As a member of the Walker Brothers, Scott Walker was a teen pin-up with one of the most distinctive voices in ’60s pop music. In his subsequent solo career, he reinvented himself as one of rock’s more cerebral and challenging artists: think Robbie Williams, during his tenure with Take That, morphing into Lou Reed. By turning his back on adulation and throwing off the mantle of pop celebrity, he gained the labels “enigmatic” and “reclusive,” inevitably becoming an object of cult fandom, as well as a focus of endless speculation and conjecture. While Walker’s fraught relationship with his media image and his attempts to cope with the pressures of stardom fueled numerous, possibly apocryphal, stories over the years, one thing is absolutely certain — he played a crucial role in expanding the idiom of popular music, influencing myriad artists from David Bowie to Marc Almond to Nick Cave to Pulp.
The singer born Noel Scott Engel in Hamilton, Ohio released unsuccessful singles as a would-be teen idol starting in the late ’50s. In 1964, following stints as a bass player with bands around Los Angeles, he adopted his stage name and formed the Walker Brothers with Gary Leeds and John Maus. The trio specialized in richly orchestrated, wall-of-sound balladry fronted by Scott’s phenomenal baritone; he could sing the most vapid lyrics, and often did, and make them sound meaningful and important. Although conceived in response to the Righteous Brothers, the Walkers failed to attract attention in America. In February 1965, with the British Invasion of the US charts at its peak, the trio relocated to London to try their luck there, confusing audiences as to their nationality (and fraternity) from the start. Walker’s career has always been rife with paradox.
Walker jumped at the chance to visit Europe. (He claimed he moved there to be near Ingmar Bergman but there was also the small matter of Vietnam and the draft.) By April 1965, the trio’s single “Love Her” — a US flop denounced even by its producer, Jack Nitzsche — was in the UK Top 20 and the Walkers were receiving a degree of attention unthinkable when they arrived as unknowns. The weepy, melodramatic flavor of their Spector-sized orchestrations, Scott’s emotive, often impossibly sad voice, and their exotic appeal as Americans made them teen idols. Their UK popularity soon rivaled that of the Beatles. They scored eight more hits over the succeeding two-and-a-half years, most famously “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” and “Make It Easy on Yourself,” which became the trio’s only US hits. Take It Easy With the Walker Brothers, Portrait and Images all reached the UK Top 3.
The pop life took its toll on Walker. The relentless hounding by screaming, physically aggressive fans, the need to disguise himself in public and traveling to and from gigs became too much. Naturally shy and frightened of live performance, Walker drank to cope with the stress; he once faked a car accident to avoid a gig, allegedly attempted suicide and even sought refuge in a monastery. Crucially, though, he was uncomfortable with the Walker Brothers’ pop identity and was keen to pursue more serious creative ambitions. In mid-1967, the band split.
Walker wasted little time embarking on a solo career, which must have pleased his record company: as the best-looking, most talented Brother — with a Beatles-sized fan club — he had the strongest commercial potential. But Walker was not about to return to the world he had just escaped; he had ideas of his own to pursue. While he kept the lush, dramatic arrangements, he began drawing more explicitly on the aesthetic and philosophical interests that had first fired his imagination about Europe (especially Michel Legrand’s film scores and the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus). Between September 1967 and late 1969, he released four albums, masterpieces of a unique vision from which he emerged as an idiosyncratic existentialist crooner who paid scant attention to the period’s dominant pop music trends.
A key influence on Walker’s solo work was Jacques Brel, whose theatrical songs were a revelation to him. Brel’s social observation and biting satire, his ironic meditations on religion, death and love, his character sketches, his sense of place and his dark romanticism all showed how elements traditionally associated with literature could be part of popular music; his linguistic flair proved that song lyrics could be poetry. Nine Brel compositions appear on Walker’s first three albums (Scott, Scott 2 and Scott 3). Working with Mort Shuman’s translations from the French, Walker skillfully captured the tone and feel of Brel’s originals. References to prostitutes, drugs, dissolute sailors, homosexuality, debauchery, venereal disease and bodily functions (not to mention some misogyny) brought them far from the Walker Brothers’ songs for swooning girls and wistful housewives. (All of the Brel covers were compiled on 1981’s Scott Walker Sings Jacques Brel.)
