Whenever I talk about David Bowie, the observation that Bowie is “a god among men” usually follows within the first two sentences. But a couple of things in the past few weeks have forced me to re-examine this nugget conventional pop-culture-meets-counter-culture wisdom. The first instance came when I re-watched Labyrinth with my son two weeks ago. I loved it when it came out, but unlike the Bowie himself, the film has not aged well. At all.
The second instance came while I was perusing the youtubes for any Walker Brothers footage circa their 1978 album, Nite Flights. I found none, but I did find the above video for David Bowie’s cover version of the title track. It’s no secret that Bowie has long admired– some may say imitated– Scott Walker’s vocal style. But he somehow manages to drain all the life out of the song. It’s so bad he nearly falls asleep at the keyboard. Let’s not even talk about the people moving the lights around for super special shadow effects. It’s just bad, bad, bad.
Here is the original for comparison:
Nite Flights is not the best Walker Brothers album, but it’s certainly the weirdest. The band had split up in 1968 only to reform in 1975. In the intervening years, Scott Walker recorded several solo albums, including his masterpiece, Scott 3. If you stop to think about just how drastically pop music changed between 1968 and 1978, it’s easy to see why Nite Flights is so different from the early Walker Brothers albums. It’s even very different from their other two post-reunion records. But if you listen to Nite Flights in the context of what was popular in 1978, it sounds remarkably ahead of its time.
While the Walker Brothers were crafting their hit-and-miss album, David Bowie was a year into his staggeringly awesome Berlin Trilogy.
Few things will affirm that Bowie is indeed a god among men like listening to Low, Lodger, or “Heroes”. But let’s jump forward another decade to the aforementioned Labyrinth and accompanying Never Let Me Down LP. I bought it went it came out and count myself fortunate to have seen the Glass Spider Tour, but I never fell in love with the album. Bowie himself was displeased with the effort, even though it was his best-selling record up to that time. In fact, it was this album and tour that drove him insane enough to start the ill-fated Tin Machine. I saw Tin Machine on tour and remember thinking that this was a band nobody would buy tickets to see if it wasn’t for the fact the singer was a god among men.
Now, fast forward a decade on from Nite Flights and what do we have? Scott Walker’s output has slowed to the agonizing crawl that would come to define his work in the last 30 years. Since 1984, Walker has released one album every 11 years. And with each album, he goes further and further out, pushing boundaries and making what can only be called art. In the same span of time, Bowie has recorded 10 albums (including the two Tin Machine LPs) none of which are worthy of even lesser deity status.
To put a point on it, in the last 10 years, David Bowie has done this:
While Scott Walker has done this:
I know which one I’d rather listen to now and it will probably be as interesting and challenging in another 10 years. The other will not. If you haven’t seen the documentary about Scott Walker, 30 Century Man, do so. It is streaming on Netflix. In the meantime, this BBC interview from a few years back will catch you up with what he’s all about.
If past is precedent, the Next Scott Walker album will be out sometime in 2017.