If I Jerk the Handle You’ll Die in Your Dreams: Martin Seay on the Goth Adjacency of Scott Walker
Somebody somewhere is probably always in the process of writing something about Scott Walker. When he died last month at the age of 76 I happened to be struggling with this piece, unsure of where to begin with an artist whose music I have probably thought about—and enjoyed, and admired, and been perplexed and irritated by, but mostly thought about—more than anybody else’s for the past twenty-some years. Now, unfortunately, Walker’s demise has provided my opening.
I started writing this over the winter, while I was listening to the sixty-four songs that populate the March Vladness bracket: all arguably examples of goth music, argument being one of the key components of the whole Vladness exercise. I began to wonder what qualifies a particular song as goth, and whether those qualifications ought to reside solely in music and lyrics, or also be sought in more apparently ancillary factors like wardrobe, cosmetics, album covers, music videos, and even the lore of fans. I thought about ways in which the Vladness artists seem to be in conversation with each other, and also with other music that lay outside the bracket.
And although he is very difficult to plausibly characterize as goth, I kept thinking about Scott Walker.
Here’s an apparent paradox: although goth music is principally defined by darkness—preoccupation with gloom, decadence, transgression, the uncanny, the occult, etc.—it’s very rarely actually frightening. (The songs in the bracket that are the most legitimately sinister, at least to my ear—“Blood Bitch,” “Flight,” “Hope Your Dreams Come True,” “In Search of My Rose,” “Starblood”—are also among the most marginally goth, sitting instead under the bigger, weirder umbrella of postpunk.) While the influence of the Velvet Underground, Nico, Pere Ubu, Suicide, Tuxedomoon, Public Image Ltd, This Heat, Throbbing Gristle, etc. etc. is easy to detect throughout the Vladnesssphere, it’s worth noting that these artists’ material is quite often more overtly disturbing or downright scary than that of the more canonically goth bands that they inspired.
Although this struck me as counterintuitive at first, it made total sense when I thought about the role that goth songs play in the lives of their most avid listeners. Goth music is social. Like (for example) the surf and psychedelic music that preceded it and the rave music that followed, it was produced by and for its associated subculture; the subculture didn’t spring up around the music. In order to do its job, goth music has to be intelligible and idiomatic: it has to signal to its intended audience that it is theirs, that it was made for them.
Therefore, while it can be innovative, unsettling, and confrontational, it can’t really be avant-garde. As goth musicologist Isabella van Elferen writes, “Gothic foregrounds itself as a careful mixture of over-referentiality and non-referentiality, a convergence of worn-out formulas depicting ruined castles and implicit hinting at hidden terrors.” This captures the tricky balance that goth artists must manage: borrowing just enough recognizable pop gestures to provide their fans with appealing access points without seeming to pander or sell out, borrowing just enough from experimental music to convey a signature sense of menacing darkness without tipping too far toward the unlistenable.
Thus goth artists—like all artists—sieve adjacent cultural products for material they can use and discard elements that are at odds with what they’re trying to signify, whether those elements are too subtle or too blatant, too obscure or too obvious, too challenging or too anodyne. Sometimes those elements are permanently excluded from goth’s musical rhetoric; sometimes they’re taken up by other musical styles with which they’re a better fit. Sometimes they lurk at the edges of the scene to be incorporated later. Sometimes they watch, and take note, and act on their own.
Here’s Scott Walker in 1965, lip-syncing on German television:
Already you can discern gothic elements: the theatrical baritone, the hard lean into the pathetic fallacy, the conflation of personal malaise with global apocalypse, the notion of loneliness as a cloak. (In the Frankie Valli original, the lyric is “coat.”)
One of a number of acts that earned stateside “British Invasion” hits after making it big in the UK, the Walker Brothers weren’t British, weren’t brothers, and weren’t actually named Walker. Noel Scott Engel was born in Ohio, raised in Denver, New York, and Los Angeles; his parents divorced when he was six, and his childhood, while troubled—he was evidently an avid and accomplished juvenile delinquent—was also notably high-achieving, providing clear inklings of his later career: he recorded an eyebrow-elevating single at around age fourteen, and by sixteen was playing gigs around LA as a session bassist. He eventually made common cause with a couple of other musicians, guitarist John Maus (who’d been performing as John Walker) and drummer Gary Leeds, the latter of whom made a persuasive case for relocating to London, where pop opportunities might be pursued and conscription to Vietnam might be avoided. The ersatz brothers arrived in the UK in 1965; by the end of 1966 Scott was obliged to change his residence every few days to avoid the clutches of passionate fans, such was his meteoric rise to fame.