Brel’s work offered rich possibilities for interpretation, but Walker also credits the Belgian with unlocking his imagination and catalyzing his own writing. Inspired by the way Brel captured life’s complexities and confusion but presented no solutions, Walker focused on seemingly unremarkable, mainly urban characters inhabiting a world of kitchen-sink realism, struggling with day-to-day existence, often alone and damaged. A couple of his Walker Brothers songs had shown Brel’s influence and abandoned the sentimental boy-meets/loses-girl blueprint, but those were only drafts for the more fully realized achievements on his solo albums, such songs as “Montague Terrace (In Blue)” (Scott), “The Amorous Humphrey Plugg” (Scott 2) and “Big Louise” (Scott 3). Most importantly, Walker supplemented Brel’s realism with abstract touches, expanding simple narratives with jarring, surreal imagery: in Scott 2‘s “Plastic Palace People,” cityscape and dreamscape merge.
The most striking characteristic of Walker’s first three albums is their strong European sensibility. The American expat imagines the continent as few other artists have, distilling movies and literature, appropriating musical styles, and drawing on quotidian experience (the floor shaking as a London Tube train passes underneath on “The Amorous Humphrey Plugg,” a detail from the façade of a Parisian cathedral on Scott 3‘s “We Came Through”). The combination of these elements imbues his work with a strong sense of place, as well as inner landscapes and moods that have an ineffable European feel.
To an extent, Walker’s first three albums balanced his contrasting identities: alongside Brel and dark melodrama, Walker included some lighter fare that would satisfy old fans. However, he rejected standard practices relating to singles: he selected his interpretation of Brel’s bawdy Walter-Mitty fantasy “Jackie” as his first 45 and released it after his debut album, with “The Plague,” a bluesy Camus-inspired number, on the B-side. It made the British Top 20. Nevertheless, his label had him cater to past fans with the second single, the insipid “Joanna.” Then, on the Billy Cotton Band television show, Walker famously treated his easy-listening audience to Brel’s “My Death” — hardly the Sex Pistols versus Bill Grundy, but, at the time, quite radical. There were other compromises: in early 1969, the BBC gave Walker a television series on which he crooned schmaltzy covers, Brel numbers and a few of his own songs; this spawned Scott Walker Sings Songs From His T.V. Series.
As Walker’s solo career burgeoned in the UK, there was no shortage of compilations of his work, alone or with the Brothers. His popularity also led labels to delve into his pre-Walker Brothers past. Ember cashed in with Looking Back With Scott Walker, a collection of his earliest recordings as Scott Engel. This material is eminently forgettable and difficult to square with Walker’s later work, but it’s often been repackaged over the years. It re-appeared in 1995 on A-Side’s Scott Engel: When Is a Boy a Man? The Early Years of Scott Walker, augmented by more freshly exhumed juvenilia that Walker would have doubtless preferred not to hear again. These extra tracks are also on an expanded 1996 version of Looking Back. Spalax revived the material in 1997 with The Early Ten Years, and others continued to milk it into the new millennium, including Castle with In the Beginning and Prism with 14 Original Recordings.
Scott 4 contains, for the first time, all original material and was released under the name Noel Scott Engel. The short, breathtaking album displays his full range as a songwriter and performer. The orchestrated arrangements are scaled back, with newly prominent guitars; elements of jazz, folk, country, rock, soul and even choral music add diversity. Some of the lyrical topics are new as well: totalitarianism on “The Old Man’s Back Again (Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime)” and militarism on the sprightly but cynical “Hero of the War.” Other highlights include the gloriously melodramatic spaghetti western-style homage to Bergman (“The Seventh Seal”), the rousing “Get Behind Me” and the understated country twang of “Duchess” and “Rhymes of Goodbye.” That said, there’s not really a weak link among these ten tracks. Unfortunately, what should have been Walker’s finest hour heralded the start of a decline as, mysteriously, the album flopped and was soon deleted.
