Scott Walker – The Seventh Seal
Some pop stars play the game for their entire careers – having figured out their sound, they tend not to deviate too far from it for fear of alienating their fanbase or scaring off radio programmers. It’s a perfectly legitimate way of doing things – after all, no one wants an album of murder ballads from Sinitta – but it doesn’t prevent the inevitable from happening, which is that one day their records will fail to sell in the quantities they used to.
Other pop stars come at it from a completely different angle – rather than chasing their audience they ask them to follow, fully aware that an awful lot might just make the jump to the nearest non-threatening equivalent. The greatest example of such a pop star is without doubt Scott Walker.
As the most photogenic of The Walker Brothers, Scott spent the early part of the 1960s as the definitive housewives’ favourite, scoring huge, for the ages hits with Make It Easy on Yourself, My Ship is Coming In and The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore. His ship most definitely in, he decided to jump it in 1967 and embarked on a solo career, and it got off to a cracking start with his debut album Scott – but its contents indicated that the crooner was transforming into a troubadour, and one with a darker side than we’d previously been led to expect. A mixture of his own compositions – Montague Terrace (In Blue) being the trippy highlight – and some choice cover versions, Scott was most notable for its inclusion of three Jacques Brel songs. To give some modern perspective, this would be like Zayn Malik turning to Rufus Wainwright for inspiration.
The Brel connection continued on Scott 2 and Scott 3, with the former scoring a hit single in the form of Jackie, later covered by Scott‘s (un)natural heir, Marc Almond. But all this talk of opium dens, death, plague and prostitution began to prove a little too challenging for a mainstream audience, though I suspect this was Scott’s intention all along. By the time Scott 4 appeared (originally released under his real name, Noel Scott Engel) record buyers had lost all interest, and it failed to chart at all – despite being arguably the most commercial of the lot, and without a Jacques Brel song in sight. The entire album was self-penned and for me its standout was the opening track, The Seventh Seal.
Based on Ingmar Bergman‘s film of the same name – you didn’t get this with Joe Dolan – it replaces the gallop of Jackie with more of a brisk canter, dropping in a Mariachi band and some longing, gloriously swirling strings. The end result is a holiday to Sweden, via Mexico and in the company of Death. It’s completely bonkers, played utterly straight and sung with an end-of-days intensity. I bloody love it.
If it appeared at the time that no-one was particularly paying attention, there were most definitely some who later did. Fast forward to 2002 and Robbie Williams‘ fifth album Escapology – nestling at the heart of the record is Me and My Monkey, where many of the elements in The Seventh Seal can be found, repurposed to million selling effect. Got to love Guy Chambers.
For Scott, a short-lived Walker Brothers reunion beckoned (yielding the amazing No Regrets) and an intermittent series of challenging – some might say unlistenable – albums. Let’s see if Zayn follows the same path.
Entered chart: Was not released
Who could sing this today and have a hit? Are you kidding? Robbie Williams is really the only candidate. He’s already had his own Scott 4 in the form of Rudebox, so why not?
Robbie Williams must be the obvious modern comparison point for Scott – when a youngster asked me some time ago to give an example of the shift that Scott had made in his musical career from the 60’s to the current era that began with “Climate Of Hunter” (still Virgin’s worst-ever selling album!), I said to imagine Robbie Williams disappearing for 10 years, and his comeback album being “Kid A”…
I do like “modern” Scott for different reasons, but those first 4 numbered albums are just spectacular, especially “4” itself, and yes, this track is fantastic… nice choice.