Thursday, 7 February 2013
Classic Albums No.4: 'Til The Band Comes In
Now, if this list of classic albums were strictly to be in chronological order, we’d be looking at “Pet Sounds” now, or “Sticky Fingers”, or something like that. But I am not sure what I could say about those records that hasn’t already been said. Maybe another time. So I figured I would pick the first of my favourites that aren’t necessarily critically acclaimed long players, but which I completely and utterly love. Records that might even be regarded as amongst the weakest in said artist’s back catalogue, but which I keep returning to, or keep meaning to return to. Records that maybe, in my view, deserve to become the centre of attention, but are currently overshadowed by other albums in the artists' repertoire, or maybe are simply overshadowed by other bands altogether.
“’Til The Band Comes In” is not necessarily the greatest Scott Walker LP. If I was writing for Mojo, it’d be “Scott 3” or “Scott 4”, if I was writing for Clash, it would probably be “Tilt” or “The Drift”. Obvious choices, depending on your age, basically. But it’s this mega flop from 1970 that I love the most. Yes, choosing this one above all others - currently not available on CD in the UK - might be a bit snobby, but I can’t help it. This record is, until it gets towards the final stages, a piece of towering genius.
You have to rewind a bit to put the recording of the album into context. Scott forms The Walker Brothers in the early 60's, they turn into huge stars, then split. He exerts more “artistic control” over his work, releases some huge selling solo albums, but starts to go a bit “pompous” - there are stories of audiences being told to remain silent during gigs until songs are over, and reports that the man himself is “bored” of some of his hit singles, seemingly only weeks after debuting them on stage. In 1969, he records the remarkable “Scott 3”, ten self penned songs and three by his beloved Jacques Brel, and it shifts quite a few copies - but not quite as many as it’s predecessor, the chart topping “Scott 2”.
Scott gets invited to do his own TV show, agrees, but is told by the powers that be that he will be required to do a few “MOR Standards” in each show in order to avoid the millions of TV viewers from switching off every time he does something off “Scott 3”. In a cash in move by the record company, he is asked to record selected numbers of these covers for the much forgotten fourth LP, “Scott Sings Songs From His TV Series”. It sells well, but it’s creator maintains a safe distance from it, as it sounds unlike the sort of album he actually wants to make. That next album turns up late in 1969, titled “Scott 4” - so called as it is deemed to be the “proper” follow up to Scott 3. It is a work of unquestionable genius. Scott has written everything on it, and the label toss it out whilst nobody is looking. Reviewers, unable to understand the lyrics, moan that the album is “impenetrable”, and give it the thumbs down. It flops. Within a year, it is deleted from stock, and Scott Walker has fallen from grace.
What you have to remember about Scott is, as much as he disliked the whole “fame” aspect of the music industry (I don’t think you’ll see him being a mentor on “The X Factor”), he never liked the thought of releasing an album that nobody wanted to buy. Why would you go through all that hassle if you didn’t want it to connect with somebody? So, smarting from the criticism of “Scott 4”, he decided to try and make a slightly more accessible follow up LP. He asked his new manager, Ady Semel to “oversee” the material he was writing. Semel’s job was to smooth out any rough edges, to try and give the album a slightly more “pop” feel. Quite how much of a contribution Semel made, I don’t know, but he was given a co-write on everything Scott wrote for the LP.
Since I last wrote about Scott in 2010, I still have no idea if the ten songs he wrote that appeared on “’Til The Band Comes In” were all there was. Such is the disinterest in this record, that nobody ever seems to have written about this situation at all. Together, they have a a running time that barely touches the 25-minute mark, although as “Scott 4” struggles to get past the half hour stage, maybe this was the plan. But what is known is that at the record companies request, Scott was asked to include a number of cover versions to “entice the MOR audience” back to his work. Although the sleeve notes to the US only 2008 reissue of this album claims that Walker was “probably” short of material, and that these were “possibly” rejects from earlier sessions used to pad the LP out, it has long been known that Philips were concerned that the lack of covers on “Scott 4” had contributed to it’s demise - something Scott never believed. Friends advised him to include covers, as requested, so that when the album did become a hit, the label would back off, and he would get his creative freedom back for album number seven. Of course, it never happened.
