“He really didn’t want to abide by the rules of the genre. He kind of opted out of rock very early on in his career. It just seems he wanted to expand in some very unusual ways. And that was pretty much what I wanted to do. And it was always guys like that that I admired.”
David Bowie, 2006
In these challenging times, it seems like another week, another week we mourn the death of someone special. Inevitably, as rock ’n’ roll enters its eighth decade, in the words of Chrissie Hynde “it’s only gonna get worse.”
Scott Walker, who has died at the age of 76, was indeed someone rather special. A staggeringly gifted singer but also, a singular, visionary, and at times perplexing artist, at his best when working off the beaten track.
The story of Walker’s career is a strange and unique one. The ultimate cult artist, it is hard to think of another American who had such an impact on rock music as a whole while being almost completely unknown to his countrymen as Scott Walker. A 30 Century man who had been a boy, Scotty Engel, releasing Ricky Nelson knock offs since the age of 14.
Walker was born Noel Scott Engel (the name his songs are often credited to) on 9 January 1943, in the Midwestern town of Hamilton, Ohio, just 20 miles from the lights of Cincinnati he’d later sing about. An only child and a lonely boy, his parents moved around a lot—his dad was a geologist for an oil company—so Scott grew up in various successive homes in Texas, Colorado, New York and California, but that nomadic loneliness suited him fine, and from an early age he loved going by himself to the cinema.
He preferred the European stuff: Rossellini, Visconti, Fassbinder, Bergman, because it had a “dreamlike” quality that was missing from Woody Allen’s work. “I never made friends that easily, he told The Guardian in 2008, sounding not at all regretful. “I don’t mind being on my own because when you’re on your own a lot as a child, your imagination grows. That is still the case with me.”
His parents divorced when he was six. He and his mom moved to Denver, then to New York City, where he landed a role on Broadway and hung out with gangster types. When he was 16, they relocated to Los Angeles, where he recorded an EP called Meet Scott Engel and played bass as well, for recording sessions and in bands around the LA area. He was disturbingly good looking.
In 1964, Engel started a band with two fellow hired guns, John Maus and Gary Leeds. The vocal trio adopted extravagant hairstyles and changed their last names to Walker, becoming The Walker Brothers, inspired by fellow Los Angelenos The Righteous Brothers. Originally, John was supposed to sing lead, but during an early recording session, the producer—Jack Nitzsche—suggested Scott step up to the job. It was a pretty darn good suggestion. With his tousled blond hair and piercing blue eyes, he was the ultimate ‘60s pin-up boy; famous by his early 20s… and old news by 30.
Conveniently draft dodging the Vietnam war, the vocal trio moved to London in February 1965, stormed the offices of Melody Maker and hustled for a manager. By September, they had a number-one hit in Bacharach & David’s Make It Easy On Yourself. The following year, they had another, Crewe & Gaudio’s melancholy classic that became their signature song The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore), in which he emoted in his glorious baritone (kind of like Tom Jones if only he could sing like Roy Orbison) the prophetic, painful lines: “Loneliness is a cloak you wear, a deep shade of blue is always there.”
He could have been describing his future self, both his personality and his music. The song was teenage heartbreak writ large and remains perhaps the most dramatic example of a certain strain of mid-‘60s pop melodrama, wherein everything – the music, the delivery, the production – was overloaded. It possesses what Johnny Marr would later describe as “that gothic and beautiful gloom that was as much about England in the Sixties as was Day Tripper”.
Conversely, the Walker Brothers had found fame in the so-called Swinging Sixties of England at the same time that American audiences were going crazy for groups like The Beatles, providing a unique counterpoint to the British Invasion by achieving way more success in the United Kingdom than in their home country. The Walkers married soaring vocal harmonies, Phil Spector-ish production techniques, Spaghetti Western soundtrack arrangements and a decidedly dark lyrical worldview into one uniquely melodramatic package.
After a tour of Japan in 1968, the group imploded, with Scott frustrated to the point of breakdown by the formula into which their songs had fallen. His aversion to fame, and the fan hysteria that came with it, sent him running for the hills. Walker spent a week in a monastery in 1966, and the following year, there were reports that he had attempted suicide. The Scott Walker who emerged on the solo albums that followed was a different kind of pop star, an old before his time crooner who veered between mainstream, Jack Jones-style orchestral balladeering and middle European angst.
A German Bunny Girl he’d picked up at a party in the Playboy Club on Park Lane turned him on to the Flemish chansonnier Jacques Brel, and Walker revelled in the graphic tales of dockland prostitutes and mutated heroin addicts as he smattered them in rousing brass tumults and Cuban-heeled bohemianism. Between ’67 and 1969 he released four legendary albums (Scott through Scott 4), the odd side project, then after a clutch of wilderness covers albums, a reunion with his brotherly outfit in the mid ‘70s, kicking off with the deliciously defiant No Regrets. Cute, cute, in a stupid ass way.
