The problem with naming your band after someone else’s album is that you set the bar pretty high to start with. Just ask Revolver. Of course those friends of Goldfish The Autumn Stones don’t count, not least because they’re great and don’t sound a bit like a thrown together Small Faces compilation. By naming your band after an album as seminal / canonical / reverred (delete as applicable) as “Scott 4” by Scott Walker could be perceived as sheer stupidity. But that’s exactly what Scott 4 did. I suppose at some point in their early history it must have been a bit of a joke – “Ha ha, we’re called Scott 4 but there’s only three of us and one of them’s called Scott”. That would be singer and main songwriter Scott Blixen, always seen with a cowboy hat on. It also got them attention from the music press too. This opening paragraph could have been written in any music paper article on the band in the first few years of their existence. to be honest. Sorry to deal in cliches. Shall we take a look from another angle?
The post-Britpop landscape in the late 90s was an odd place. 1997 had seen Blur move in a ‘radical’ direction thanks to Graham Coxon’s influence, Oasis made a coke-soaked monument to their own hubris in “Be here now”, Radiohead redefined the parameters of pre-millenial tension (remember that?) rock with “OK computer”, The Verve finally got the success they deserved all along as Richard Ashcroft wrote populist anthems while Nick McCabe became more marginalised in his own band. The NME was hunting for the next big thing as they always are – and they grouped a whole load of bands as “the new Beck”. Because the old Beck was clearly not good enough and / or not British, being American and all that. Thrown together in this group were acts like The Beta Band, Scott 4, Badly Drawn Boy and Gomez. Looking at that list with more than fifteen years of hindsight it does look like a funny bunch of disparate artists who have little in common with each other, let alone Beck. But that was how Scott 4 initially got into the press. Their debut single “Deutsche LP Record” was a good start, a funked up beat, some scratchy guitar licks and some odd synth noise, even some scratching thrown in for good measure. But at the song’s heart was an infections melody. On the b side were two more interesting pieces. “Air-con” sounded like those Eyeless In Gaza instrumentals where they set up a harmonium in someone’s garden and clanged a few sticks around. “Mrs Robert Harry” was a slow trawl, a country style lament with keening vocals and a hushed atmosphere only spoilt by the fact it sounded like it was recorded on a cheap battery operated cassette player.
Scott 4 issued a lot of music in quick succession. Debut mini album “Elektro Akoustic Und Volksmechanik” was schizophrenic, country ballads besides primitive synth and beats, a theme developed on their full length debut “Recorded In State”, issued in 1998. “Aspirins” took the country ballad direction in its fullest direction, “East Winter” was quite annoying, “Choke bore” was fab. But they just couldn’t settle on one style, they couldn’t decide if they were trying to be Krautrock or off-kilter alt.country. I saw Scott 4 supporting the High Llamas in Bristol in early 98 and enjoyed their set, so much that I caught them headlining at TJs a few months later. They were as odd live as they were on record, sometimes huge blurts of Moog noise (a Moog Rogue, fact fans) and sometimes pedal steel laments. And then there was “You set the scene”. In Bristol it lasted about eight minutes, in TJs it passed the twelve minute mark. In the right mood it could be fascinating and hypnotic. In the wrong mood it could be tedious. When Scott 4 issued “Your kingdom to dust” as a single (nice lyrical reference to Henry Kelly’s daytime gameshow “Going for gold”), they backed it with a 22 minute version of “You set the scene” which is perfect for those people who think that the album version of “Jenny Ondioline” could be (a) longer and (b) improved with some banjo and flute. Sometimes artists don’t know when to shut up. This would be a problem for almost every artist as the 90s came to their conclusion. It was the era of bloated CDs, double albums which could have been easily edited down to decent single albums. The extended length of the Compact Disc led to bands and artists thinking “Yeah I can fill up seventy minutes of music”.
In the early Summer of 1999 Scott 4 issued the single “Catastrophe” as a prelude to their new album “Works Project LP”. They were now signed to V2, a label high on the success of Stereophonics who were just breaking through to the mainstream at this point. I picked up the single and liked it a lot. The main song rocked in its own way, “Avis railhome” was a weird stomped smothered in vicious slide guitar and distortion but the best song was “Famished”. It was slow, which is good, starting with quiet arpeggios of guitars, a simple 4 / 4 beat and Scott Blixen crooning, then at one minute the tempo changes, Scott sings “Had my phaser set to stun” and a lovely string arrangement appears, disquiet and sadness. And it just carries on changing and breaking over and over again. If that was a b side, how was the album going to be?
