The testimony of David Bowie and indeed all the interviewees in the documentary Scott Walker: 30 Century Man indicate that respect must be paid to Scott Walker. Brian Eno, Jarvis Cocker, Damon Albarn and several members of Radiohead all appear, paying lavish tribute to Walker’s singular talent. Eno in particular is so eloquent and even emotional, talking about how underappreciated Walker is, that there has to be something to the man’s cult reputation.
But even with that fan club, Walker is so obscure, at least in the U.S., that non-devotees who happen across 30 Century Man could be forgiven for thinking that the film is an elaborate put-on, a deadpan sendup of the way rock critics make the most extravagant claims for rarefied niche artists. In fact, if you approach the movie with this mindset, it becomes hilarious; a more spot-on parody or better hoax is hard to imagine.
The opening half-hour recounts Walker’s time with the pop trio the Walker Brothers in the mid ‘60s (as no one who writes about them can resist mentioning, none of them were named Walker and they weren’t brothers). This part of the movie plays like pop-music history from a parallel universe. There’s footage of the trio playing clubs on the Sunset Strip; still photos and clips showing the mobbed gigs and fan hysteria that erupted when they scored a run of chart hits in England; and camera pans across cuttings from British music papers like Melody Maker, attesting to Walker Brothers–mania.
If you’re a non-believer, you’d swear all this footage had been doctored, as if some canny filmmaker had decided to cross Zelig with an episode of Behind the Music. The claim is made that the Walker Brothers were “bigger than the Beatles” in England. But surely this is an example of how statistics can be tortured to prove anything. In what sense were they bigger? For how long? Why are they now so obscure? The film doesn’t say.
Walker went solo in 1967, and in short order cut four solo albums that form the foundation of his lasting reputation. The first three were hits in England; the fourth, a labor of love where he wrote all his own material for the first time, unaccountably flopped, thereby sending Walker into a tailspin that by his own admission went on for several years. All four albums feature grandiose, baroque orchestral pop anchored by Walker’s bombastic baritone. 30 Century Man includes a couple of Walker’s appearances on late-‘60s British TV shows, and his performances are compellingly weird: solemn, achingly sincere and over the top, but without a hint of camp or levity, the lyrics sung with perfect show-tune enunciation in that doomy baritone.
Sometimes one artist rescues another. One of the more intriguing details in 30 Century Man is the voice-over reminiscence from Julian Cope (a British cult artist himself, though compared to Walker he’s Michael Jackson in terms of name recognition), who tells how he started giving people his own home-made compilation of Scott Walker’s ‘60s work, packaged in a silver sleeve with nothing on it save Walker’s name. The point was to get people to really listen to Walker’s music, and appreciate the strangeness of it, without being distracted or put off by a cover shot of Walker in his ‘60s mop-top pinup phase.
Cope felt that Walker’s greatest-hits collections, the only stuff still in print at the time, did him a profound disservice by marketing his work as oldies aimed at nostalgic housewives. (Walker’s fortunes in the music biz were at a low ebb for long stretches in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and he didn’t have the clout to get his back catalog packaged otherwise.)
Another fascinating moment in 30 Century Man is the way both Bowie and Eno enthuse about the music on Nite Flights, a late-‘70s reunion album of the Walker Brothers. Apparently Walker’s writing and/or production involvement was limited to the first four songs on the album, but those four tunes were so distinctive as to herald an artistic breakthrough for Walker, pointing a way forward after years in the wilderness.
Bowie and Eno heard the LP when it came out (naturally — no laggards, these two), and cite those four songs as having been an inspiration during the recording of Lodger in 1978. The all-too-brief snippet we hear on the soundtrack of 30 Century Man is tantalizing: the song “Nite Flights” is unmistakably a product of the disco era, but distorted, chillier and weirder than your average disco song. (Bowie would actually cover it in 1993.)
You can listen to Scott Walker perform “Nite Flights” here:
You can check out one of Scott Walker’s inimitable late 1960s British TV appearances here (introduced by Dusty Springfield):