It is that rarest of things, the perfect human-made artifact. Nothing could improve this performance; no chord added, no note removed nor accent realigned. I swear, even the mythical Lost Chord can be heard ringing out in the chorus.
My story about this tune is as prosaic as the song is majestic, and I could tell an identical tale as a preface to my encounters with scores of other seven-inch singles. On the counter at my local Myer record bar was a small wicker basket. As singles fell out of the 3XY Top 40 chart, they’d land in this basket, waiting for me to adopt them like abandoned puppies. The reduced price of 50 cents was pure value as far as I was concerned and inspired me to gamble with lesser known platters. I’d previously heard one of these bargains on my tiny transistor radio, and it sounded ok enough for a half-dollar outlay. It was only when I got it home did it reveal its full stereophonic glory.
The Walker Brothers’ No Regrets reminds me of a massive mid-ocean storm. Wind and water everywhere – below (monstrous, rolling waves) and above (rain and spray in thick, torrential sheets). Caught in this liquid hell is a wooden clipper ship, a three master, with all sails in threads, bow rising and crashing, rising and crashing, seemingly at the will of the wild weather.
Centred in this scene is a stoic sailor, vocalist Scott Walker, feet planted immovably on the shiny deck, strong hands on the handles of the wheel, eyes fixed forward in a resolute, defiant, distant stare.
He wants us to believe that the tumult around his lover’s leaving is of little consequence. He also wants us to know that despite his beloved appearing to have expunged love itself from the world by their departing, this loss is also a trifling matter. It’s ok. Nothing to see here. No regrets.
The compelling agony of this song is captured in a clash of contradictions: The high drama of the rococo arrangement (florid strings, excoriating guitar solo, overdriven acoustics, ethereal pedal steel) versus the perfect plain-speak of the understated lyric. Pivoting all this is Scott Walker’s stately, serene baritone. This is open heart surgery without anaesthesia, but the singer doesn’t flinch.
The tension created by the paradoxes in No Regrets can be found in such minutiae as a single word. For example, the word “strange” in the following stanza is sung in such a way to explain everything and nothing about the singer’s experience of loss. The lyric is inadequate and vague and precise and all encompassing. All true on paper, but when Walker sings, the words sound completely convincing.
I woke last night and spoke to you
Not thinking you were gone
And it felt so strange
To lie awake alone
It’s a fabrication, so understated to be a bare-faced lie, but a falsehood that I, as a love-giddy and broken-hearted 14 year old, desperately wanted to believe. The song still belts my heart like defibrillator paddles.
When he died in March 2019, Walker was described by the BBC as “one of the most enigmatic and influential figures in rock history”. Poet Ian MacMillan likened Walker’s voice to “a cathedral lit by a sunset”. His career spanned schmaltzy pop fodder to albums that truly fitted the label of avant-garde. Nothing else he produced came close to the devastating beauty of No Regrets.