The Plague by Scott Walker: Great B-Sides

Scott Walker is one long-time favourite artist who I’ve barely mentioned on this site (edit – I have now). Born Noel Scott Engel, in Ohio, he moved to London and fronted vocal heartthrob group The Walker Brothers. When the trio broke up in 1967, Scott Walker launched a solo career. Although he had the voice of a crooner, his records became increasingly experimental and Walker blossomed as a writer – 1969’s excellent Scott 4 was entirely self-penned.

Unusually, Walker became more adventurous as he aged. He reignited critical acclaim with his dark, intense songs on The Walker Brothers’ 1978 album Nite Flights, and dived into avant-garde through albums like 1995’s Tilt and his collaboration with experimental metal band Sunn O on 2014’s Soused.

‘The Plague’ was a non-album b-side for the 1967 single ‘Jackie’, released from Scott 2. It’s unusual for Walker in this period, featuring female backing vocals, as well as a heavy rhythm guitar that presages the more rock-oriented Scott 4. Like a lot of Walker’s early material ‘The Plague’ is dominated by strings, but they’re unsettling and they drop off entirely in the song’s conclusion leaving Walker’s raw vocal backed by percussion.

Perhaps ‘The Plague’ was pushed to a b-side because it was too revolutionary for Walker at the time, throwing off his crooner image for more unsettling material. It’s hard to know if Walker’s discussing mental illness, STDs, or foretelling the 2020 coronavirus epidemic, but ‘The Plague’ is imbued with anguish.

Like a dead leaf scrapes the gravelled ground
My voice cries out, a gravelled sound
But no-one’s there to hear me but the plague

‘The Plague’ is way too good to remain languishing in obscurity, and it had the honour of being placed as the lead-off track for the compilation Boy Child: The Best of Scott Walker 1967–1970. It’s joined other early Walker classics like ‘The Old Man’s Back Again (Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime)’ and ‘The Amorous Humphrey Plugg’. Soft Cell’s Marc Almond also recorded “The Plague” on his 1986 covers EP A Woman’s Story.

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12 Comments

  1. Wow, hard to believe that’s the same guy who sang “Make It Easy On Yourself”, “My Ship Is Coming In” and, of course, “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” less than two years earlier!

  2. I have never explored the Walker Brothers but if they are anything like this I would like it. A really good pop melody and song…the production is really good also.
    Graham, where is a good place to start with the Walker Brothers or Scott?

  3. I wasn’t introduced to Scott Walker’s music until fairly recently. In the UK mags I get it seems like he was much more popular over there than in the US. .. I am getting that Album Draft organized – can you send me an email to- [email protected]– I am sending a group email mid week- and looking to get it all rolling the first of July. thanks.

  4. Loving your blog, which I’ve recently discovered.

    You mention Scott is one of your long time favourites yet ,yes, neither The Walker Brothers nor his solo albums,notably Scott 1-4 and “Til the band comes in” , I am not exactly a big fan of what he put out from Tilt onwards myself,have been reviewed here. So… Will you please…? Thanks and congratulations on this fabulous blog.

    Karlos M

    • Thanks for writing in! I am planning to cover Scott Walker sometime, hopefully next year. I’ve never checked out the Walker Brothers albums, apart from Nite Flites, which has some amazing Scott tracks. I only really know 1-Til the Band Comes In, then Climate of Hunter. Tilt, and The Drift. Scott 4 is one of my favourite albums ever.

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