In Memoriam: Scott Walker (1943-2019)
It is with the greatest of sadness today that we remember the great singer and sophisticated avant-pop artist, Scott Walker, who sadly passed away today at the age of 76. Walker is probably best known to most people as David Bowie‘s key pop idol and hero, but he was so much more than just that. Walker created the template for art rocker: combining mystery, impressive musical abilities and impeccable taste: both as a songwriter and in his choice of covers. It is almost impossible to believe that he is now gone, because part of me always wondered if Scott Walker was really some sort of immortal being sent from another dimension.
Scott Walker was born Noel Scott Engel in Hamilton, Ohio. He took up his stage name when he formed the group, The Walker Brothers along with his friend, the singer/ songwriter/ guitarist John Maus (who performed under the name, John Walker) and drummer Gary Walker (real name: Gary Leeds). The group wrote and performed sophisticated pop ballads, often married to a swirl of strings and with Scott Walker‘s deep, resonant, though always slightly melancholic voice the anchor for their music. Gary had previously worked as a session drummer in England and convinced the rest of the group to relocate to London, which the trio subsequently did in 1965 after an exploratory visit.
The Walker Brothers had a run of singles and albums that did well in the UK charts from 1964-1967. When their final two singles floundered in the charts in 1967, Scott Walker seized the opportunity to split off from the rest of the group and go solo. His solo career, beginning with his 1967 LP Scott, and followed by Scott 2 (1968), Scott 3 (1969) and Scott 4 (1969), was where Scott Walker really started to make his mark on the music world.
While the Walker Brothers always produced tasteful sophisticated pop ballads, working on his own, Scott Walker took this to the next level: pushing himself in more experimental musical directions. This included increasingly singing jazz standards, championing the work of the great Belgian pop singer/ songwriter Jacques Brel (who became something of an idol to Walker, who covered a number of Brel‘s songs, translated into English, over the years) and penning a number of highly esoteric songs tied to Walker‘s increasingly fine arts interests. This included both songs about Ingmar Bergman‘s art house masterpiece film, The Seventh Seal and even a deeply reflective political song (about the legacy of Stalinism) with “The Old Man’s Back Again”.
Walker also adopted from Brel his observational lyrical style: writing songs that were more observational, detached and steeped in social realism. Songs like “It’s Raining Today”, (which I’ve previously written about here) capture this approach perfectly: using detailed snapshots of images to paint a picture of the singer’s inner life.
Life was going well for Walker. So well that along with regularly recording his own music, he also hosted a BBC variety show (the tapes for which have apparently been deleted) in which he mostly sang jazz standards and classic torch songs – helping to fulfill an adolescent dream of Walker‘s to become a crooner. Some of the audio from the series was released on the now deleted 1969 compilation, Scott: Scott Walker Sings Songs from his T.V. Series.
Following the release of his critically acclaimed numbered quartet of LPs, Walker continued to record though increasingly became a sort of cult figure. His 1970 LP ‘Til the Band Comes In was his first to receive mixed reviews (I would argue unfairly: I personally think the LP is a masterpiece on par with his earlier work), but Walker seemed to be losing his edge a little and his albums stopped selling. He reformed The Walker Brothers from 1974-1977, then when silent for 7 years. During this late period, Walker gave a glimpse of the new musical direction he would begin to take with electronics-forward The Walker Brothers‘ 1977 revival LP, Nite Flights.
Walker took his time away from recording to rejig his sound. When he re-emerged in 1984 with Climate of Hunter, he appears to have embraced the sounds of the time and merged them with his classic sound. Climate of Hunter ingeniously fuses synthesizers, jazz, ’80s production norms and Walker‘s usual sophisti-pop into something new and wonderful that constituted a bold new direction. This change would be short-lived as Walker would subsequently disappear for another 11 years, before re-appearing in an even more radical new direction in 1995.
Late career walker was something else entirely. No one could have predicted how Tilt, which was released in May of 1995 would sound. Gone were any nods to pop at all, replaced instead with strange, almost dada-ist lyrics and angular art-rock fused with avant-garde classical accompaniment – with a particularly strong influence of composers Jean Sibelius and Alban Berg. This new mood was dark and brooding, but a brooding that frequently careened off into quasi industrial sounds that would have fit-in easily on a Nine Inch Nails album. Despite Walker‘s voice remaining front and center, the complexity, challenging-nature of the material and sheer unpredictability pushed away many of Walker‘s long-time fans (while simultaneously attracting new ones in the experimental music scene). While Walker composed much of Tilt between 1991 and 1992, interestingly a couple of the songs were written as far back as 1987, indicating that Walker had been considering this new musical direction for some time.
With his re-emergence, Walker remained relatively busy. He scored French director Leos Carax‘s difficult 1999 film Pola X and produced the Brit Pop group Pulp‘s brilliant final LP, We Love Life in 2001 before releasing his own follow-up to Tilt with the equally complex, The Drift in 2006. That year, Walker was also the subject of the excellent documentary feature, Scott Walker: 30th Century Man, which revealed some interesting details about the often reclusive Walker‘s life and creative process. This was followed by Bish Bosh in 2012 and an album-length collaboration with drone metal outfit, Sun O))) in 2014. Most recently he had completed the soundtrack to the film, Vox Lux late last year.
Scott Walker was a singular talent. We have never seen anything else quite like him. He presaged David Bowie trick of serving as musical chameleon and changing with the times, though for all his experimentation, Bowie never went as far into the avant-garde as Scott Walker did. As esoteric an artist as Walker could often be, particularly in his later years, for me what always shone through was his sometimes off-center tunefulness, playfulness and formidable intelligence. He was also far more influential than his limited record sales would indicate and had an under-acknowledged hand in shaping the sounds of today. In the end, we are all poorer for Scott Walker‘s passing. RIP.