Like many young icons of the era whose success coincided with a burst of innovation in film, literature, and “serious” music, Walker began to chafe against the circumscribed role of pop singer, and went solo in 1967, recording four well-regarded albums—imaginatively titled Scott through Scott 4—that increasingly put his striking baritone to work in the service of his own songwriting. Unlike many of his peers, who were then exploring the potential of American rock ’n’ roll, trendy electronic and tape-based techniques, and various folk instruments and modes from around the globe, Walker deepened his focus on European art music, employing (and learning from) the sophisticated orchestral arrangements of Angela Morley (then known as Wally Stott) and often interpreting the tart and morbid songs of Belgian chanteur Jacques Brel. Like much else from the era that was hailed at the time as very grown-up, some of what’s on the four Scott albums seems rather adolescent today, but a lot of it still sounds pretty good, particularly Walker’s own compositions.
Accomplished as they are, Walker’s recordings from this period also seem designed to frustrate potential fans from every direction: too music-hall maudlin to suit the mods and hippies, too strange and sordid for the MOR pop audience to handle. Therefore it’s not surprising that the refinement of his idiosyncratic vision coincided with declining sales. For a while he was able to extend his lease on creative freedom by making dispiriting concessions to his label and management (which included briefly hosting a BBC TV variety show) but the balancing act could not and did not last long. After ’Til the Band Comes In—a 1970 flop pitched in the American-vernacular vicinity of Randy Newman and Stephen Sondheim: not bad, actually, but an incongruous swerve, and way irrelevant to the goth topic at hand—Walker didn’t record one of his own compositions for nearly eight years. Instead, he kept his family fed and the label off his back with glassy-eyed workmanlike covers of pop and country songs (Michel Legrand, Henry Mancini, Dan Penn, Billy Joe Shaver) while sinking into an alcoholic fug.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to him, the songs that he’d written and recorded and sent out into the world were exerting their own mysterious agency.
One of the women with whom Walker had been involved during his swinging London days—songwriter Lesley Duncan by some accounts, model Irene Dunford by others—later took up with a younger singer who had named himself David Bowie.
Bowie was then somewhat at sea following an unsuccessful debut album. As he told the tale, he was initially jealous of and annoyed by his girlfriend’s enduring admiration for Walker’s work, but then grew obsessed with it himself. As many have observed, Bowie was a master of digesting and assimilating inputs, and his career-long engagement with Walker makes a pretty fascinating case study: during the early ’70s the only obvious sign of Walker’s influence is Bowie’s sudden incorporation of a couple of Brel songs into his live act, but if we scratch a little deeper it’s not difficult to imagine that the four Scott albums helped aim him toward the approach—theatrical, distanced, oblique, bizarre—that would launch him to stardom, not least on “Space Oddity,” his breakthrough hit.
(At the risk of oversimplifying, Walker’s strategy had been to maintain a clean-cut and conventional appearance in order to ambush his pop audience with outré content. Since Bowie was playing to the rockers, his appearance could be, and maybe had to be, as shocking as his material. And of course the manner of its presentation affected the manner of its reception: listeners who became part of the show through their delight at being scandalized by Bowie’s antics could look blithely past Walker’s treatment of similar themes based on the fact that Walker recorded with orchestras and wore neckties and corduroy blazers.)
By Diamond Dogs Bowie’s borrowings from Walker are easier to hear, particularly as he reaches into his lower register and deploys big vibrato on the long melodic lines of “Sweet Thing.” After a brief hiatus during the “plastic funk” of Young Americans, the sepulchral croon returned, not just as a technique but as the foundation of a new persona, the Thin White Duke: an icy, pale, patrician void in Weimar cabaret garb, fueled by cocaine, dabbling in the occult, and flirting with fascist glamor. Bowie abandoned that “nasty character” in fairly short order after relocating from LA to Berlin, largely to kick his coke habit and get his head straight. But certain aspects of the Duke persist in the three storied albums that he recorded next—Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger—and they’re the same aspects that are also prominent in Walker’s work: cool ironic humor, sophisticated and unorthodox arrangements, and an elliptical, allusive approach to lyrics that’s quite different from other ostensibly “poetic” songwriters of the era.