David Bowie was first introduced to the expatriate American’s music in the late ‘60s after he started going out the musician Lesley Duncan, who’d co-written with Walker, including You’re All Around Me on The Walker Brothers’ 1965 debut, Take It Easy. It was while spending time at her apartment in Hampstead, North London, listening intently as Duncan, author of the achingly romantic Love Song that The Dame would later cover, played Walker’s first three solo albums, an idiosyncratic triumvirate that first alerted Bowie to the wealth of material that lay within Brel’s vast songbook. He talked about his introduction to the Belgian composer in a favourite albums feature for Vanity Fair in November 2003 feature:
“In the mid-‘60s, I was having an on-again, off-again thing with a wonderful singer-songwriter who had previously been the girlfriend of Scott Walker. Much to my chagrin, Walker’s music played in her apartment night and day. I sadly lost contact with her, but unexpectedly kept a fond and hugely admiring love for Walker’s work. One of the writers he covered on an early album was Jacques Brel. That was enough to take me to the theatre to catch the above-named production when it came to London in 1968. By the time the cast, led by the earthy translator and Brooklynite Mort Shuman, had gotten to the song that dealt with guys lining up for their syphilis shots (Next), I was completely won over. By way of Brel, I discovered French chanson, a revelation. Here was a popular song form wherein poems by the likes of Sartre, Cocteau, Verlaine, and Baudelaire were known and embraced by the general populace. No flinching, please.”
By 1969’s Scott 4, on which his own songwriting finally came to the fore (key track: the spare, skeletal Boy Child), his themes were darker and a quote from the absurdist French philosopher Albert Camus graced the sleeve: ‘A man’s work is nothing but his slow trek to rediscover through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.’
The pop idol had metamorphosed into an arbiter of existential angst. He wrote Scott 4, he admitted, “on drink”, and fell into depression when it failed to sell like its predecessors, though Walker’s eccentric decision to release the album under his birth name of Noel Scott Engel would have hardly helped its chart viability. “I snapped,” he said. “The pressure was everywhere and, in my crazy imagination.”
Those solo records have influenced several generations of pop mavericks from Marc Almond and David Sylvian in the Eighties to the Divine Comedy a decade later. More recently, Arctic Monkey Alex Turner’s other project, the Last Shadow Puppets, released their debut album, The Age of Understatement, which, despite its title, was a homage to Walker’s lavish orchestrated emotional melodramas. Jarvis Cocker was also a fan and persuaded him to produce Pulp’s 2001 swansong, We Love Life, of which Bad Cover Version was extracted. It even references Walker’s 1970 album ‘Til The Band Comes In. Cheeky.
Later in life, it was Walker’s act of defiance in the face of fame that would have partly inspired some of Bowie’s cherished acts of self-immolation, such as the shock slaying of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars at the peak of their popularity. Other artists have been called “reluctant” teen idols, but Walker effectively invented the sub-genre, becoming the first to literally throw the adulation back at his audience and stomp off into areas he knew they’d be hard-pressed to follow.
In the late Seventies, Bowie and Brian Eno actively courted Walker, both of them in the midst of their ‘Berlin’ ‘triptych’ collaborations on Low, “Heroes” and Lodger, but fighting it out to be allowed to produce an album for the enigmatic American, much in the same way they’d competed for the affections of Devo and Talking Heads a year or two earlier. The Thin White Duke, said Melody Maker in 1979, “was impressed by the European feeling of the last Walker Brothers album, Nite Flights, which owed its critical acceptance to Scott’s work.” Indeed, Walker’s quartet of compositions on Nite Flights were as disturbingly discordant and futuristic as anything Bowie or Eno were putting out, together or independently.
In the 2006 documentary Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, which Bowie executive produced, Brian Eno is shown listening to Nite Flights, which he had brought to Bowie’s recording sessions for the Lodger album at Montreux’s Mountain Studios, and they couldn’t have failed to notice the album’s cover art was clearly inspired by “Heroes” either. In the film, Eno simultaneously marvels and scoffs that music has hardly progressed since its 1978 release. He talks eloquently, as always about the way it combines electronic and experimental music with pop songs, and then he takes off his glasses and shakes his head.
“I have to say, it’s humiliating to hear this. It is! Christ. We haven’t got any further. You just keep hearing all these bands that sound like bloody Roxy Music and Talking Heads. We haven’t gotten any further than this. It’s a disgrace, really.”
Meanwhile, Bowie, who largely financed the docufilm, just laughs and shakes his head, confessing to not fully understanding Walker’s lyrics but simply falling in love with the imagery. In the end, any musical meeting of minds was not to be. “Scott just wasn’t interested,” recalls Walker’s then label head at GTO Records, Dick Leahy. “He told me to tell Bowie he didn’t want to do it. He insisted he didn’t want to work with other people.”