We had moved into the Crescent in December 1998. When I say “we”…. we’d bought the house together and we were engaged but the wedding was still another year away. So I was there and my fiance was in her parents which was up the road anyway so not too far away. I was sorting the house out, redecorating here and there, getting new carpets and furniture. But the first big decision was getting some cats. I’d always grown up with cats – I can list them all through Leeds, Harpenden and Penarth – Tarot, Tigger, Whiskers, Sooty (apologies for the unimaginative names, I was young ok?), then the four beautiful Burmese cats – Max, Casca, Buffin and Bez. See, the names improved as I got older. Max was my mother’s choice, Casca was a character from “Julius Caesar”, Buffin was my father’s choice and was Dale Griffin’s name in Mott The Hoople. Bez was my choice. He was registered as Pascal, but that didn’t suit him. He liked to get stoned on cat nip and fall around the garden, so it had to be Bez. It was early 1990, it had to be done. Bez was lovely, he’d sit on the roof above my bedroom window crying to be let in at night, then settle down under my duvet, head on a pillow, purring. He was quite a character. When I moved to Newport I tried taking him with me, he lasted a week. He kept sitting on top of my wardrobe crying, he missed his three friends, he didn’t like the lack of a cat flap, he returned to Penarth very quickly but still loved me. If I was going on a night out he would follow me up the street, then wait for me until I came home. Quite a character.
So in the new home in the Crescent we decided we wanted some cats. Two days after Christmas we visited a farm which had a litter of kittens and picked two out for us. One dark tabby who I named Cimber (after Mettelus Cimber, another character from “Julius Caesar” though everyone assumed it was after Simba in “The Lion King”) and a black and white cat who my fiance named Sophie. “Just a normal name, is that too hard?” The two kittens were introduced to the house, baskets were bought, climbing frames were added, a cat flap installed in the back door and we were away. A few days later on New Years Eve, Sophie was terrified of the noise and ended up stuck behind my hifi unit. And so it went on. Winter turned to spring into summer. My fiance stayed at the house during the day while I was at work, she was working on her final year’s dissertation and sat on the balcony watching Sophie and Cimber playing in the garden, chasing balls, stalking birds, having fun together. They were great friends, those two.
I bought “Works Project LP” one day towards the end of August and gave it that all important first listen as soon as I got home. My fiance wasn’t there so it went straight into the hifi while I put some tea together. “Catastrophe” was a great opener, buzzing synth bass, thrusting drums and all kinds of references to all kinds of untold horrors, the bloodstained 70s, crises and crimes, pollution and death. All memories to me, but far enough away to know vaguely what was going on. But still there was a delicate little chorus, xylophones and acoustic guitars. A hissing synth leads into “Troubles 1 2 3“, which again seems to hint at the seventies frugal nature, while counting problems. “We understand our poverty but cannot solve troubles 1 2 3…..” – another quiet chorus. “The little problems in our teens, we grew around them so now they won’t be seen” – well yes that strikes a chord. Meanwhile the music grooves on more buzzing Moog and drum machine, with a wave of distorted guitars, ending on a volley of marimba. Yeah, exactly. Can’t pin this down yet. “Hallo Doctor” is more considered – a 6 / 8 mid tempo waltz, Blixen seems full of self hatred, and there’s lots of lovely organ, piano and acoustic guitar, quite gorgeous. “Lefturno” is funky in a typically British way, and if anything slightly Beck-ish. Heavy beats, a groovy guitar figure and lots of criss crossing vocals. Rather nice, and those curious harmonies help. Then a huge fuck off Moog obliterates the song, leading to a more considered coda. A grower. So that’s side one.
“Das Junior” is a distant cousin of “Hallo doctor”, a piano ballad with a gorgeous string section but the words are painful as hell, there’s some real hurt in this song, hints of hospitals and blood and no understanding, false alarms and abstractions. It’s terribly sad and very heartfelt. It’s quite a change to move to “We’re not robots”, stiff electronics and passionless vocoder, even if the words try to prove otherwise amid walls of guitars on the chorus. Rather fun. “May last” is woozy, simple acoustic chords over a bed of buzzing synths and drum machines, and I don’t know what this means but I love it. It also doesn’t outstay it’s welcome, being over after two minutes. Side two closer “Lilla b-boy lullaby” is odd, based on a rhythmic loop of a vocoderised phrase “Help me”, while piano and guitar echo in a reverb haze and Blixen sings down a phone… is he taking the mickey out of beat boys? Who knows, but it’s again rather lovely and short.
Side three starts with one of the best songs on the album – “Scott 4 Travel On Elektrik Trains”. A homage to “Trans Europe Express”, full of modulated synths, hissing electronic percussion and simple melody. And that’s just the intro. The verses add twelve string acoustic guitars and vocoderised vocals, a tale of robot sex and control. It’s like Gary Numan had gained a sense of humour, or more likely the ghosts of New Musik in the circuitry of the song. But fuck me the song itself is gorgeous – propulsive, smart, a perfect dream of European travel and some unexpected chord changes just to spice things up. The third side can’t help being a let down after that, two quiet songs follow each other – “Applied for release” and “We scratched our names” are intimate and slow, particularly the latter song which sounds like it has some real memories within it. The side closer “Glass and steel” is a damp squib, a groove which goes nowhere for five minutes, Blixen mumbling and not much else going on. It’s that double album hubris again.