It’s not really possible to overstate the influence that Bowie’s work from this period (along with the work of collaborators like Brian Eno and Iggy Pop) had on young bands coming up in the musical landscape that had recently been cleared by the semi-controlled burn of the Sex Pistols; it suggested new possibilities to pursue, as well as old sentimental affectations to discard. The array of postpunk kids who were listening and taking notes included some who’d go on to be the foundational artists of gothic music, music that might be fairly characterized (at least in its UK incarnation) as the picking up of threads cast aside by Bowie when he retired the Thin White Duke. While it would be a stretch to say that all gothic music can be traced back to Station to Station’s title track, with its evocation of a corrupt and dissipated European Romanticism bent on self-destruction, the assertion is also not entirely implausible.
It’s too late to be grateful.
It’s too late to be late again.
It’s too late to be hateful.
The European canon is here.
This is where things start to get interesting.
A few older, established musicians were also playing close attention to the albums that Bowie was releasing, and Scott Walker was foremost among them. Things had started to look up for Scott, at least to a limited extent. The Walker Brothers had gotten back together after each had grown dissatisfied with his solo career—they’d managed a chart hit with a pretty good cover of Tom Rush’s “No Regrets”—but by 1978 the reunion had pretty much run its course. With their record label in the process of imploding and the A&R people scouring the want-ads instead of running herd on artists, the Brothers reconvened for a final studio outing. Fairly obviously an attempt to jump-start their solo careers, it consists entirely of their original songs, and basically amounts to solo EPs by Scott and John with a single by Gary in the middle. It’s a strange album. Taken as a whole, I’m not sure it qualifies as good. As is surprisingly often the case for releases that fundamentally alter the course of popular music, it didn’t sell very well.
What’s immediately apparent from Scott’s four songs is that after years of sleepwalking in the studio, he showed up for those final Walker Brothers sessions ready to go to work. He also showed up with a copy of Bowie’s “Heroes”, which he played for the session musicians in order to explain the sound he was after; sure enough, his first two songs land quite credibly on the Bowie–Eno continuum.
The third, “Nite Flights,” the album’s title track, demonstrates a profound critical command of their Berlin innovations, isolating the lightning-in-a-bottle qualities that make the eponymous anthem of “Heroes” a masterpiece and showing that those qualities can be reassembled, repurposed, given new inflections. The first three songs on Nite Flights vault beyond anything Walker had ever done, and yet are entirely of a piece with his earlier work—with the best of it, anyway.
And then there’s the fourth song.
Love it or hate it, this is just an insane piece of popular music, one that takes cool account of both the edgy innovations of postpunk and the sentimental sweep of MOR pop, then shows that the two are not only interpermeable but coextensive, different keys played on the same instrument, kept separate only by persnickety cultural apparatus. “The Electrician” is comprised almost entirely of bad ideas, and yet it succeeds completely, hitting a target that no one but Walker knew even existed, somehow managing to evoke—via exactly zero explicit textual cues—the image of a CIA-funded Latin American torturer erotically reminiscing over past atrocities while jacaranda blossoms sway in the middle distance until he’s shot in the back of the head by a Marxist busboy and expires facedown in a dish of flan de coco. (It evokes that for me, anyway. Your mileage may differ.)
It is almost as if—having examined the catalogue of Bowie’s borrowings from his own work and subsequent advances on those borrowings, and having come off the bench without a warmup to demonstrate his own command of those advances—Walker decided, fuck it, so long as I’m in the studio, I’ll go back to those aspects of my earlier work that Bowie couldn’t figure out how to steal—the spectral skin-crawling orchestrations, the oblique and insinuating narratives, the sneering light-classical kitsch, all stuff that Walker’s record-company woes had obliged him to put on hold as the ’60s ended—and show how they might work within and go beyond the scope of those epochal Berlin albums.
