- 09 Jan 20
Upon his death last year, Scott Walker was widely acclaimed as one of the greatest and most influential artists in rock history. To celebrate what would've been Walker's 77th birthday, we're revisiting Paul Nolan's reflections on remarkable career, originally published in Hot Press in April 2019.
It has been a fearful few years in the landscape of rock and pop. The passing of the immortal triumvirate of Bowie, Prince and Cohen in 2016 seems to have presaged an era of sad deaths, with many going well before their time – including Chris Cornell, who left us the following year, in 2017.
In the past 18 months alone, we have lost Dolores O’Riordan, The Fall’s Mark E. Smith and Keith Flint. And March 22 of this year saw the death of one of the most brilliant and influential figures in rock history, Scott Walker. Fittingly, my first encounter with him gave some indication of his seismic impact on the world of music.
Reading the music press in the summer of 2000, I had my head turned by the fact that two of my favourite bands, Blur and Radiohead, were set to headline the Walker-curated Meltdown Festival, taking place at the Southbank Centre in London. The basic biographical info made the singer an immediately irresistible figure.
Initially finding fame with the Walker Brothers as a ’60s teen heartthrob, his Anglophile tendencies prompted him to relocate from his native California to England, where he created a seminal series of albums in Scott, 2, 3 and 4. With his commercial star on the wane, Walker retreated completely from the spotlight, only to sporadically emerge – literally once a decade – with audaciously experimental albums, each more bewildering than the last.
Climate Of Hunter (released, appropriately, in 1984) and ’95’s Tilt were greeted with shocked confusion in certain quarters, awed devotion in others. Brian Eno and David Bowie – the latter being Walker’s most high-profile fan and advocate throughout the years – were only the most conspicuous tastemakers to hail the albums as groundbreaking masterworks.
The accompanying pic of Walker in the article that I read, showing him with slicked back hair and aviator shades, was the coup de grace: this man was the epitome of outsider cool. Without hearing a note of his music, I was already smitten.
Listen, they’re laughing in the halls…
In a cultural era that now seems as remote as medieval times, not every song in recorded history was available at the touch of a button in the early 21st century. Thus, months passed before I actually set ears on a Scott Walker tune for the first time.
Towards the end of 2000, one of the UK music mags gave away a free compilation CD that included his song ‘Plastic Palace People’, from 1968’s Scott 2. The track effortlessly lived up to expectation: over a woozy orchestral backing, Walker croons a disconcerting story of a boy called Billy floating off into the sky, whilst his mother looks on aghast.
A noticeable undercurrent of anxiety stalks the lyrics: “Listen, they’re laughing in the halls / They rip your face with lies / To buzzing eyes you cry for help”. I’m not sure how many times I listened to ‘Plastic Palace People’ in the winter of 2000, but it was a lot.
A deep dive into Scott Walker’s background gives some clues to the source of the unease that would always underpin his music. Born Noel Scott Engel in Hamilton, Ohio in 1943, his father – an oil industry executive – remained at loggerheads with Scott’s mother throughout his youth, eventually leading her to suffer a nervous breakdown.
In 1959, she and her son moved to California, where work as a session musician introduced Scott to singer-guitarist John Maus and drummer Gary Leeds. Maus was already performing as John Walker, the name inscribed on the fake ID he used to perform in clubs whilst still underage. Thus, the group were christened The Walker Brothers.
In the main, their early albums are serviceable collections of cover versions and swooning torch songs, but in a six-month period from mid-1965 to early ’66, the group hit paydirt with two bona fide classics: the Bacharach/David number ‘Make It Easy On Yourself’, and ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore’, written by Bob Crewe and Bob Gaudio.
Both major international hits, these majestic ballads placed Scott’s soaring, indelible vocals front and centre. The singer’s suave mod clothes and boyishly handsome looks completed the package, and he duly became the teen pin-up of the day. For an introverted avant-jazz aficionado fixated on European art, literature and cinema, it was never going to be an easy fit.
Consequently, Walker – already chafing at the creative restrictions imposed by the band – headed to England and commenced his solo career.
It’s raining today
It was around this time that Walker encountered one of the major influences on his early solo career, in the shape of Belgian crooner Jacques Brel. Walker’s then girlfriend, a German Playboy bunny, would play Brel’s records during late-night Pernod-drinking sessions back at her flat, and translate the lyrics for her fascinated partner.
There would be several Brel covers on Walker’s solo debut, 1967’s Scott, but in an indication of his growing prowess as a songwriter, the stand-out number was his own ‘Montague Terrace (In Blue)’. Strikingly vivid, the novelistic lyrics paint a memorable portrait of spiritual malaise: “The little clock’s stopped ticking now… The girl across the hall makes love / Her thoughts lay cold like shattered stone”.
It was a powerful track that set the template for Walker’s next few records: with these gritty tales of everyday struggle, the singer was quite literally throwing the kitchen sink at it. On the following year’s Scott 2, the ante was upped still further with ‘Plastic Palace People’ and ‘The Amorous Humphrey Plugg’, the latter a tale of a businessman who seeks nocturnal escape in the arms of a prostitute.