Side four makes amends though. “7 days / I’ll see ya” is two songs in one. The first a home recording of Blixen alone with an electric guitar, while the second is a full on country belter, Blixen yelping with joy, pedal steel guitar to the fore, and whilst the pros in Nashville weren’t exactly quaking in their boots, it’s not bad for a bunch of Londoners. After that, “Konigskraft” comes as a shock, piano, acoustic guitar and harpsichord droning and Blixen again hinting at darkness, it feels very ominous. It’s good, but it’s there’s better to come….
And at this point in the first play of the album my fiance appears at home and points out that Sophie is around but Cimber isn’t. We call out for her and walk around the Crescent looking for her. After ten minutes our neighbours across the road call us over and ask if we’ve lost a cat. It turns out Cimber had been hit by a car and had struggled across the road to collapse and expire in their front garden. We were devastated and cried a little and took the body back home where I buried her at the back of the garden behind the shed. We cuddled Sophie and made a fuss of her and felt quite blue.
It was only once my fiance had gone back to hers later that evening that I finished the Scott 4 album, and listened to the final song “Ancient and modern”.
It starts with an unaccompanied woodwind arrangement by Terry Edwards. It’s not as out there as some of the arrangements on the Mark Hollis solo album, and in a way references back to “The not knowing” which closes the debut Tindersticks album (another Terry Edwards arrangement – “The not knowing” was accidentally played at a Christmas party in 1993 and lasted a minute, a friend asked why I was listening to the music for “Last of the summer wine”.) Anyway, a lovely introduction. Then Blixen strums an acoustic and starts crooning … “I’ve lost my memory and time passes and Kaspar Hauser he can’t fix this…” And the band come in along with a string section, woozy and slow and cautious, like a 2am session, slightly out of it but hanging on. Then at 1:36 an ascending passage, beautiful and scary, ending on a horrible minor seventh and oh lord why are my eyes moist? “It’s ’68 again…” croons Blixen with all that implies, a slow exhortation to hit the hot streets… what the hell is going on? At three minutes another gorgeous instrumental passage, piano and acoustic chords hold still while a bass descends and oh my not again it’s just something oh sorry …. then the final section, Blixen sings “Breathe for us” over and over and at that point I really do lose it completely and still do. It’s all too much, “The last of everything for us….” Not a dry eye in this house. Blixen stops singing, the string arrangement soars and a slide guitar ducks and dives and you know what? I’ll never make a good writer, it’s not hard to describe this music but it affects me like few others. You could say it’s the circumstances that make the song so personal to me, but haven’t you got songs which you have interpreted in your own way, suited your needs more than the writer’s own? Is that a crime? Isn’t that what music is about? Conveying emotion and passion and feelings and merging a time and a place and a memory and a moment? Sure, let music be background, let music be devalued, put a price on everything but not a value….this sort of thing, it’s everything to me, and I’m hopeless at explaining why really. Music is a gateway to the past, to ghosts and old thoughts, some feelings have changed but others remain. And “Ancient and modern” is that day, that loss, in seven minutes of song. Does it matter? Not really no… sigh. So it mattered, it mattered to me…..
What happened next? Well Scott 4 carried on, though they were dropped by V2. In 2002 they issued a collaborative album with Magic Car called “European Punks” which was interesting and had some excellent moments, not least the opening track which manages to fit about six songs into nine minutes. They then slightly changed their name to the Scott 4 Free Rock Orchestra for the “E.S.P” album in 2004, however that sounded more like a Blixen solo album. After that they disappeared though a quick search of the Internet will find the current location and occupation of Blixen. As for cats…. well Sophie wasn’t happy to lose her friend and kept pushing some play balls onto Cimber’s grave, so we replaced Cimber with two new cats, a lovely white with a hint of tortoiseshell who I named Snowball (after the Field Mice LP) and an older cat who looked so sad at the RSPCA because all her litter had been chosen and taken away from her and she was alone. That was Emily and she was forever grateful to us, the most loyal and loving cat I’ve ever known. A friend once said her eyes hid a lot of sorrow and we could only guess at her background, the RSPCA let us have her for free because she had a broken rib and they didn’t think she’d last more than three months . Instead she lasted a good 12 years or more. Poor old Snowball died on our wedding day in October 1999, she was upset someone other than me was feeding her and stormed off into the night and was hit by a car. And Sophie? Well… I started writing this post two years ago, and knew what I was going to say but then time passes and I thought nobody cared about Scott 4. But a few conversations on Twitter in the last few weeks made me go back and finish the post. I wasn’t expecting Sophie to pass away two days before I published the post, 18 years old, the longest surviving cat I’ve ever had. This post is in her memory, and listening to this Scott 4 album again this week has brought back all the memories of that day, and “Ancient and modern” still makes me cry now and oh I’m a sentimental fool and I don’t care, I still expect to see her everywhere….
(After discussions last night, we’ve decided we may get some kittens in the near future)
(Update two days later – yes we’re getting two kittens in a few weeks time when they’re ready)
Anyway, upwards and onwards. I’ve no idea what comes next, so in the meantime here’s a picture of Sophie, listening to Allvvays on Adam Jeffreys’ radio show a few months back.