As comebacks go, Nite Flights ain’t Back in Black, but it’s right up there.
Eno brought Nite Flights to the Lodger sessions to play it for Bowie; it knocked them both on their asses. “Imagine,” Chris O’Leary has written, speculating about Bowie’s reaction in this moment, “if a great stone face to whom you’ve been making offerings for years suddenly rumbles up a response, in an approximation of your voice.”
The Lodger track “African Night Flight” is titled in tribute to Walker—although it makes no attempt to engage with his new music, or to otherwise pick up the gauntlet that Walker had implicitly thrown down. Getting to that point would take Bowie years.
Although Nite Flights was largely ignored by the record-buying public, Bowie and Eno were far from the only other artists who took note of it. While Walker’s initial influence on postpunk—and on goth in particular—had been largely routed through and amplified by Bowie, Nite Flights made him directly available and relevant to the conversation.
Many postpunk musicians who would go on to shape the sound of goth studied his four songs closely. David J of Bauhaus has written that their 1982 song “Swing the Heartache” originated in an attempt to adapt “The Electrician” for their own purposes; they played up the dissonant menace, skipped the orchestral interlude. Ian McCulloch of Echo & the Bunnymen—not someone apt to credit non-divine sources for inspiration, as Patri Hadad’s Vladness essay makes clear—has admitted that he and his bandmates were listening to a lot of Walker when they made Ocean Rain, and decided to take a crack at something similarly dark and grandiose. (McCulloch’s pre-Bunnymen bandmate Julian Cope also played a major role in reviving interest in Walker’s early work by compiling the original songs scattered across his then out-of-print solo albums into Fire Escape in the Sky, a collection that established Walker as a major point of reference for the upcoming Britpop generation.) Gavin Friday of the Virgin Prunes is on the record as a Walker fan of long standing; so is Simon Raymonde of Drowning Craze and Cocteau Twins.
But indirect influence is often even more profound, in that those who are thusly influenced can be less self-conscious about the overtness of their theft, and feel more empowered to take liberties with the source material … and thus does Ultravox emerge as the unexpected third protagonist in this tale of Scott Walker and gothic music.
Ultravox was never goth. Early British synthpop peers of Tubeway Army and the Human League, its members were obliged to completely reinvent themselves after their label dropped them and their founder and frontman John Foxx went solo; they recruited rock veteran Midge Ure, then playing keyboards in the supergroup Visage, as his replacement. Negotiations commenced over a new sound, with some advocating for spare drum-machine rhythms and others angling to assert their classically-trained chops. Somebody, probably Ure, suggested that “The Electrician” might provide a template for reconciling both approaches.
This was what the Ultravox guys came up with:
In translating Walker’s original, “Vienna” takes an approach that’s approximately the opposite of Bauhaus’s: instead of jettisoning the “classical” section, Ultravox lets it take over the song. The result isn’t remotely as disturbing as “The Electrician,” but it manages a similar sense of mystery, suggesting a narrative that dissolves into wisps just as the listener closes in.
Released as a single in the opening days of 1981, “Vienna” was a big hit, one of the first to emerge from (and help draw attention to) the up-and-coming scene then centered on the Blitz, a London wine bar where promoter Steve Strange and DJ Rusty Egan had been running a wildly successful David Bowie / Roxy Music night, drawing in kids bored by or excluded from the ascetic aggressiveness of punk and looking for more fashion-forward and gender-fluid social spaces. (Strange and Egan were also respectively the singer and drummer of the aforementioned Visage.) In the early days this coterie was mostly known as the Blitz Kids, and their music was dark, edgy, and heavily electronic. As the popularity of the scene grew beyond the Blitz it became more widely known as “new romantic,” and the acts associated with it—Spandau Ballet, Culture Club, Duran Duran, A Flock of Seagulls—began to incorporate more overt pop hooks, to borrow catchy beats from funk, reggae, and disco, and (not coincidentally) to score bigger and bigger chart hits.
