From the mid-’60s to the mid-’70s, Scott Walker trudged his way through the music industry, from pop idolatry to personal artistry. He spent much of his life slowly untangling himself from the coils of every pop cliché.
Walker was boyishly handsome and effortlessly stylish. His bespectacled, waifish frame held a simmering baritone; a vocal timbre falling somewhere between Andy Williams, Lee Hazlewood and Rothko’s “Black in Deep Red.” With his velvet voice in tow, Walker may have started out in pop but by the end of the ‘60s he transformed into something like a Sartrean composer.
For his work, Walker is regarded as one of the most singular artists in history, having inspired and influenced generations of musicians.
In an 1966 interview with NME, Walker is asked to define “existentialist,” a word he’d used to describe his philosophy and way of life. His response:
“A person who needs no other people—a world in himself. He lives for the moment. A belief in existence rather than essence.”
Walker (born Scott Engel) sang on records going back to his teens, but in 1965 he found a new voice. He’d been focusing on bass guitar and backup vocals with his band, The Walker Brothers, and moved to the UK with singer/guitarist John Maus and drummer Gary Leeds (each used “Walker” as their surname).
In ’65 the band released “Love Her,'' a recording that had needed Walker’s lower vocal register. Walker found his place singing lead and the band found chart success, peaking at number 20 in the UK. The same chart was riddled with singles from The Beatles, Donovan, and The Kinks. Walker, as fresh-faced as the rest, added something new and profound.
Especially early on, the Walker Brothers were a vehicle for middle-of-the-road pop standards. They had hits covering Jerry Butler’s “Make It Easy on Yourself,” and Frankie Valli’s “The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine (Anymore).” Both songs ride on the back of Walker’s sinewy vocals with robust orchestrations.
The band released three chart-topping albums in two years and John and Gary seemed happy to ride the wave of pop stardom, basking in screaming fans. Meanwhile, Walker grew tired of the dwindling privacy and the plight of success. His focus was on songwriting and tinkering with compositions. He also opened up to more esoteric subjects.
“It's all part of my new attitude,” he said in an interview with Melody Maker on December 9, 1967. “I want to get out of the pop scene. I have missed too much of my life.”
Walker’s introspection and desire for privacy never meshed with the UK press, who often took his nervousness and rumination in interviews as aloof or high-brow. He was interested in avant-garde films, classical composers and Gregorian chant—even visiting a monastery to study in 1966. The Walker Brothers eventually fell apart in 1967 and over the next three years, Walker released five solo records.
On Scott and Scott 2, Walker's voice soars through the wall-of-sound production while covering the dirty realism of Jacques Brel along with Henry Mancini and Tony Bennett songs. Standouts include Brel’s “Jackie,” “Mathilde,” and one of Walker’s originals “Montague Terrace (In Blue).”
In stark contrast, Scott 3 featured mostly original songs with only three covers. Walker’s “It’s Raining Today,” uses atonal strings to create unease, like something you’d hear in a Bernard Herrmann film score. “Two Weeks Since You’ve Gone” conveys Walker’s theatricality and “30th Century Man” feels like a precursor to Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” released just a few months later.
Scott 4 is a triumph frozen in time. The moment the ’60s came together for Walker. When all the covers, Brel, existentialism, classical influence, and crooning met the tide of avant-garde into which Walker would plunge himself later in life. “On Your Own Again” and “Boy Child” are intimate, heartbreaking portraits. “The Old Man’s Back Again” and “Duchess” are peerless works of art.
While Walker was exploring the outer limits of pop, his sales declined and Scott 4 failed to chart. Afterward, feeling pressure from his record label, Walker stepped away from the experimentation of his solar records. Instead, he recorded and released a string of bland cover albums and eventually rejoined The Walker Brothers. In the mid-’70s, the band released three more records before Walker secluded himself, embarking on a separate career of dark avant-garde music.
God In The Window
Walker’s influence extends deep into modern music, to Jarvis Cocker, Brian Eno, Thom Yorke, Agnes Obel, Bill Callahan, and Alex Turner, to name a few. They all have spoken about Walker’s influence on their music. But there is, perhaps, no better authentication of his influence than David Bowie. Bowie covered The Walker Brothers and executive produced the documentary Scott Walker: 30th Century Man. His appreciation for Walker’s music is so heartfelt, it is best presented with an anecdote.
In 1997, BBC Radio 1 ran a special for Bowie’s 50th birthday, hosted by Maryanne Hobbs. During a segment that included questions and messages from well-wishers, Hobbs played a recording from Walker.
“Hi David, this is Scott Walker ...Like everyone else, I’d like to thank you for all the years, and especially for your generosity of spirit when it comes to other artists. I’ve been the beneficiary on more than one occasion, let me tell you. So, have a wonderful birthday, and by the way, mine’s the day after yours, so I’ll have a drink to you on the other side of midnight. How’s that?”
Bowie, breathless and shaken, pauses for a moment before responding.
“That’s amazing. Oh, I see God in the window. That really got to me there I'm afraid. I think he’s probably been my idol since I was a kid. That’s very moving. I want a copy of that. I'm absolutely—that’s really thrown me. Thank you very much
Written by E. Ryan Ellis
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