Artist: Scott Walker
Title: Montague Terrace (In Blue)
Description: album track, Scott
Release date: 1967
First heard: 1990
Yes. I, too, was hoodwinked into the Easy Listening revival of the mid-90s when Mike Flowers stalked the earth. I, too, remembered with ironic fondness my parents’ Jack Jones and Andy Williams LPs, and enjoyed revisiting them with a straight face. But some years before it was officially decreed that “loungecore” and the theme to Animal Magic were cool, in 1990, PolyGram put out Boy Child, a fine 20-track compilation of Scott Walker’s best work, and it was with 100% sincerity that I lost myself in it.
Dimly aware of his work with the Walker Brothers through the pop radio of my youth, up to that point he’d not crossed my radar as this spicy cavalier of sleazy Euro-theatricality, from Hamilton, Ohio to swinging London via Brussels and Paris. Boy Child duly pointed me at his solo work, the albums so helpfully numbered for my listening pleasure. I knew less about Jacques Brel and only belatedly discovered that Walker was instrumental in popularising Eric Blau and Mort Shuman’s English translations, including a handful on Scotts 1-3, where he was clearly feeling the Brel influence on his self-penned tracks.
I’m still captivated by his whip-cracking, high-salt-content interpretations of Brel numbers like Jackie, Amsterdam, My Death, Next and The Girls And The Dogs, with their politically incorrect talk of “queers” and “procuring young girls”. However, it’s important to note that many of my favourite Walker tracks are neither the work of Brel and his co-writers, nor covers at all, but credited to Noel Scott Engel himself.
Having thrown myself into a Scott Walker maelstrom in order to sift out my all-time favourite, I find myself almost physically unable to listen to anything else. It all seems so mechanical, faceless and fashion-led by comparison. (This is not to do a disservice to All Other Music, but to accentuate what makes the sound of Scott Walker so different, so appealing.) As well as this piece de resistance, I’m also super-fond of Engel compositions Plastic Palace People (more of a suite), The Girls From The Streets (which you’d swear was a Brel original) and Always Coming Back To You. But I am not alone, I suspect, in falling deeply in love with Montague Terrace. (Nor looking for the actual street, in vain. I read somewhere that it’s in Bromley, not the West End, although I seem to recall Stuart Maconie recording a link for a Scott Walker radio documentary in Montague Street in Bloomsbury as if that was enough.)
The orchestral arrangement by Wally Stott* (how excited was I when I discovered a link between Walker and Tony Hancock, whose theme and incidental music Stott composed?) is sublime. The expectant strings, the tinkle of the chimes, Walker crooning as if out of an open window at the moon: “The only sound to tear through the night comes from the man upstairs.” This man’s “bloated belching” and imagined propensity to “crash through the ceiling soon” evoke a similarly seedy, cheapside, harbour-lit milieu to one Brel might have painted. And then that crack of drums.
The orchestra swirls around the narrator, as if in some West End musical, Walker nudged into the background by the swell as he hits the lamenting heights with a brass-backed chorus that finally names Montague Terrace … in blue. The reveal of its colour scheme delivers us back to the limpid quiet of the intro. It’s just what grunge would do 25 years later when Walker was approved for a new generation: quiet verse, loud chorus. Or in his case, limpid verse, oompah-pah chorus.
I love the percussion. I love the shifts from foreground to background. But I love Walker’s acrobatic voice most of all. The image I conjure is of Fenella Fielding’s vamp in Carry On Screaming (released the year before), who asks Det Sgt Bung, “Do you mind if I smoke?” and then starts to literally smoulder on the chaise longue until she disappears beneath the erotic fug. There goes Scott Walker into that lively pea souper. He loves a party with a slightly threatening atmosphere. Especially if there might be some sailors. And a girl whose “thighs are full of tales to tell.”
Interestingly, as a student in the mid-80s, ahead of the curve, I’d compiled Mum and Dad’s easy listenin’ LPs onto a cassette one summer – perhaps as arch respite from the endless Goth, psychobilly and 4AD arthouse. Either way, I appreciated the potency of this expensive music. And Scott Walker’s first four solo albums – the last of which contained no covers, no Brel, the stablilisers were off – remain four of my favourites. Only Morrissey, Eno, McCartney and Peter Gabriel could make a claim for the greatness of their first four solo albums after being in a successful group.
Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going off to listen to Scott Walker.
*Subsequently, after 1972, Angela Morley, whose score to Watership Down we often play on my Classic FM programme.