The Plague - Scott Walker
Back around 1969, Ricky and I and our fellow students used to have to kill around about four hours in Aberdeen, awaiting our rail connection north to Elgin. As soon as the train got in we would make our way to the fabulous Capital Cinema on Union Street, in the hope that there would be an "X" movie on and that we'd pass for 18 or that the woman in the kiosk would take pity on us and let us in. We soon discovered that alone we'd make it, but if a guy by the name of Sterling who used to share our train came with us, she'd say no. But he thought he was our friend and always tried to tag along; and we knew what she meant: there was something about him, something intangible, that people just didn't like, and we could see this, and it made us pity him, so we didn't want to bully him like everyone else did by just telling him to clear off. It was as though he had some kind of infectious and grotesque disease.
Although a big city, in those days before the North Sea oil rush, Aberdeen was in severe decline. So much so, that it was a very difficult exercise for us to shake Sterling from our tails. The grey granite of the buildings always looked peculiarly white, as though everything was indeed white but just hadn't had a very good clean. And the streets were deserted; most shops were closed down, and you could look down the long streets for ten minutes at a time and not see anyone on the pavement, nor cars going by. Sterling could spot us a mile off. One time, having tried to get rid of him for half an hour or so, we finally took our chances and headed for the cinema to see that there was no "X", just a "U" space movie showing. It was always a pleasure to go into the Capital, with its sumptuous old fashioned neo-gothic interior, mirrors on all sides in the foyer, and hardly a soul there on a midweek afternoon. I remember, we sat as always in the centre of the front row of the fabulous upstairs circle, and, totally unsuspecting, had our minds blown by Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey". I sometimes pity people who have first and only seen 2001 on a small screen: they can have no idea of the hair raising impact it had on us. I remember literally hanging on to the balustrade in front of us as Bowman travelled on his final journey beyond the star gate, accompanied by classical composer Gyorgy Ligeti's amazing orchestral piece "Atmospheres". In this empty cinema, in this empty city.
Filmic influences on Scott Walker's music are always there, and from Ligeti in 2001, to the raw, pagan sound of the processions in Pasolini's "Medea" through Bergman, Bernard Herrmann's accompaniments to Hitchcock, and Morrecone's naturalistic scores to Jerry Goldsmith's soundtrack for the 1968 original version of "Planet of the Apes".
As far as I can tell, this was Walker's first composition to find its way onto vinyl, surfacing as one of the great "B" sides on the flip side of his 1968 hit "Jackie", but the trademark enigmatic words and apocalyptic instrumentalism are there from the start, from the opening bell chimes, the remorseless base and the howling guitar to the almost harrowing finale, his vocal backed only by an apocalyptic church organ and drums that can only be described as epic voodoo.
Immediately the poppy female backing singers' "la la lalala" is undercut by the sinister opening lines
"I spent many a night laying on my back Waiting for the dawn to pierce a crack in the ceiling Hanging from the sky....,"
and we're off on a journey into a darkness randomly split by amazing shafts of light, searching for meaning in a succession of sublime visions, like Bowman on Discovery One as it plunges into the blistering unknown.
Straining hard to see
Running after me Pounding on the door But it's all so vague When you meet the Plague And I keep coming, I keep coming back for more."
and I think of the two of us, running from poor Sterling, in that presbyterian Scottish city, the streets deserted, the closed doors pregnant with absent people, like a medieval town smitten with the plague.