In a somewhat unexpected development, Walker would shortly be given his own BBC variety series – the equivalent of ’80s Terry Wogan having a parallel career as a member of Throbbing Gristle. Unfortunately, the singer’s critical standing increased in inverse proportion to his sales, and not even his Beeb gig could halt the commercial slide.
Nonetheless, his artistic stock continued to sky-rocket. Scott 3, released in 1969, commenced with his most sonically dazzling effort yet: a trademark tale of existential ennui, in the right speaker ‘It’s Raining Today’ was a straightforward torch song; in the left, it was a dread-soaked avant-garde soundscape.
This was genuinely ground-breaking stuff, and mere months later, Walker delivered another landmark tune on Scott 4, in the shape of ‘The Old Man’s Back Again’. Betraying the singer’s roots as a bass player, the song was propelled by an irresistible rhythm later echoed in Radiohead’s ‘Creep’. Demonstrating how far Walker had strayed from the likes of Engelbert Humperdinck, the song – inspired by the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia – was parenthetically dedicated to “the neo-Stalinist regime”.
Walker’s pop fanbase was, to put it mildly, somewhat confused. Panicked record companies tried to restore his popularity with a series of underwhelming cover albums, all to no avail. “After that,” the singer later remarked, “I don’t know what happened. A lot of drinking and stuff like that.”
This is how you disappear
If Scott Walker had never recorded another note, his legendary status would have been assured. But in the second half of his career, he would dramatically expand his horizons and seal his place amongst the all-time greats. The first sign of what was to come arrived with 1978’s Nite Flights, intended as the Walker Brothers’ swansong after the commercial failure of their previous two albums.
Each member was given their own third of the LP, but there’s no doubt whose dominated. Starting with the Hipgnosis-designed sleeve – a fractured photo of the group – it was clear this marked a new departure for Scott Walker.
Consolidating the effect, the ominous song titles – ‘Shutout’, ‘Fat Mama Kick’ – showed that Scott had developed a taste for Beckettian language: he wanted to say the maximum amount in the most minimal way. Nite Flights’ high point was the staggering ‘The Electrician’: written from the perspective of a CIA torturer, the song unforgettably morphed from avant-garde nightmare to eerie jam, and eventually orchestral fantasia. This was music straining at the very edge of what rock could achieve.
Walker’s ambitions were fully realised in the mid-’80s on Climate Of Hunter. On certain tunes, he dispensed with song names altogether (simply opting for ‘Track Three’, ‘Track Five’ etc), but what titles were used spoke volumes: ‘Dealer’, ‘It’s A Starving’. The album’s dystopian feel was perfectly summed up in the first lines of opening track ‘Rawhide’: “This is how you disappear / Out between midnight”.
Backed by an array of session musicians – including, bizarrely, Mark Knopfler and Billy Ocean – Walker crafted intense soundscapes that veered between sinister grooves, atonal weirdness and jagged art-rock. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the top ten remain untroubled.
Walker wouldn’t surface publicly again for more than a decade.
I gotta quit
Tilt, which arrived in 1995, is Walker’s crowning achievement. Starting with the oblique art-work – a hand and feathers layered over peering avian eyes – he pushed the envelope in every conceivable way, taking his lyrics and music into previously unimaginable terrain. The effect was a little like JG Ballard fronting Nine Inch Nails.
Tilt’s sense of profound alienation was perhaps best summed up in the truly terrifying ‘Bolivia ’95’: “Save the crops and the bodies / From illness, from pestilence, from hunger and war”. The high point was the astonishing ‘Face On Breast’. Over an eerie industrial soundscape, Walker – in his trademark operatic croon – conjures stark imagery (“Swan you glide above the thrashing... Smear the mouth all across the thready sky”), before ruminating upon emotional isolation (“What if I am only pledging my love?”).
If ever there was the musical equivalent of Francis Bacon, this was it. Tilt signed off with ‘Rosary’, a bleak meditation on addiction that ended with Walker muttering, “I gotta quit”.
Utterly thrilling in its extremity, Tilt is a true avant garde masterpiece. Released at the peak of Britpop, the record was met with disinterested shrugs by certain critics, but amongst his peers, Walker couldn’t have been held in higher esteem. Bowie was positively evangelical about the record, and his own Outside – released the same year – owed a huge debt to Walker. For Robert Plant, Tilt was “a spectacular moment in British musical history”.
As evidenced by Stephen Kijack’s fine 2007 documentary 30 Century Man and the following year’s Drifting & Tilting live show at the Barbican, Walker’s fan-club amongst the art-rock cognoscenti had swollen to gigantic proportions: Blur, Radiohead, Pulp, Dot Allison, Simon Raymonde, Marc Almond – the list goes on and on.
His final studio albums, 2006’s The Drift and 2012’s Bish Bosch, formed something of a trilogy with Tilt, although the darkness was now leavened by the occasional moment of absurdist humour. Notably, at one point on Bish Bosch, a sinister soundscape cuts out, whereupon Walker – in a voice reminiscent of Noel Coward – apologises for accidentally kicking someone in the bollocks.
The following year, on his penultimate album The Next Day, David Bowie paid tribute to the trilogy – and Walker – with ‘Heat’: its macabre atmosphere and wracked existential lyrics made it one of Bowie’s greatest ever songs.
With Scott Walker’s sad passing, we have now lost another irreplaceable genius. RIP.