This trend bred discontent among the Blitz contingent. Some thought that mainstream success had diminished the scene’s capacity to safeguard and foster difference; some thought the music had ceded its claims on seriousness and substance in exchange for lucre. Still others were unhappy about the incursion of African diasporic music, either because they had concerns about appropriation and authenticity, or because they just didn’t like it, for aesthetic or bigoted reasons. The point is that anyone inclined to raise any of these objections might well have pointed to “Vienna” as a prelapsarian moment, a signpost showing a direction that bands might have taken but didn’t.
A few of those early-to-mid-’80s pop discontents followed the progressive path blazed by bands like King Crimson; others moved toward the transgressive territory pioneered by Throbbing Gristle. For some, however, the main order of business was reestablishing a social scene. Among these was an enterprising young man called Olli Wisdom who in 1982 started a club night in central London that he (anti-)christened the Batcave.
Although the initial goal of the Batcave’s founding participants was simply to recapture the queer-friendly glam majesty of the early Blitz days, they were concerned that the new scene might also be overrun by opportunists and gawkers; their desire to forestall such casual interest led them to steer a darker course. The result was the emergence of the goth scene in the South of England, which eventually cross-pollinated with gloomier strains of postpunk from Manchester and Leeds, as well as compatible scenes in Europe and the States, to produce goth subculture as we know it today.
As Kurt B. Reighley recounts in his Vladness essay on “Returning from a Journey,” Olli Wisdom was also the singer for Specimen, essentially the Batcave’s house band. (It is probably not a coincidence that the relationship between Wisdom, Specimen, and the Batcave exactly parallels that of Steve Strange, Visage, and the “Bowie nights” at the Blitz.) Vladness bands like Alien Sex Fiend and Sex Gang Children played the Batcave too, and many major figures in goth music—including members of Bauhaus, the Cure, Siouxie & the Banshees, the Cult, and the Birthday Party—were habitués, though for the most part they were just hanging out, not performing. The most consequential musical force associated with the Batcave was probably its DJ, Hamish MacDonald, who like all great DJs not only kept the crowd dancing but also delineated the scene’s aesthetic borders and affinities: glam, rockabilly, postpunk, new wave, deathrock, psychedelia. His sets did more than any Batcave-affiliated band to shape the sound of goth.
The fact that those sets most probably did not include “Vienna”—which isn’t really danceable, and was too closely associated with the new romantic pop that the Batcave had defined itself against—actually would have made it safer for early goth bands to steal from. Although Cocteau Twins toppled it in the first Vladness round, it’s worth revisiting “Returning from a Journey,” if only to appreciate it as a historical document: the first single ever released by a band unquestionably situated inside the goth scene. Kurt’s essay includes a great quote from Rolling Stone that describes “Returning from a Journey” as sounding “like a hip version of the Moody Blues”; as Kurt says, that’s not off the mark. It would be at least as accurate to say—based on its stately intro, its electric-piano interlude, its overall surging-and-receding structure, its cryptic travel narrative, and its motifs of freezing and windows and picture frames—that it also sounds a lot like a rockier version of “Vienna” … which in turn sounds like a poppier version of “The Electrician.”
There’s a fun coda to this story.
After Nite Flights catapulted him from alcoholic obscurity to the pop avant-garde, much speculation ensued among the rock cognoscenti about what Scott Walker would do next. The answer, at least for the next five years, was not much. He eventually landed a deal with Virgin, wrote some new songs, and in 1983 returned to the studio with an odd group of collaborators: Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits and Billy Ocean of “Caribbean Queen” fame, but also prog guitar shred-monster Ray Russell and post-jazz improvising saxophonist Evan Parker. (Parker recalls that pretty much the first words out of Walker’s mouth were “This is not a funk session,” a curious near-echo of the Batcave’s infamous “absolutely no funk” rule.)
The sessions yielded the album Climate of Hunter, which was released the following year, and was allegedly the worst-selling LP that Virgin ever produced. Its commercial prospects were dimmed by standard Walker touches like creepy sustained chords and super-perplexing lyrics—the list of singers who can sell a line like “Cro-Magnon herders will stand in the wind” is very short, and Walker ain’t on it—as well as the fact that half of its eight tracks (including the single!) are untitled. On the whole, though, it’s quite good: the aforementioned single is a persuasive modern rock number that employs effective close harmony by Ocean; the remainder includes some of the most straightforwardly beautiful songs of Walker’s career. (A couple of these feature Parker’s signature squalls of notes, in what one suspects was a deliberate effort on Walker’s part to dirty up the prettiness.)
