30 March 2008

Scott Walker - 'Til The Band Comes In

Scott Walker - Til The Band Comes In

Label: Phillips
Year of Issue: 1970

”Like Planet of the Apes on TV/ The second side of ‘Til the Band Comes In…/ he’s gonna let you down, my friend” ”Bad Cover Version” – Pulp

My, this album has had a bum rap over the years. Not included in Phonogram’s reissue and remasters campaign (which Scotts 1 – 4 were), left to be released again by the indie Beat Goes On records in the nineties, largely ignored, then deleted for a second time… then referenced years into the future by Jarvis Cocker on the “We Love Life” album in a disparaging manner. Even Scott himself, who produced Pulp’s final outing, has never referred to the album that kindly.

To understand why it’s been so maligned by all concerned you have to have some awareness of the market it arrived into. By this point, Scott just wasn’t selling records anymore, whatever their quality. “Scott 4” had bombed despite its brilliance, and his standing in the commercial marketplace was some way beneath what it had been a mere two years before, when he had enjoyed his own primetime TV series on British television. He had become reduced to crooning cover versions in clubs to earn a crust, the Batley Variety Club being a particularly popular choice for return appearances.

In terms of artistic integrity, Scott himself is bound to look back on this album with something of a frown. His new manager Ady Semel took him to one side before its release and advised him strongly to consider a rethink in his artistic approach. One of Semel's first acts was to apparently take a biro to the lyric sheets and “strike out words likely to offend old ladies”. He also attempted to reign in what he apparently saw as Scott’s tendencies towards self-indulgence, or, as Walker more tactfully put it: “stopped me from going overboard, which I have a tendency to do”. Semel’s name appears on the songwriting credits for all of the tracks, which strongly suggests an enormous amount of collaboration was going on, enough for the manager to take home a share of the (meager) royalties this album produced. Another act Semel managed, Esther Ofarim, even appears on lead vocals for no apparent good reason on the track “Long About Now”. This has always struck me as a senseless move – when I buy an album by a solo artist, I don’t expect there to be “guest appearances” from other more obscure artists I might possibly be interested in. One has to wonder why Semel was so confident he could put Walker’s career back on track with this attitude, or who exactly was benefiting most from the whole arrangement.

So then… whilst such demands were going on, it’s safe to say that “Til The Band Comes In” never had a hope in hell of becoming another “Scott 3” or “Scott 4”. It’s also the first album of his since “Scott 2” to see a return of some cover versions which aren’t perhaps the best choices for him and seem rather like hack-jobs. Perhaps at this point, dear reader, you are scratching your head asking yourself what the possible case for the defence could be, and for that you could be forgiven.

The truth is that whilst “Til The Band Comes In” may be patchy, it actually contains some of Walker’s finest work, and for that reason alone it shouldn’t be completely dismissed out of hand. The first ten tracks of the album actually present what appears to be a coherent concept. The echoing slams of doors and children’s shouts on “Prologue” along with the weary string arrangements paint an aural picture of a noisy housing estate, and as a lyrical introduction the absolutely fantastic “Little Things That Keep Us Together” seems to paint a universal picture, referencing the crises of other people and global tragedies as being “little things that keep us all close and warm while the war’s going on”. From then on, each track is a character portrait of a different individual, and it’s easy to picture a camera zooming around the estate from one window to the next. “Joe” sees Walker on top form lyrically, focusing his attention on an elderly man whose loneliness stems from the fact he has managed to outlive everyone he knows, telling us:

You've been beyond the boundaries,
understood it all
and thought of nothing.
The ultimate was simple to your eyes -
just watch the world make madness
as the youth cried their replies,
an old man knows far better than to try.

They say towards the end
you hardly left your shabby room
where once you loved to go
walking through the day.
Sit back and watch a spider
weave your window cross the moon,
and meals on wheels laughed kindly
when you'd say:
"There ain't no-one left alive to call me Joe
To call me Joe
No-one left alive to call me Joe".

Beyond that admittedly rather bleak observation, there were other more upbeat characters such as the young ruffian on the rather Walker Brothers-esque “Thanks for Chicago Mr James” (a track which at one point was slated to be a single, and might have stood a chance of being a hit), and the Eastern European immigrant (and stripper) on “Jean the Machine”, whose neighbours are convinced she is a spy.

Naturally, by the time the cluster of cover versions schmaltz their way into view at the end of the album, it ends on a damp squib rather than any sort of bold conclusion. If it had been issued at budget price as a mini-album and ended on the uplifting “Epilogue – The War Is Over”, it would have made a great deal more sense and would almost certainly have evaded the criticism it seems to have become dogged with over the last few decades. Perhaps we should try our hardest to ignore these failings, however, and instead focus on the positive. “Til The Band Comes In” would easily be better than anything Scott released for almost another decade, and in addition to that is probably the equal of “Scott” and “Scott 2” in terms of overall quality, two albums which have never attracted quite so much vitriol despite their periodic MOR leanings. Those two LPs, of course, are available on Amazon at reasonable prices for anyone who wants them. “Til The Band Comes In” usually sells on ebay for a small fortune. If you’d like the chance to hear it without worrying your bank accounts too much, click on the link below to download the whole thing. I can assure you that you won’t be as disappointed as you think.

(Sorry - this album has now been reissued in the UK by Cargo distribution as of July 2008, and so the download link has been removed to avoid potential "issues". I would hugely encourage you to buy it, however, and well done to Cargo for finally reissuing something which didn't deserve to be left gathering dust, even if it has caused the value of my copy to plummet...)


Paperback Tourist said...

'Til the Band Comes In' is one of the great what-ifs as far as I'm concerned. 'Little Things' has that incredible time sequence and a really hectic arrangement. It's so confident and promises a masterpiece. It also has my absolute favourite lyric of early solo Scott -- very funny. Bookend that, as you point out, with 'The War Is Over' -- I love this song so much -- and you can only imagine what a superb record originally lay between. Disappointment aside, I do really like 'Stormy'. Thinking about it has inspired me to listen to 'It's Raining Today' from 'Scott 2'...

Paperback Tourist said...

BTW, I should imagine 'Joe' was influenced by Samuel Beckett's spooky 1967 TV play 'Eh, Joe'.

23 Daves said...

I'd never made that connection before! Although it has to be said that I'd almost forgotten "Eh Joe" even existed... there seems to be quite a bit of crossover between the two, though, and knowing Walker's reading and viewing tastes it can't be too much of a coincidence.

To be honest, I rate almost all of the Walker-penned tracks on the album highly lyrically. There are no huge great clunking lines like "His mother called him Ivan, then she died".

Musically, there's also more than enough there, I think... albeit obviously heavily compromised. I do love "Thanks for Chicago", "Joe" and "Time Operator" as well as the tracks you mention, so it's not a bad strike rate at all.

Paperback Tourist said...

I've been trying to find Scott doing panto on 'The Frankie Howerd Show' but somehow YouTube doesn't have it.

We'll have to do with Murial Grey's snidefest on the wunnerful Tube:
She's since apologized.

edgarholland said...

I have loved this album since the early '90's when a member of Walkerpeople taped me a copy. Scott's songs are strong - if not as great as S3 or S4, but so what? These would be the last time his own songs would appear on LP until '78's "Nite Flights". His voice was at one of it's peaks during 69/70. This album works as a coda to the "Scott" albums.

Dale said...

Remove the cover tracks (they could have been singles or even an EP)release tracks one through ten as the album and I wager we'd be talking SCOTT 5. Presentation is everything! By 1970 standards it wouldn't have been a mini LP-SCOTT 4 was thirty one minutes long.