mention of the name made Mr. Dawson wince. Thinking about Tilt, in his condition?
Scott Walker Back Catalogue Part 4 – The Drift to Abstraction.
The morning was bloody.
Mr. Dawson's tongue appeared to have expanded until it had filled his mouth, and mouth and tongue both appeared to be made of Velcro. No amount of water would staunch the flow of this hangover; a bloody mary would nip it in the bud though, and even though it could be but a temporary measure Mr. Dawson required a clear head to contemplate the latter career of Scott Walker. Just the mention of the name made Mr. Dawson wince. Thinking about Tilt, in his condition?
But that was to come. First, the walk that Mr Foster had made a few hours earlier. Plucking a smoky bacon flavoured crisp from his hair (courtesy of the landlord's foul eating habits the evening before) Mr Dawson set off to join Mr. Foster in the Grey Horse. Suitably wintered in hat, coat and scarf, Mr. Dawson set off at a brisk pace, telling himself all the while that if he could get to the Grey Horse in thirty minutes he should be able to drink enough quickly enough to stave off the impending hangover.
The deep grey sky was heavy with snow and as Mr. Dawson approached the pub the first flakes were beginning to fall. At the moment it was as though they were in a race to be last to reach the ground, but one look at the sky told Mr. Dawson that soon the flakes would be racing to reach it. Mr. Foster was waiting for him, idly picking whelks from a jar whilst reading a book on Greek mythology. Suddenly the world seemed a better place! For it was here, was it not, that Mr. Foster had first made the discovery that pubs are, in essence, a replica of the womb? Mr. Dawson looked around at the deep red walls, the dim lights. He listened to the gentle murmur of men talking to each other and took in the bar where all essential nutrients could be found. More importantly, essential nutrients were already on the table waiting for him – a pint of dark mild, a benny 'n 'ot and even some pork scratchings. Mr Foster, airily waving a whelk around on the end of his cocktail stick said: 'I rather thought you might be ready for these.' Mr Dawson trembled – had his dignity been held on but a slightly looser rein he would have cried, such was his joy.
Eschewing the offer of whelks, but tucking into the pork scratchings with all the aplomb of a seasoned trencherman, Mr Dawson set off on the task at hand: to whit, the final part in their discussion of the work of Scott Walker. Benedictine despatched, Mr Dawson launched into –
Climate of the Hunter (1983)
Scott's four tracks on Nite Flights had made quite a stir. Bowie and Eno both loved the work and Bowie even offered to work with Scott (his offer was politely rebuffed). However, Eno's rave led Virgin to offer Scott a recording contract in 1980 and they sat back and waited for Mr. Engel to produce the goods. Nothing happened. Scott did meet Eno and collaboration was mooted but this too came to nothing. Eventually Scott promised Virgin their album and he repaired to a cottage in Tunbridge Wells for a couple of months to write it. How to describe Climate of the Hunter? Well, if you worked in the Virgin sales department then 'a complete disaster' might be as good a way as any. The album was supposed to be Virgin's lowest selling album ever, although it appears that this might be a bit of an exaggeration. It was certainly something of a curate's egg, featuring as it did Billy Ocean, Mark Knopfler and saxophonist Evan Parker. It clocked in at just over thirty minutes and half the tracks didn't have titles – so much for Tunbridge Wells ability to inspire. To nutshell the sound: imagine a halfway house between Scott 3 and Tilt. Standout track Sleepwalkers Woman has the shimmering drone of Boy Child whilst Track 6 resembles the rather more difficult soundscapes of Scott's later work. Several of the songs seem almost shapeless until they are interrupted by moments of great beauty a la Tilt. The lyrics too suggest a midway point in Scott's career – the phrases were short as with Tilt and The Drift, but they had yet to become completely impenetrable and opaque. Scott's voice is probably closer to his later work than that of the sixties. By this point grand romantic gestures do not interest him and his voice is more fragile. The album is pretty underrated – the only thing letting it down is some of the 80's production – the bass is fat and the guitar solos seem out of place now. The critics mostly loved it, although Radio 1 DJ Mike Read found it 'quite perplexing'.