Nonetheless, outtakes or not, Scott compromised, and five covers were tagged onto the end of the record. They felt, genuinely, like bonus tracks - they had a strange “MOR” feel to them that simply wasn’t there on the rest of the LP. Despite Scott’s own genre hopping through his own material at the start of the LP, these covers simply felt too out of place. “Stormy”, as good as it is, still sounds a bit like the theme tune to “The Streets Of San Francisco”, and “It’s Over” is a pleasant, countrified, dignified finale, whereas it should be a big, booming, roar of a finish.
“’Til The Band Comes In” was released in 1970 (Philips 6308 035), and was a massive failure. Critics cared little for it, it sold poorly, and was seemingly even more of a disaster, sales wise, than “Scott 4” had been. Scott got into a slanging match with Philips, claiming the album’s poor sales were due to the quality of the second side of the album having been dented due to the requirement by the label of him to sing “cornball schlock”, but Philips were still convinced Scott would only sell if he was an MOR crooner, and forced him to record even more covers for future singles and albums. The next LP, 1972’s “The Moviegoer”, is regarded by many as Scott’s worst album - it consisted of nothing but cover versions.
For years, “’Til The Band Comes In” - and Scott in general - was consigned to history. During the 70’s, a number of compilation and budget LP’s trickled out. Curiously, the only album to get any sort of reissue was a budget label repressing of “The Moviegoer”. The other albums went out of print, and Scott was known via a few hit singles, and his work with the Walkers. It wasn’t until the late 80’s, that various hipsters, bands and singers, began name checking him, and although this wasn’t enough to stop new Scott records like 1984’s “Climate Of Hunter” from being chart failures, there was a credibility attached to Scott’s work that went way beyond most “heritage” acts.
With the CD now proving to be a good format upon which to make deleted material available again, a concerted effort was made to “re-market” Scott in the early 1990’s, via the affiliated Fontana imprint. This started with the release of the excellent “Boy Child” collection, which although can be seen now as being the home to some rather rare material, including those songs from “’Til The Band Comes In”, was originally released before any of Scott’s LP’s were reissued on the format, and thus consisted entirely of material making it’s debut on the CD format at the time, including songs from the four numbered albums. Along with a 1968 B-side and a French only single at the start and the end respectively, it included selected numbers from each of those four LP's and “’Til The Band Comes In”, and was designed, therefore, to cover the period whilst he was signed to Philips where Scott was writing his own material (hence the absence of anything from the ’covers only’ LP that was the “TV Series” record). Four numbers from “Comes In” were included - “Prologue”, “Little Things”, “Time Operator” and “The War Is Over”. Whilst the inclusion of “Time Operator” over the title track might seem baffling, it’s still a glorious piece of music, containing as it does the immortal lyric “I wouldn’t care if you’re ugly, cos here with the lights out I couldn’t see, just picture Paul Newman, he looks a lot like me”. In recent years, “Boy Child” has come to be considered an important document of this part of Scott’s career, and the album has been reissued. It now uses the same sleeve, but with different typography and design, and an altered track listing which removes the aforementioned French 45, “The Rope And The Colt”, but the songs from “’Til The Band Comes In” remain in place, with “The War Is Over” now closing the record.
The reissue campaign at the time concentrated purely on the four numbered albums - although I don’t recall it being mentioned at the time, Scott in later years showed regret about “’Til The Band Comes In”, and of the eight albums he recorded for Philips, it was only the four numbered ones that he was sufficiently happy with. Hence, although material from the album was put onto “Boy Child”, that was probably as far as he would go. The upshot of this, was that an already rare record, was simply getting rarer.
