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Vinyl Cave: A Scott Walker we can all applaud

One Wisconsin gubernatorial hopeful campaigning this year shares his name with one of the more intriguing pop singers to emerge in the 1960s. The musical Scott Walker started releasing teen-pop 45s under his given name, Scott Engel, in the late 1950s, continuing to issue quite a few solo singles through the early '60s before achieving stardom in the U.K.

According to the 2006 biography The Impossible Dream: The Story of Scott Walker and the Walker Brothers by Anthony Reynolds, Engel started picking up various in studio and live gigs around Hollywood as a bass player, including some pickup bands with John Maus. One of these bands featuring both Engel and Maus added drummer Gary Leeds, right around the same time they named the group The Walker Brothers.

Along with gaining new stage surnames, Engel and company recorded a couple singles in the second half of 1964, which disappeared quickly in the U.S. Just after these recordings, though, they made the bold decision to move to England, which paid off when the second single took off overseas. Massive stardom on the Continent followed, leading to a pair of U.K.-recorded stateside Top 20 hits that are about all many U.S. listeners are likely to remember -- "Make it Easy on Yourself" and "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore." Thereafter, Engel and his "brothers" disappeared from American pop radio forevermore.

What makes Scott Walker more intriguing than your run-of-the-mill pop crooner is his meandering path following the group's disintegration in 1967. With an apparent unconcern for re-igniting his star in America by chasing rock trends -- or, for that matter, maintaining his teen idol status in Europe -- Walker amplified the orchestral balladry side of the group's sound. But this new focus also featured a darker side, one that was already sneaking into his work by the time of the Brothers' final LP, Images.

His first four proper solo albums feature many Jacques Brel covers, other pop numbers (both standard and edgy) and, eventually, lots of original songs. The first three were huge hits in the U.K. and predictably ignored in the U.S., where their existence has remained a rumor maintained by an ever-growing cult of admirers spurred by Walker's mysterious and difficult oeuvre since the 1980s. But those records are a story for another day.

Here's a wrap-up of the first decade-plus of Noel Scott Engel/Scott Walker's career.

Early sides
A teenage Scott Engel made his recording debut for RKO Unique in 1957, with the intriguingly-titled "Steady as a Rock"/When a Boy is a Man" single. However, I've never seen a copy of that one turn up. His next five singles were released by Hollywood's Orbit label in 1958-59. The first, pairing agreeable teen rockers "The Livin' End" -- by the improbable combination of Henry Mancini and Rod McKuen! -- and "Good for Nothin'," is the easiest to find and worth picking up. The Orbit singles quickly head more to the pop side of the teener ledger, including covers of standards such as "All I Do Is Dream of You" and "Paper Doll," though the final 45 with a duo of songs credited to "Burnette" (I'm assuming Johnny) is a bit more rocking. Engel also released a single for the Hi-Fi label in 1959, which I've never seen, and resurfaced in 1961 for a pair of discs on Liberty. The first one, "Mr. Jones," is still in a teen pop mode, and still missing that distinctive deep voice. A final Scott Engel single, "Devil Surfer," appeared on both Martay and Challenge in 1963, but I've never unearthed that one, either.

Take it Easy with The Walker Brothers (U.K.) and Introducing The Walker Brothers (U.S.)
The Walker Brothers' debut establishes the pattern the group would follow for their '60s work: big Spector-ish ballads sung by Scott Walker peppered with the occasional uptempo R&B cover, occasionally sung by John Walker/Maus. There are significant differences between the U.K. and U.S. editions, with four tracks on the former never released stateside, while the latter replaces those tracks with a couple random R&B covers and songs previously released on singles. Since it was created as an album, the British Take It Easy LP flows much better than the American Introducing... LP. Highlights on both versions include the early Randy Newman composition "I Don't Want to Hear it Any More" (later reissued by Smash as an edited single in an attempt to launch Scott's solo career), the Engel co-write "You're All Around Me," and their Wall of Sound retake of "Make It Easy on Yourself," previously a hit for Jerry Butler. The U.K. version also includes the excellent "The Girl I Lost in the Rain," and, what is probably their best Righteous Brothers impression, "Tell the Truth." There are even more early singles sides by the group which didn't make either version of the LP, including "The Seventh Dawn" and a Righteous-esque take on Clarence Henry's hit "But I Do." The group apparently never made much of a pretense that they were brothers, as their real names are detailed in the liner notes for both versions of the LP. (Philips U.K. /Smash U.S., 1965)

