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.