However, by the mid ‘80s, Scott was working with other people. His second album for Virgin, a successor to 1984’s critically acclaimed Climate of Hunter, was being produced by none other than Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, but the sessions abandoned after “backing tracks for about six songs,” according to Eno went nowhere. Walker “wasn’t in a great state of mind at the time,” the Eno one told Q magazine in 2001.
Meanwhile, Bowie had to make do with covering the title track of Nite Flights on his 1993 album Black Tie White Noise. “I think he’s probably been my idol since I was a kid,” he lied, with typical relish. Produced by Chic’s Nile Rodgers, Bowie’s version was moody and dramatic; his baritone phrasing follows Walker’s original closely, but on the other hand, is distinctively Bowie. When you consider how Walkeresque later period Bowie originals such as the unsettling Heat and Blackstar are, it occasionally feels like Scott is the missing link in Bowie’s vocal development, the link that connects the crooners of the Fifties to the punks of the ‘70s.
Two years later, on Thursday 15 November, 1995, Bowie and Walker finally met, backstage after one of The Dame’s shows at London’s Wembley Arena (‘special guest’ the soon to quit queen of the strop, Morrissey). 1995 was the year Walker released the terrifying Tilt (key track: the cacophonous auctioneer’s chant of Farmer In The City), a beautifully unintelligible masterpiece of harrowing avant garde art rock which, according to Brian Eno’s illuminating diaries A Year With Swollen Appendices, saw Bowie fretting it was going to cover the same unsettling proto-industrialist ground as their long-awaited reunion album Outside. He needn’t have worried.
The reason I can be so precise about the date is because I saw it happen, in the flesh as it were. Before they greeted each other, I heard David tell his wife Iman, “Quick! Go and get the camera!” It took me a while to twig who the extremely self-conscious tall bloke in a baseball cap was, chatting nervously to a buoyant Bowie by the staircase. By the time it dawned on me, he and his female companion were off. The first people to leave the green room. It couldn’t have been more than 20 minutes after Bowie had come off stage.
Bowie made a beeline for me as he passed by to greet Peter Gabriel and Tears For Fears’ Roland Orzabal. He was terribly excited, looking like the young kitten that had got every drop of the cream. He clasped my right hand and told me breathlessly:
“I left him the tickets but I didn’t think he was gonna turn up! That was Scott Walker! Oh, wow, that’s made my tour!”
“Very sad to lose Scott Walker. He was a unique singer who could externalise his interior with ease. Perhaps his real importance was as an artist who was unafraid to go where no other musician had been. He reminded me of a courageous and lonely arctic explorer who opened up pathways down which others could follow.”
– Peter Gabriel
Coincidentally, another two years after that, a second rare occurrence happened, and this one truly in the most unlikeliest of circumstances. I happened to be sniffing for bargains at the first day of the winter sales at House of Fraser’s now defunct flagship store in Regent Street. The date was 8 December 1997.
As I made my way down the spiral staircase into the menswear department on the lower ground floor, I spied a familiar looking face, this time minus baseball cap, but wearing a long navy overcoat. A wool and cashmere blend, I thought to myself. He was on his own and looked a little lost. Out of place even. This time I knew who he was straight away. It was the man they said was a recluse, Scott bloody Walker! I couldn’t resist having a word, just to see what his reaction might be.
“Excuse me, are you Scott Walker?”
“Yes, yes I am.”
“I just wanted to say how much I liked Tilt.”
“Ha, well you must have been one of three people that bought it!”
He gave a nervous but throaty chuckle, and flashed a dazzling smile, with exceptionally good gnashers. His speaking voice was almost as beautiful as his singing, rich and warm, like a good brandy. This was clearly a shy man easily out of his comfort zone around people he doesn’t know, but at the same time, he was warm and engaging when he spoke, and, surprisingly, made lots of eye contact. I told him I’d seen him before.
“I witnessed you meeting David Bowie at Wembley a couple of years ago. He was so delighted you turned up. And the tape recording you made for his birthday was lovely.”
“Well, he’s a great artist. He’s been very kind with the things he’s said about me, so I was more than happy to return the favour. He deserves it.”
“I have to say, this is the last place I would have expected to find you, the first day of the sales.”
“I’m just accompanying a friend, he’s trying something on. It’s hell in here!”
And that was my cue to leave him be. I noticed how, slightly theatrically, he pretended to loosen his collar as he mentioned hell, grinning nervously. He’d started to look a bit red in the face as he realised he was talking about being out of his comfort zone, as if he’d momentarily forgot he was out in public until I brought it up. I proffered my yellow post-it note pad in his direction and asked him if he wouldn’t mind signing one for me.