Walker describes the ’70s as his blackest period, and the quality of his work began to deteriorate on ‘Til the Band Comes In, his first album of that decade. There are some inspired songs amid this mix of covers and originals: the stirring, camp drama of “Thanks for Chicago Mr. James” and the apocalyptic-yet-upbeat “Little Things That Keep Us Together” stand out, as does the brief “Cowbells Shakin’.” Other than that, the album has little to recommend it. Walker gets bogged down in tepid lounge fare like “Joe” and “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?”; while his previous explorations of country sounds had been tasteful, the same can’t really be said of “Reuben James.”
The Moviegoer consists of songs from Walker’s favorite films, including compositions by Michel Legrand, Lalo Schifrin, Nino Rota, Ennio Morricone and Henry Mancini. Although the results fall into the bland easy-listening category, “The Ballad of Sacco and Vanzetti” and Neil Diamond’s “Glory Road” offer some relief, with Walker seemingly more energized by and engaged with the material.
The downward spiral continued on another album of covers, Any Day Now. Walker sounds as if he’s on autopilot, notwithstanding versions of Caetano Veloso’s “Maria Bethânia” and Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Matters improved slightly when he signed to Columbia. Still singing other peoples’ songs, he dabbled in country on Stretch, with results that paled in comparison to his most accomplished country-flavored work on Scott 4. He explored this direction further on We Had It All (1974), this time with a little more success. These records are mildly entertaining, but Walker is going through the motions, refusing to challenge himself or his listener the way he did on his first four albums.
A year later, Walker surprisingly reconnected with Leeds and Maus. Their all-covers comeback, No Regrets, is uneven. Nevertheless, the Tom Rush title track, a grand mopathon featuring Scott in vintage voice, became their first hit single in a decade. The disappointing 1976 follow-up, Lines, was anachronistic against the backdrop of punk, but Nite Flights is noteworthy. It includes four new Scott Walker numbers that put him in tune with the more adventurous trends in contemporary rock. Synth-focused tracks such as “The Electrician” (about torture) echo Bowie and Eno’s collaborations on Low and Heroes and hinted at an exciting new phase in Walker’s work.
However, the trio split again, Walker withdrew and, although he signed to Virgin in 1980, did not re-emerge until 1984’s half-hour-long Climate of Hunter. Featuring such diverse players as Billy Ocean and Evan Parker, the record has some continuity with Nite Flights; the effect of Walker crooning to slick, hard-edged rock on “Track Three (Delayed)” and “Track Five (It’s a Starving)” suggest an adrenalized version of late Roxy Music. Elsewhere, Walker returns to atmospheric orchestral arrangements (most memorably on “Sleepwalker’s Woman”) and ends the disc with “Blanket Roll Blues” (penned by Tennessee Williams for the movie The Fugitive Kind), accompanied by Mark Knopfler on acoustic guitar. Walker subsequently recorded a few basic tracks with Eno but, according to legend, consigned them to a watery grave in the Thames. Eno’s diplomatic comment was that Walker “wasn’t in a great state of mind at the time.”
Walker largely sat out the ’80s and the first half of the ’90s, passively becoming a cult object in the process. (Apart from collaborating with Goran Bregovic on a couple of tracks for the movie Toxic Affair, he disappeared into normal life: traveling on public transportation and taking art classes were the highlights.) David Bowie had long spoken of him as an idol and covered “Nite Flights” on 1993’s Black Tie White Noise but younger, non-mainstream artists also championed his work. Julian Cope’s 1981 compilation, Fire Escape in the Sky: The Godlike Genius of Scott Walker, introduced him to a new audience. While Marc Almond identified with the pronounced camp element in Walker’s work and Nick Cave’s own melancholy balladeering paid obvious homage, a newer generation of artists — Blur, Radiohead, Suede, the Divine Comedy, Tindersticks, Pulp — also embraced Walker.
In the ’90s, the renewed attention to Walker’s music led to several compilations. Focusing on the first five albums, Boy Child: 67–70 provides an excellent overview. No Regrets: The Best of Scott Walker & the Walker Brothers works best as a Walker Brothers collection. The US-only It’s Raining Today: The Scott Walker Story (1967–70) isn’t quite as solid an introduction as Boy Child, but it does offer a marginally stronger selection of tracks from ‘Til the Band Comes In.
