This January, we’re shining a spotlight on a musician who has flown under the radar for over fifty years, and is still making music today! I’m talking about the wonderful and mysterious Scott Walker, born Noel Scott Engel on January 9th, 1943. Scott’s remarkable history spans continents, decades, and a shocking shift in genre from pop-song crooner to avant-garde cenobite.
His career started as Scotty Engel, a cherubic Californian teen idol, and he recorded several songs in the late 1950s before joining up with singer John Maus and drummer Gary Leeds. The three men christened themselves “the Walker Brothers”, and changed their surnames to fit the theme. Despite being an American group, they found the most fame in England, where songs like "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore" (written by the Four Seasons’ Bob Gaudio) and “Make It Easy On Yourself” (written by Burt Bacharach) brought them great fame and hordes of screaming teenage fans.
The Walker Brothers broke up in 1967 after creative tensions began to affect the group’s cohesion. Scott was itching to break out on his own, and soon after, he would release a saga of four remarkable solo albums - Scott (1967), Scott 2 (1968), Scott 3 (1969), and Scott 4 (1969). This rapid-fire tetralogy is likely Walker’s most well-known and creatively beloved effort. The Scotts were a mix of popular music, original compositions, and English interpretations of the works of Jacques Brel. Scott’s rich baritone and the lush orchestral arrangements of Angela Morley were offset by darker, more idiosyncratic elements such as the droning strings on “It’s Raining Today” and the bawdy lyrics of “Next” and “The Girls From The Streets”.
Scott 4, composed entirely of self-penned works, was critically beloved but commercially unsuccessful. This unexpected failure marked a turning point in Scott’s career, pulled between a yearning for creative freedom as well as the need to put food on the table with saleable, middle-of-the-road pop music. Nowhere is this better exemplified than 1970’s unfairly-maligned “hidden gem” ‘Til The Band Comes In, composed half of original songs by Walker and half of covers.
The first side of ‘Til the Band Comes In is a grimy tenement brimming with creations sprung from Walker’s mind. The jazz-touched “Joe” mopes and moans, “Time Operator” is as sinuous as it is unhinged, and the darkly funny “Little Things (That Keep Us Together)” lists off subjects on the news (starvation, suicides, bombings and so on) that distract from the looming presence of the Vietnam War. The soaring refrain of “Thanks For Chicago Mr. James” tells the tale of a callow young man abandoning an older, richer lover. Walker’s voice, which for all intents and purposes would sound at home crooning standards on MOR radio, is at turns enthralling and menacing as he adopts a different lyrical persona for each song. It might be some of Walker’s finest work, inspiring bands like Soft Cell and Pulp to find the beauty in unglamorous, ordinary life.
Where Side A soars, Side B of ‘Til the Band Comes In crashes back down to earth, composed solely of commercial pop-song covers ranging from unremarkably pleasant (“Stormy”) to cringeworthy (“Reuben James”). The disparity is so shocking that superfan Jarvis Cocker even dissed it in passing on his aptly-named song “Bad Cover Version”.
1970 welcomed in what Scott called his “wilderness years”: listlessly recording movie themes and MOR standards with not a whit of originality behind them. A few albums later, he was shaken from this funk by a Walker Brothers reunion. No Regrets (1975) and Lines (1976) were sentimental country-pop, but things began to get weird with 1978’s Nite Flights. Informed by the label that it would be their last album, the brothers Walker decided to record their own songs for a change (John and Scott each contributed four, while Gary wrote two). They were afforded more creative freedom on Nite Flights, and it shows in their willingness to experiment with synthesizers and song structures that were remarkably innovative for the late 70s. Songs like “The Electrician”, which sandwiches a minute of gorgeous instrumental in between two dense, horrifying electronic passages, can be directly traced to Scott’s current ouvre.
Scott Walker’s work post-1970s can be characterized by a few guidelines:
- It is infrequent. He has released roughly one solo album every decade: Climate of Hunter in 1984, Tilt in 1995, The Drift in 2006 and Bish Bosch in 2012.
- It is experimental. Walker’s songs are jagged and atonal, unmoored from verse-chorus-verse structure, his formerly mellow voice now a strident howl. A video from when he was recording The Drift shows him directing a percussionist to create rhythm by punching a slab of raw meat. “Challenging” is a trite but not inaccurate word to describe latter-period Walker.
- It looks forward rather than back. Despite the rich career behind him, Walker is often reluctant to lean too heavily on his past works. He’s stated in the past that he rarely listens to his own albums, particularly his 1960s output, and he doesn’t perform live.
Walker has been counted as an inspiration by many well-known musicians - among them David Bowie, Jarvis Cocker, Julian Cope and Thom Yorke. Despite this, he’s never been too interested in celebrity. Instead, he lives a quiet life out of the spotlight in the UK, content to work on new music rather than focus on the old. He collaborates on occasion with artists such as Nick Cave, Ute Lemper, and, perhaps most surprisingly, drone metal group Sunn O))) (their collaboration Soused was released in 2014). Most recently, he’s done the score for two films by Brady Corbet: The Childhood of a Leader (2015) and Vox Lux (2018). Looking back, it’s easy to say that Scott Walker has had one of the most exceptional yet unrecognized careers in the canon of popular music. Knowing him, though, that position of arcane celebrity is probably one he’s quite happy with.