“”No, of course not. It’d be a pleasure. What’s your name?”
And with that, the graceful, eccentric enigma that was Scott Walker reached out to shake my hand and made his way to the dressing rooms, over self-conscious and over-heating in a stuffy, packed department store in the centre of London.
I couldn’t resist phoning my mother with my little piece of news, especially as it was her birthday and she’d briefly worked in the very same branch of House of Fraser when it was still called Dickins & Jones. In fact she still worked for them, just in the slightly less glamorous branch in Milton Keynes. But most of all I knew Mum also had a touchy feely connection to our man in the overcoat. In fact, she was the person that made me aware of his existence.
The impromptu meet had the memory banks scurrying back to a certain cover version by Midge Ure, who once described Scott as “The Man with the Mahogany Voice.” When I showed an interest in the Ultravox frontman’s moody synth version of No Regrets, which hit the Top 10 as I became a teenager in the summer of 1982, mum was keen to educate me on where the song and she had come from: the man who launched a thousand screams.
“That’s an old song! It was by the Walker Brothers. I went to see them in Nottingham in the ‘60s, and Scott Walker reached out and held my hand! He was very good looking, but the concert wasn’t that good because they were all miming. I was so disappointed.”
Scott Engel found that his relationships with his fans and his record company would force him into decisions he didn’t look back on with much fondness. In his later years he spoke of a musical no-man’s-land, a time when he made records he did not want to make in order to “stay in the game.”
Instead of living up to the stereotype of the tortured artist, his latter-day interviews were refreshingly honest, coming across as plainspoken and unpretentious. Speaking of his solo albums released between 1969 and 1974, Walker went on— speaking to journalist David Peschek in the July 2000 issue of MOJO (incidentally, the first issue of MOJO I worked on)— to disparage his earlier recordings. No regrets? He had a few.
“They’re useless records, you know? And in a sense, I was thinking about this: maybe it’s better to have had that awful gap than to have made a lot of half-assed art records like a lot of people did. To just not quite get up to the standard in the time, and to have that behind you, I would rather have gone off totally and experimented with standards and had that experience than not.”
For the rest of his career, Walker’s recordings could be perceived as baffling exercises that critics and fans didn’t quite know what to make of, although to many of his most public cheerleaders — including musicians and writers like Teardrop Explodes’ frontman Julian Cope, who compiled his favourite Walker tracks in 1981 for a collection titled Fire Escape in the Sky: The Godlike Genius of Scott Walker — these recordings were reminders that he was always regarded an immense and dignified talent, even when he wasn’t always releasing albums that were easy to listen to.
In that respect he was probably a little closer to Kate Bush than Bowie, inasmuch that he didn’t give a rat’s ass about fame or fortune, found it impossible to compromise and was content to immerse himself in his own creative bubble, often taking whole decades to show the fruits of his labour, without any financial or commercial considerations whatsoever. Whereas Bowie craved attention, Scott avoided it like the plague he sang about. The consummate artist then.
All in all, Scott Walker released fourteen wildly erratic solo albums, and news of his death have brought out affectionate tributes from people like Thom Yorke, who took to Twitter to pay tribute to Walker saying “He was a huge influence on Radiohead and myself, showing me how I could use my voice and words.”
“For half a century, the genius of the man born Noel Scott Engel has enriched the lives of thousands, first as one third of The Walker Brothers, and later as a solo artist, producer and composer of uncompromising originality,” the independent label 4AD — who released his final four albums The Drift (2006), Bish Bosch (2014), Soused (with Sunn O))), 2014) and the film soundtrack The Childhood of a Leader (2016) — wrote in a statement on its website:
“Scott Walker has been a unique and challenging titan at the forefront of British music: audacious and questioning, he has produced works that dare to explore human vulnerability and the godless darkness encircling it. We are honoured to have worked with Scott for the last 15 years of his life.”
Scott Walker is survived by his partner Beverly, his daughter Lee and his granddaughter, Emmi-Lee. Thank you Scott, for, well, you know, everything.
Gee, this life’s a funny thing.
Postscript: As the news of his death was announced, Marc Almond called Walker an “absolute musical genius, existential and intellectual and a star right from the days of the Walker Brothers. He gave me so much inspiration,” Almond wrote on Instagram.
Coincidentally, ever wondered what the greatest Scott Walker song was that he didn’t record but really should have? Try Soft Cell’s monumental Say Hello, Wave Goodbye, which owes a considerable debt to Walker’s kitchen sink dramas of the late Sixties. Scott superfan Marc Almond even went to the trouble of adopting his hero’s trademark tousled hair and impenetrably dark glasses in the video. Watch and weep.
45 at 35: Soft Cell’s Say Hello, Wave Goodbye is here