What Climate is not, however, is a significant advance over the songs on Nite Flights. It feels like Walker figuring out what he can do with his new strategies and methods, like he’s pausing to fill in a few gaps on his map before pushing on into new territories. The worst that can be said of the album, probably, is that some of it sounds very much of its era: extremely gated drums, extremely fretless bass. Interviews with the players suggest that at some point during the recording process Walker became aware that reversion to standard procedure might be an issue; he started asking them to record their parts without any knowledge of what his vocal melody would sound like, with the goal of shaking them out of their accompanist habits. The effects of this tactic aren’t very pronounced on Climate; they’d become more significant later.
While Climate was (and remains) widely admired, the most devoted Scott-watchers predicted, correctly, that it was a stopover on the way to something more radical, something that would have implications for pop music similar to but even more sweeping than those “The Electrician” had posed. No two Scott-watchers, of course, were more devoted than David Bowie and Brian Eno. They’d gone their separate ways after Lodger; around the time that Climate of Hunter was unleashed on a mostly uncaring world they were both enjoying extraordinary success, with Eno establishing ambient music as a genre while establishing himself as a legendary producer, and Bowie releasing Let’s Dance, the most commercially successful album of his career. Nevertheless, neither could entirely shake the suspicion that, as Eno has put it, popular music had failed to move beyond “The Electrician,” failed to respond adequately to the challenge that it represented. So Eno and Bowie both waited, separately, to see what Walker’s next move would be. And waited.
And waited. The albums that Bowie produced after Let’s Dance were not good; he knew they weren’t good. He increasingly devoted himself to painting and to acting. He tried to step back from his superstar status by starting a rock band, Tin Machine, of which he’d be only one of four equal members. It didn’t work; the music wasn’t coming together.
At his 1992 wedding, Bowie renewed his acquaintance with Eno, then at the height of his producer mystique following the success of U2’s Achtung Baby. They resolved to work together again, and tried to figure out what the nature of their reunion project should be. Inevitably, the topic of Scott Walker came up. They noted the long gap that had stretched between Nite Flights and Climate of Hunter, and the even longer gap that had followed Climate, a gap that continued to grow. They eventually concluded that it was unlikely they’d ever get to see Walker further refine his vision: that for whatever personal or market-related reason, he would probably never make another record. (Eno and Daniel Lanois had actually approached Walker in the hope of producing his second album for Virgin, but Walker didn’t connect with Lanois, and sent them packing.) Why not, they figured, try picking up where Walker had left off, making music that acknowledged and tried to take account of “The Electrician,” instead of pretending that it had never happened?
In 1993 Bowie included a very 1993-sounding cover of “Nite Flights” on his album Black Tie White Noise, a clear signal of where his head was, and a strong indication that he was once again looking to Walker to show him a path forward, just as he had done once before, at the dawn of his career. By the next year he and Eno were in the studio together again, resolved to go wherever inspiration took them.
They recorded a massive amount of material. A lot of it wasn’t music at all, but monologues based on a story that Bowie had written, a noir-ish tale set in the performance art world of the near future. The songs were all written in the studio based on improvisations—something that Walker would never do—and they emerged in the voices of Bowie’s fictional characters; thanks to the elaborate underlying narrative, the lyrics had a compelling tip-of-the-iceberg quality that recalled Walker’s in their coherent obscurity. The arrangements incorporated electronic and industrial elements, as well as ornate, almost classical flourishes; they seemed to head in directions that Walker might have gone.
The calendar rolled from 1994 into 1995. Bowie and Eno were convinced that somewhere in their hours of audio lay a fantastic album—maybe an album with no commercial prospects, and not necessarily one that Scott Walker would have made, but one that he would listen to with respect and admiration, the way he’d heard their Berlin work.
Then, more or less out of nowhere, Fontana Records announced that it would soon be releasing an album by Scott Walker, his first in over a decade.
Shit, Bowie and Eno thought. He scooped us. Scott Walker is going to release his new Scott Walker album before we can release our new Scott Walker album.