On their second album, the group largely aims for big ballads -- including on John's turns at lead vocal on R&B covers -- but there's still occasional beat material, such as on "Saturday's Child" and "Living Above Your Head." They're both singing well, and more restrained orchestration helps keep Portrait from going too far into sticky MOR territory. Engel's interest in more doom-laden material makes a bow on album opener "In My Room," which quotes from Bach's often-used "Toccata and Fugue in D minor." Confirming their pinup status, the original LPs came with a group portrait suitable for framing. (Philips U.K., 1966)

I Only Came to Dance With You as by John Stewart and Scott Engel
This is a cash-in LP released by Capitol subsidiary Tower while "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore" was riding high on the charts in the summer of 1966, and on the market before Smash managed to issue a second LP, judging by when these platters showed up on the Billboard new release pages. It collects some tracks recorded by Engel and Stewart a couple years prior to The Walker Brothers, when the duo released singles as The Dalton Brothers, The Moongooners, The Newporters and probably other names. It's unlikely all of the songs on this LP actually involve Engel and Stewart, as their origin was sketchy at best even on release. The subterfuge was clearly on purpose, with covers of "Wild Weekend" being credited to Engel-Stewart, and Dale Hawkins' "La-Do-Dada" credited to Dean Evans; other tracks seem to have involvement by Mac Rebennack/Dr. John. And, it's all instrumentals but for three songs, so the album can be skipped except by the Walker completist. Stewart is neither John Maus (as the cover implies) nor the more famous singer/songwriter with the same name. (Tower U.S., 1966)

The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore/Baby You Don't Have to Tell Me
The U.S. version of their second LP is nearly completely different than Portrait, essentially serving as an odds 'n sods collection of tracks from the group's American singles and, handily, three of the four songs from the U.K. I Need You EP. Neither of the songs in the album title or their flip sides (following Smash's lazy habit of naming albums by whatever the single A-sides were) were on the U.K. album, either. The big title hit is easily the best song here, but the take on Engel's old partner John Stewart's "After the Lights Go Out" and Scott's own "Young Man Cried" are pretty close. There's also a song here that doesn't appear to have been released in the U.K. at all, a cover of Wilson Pickett's "Don't Fight It." (Smash U.S., 1966)

Apart from the Righteous-inspired album opener "Everything Under the Sun," and fuzz rocker "I Wanna Know," the Walkers' third long player is again mostly shy of beat group material. There are lots of solid if unremarkable ballads, occasionally heading in a super-MOR direction like John's lounge-y take on "Blueberry Hill." There are also more signs of what's in Scott's future, both in the form of the dramatic, self-penned "Orpheus" (the best track here) and the straight-up take on "Stand By Me." Perhaps unsurprisingly given the music's mostly non-rocking nature, and the fact that their follow-up singles to "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore" sank without a trace, this album went unreleased stateside. There are also four more non-LP singles from around the time of Images. The first, "Another Tear Falls"/"Saddest Night in the World," was their last release in the U.S. It was followed overseas by an excellent double-sider of Engel songs, "Deadlier Than the Male"/"Archangel," both of which would fit comfortably on his first solo LP. Other A-sides include giving the Wall of Sound ballad treatment to covers of "Stay With Me" (Lorraine Ellison) and "Walkin' in the Rain" (The Ronettes). There's even more non-LP material on the Solo Scott/Solo John EP from 1966, much of which I've never heard. (Philips U.K., 1967)