Mr. Dawson was warming to his task. The mild and the chaser had invigorated him and with considerable pep in his stride he approached the bar. Outside the snow was falling heavily whilst inside all was warm. Gaudy Christmas decorations glittered and the rather attractive woman behind the bar wore a Santa hat. Hunched at the bar were two elderly gentlemen giggling to themselves about who-knows-what. Mr Dawson's mind was already thinking about how amenable it would be to be snowed in at The Grey Horse. He returned to the table to see Mr. Foster eyeing the drinks with considerable zeal. 'Drink!' he said, 'for now we must discuss Tilt!'
Virgin, quite pleased with the critical reception of Climate of the Hunter, if not with the sales, were happy to release another Scott album. They had the idea of getting some of their 'trendy' artists to write songs for Scott to sing. Scott, predictably, declined their offers. He did, however, start work with Brian Eno but sadly the project collapsed after a couple of weeks. Virgin were sad, but not too worried. When interviewed around the time of Climate of the Hunter a journalist asked him what he had been doing the previous few years. Scott replied that he had been sitting in pubs watching men play darts. And that was probably what he continued to do for the next ten years, along with the odd trip to the cinema and the odd painting lesson. The album was first due in 92, then 93 (when Scott did manage to release a single in France) and so on – even right at the last it was delayed by a week. But if any album has been worth such a wait, then Tilt is probably it.
Mr. Dawson reminded Mr. Foster of a telephone conversation they had soon after the album came out. Mr. Foster said that he was finally able to listen to it all the way through, but he still could only do so by being in a different room from the stereo. At the time Tilt seemed almost wilfully difficult. Climate of the Hunter, whilst largely free of choruses, did at least have identifiable songs. Tilt was a different beast altogether, mixing, as it did, modern composition with industrial brutalism (Scott was a fan of Nine Inch Nails at the time). The lyrics were utterly baffling and Scott's voice was pitched higher than ever. What was it all about? Well, Tilt takes some getting into, but the rewards are great. Farmer in the City, the opening track, is achingly beautiful in parts. The Cockfighter, however, is a different beast altogether, as excerpts from the trials of Adolf Eichmann and Queen Caroline are narrated by Scott and drums pound away with incredible intensity. Tilt is not, it should be said, an easy listen. Bouncer See Bouncer also features unremitting, pounding drums, but then after about four minutes a heartbreakingly beautiful section appears that lasts for a minute before the drums return. The lyrics, whilst difficult to get to grips with, do offer Scott the chance to sing phrases that just stick in your head. Bolivia '95, for example, features the phrase 'Lemon bloody cola' and quite why this phrase, and the way that Scott sings it, should float around one's head for evermore is not clear. But it will.
Tilt is no easy listen but it is a wonderful album, and well worth persevering with. Themes do become apparent but at the simplest level it seems to suggest that the world is a brutal place, and that love and beauty can only ever be fleeting.