Having signed to Mercury in 1991, Walker broke his silence with 1995’s almost unclassifiable Tilt. While it recalls Tim Buckley’s Starsailor for the uncompromising boldness and a tendency toward dissonance and atonality, it’s unique as an epic psychodrama. Tilt suggests an experimental-industrial opera with a pared-down, cut-up libretto; an unnerving cycle of fragmented, minimalist lieder. The contrast with Walker’s more straightforward earlier work is staggering. At its most challenging, Tilt eschews verses, choruses, linear narratives and representational lyrics in favor of linguistic clusters, fractured syntax and jarring imagery whose meaning remains elusive. This rigorous deconstruction feeds into the music, as fragmentation and discontinuity abound on dark, sprawling tracks like “Manhattan” and “Face on Breast,” which lurch and menace with no real concessions to sustained melody. Nevertheless, sweeping orchestral swathes make “Farmer in the City” a standout. Walker’s most famous asset — his comfortably melancholy voice — becomes unsettling as he sings in a straining, higher register. (He later commented that he was terrified of singing and wanted to convey that emotion. He succeeds, particularly on “The Cockfighter” and “Rosary.”) On Tilt, Walker seems more concerned with foregrounding the artistic devices of language and music and the creative process itself than he is with providing listeners with a set of conventional, finished songs. This isn’t so much a rock record as a broader conceptual exercise.
Walker remained busy after Tilt. He recorded a version of Dylan’s “I Threw It All Away” for John Hillcoat’s 1996 film To Have and to Hold and a Walker Brothers-style number for the 1999 Bond movie The World Is Not Enough. The same year, he composed the soundtrack for Léos Carax’s Pola X. Exploring similar territory to Tilt, the music runs the gamut from expansive, brooding symphonic arrangements (played by the Paris Philharmonic) to frenetic, abrasive interludes. Orchestral passages like the mournful “Darkest Forest” and the elegiac “Light” contrast with intense, industrially flavored numbers like “Church of the Apostles” and with “Never Again,” which combines brief bursts of rap and moody noise. On “The Time Is out of Joint!” Walker actually samples himself, incorporating part of “The Cockfighter.” In 2000, he wrote two songs for Ute Lemper’s Punishing Kiss, produced Pulp’s We Love Life and curated the Meltdown Festival in London, assembling one of the most eclectic lineups yet.
In 2003, Universal put out In 5 Easy Pieces, a boxed set spanning Walker’s career in five thematically arranged discs. The collection includes Walker Brothers numbers; songs from his 1967–70 solo records (curiously omitting some of the highlights of Scott 4); material from Pola X; previously uncollected soundtrack contributions; and generous portions of Climate of Hunter and Tilt. Save for some tracks from ‘Til the Band Comes In, a few from The Moviegoer, one cut from Stretch and a couple of odds and ends, this 96-track anthology glosses over his ’70s solo oeuvre; in addition, there’s little here that’s not available elsewhere. If the sequencing is sometimes questionable and the discs’ thematic organization a good idea that doesn’t entirely succeed, the shoddy packaging is especially disappointing: a short, poorly written narrative, song information and credits and brief pasted-in quotations by artists praising Walker are all you get in a white paper booklet that looks like it was thrown together in an afternoon.
The Collection is a standard single-disc overview, albeit one peppered with some rather random choices: the excellent Morricone-style “The Rope and the Colt” (from the 1968 movie of the same name), one track from Any Day Now and another from the T.V. Series record.