Scott (U.K.) and Aloner (U.S.)
Though Smash bailed on the last Walker Brothers LP, they jumped back on the bandwagon after Engel's first solo album was a huge hit overseas, though they felt the need to re-title it. It's an adult-themed Scott who emerged as a solo act, both in the sometimes risque subject matter and more complex orchestration, particularly the arrangements by Wally Stott. Engel's songwriting voice builds on the promise of his latter-day Walker Brothers songs, with the classic like "Montague Terrace (in blue)," though many of the album's best moments are provided by his frenzied attack on Brel showstoppers "Mathilde" and "My Death." It's hard to say exactly why this record works -- at its base the music is still just orchestral pop, if at times oddly arranged. But the overall mood of somber desperation, reminiscent of the downbeat style encapsulated best by some of Frank Sinatra's '50s concept albums, is garnished with terror on the side via Walker's vision. Both the occasionally over-the-top arrangements and Walker's liquid baritone croon give the listener a feeling of being trapped in a blind alley, with one's pursuers just around the corner. (Philips U.K. 1967/Smash U.S., 1968; LP reissue by 4 Men With Beards, 2008)

Scott 2
The formula worked, so why change it? The weirder moments are perhaps even creepier than on his first solo disc, provided again by the pen of Brel and Engel himself. Their songs here are all essential parts of Walker's canon, and much of the rest sort of floats by thanks to his excellent singing. That leaves the overall mood here perhaps a bit less alienated, with mostly calmer orchestration and a few moments of sunshine nearly glimpsed before the clouds bank in completely. (Philips U.K./Smash U.S., 1968; LP reissue by 4 Men With Beards, 2008)

Scott 3
For me, this is the record where everything comes together perfectly for the first time. A majority of the songs are by Engel, who has assimilated his influences into a storytelling style all his own. Beautiful songs such as "Rosemary" and "Big Louise" show that style has crystallized into something a bit gentler than (though still very influenced by) the Brel songs he'd so far covered. An occasional dissonant gloss in the orchestration helps keep things off-kilter, but that's really about as experimental as this lush pop music gets. The more risque tone of the first two discs is mostly absent as well, and not particularly missed for Engel's song cycle of lonely or marginalized people. The album switches gears a bit by ending with three more Brel covers, albeit a gentler side of Jacques than assayed on Walker's first two albums. Also worth noting: The Smash version omits "30th Century Man" and adds "Lights of Cincinnati," a U.K. single-only track, instead. (Philips U.K./Smash U.S., 1969; U.S. LP reissue of U.K. version by 4 Men With Beards, 2008)

Scott: Scott Walker Sings Songs from his TV Series
By the end of the '60s, Walker was such a big star in England he was given his own BBC television show, and this album features studio versions of the standards he had sung on the show. Fans of abrasive later albums such as The Drift may be very disturbed by the big, brassy production of this album, but I actually find Scott Walker Sings Songs pretty enjoyable; it's fun to hear Walker just singing his ass off without also being sort of scary. While most of his music has resurfaced via either CD or LP reissues over the years, this album has remained on the shelf. (Philips U.K., 1969)

Scott 4
A worthy continuation of 3, Walker's fourth proper solo album features only his own songs for the first time. The album has a lighter feel, though the lyrical concerns haven't changed much, partly due to the fact that many songs are built from a simpler drums-guitar-bass combo rather than full-on orchestration. What's lost in sonic density is more than gained back by opening up space for Walker's expressive vocals. Somewhat ironically, his more straightforward rock approach ended up being the point where Walker lost his audience, as the album sank quickly in the U.K. and wasn't even released in the U.S. at the time. His first LP of the '70s, Til the Band Comes In, was the last to contain any original songs until an improbable reunion by The Walker Brothers in the latter half of the decade. In between would be lots more MOR covers and even a side road into country music! (Philips U.K., 1969/4 Men With Beards U.S., 2008)

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