In 1996, the specialist reissue label, The Beat Goes On, managed to get a CD re-release conducted (BGOCD 320). They have specialised in reissuing albums that the original labels seem to have no interest in re-vamping, and have done reissues for the likes of Cockney Rebel, Debbie Harry, and Scott over the years (“Stretch” and “We Had It All” were reissued on a 2-on-1 CD releases some years ago). But this edition was deleted quickly, probably at the hands of the great man himself, and copies will usually cost you at least £25.
During another bought of Scott-hysteria in the early noughties, Fontana decided to reissue all eight of the Philips era albums, cobbling the “TV Series” and “Moviegoer” albums together as “Scott On Screen”, and padding out the reissues of 1973’s “Any Day Now” and “’Til The Band Comes In” with extra tracks. Advance promos were pressed, with the CDR of “’Til The Band Comes In” coming in a simple typed out sleeve, which also details two bonus tracks (“The Lights Of Cincinatti” and “The Rope And The Colt”). I have seen a copy on eBay, which shows a picture printed on the playing disc itself, unusual for a CDR. Perhaps it’s a bootleg? What I don’t know, is if the mix of the latter is the same as that on “Boy Child”, as the original LP mix of the song (it was from a film, and thus appeared on the soundtrack LP) was slightly different.
An earlier set, 2003’s “Five Easy Pieces” boxset, was another avenue for issuing parts of the album. This box set included “Time Operator”, “Joe”, “The War Is Over”, “Long About Now” (the one song on the LP that featured a different vocalist, instead of Scott - Esther Ofarim), “Thanks For Chicago Mr James” and “Cowbells Shakin’”. But this still meant that, unless you could get the 1996 CD, some songs were still not available on CD, such as “Jean The Machine” and several of the covers. It was almost as if Scott was allowing the “good” stuff to come out in dribs and drabs, whilst leaving the dregs behind. Although if this was the case, why was “Stormy” still in limbo, a song Scott actually liked enough to have performed on stage at least once?
Over in Japan, it was a different story, as “’Til The Band Comes In” got a proper, full blown, CD reissue in 2007 (UICY-93235). This release was based around the original UK LP - the album had originally appeared in Japan in 1970 in a "zoomed in" sleeve, using a close up of the normal cover image, and was issued in two parts - the 10 originals on one edition, and the title track plus the five covers on another - it was even referred to by the label as "Scott 5". However, this CD has now been deleted (not sure if Scott got wind of it and blew the whistle?), so you’ll be lucky to find a copy. The 2008 reissue I mentioned earlier was a US CD pressing on Water Records (Water 226), but this too seems to have been deleted, as the last time I saw copies being sold via the US version of the Amazon website, they were being priced up at $50 each.
So, am I just banging on about this record just because of it’s rarity factor? No. If that was the case, I’d be going on about Sonic Youth’s “Silver Session For Jason Knuth”, or some privately pressed Prog album. But the obscurity factor does make the album a bit more interesting, the fact it keeps getting reissued then deleted, makes you think it has something on there that Scott really wants to keep quiet. And after hearing the AOR schmaltz of “What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life?”, you’ll probably think the answer to that question is yes (although he does have quite a classy stab at that one). But, whenever I hear this album again, it just makes me listen in sheer wonderment. Modern day Scott may be a different beast (and after all, he’s entitled to do what he wants, even if it does upset fans like Marc Almond) but you simply can’t deny the genius of those earlier LP’s. And that includes “’Til The Band Comes In”. When it’s good, it matches anything from the numbered albums, and even when it’s bad, it’s still better than, say, Wham. Scott’s voice is at it’s very best here, and some of the songs are amongst the best he ever recorded. It could be argued it’s his last genuinely great record, with the likes of “Stretch” and “Climate Of Hunter” being good, but patchy, efforts, even the inclusion of the covers at the end can’t quite fully drag it down. The quality of the first two thirds of this album is near faultless, and for that reason alone, I insist you hunt this record down.
So there we have it. “’Til The Band Comes In”. The flawed masterpiece by the greatest singer of all time. Miss it at your peril...