A decade after Tilt, Walker started recording a new album, this time for 4AD. Rumors from the studio had him beating meat (literally), blowing a six-foot horn (more accurately, a Tubax) and making children scream, as well as playing with rolling trash cans and a giant pea — all of which proved to be true. Anyone still hoping for Walker to return from the experimental hinterland, turn back the clock and sing a few songs for old time’s sake will be disappointed — and likely disconcerted — by The Drift. Of course anyone still expecting Scott Walker to come home again hasn’t paid attention to the evolution of his work over the years: from his days as a Walker Brother, he was never actually at home and, save for his ’70s MOR aberrations, he’s always rejected the safe and the familiar. Resisting domestication and stasis, he has restlessly sought out a new musical idiom. While Tilt still offered fleeting glimpses of Walker’s rock and pop bearings, on The Drift he all but severs those ties, pushing further into uncharted territory. If Tilt, for all its artistic daring, was a postmodern blurring of popular and high culture, The Drift only aims high. Walker here has more in common with the likes of Ligeti, Penderecki and Xenakis than Lennon or McCartney. He excises any last vestiges of mainstream musical sensibility, definitively putting his past to rest and challenging listeners in more profound and radical ways. In this claustrophobic, dystopian symphonic vision, he paints in bold blocs (thunderous, visceral percussion; vortical strings; dark atmospheric clouds) and minimalist strokes (handclaps; interjections; isolated atonal guitar chords; a cappella vocals; idiosyncratic found or constructed sounds).
The Drift doesn’t share Tilt‘s textural sensibility: the individual elements aren’t so much layered as prized apart to emphasize the spaces and silences between the terms in Walker’s sonic vocabulary. With even less onus on melody or narrative than its predecessor, The Drift repeatedly jolts the consciousness with shifting tempos and intensities. The elliptical, imagistic tenor of Walker’s lyrics enhances his work’s jarring character; his poems fixate on abjection, violence, disease, contagion, corruption and extremity, as well as the occasional ephemeral possibility of transcendence. Like the music, his lyrics have “found” elements: “Cossacks Are” incorporates phrases from newspaper articles and arts reviews (Bush’s February 2005 comment to Chirac: “I’m looking for a good cowboy”; UN war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte denouncing the Milosevic regime’s “medieval savagery…calculated cruelty”; a London Sunday Times appraisal of Slavenka Drakulic’s The Taste of a Man as “a chilling exploration of erotic consumption,” and so on).
The dramatic “Jesse” is Walker’s 9-11 song (everybody has one these days). Built around dark, looping bass drones, wiry baritone guitar and dizzying dissonant string flourishes, this haunting piece interweaves two strands of contemporary American mythology: the story of Elvis’ stillborn twin brother and hallucinatory visions of September 11, 2001 (“Six feet / of / foetus / flung at / sparrows / in the /sky . . . . Famine is / a tall / tall / tower /A building / left / in the / night / Jesse / are you / listening? / It casts / its ruins / in shadows / under / Memphis / moonlight”). The track culminates in Walker tragically intoning, “I’m the only one left alive.” Inspired by the 1945 executions of Mussolini and his lover, Claretta Petacci, the 13-minute “Clara” moves between tense funereal strings and industrial pounding, periodically toppling into an abyss of orchestrated quease; Walker allows a sliver of breezy melody into the proceedings via Vanessa Contenay-Quinones’ lullaby vocals, albeit he backs her by the sound of meat being thumped plus a few grunts. Indeed, animals get a raw deal here. What appears to be a braying ass is consumed amid the crawling mechanical menace and pummeling drive of “Jolson and Jones”; Walker even ventures “I’ll punch a donkey in the streets of Galway” as if he means it literally. Complete with the rumble of a giant pea, “Psoriatic” is another characteristically oblique meditation, seemingly an exploration of the shell game as existential metaphor coupled with the motif of dermatological malady; as the track gathers momentum with taut, repeating guitar and bass patterns, Walker sings, “Don’t think it hasn’t been fun because it hasn’t.” And The Drift certainly isn’t a barrel of laughs — notwithstanding a few ironic lyrical touches.
Ultimately, The Drift suggests an artist bent on exorcising all popular nuances from his work, stripping it of triviality, light, levity and easy pleasure. This idea is hammered home amid an ominous swelling of strings on “The Escape” with the inclusion of a tired trope of evil American mass culture, Donald Duck, his voice distorted and demonic. By so clearly rejecting the terms and expectations of rock and pop, The Drift asks fairly explicitly to be taken as a serious work of art. However, for all its highbrow aspirations, it seems to fall between two realms, lacking the innovative reach that would make it a credible presence among contemporary avant-garde compositions.