Mr. Foster looked up from his pint. He recalled the conversation about the album. He remembered that initially the album was like a beast to be tamed. In the early exchanges the beast won – it refused to be cowed and he would be forced to retreat from the stereo and throw paint at his canvases with impotent rage. But he had won in the end, he thought to himself, and he smiled grimly at the hard fought victory. 'More booze,' he said to Mr. Dawson, and left for the bar, leaving Mr. Dawson to focus on the final hurdle, the album that some suggested made Tilt sound like Black Lace, The Drift. But first –
The Drift before The Drift (1995 – 2005)
Whilst Scott could hardly be called the hardest working man in showbiz he was not idle after completing Tilt. In 1996 he collaborated with Nick Cave and several Bad Seeds on the track I Threw It All Away on the To Have and to Hold soundtrack. This track is notable, incidentally, for showing that Scott could still sing as deeply as he did in the old days, if he chose to. He then spent a year or so working on the soundtrack for the film Pola X by Leos Carax. There were eleven Scott tracks in all, ranging from melodic orchestral numbers (Light) to incredibly harsh industrial ones (The Church of the Apostles). Scott didn't sing except on The Time is Out of Joint! which was actually an excerpt from The Cockfighter on Tilt. In the same year he worked with David Arnold on a Bond soundtrack album. The film used all of the tracks on the soundtrack save one – can you guess which? In 2000 he curated the Meltdown festival at the Royal Festival Hall. Scott didn't put in an official appearance but he did write a piece of music especially for it. In a two part show (the other half featured music from Orbital) two dance groups interpreted the music. Again the music was orchestral and there was no singing. It should be said that it was a bloody good Meltdown – as well as inviting Jim O'Rourke one gig featured Jarvis Cocker, Smog (who had contributed a track to the Pola X soundtrack) and a group called Fuckhead. The Fuckhead performance, it would be fair to say, divided the audience. Suffice it to say that the band played pretty ropey Euro-Industrial music, but that the band also had a 'performance' element to them. The highlight was when two chairs were put on stage and two band members stood on them, facing away from each other. They dropped their pants and a washing line was hung from their arseholes. Clothes were hung on the line to the tune of Too Shy, by Kajagoogoo. You probably had to be there. The following year Scott produced Pulp's final (and much underrated) album, We Love Life. And there we are, almost up to date, save for –
The Drift (2006)
Outside the light was already fading. A streetlight flickered into life and a pale red glow briefly hung over the pub window beneath which Mr. Foster and Mr. Dawson sat. The snow, falling even heavier now, was briefly illuminated pink before the lamp's orange glow settled in for the night. Turning away from the window Mr. Dawson girded his loins for the final lecture.
Despite the description above, The Drift is very much an extension of Tilt. And, let us not forget, it took some time to be able to get to grips with that album: a sober assessment of The Drift is probably a couple of years away. Anyway, the basic sounds are the same and the lyrics are similarly cryptic. What the critics were getting at is the lack of relief that The Drift provides. The shafts of beauty that occasionally illuminated Tilt are largely absent from The Drift. Again, the songs switch at a moments notice from subdued orchestral passages to raging torrents of noise, but as the album lacks the respite that Tilt provided the overall result more resembles a nightmare. The songs are all disturbing and disconnected and one never feels like one knows what to expect next. There is a real sense of foreboding and fear to many of the songs. As with Tilt there are moments where Scott sings something strangely memorable: on Jolson and Jones it is 'Curare, Curare Curare'. Elsewhere the lyrics are just plain weird: 'I'll punch a donkey on the streets of Galway'. Themes too are repeated: just as The Cockfighter included excerpts from Eichmann's trial so The Drift's Clara is a song about Mussolini and his partner Claretta Petacci. It's an incredible song too – it's twelve minutes in length, it is in several sections, and it features a percussionist beating a side of pork. The pork is not the only strange piece of percussion on the album – the sound Scott needed on the track Cue necessitated the producer's brother-in-law (a carpenter) to come into the studio and build a large wooden box that could be whacked. On other tracks cartoon characters mix with tales of religion (and Scott scarily does an impression of Donald Duck saying 'What's up Doc?). Even Tintin gets a mention at one point. It's an incredibly dense work lyrically and musically. The shimmering drones and slabs of noise are undoubtedly oppressive at times, and the demands that the album makes are exacting. But would you really want anything less?
What next for Scott? Well, he's already contributed a track to a compilation called Plague Songs and he supposedly has a great idea for an album that he could tour with. Nobody, one would hope, is holding their breath.
Mr. Dawson sat back and felt that he could finally relax. Their work was done. Mr Dawson's head was already beginning to feel slightly fuzzy. Another pint or two and befuddlement would take him in its arms. Mr Foster's eyes were also starting to take on a glazed look. Their sense of relief was palpable. They were two men who had completed an heroic task. They were about to be snowed into one of their favourite pubs. They were in clover.
Words: Chris Dawson.