Nightmarish imagination: "30 Century Man" pays tribute to a timeless, still envelope-pushing talent, Scott Walker. (Photo by Grant Gee, courtesy Plexifilm)

'Scott Walker: 30 Century Man'

Dennis Harvey January 21, 2009

Popular music fame is usually fleeting, and very hard to predict in the long run. Who’d have guessed that, say, The Velvet Underground or Nick Drake would wind up enormously influential and revered, particularly amongst other musicians? At the time, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, they were just blips on the radar whose albums sold poorly.

Scott Walker is another such case, albeit one who actually lived to tell the tale and feed his latterday cult with ever-more adventurous music. That is, after a wee "nearly 20-year hiatus," as he puts it in Stephen Kijak’s Scott Walker: 30 Century Man. This documentary, which opens at Landmark Cinemas Friday, is significant as more than just a well-deserved tribute and/or introduction to a fascinating artist—it’s also virtually the first time he’s allowed himself to be filmed and interviewed after decades of "Garbo-like" elusiveness. Fan David Bowie (also this film’s executive producer) isn’t entirely joking when he laughs "Who really knows anything about Scott Walker?"

We do, after spending 30 Century Man’s 90-plus minutes with a surprisingly forthcoming subject. Born Scott Engle in Bible Belt-vanilla Ohio, he was a prodigy recording demos by age 13. As part of the Walker Brothers—none actually brothers, or named Walker for that matter—he first made a splash in the starry Sunset Boulevard discotheque scene of 1965 at legendary venues like the Peppermint Lounge and Whisky-a-Go-Go.

When the group decided to move to London that same year, they became huge pop stars, exciting such teen-idol hysteria that at one terrifying point their car was overturned by screaming fans. Presumably such experiences helped foster Scott’s later reclusiveness.

Though not initially a lead singer, his strikingly deep, vibrato-throbbing voice propelled the Brothers’ dramatic ballads to the top of the charts. (In a bizarre testimony to the era’s catch-all booking policies, we see a poster of the Walker Bros. as headliners with pop folkie Cat Stevens, acid-rock Jimi Hendrix and lounge crooner Englebert Humperdink as support acts.)

But the group split acrimoniously, largely due to Scott’s discomfort as a pop idol. There followed four memorable solo albums in three years, increasingly dominated by his own idiosyncratic songwriting—influenced as much by classical composers and Gregorian chant as Jacques Brel.

Changing musical fashions and the surprise failure of 1969’s masterly LP Scott 4, however, led to an embittering surrender of creative control, a brief Walker Brothers reunion, and very long breaks from solo work just as the latter was being rediscovered by a new generation of musicians and listeners.

With their often bizarre lyrical imagery, alternately sweeping/discordant string arrangements, and pervasive melancholy, such classic tracks as "Big Louise" remain shiver-inducing. As Brian Eno says here, these are "very, very spaced-out pop songs." Later on, when he finally returned to the studio at ten-year intervals, the "pop" label would hardly apply as increasingly avant-garde albums encompassed extreme minimalism, cacophony, and "instruments" ranging from a metal trash can to a braying donkey. "I have a very nightmarish imagination," he admits, and the beautiful gloom of earlier efforts now sometimes morphs into almost terrifying yet concise experimental soundscapes with utterly inexplicable lyrics.

While never so vulgar as to simply fawn over its subject—he’d no doubt be appalled by that—30 Century Man nonetheless pays tribute to his timeless, still envelope-pushing talent. Enthusiasts and sometime collaborators here run a starry, sometimes surprising gamut, encompassing Blur’s Damon Albarn, art-song diva Ute Lemper, Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker, former fellow teen idol Lulu, Radiohead, Soft Cell’s Marc Almond, The Smiths’ Johnny Marr, and (gasp!) Sting. The real surprise is Walker himself, who comes off as quite pleasant and straightforward even while admitting his creative process is largely tortuous for himself and others.