As it turned out, they needn’t have worried. Tilt, the album that Fontana issued in May of 1995, didn’t sound anything like Bowie’s and Eno’s take on Walker’s work. In fact, it didn’t sound like anything ever recorded by anybody, and to a great extent it still doesn’t.
From the late ’60s up through Climate of Hunter, Walker’s strategies as a composer had been additive: he wanted to see what odd and difficult things he could get the structure of a pop song to support. With Tilt, his strategies became subtractive: he set out to discover what a song could omit and still function. (Now completely committed to the practice of withholding main melodies from his session players, he took to recording his vocals only when everyone but his engineer had left the studio.) One often hears it said of Tilt’s nine tracks (and of the other music that Walker spent the rest of his life making) that they aren’t even songs anymore. Walker always objected to this take: I definitely think of these as songs, he’d say. He was right. If you seek out verses, choruses, and the occasional bridge, you’ll have no trouble finding them.
Instead, Walker’s subtractions are vertical, excising rhythmic and harmonic cues that are taken so for granted in pop music as to be unnoticeable—until they’re missing, that is. There’s plenty of traditional rock instrumentation on Tilt, but Walker always uses it deliberately and selectively: the presence of guitar, drums, and bass can’t ever be assumed, and when they do appear their roles are hard to predict. As a result, Walker’s voice is left exposed: instead of gliding along on riffs, it has to carry the full weight of each song. As if to emphasize the strain that it’s under, Walker sings most of Tilt near the top of his range, depriving both himself and his listeners of the rich baritone that made him a star. The cumulative effect is consistently unsettling, often disturbing, and occasionally terrifying.
Here’s a case in point (and be careful with that volume knob):
This is what going beyond “The Electrician” sounds like. “The Cockfighter” is one of those songs that can spoil other music for you: if you can bear to listen to it at all, it completely kicks ass, moving decisively from note to note as it leads you deep into uncharted waters. The nearly inaudible muttering of the intro sets up a wall of percussive noise that in turn sets up the agitated vocal (with its WTF double-tracking on the word “night”). The arrangement settles briefly into song form, then derails itself, collapsing into directionless chaos; after an adhan-like guitar solo it leaps back into comfortable rock-’n’-roll territory, with a steady snare beat and a propulsive bassline. At this point the lyrics, too, become easy to parse, a series of flat declarations, but they also take on the creepy distanced character of found text (which in fact they are, from the 1820 House of Lords debate over Queen Caroline’s alleged adultery and the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann). Finally, just as we’re starting to relax and maybe tap our toes a little, the wall of noise crashes back in to beat the song to death. It’s a very eventful six minutes. In its uncompromising seriousness, its black humor, and its coruscating angst, “The Cockfighter” is a bracingly high-modernist enterprise, right down to its Waste-Land-ian quoted fragments.
Although nobody could have seen Tilt coming, Bowie and Eno should probably be credited for guessing that Walker would absorb the influence of industrial music, particularly that of artists like Trent Reznor who are equally conversant with both harsh noise and conventional compositional techniques—which is to say, those industrial artists whose work overlaps into goth territory. That’s certainly where Bowie and Eno ended up with their own Walker-inspired project: Bowie’s LP Outside, released a few months after Tilt. Although it received middling reviews and didn’t perform especially well sales-wise, Outside’s reputation has grown in the intervening years, and rightly so: despite its somewhat unwieldy 75-minute runtime, and the fact that its songs are interspersed with dramatic monologues that make it very difficult to listen to while casually doing the dishes or whatever, it’s certainly the best album that Bowie made in the ’90s. Catch me in the right mood and I might try to convince you that it’s his best album, period.
Some of the more measured and doleful songs on Outside—“A Small Plot of Land,” “The Motel,” “Wishful Beginnings”—are pretty clearly inspired by Walker’s work. Bowie would remain in conversation with it for the rest of his life, in large and small ways; most obviously, his vocals on “Heat” from The Next Day and “Sue (In a Season of Crime)” from Blackstar borrow the high and precise exposed timbre that we hear on Tilt and other late Walker albums. And Bowie remained steadfast in his public admiration of Walker, frequently talking up his late work as underappreciated, eventually serving as executive producer of the 2008 documentary Scott Walker: 30 Century Man. (There’s some very sweet and touching audio of Bowie on Mary Anne Hobbs’ radio show, listening to a recorded message from Walker wishing him a happy fiftieth birthday; it leaves Bowie nearly in tears.)
Ultimately, however, Outside is too good to be summed up as an album-long engagement with Walker; it has more and better ideas than that. It’s fairer to think of it as an album-long engagement with goth. Somewhat superficially, we hear goth music referenced in Outside’s industrial and electronic textures, as well as in the crushed-velvet Romanticism of pianist Mike Garson’s sweeping flourishes. Goth style and goth culture also supply the album’s visual signature, as the video for “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” demonstrates.
But Outside pushes beyond mere citation. The motifs of aestheticized millenarian violence that thread through its lyrics and its complex underlying narrative evoke profound concerns and anxieties to which goth is itself a response, foremost among them the inescapability of embodiment and the recognition of mortality. (These, Bowie indicated in interviews, constitute the “filthy lesson” that the heart teaches and learns.) The fictional text that appears in Outside’s liner notes—an apparent fragment of a cyberpunky murder mystery that weirdly doubles as a critical essay—takes body art as its main subject, and refers specifically to the work of Ron Athey, former partner of Christian Death founder Rozz Williams. As Elana Levin has pointed out, in her Vladness essay on Christian Death and elsewhere, the origins of the goth subculture can’t be untangled from the AIDS crisis, which began to take hold during the Batcave days and reached maximum lethality in Europe and the U.S. around the time that Outside was released. As Bowie suggests, the metaphors and practices most closely associated with goth—vampirism, neo-paganism, etc.—functioned as tools for understanding life and death during the epidemic, tools that might be used with greater or lesser degrees of responsibility, thoughtfulness, and good faith. (“The music was awful!” Robert Smith of the Cure once said of the Batcave. “That whole romanticism of death! Anybody who’s ever experienced death firsthand could tell you there's nothing romantic about it.”)
As different as it is from Outside, Walker’s late work seems to cast a similarly sympathetic but critical eye toward goth. As we’ve seen, his interests as a lyricist were wide-ranging and obscure, but throughout his songwriting career he displayed an interest in the grotesque and the abject, as well as a predilection for portraying history and culture very specifically as things that are produced by, and happen to, human bodies. Tilt, for instance, opens with a song about the murder of Pier Paolo Pasolini, and includes another about the execution of revolutionary (and physician) Che Guevara. (The juxtaposition of Caroline and Eichmann in “The Cockfighter” is probably also interpretable as an exploration of bodies as the subjects and objects of state control.) Walker’s 2006 follow-up The Drift features a track addressed by Elvis Presley to his stillborn twin brother (it also conflates the two of them with the twin towers of the World Trade Center, to head-scratching effect), as well as a remarkable long composition about Mussolini’s mistress Clara Petacci, who was executed with him in Milan; some of the percussion consists of someone punching slabs of meat. Even beyond these specific examples, it’s worth noting that beginning with Tilt, Walker’s practice of foregrounding his exposed voice has the effect of reawakening us to singing as a bodily endeavor, to the repressed or suppressed consciousness of air being sucked into wet lungs, vibrating in a fragile throat.
If the thing about goth is that it’s always intelligible and idiomatic, then the thing about Walker is that he’s not. Although in this sense he can never be persuasively positioned under the goth umbrella, it’s still difficult to imagine how he might have produced his haunting, abrasive late work without its influence, or at the very least without exposure to the broader milieu that seeps outward from goth into the culture at large. And, of course, it’s just as difficult to imagine goth without the sound and sensibility that he modeled for several of its major artists in their early days.
To Walker’s remarkable obituary, then, allow me to add this: while there are many goth-adjacent artists whose music is less frightening than goth itself, and there are quite a few whose music is more frightening, Walker the only one I can think of who started his career among the first and ended it among the second. With that in mind, I nominate him as an appropriate bookend for the Vladness season.
Martin Seay’s debut novel The Mirror Thief was published by Melville House in 2016. Originally from Texas, he lives in Chicago with his spouse, the writer Kathleen Rooney.