Scott Walker: 1943-2019 – Avant-garde genius and a true enigma

Few musical legends are true enigmas.

As tragic or unfortunate as their stories may be, the lives and motivations of Kurt Cobain, Ian Curtis, Syd Barrett and their ilk have been laboriously picked over and dissected, and the reasons for their retreat or demise was never artistic. Amongst a small clutch of visionaries – Kate Bush, late-era Bowie, Mark Hollis – Scott Walker, who died today (March 25) aged 76, largely disappeared from the public stage for a large period of his life because, it seemed, standard musical formulas could no longer contain him.

More admirable still – and very much in keeping with those artists – Scott’s avant-garde genius developed from a wilful step away from initial success in mainstream pop to pursue more challenging and intriguing possibilities on the left-field. Born Noel Scott Engel in Hamilton, Ohio in 1943, his first musical forays in the late ‘50s were as a teen idol, taking advantage of his famously plush baritone to woo the audiences of The Eddie Fisher Show.

Despite developing an interest in experimental jazz, beat poetry and European cinema while attending art school, when he hooked up with John Maus in 1961 and embarked on a series of bands that would culminate in the pair retooling themselves as the harmonising-boys-next-door The Walker Brothers in 1964, it was with cover versions that the act made their biggest splashes: Bacharach and David’s ‘Make It Easy On Yourself’ and ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore)’, originally recorded by Frankie Valli.

Scott Walker of The Walker Brothers

Both attained the Number One spot in the UK, turning Scott into a bona fide chart heartthrob and the band’s de facto frontman. The song-writing burden fell on him too, and his interest in expanding their symphonic Wall Of Sound crooning in more operatic and literary directions, along with the pressures of superstardom and a chart decline, caused The Walker Brothers to split in 1967, following their third album ‘Images’. Scott’s subsequent series of self-titled solo albums are rightly considered masterpieces, taking on darker and more experimental tones as Scott’s interests in Jacques Brel, European art and cinema, formative drone music, Gregorian chanting and themes of death, decadence and European culture and history grew.

By 1969’s ‘Scott 4’, his first entirely self-penned album and released under his birth name, he was playing chess with Death himself on the Bergman inspired ‘The Seventh Seal’ and dedicating a track to the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. Though he was popular enough to be granted his own TV show Scott by this point, the album was a commercial disappointment, but is now considered his masterstroke, cited as a major influence on David Bowie and Radiohead.

The relative failure of the album forced Scott, under pressure from his label and manager Maurice King, to return to cover versions, retiring from song-writing after 1970’s ‘’Til The Band Comes In’ for much of the ‘70s. His solo albums from this period are best-forgotten covers affairs released, he claimed, “to get out of contract”. He was also battling issues with alcohol and celebrity, having become reclusive at the peak of his fame in 1968. Scott would refer to these as his “lost years”, and he wouldn’t release any self-penned songs until 1978’s ‘Nite Flights’, the last of three albums recorded by a reformed Walker Brothers in the late-70s. Writing the first four songs of the album, Scott pointed towards the dark and avant-garde music he’d go on to make. It would, however, be a long time coming.

The next thirty years of Scott’s life were shrouded in shadow, with occasional bursts of light during which we blinked hard to understand what we were seeing. A new solo album ‘Climate Of The Hunter’, his first in ten years, emerged in 1984 steeped in the vague sonics of ‘80s rock but eschewing much in the way of melody in favour of a disjointed, trance-like tone. Eleven years later, following a revival of interest in Scott’s initial run of solo albums, ‘Tilt’ arrived, doubling down on the previous album’s avant-garde approach with its modernist industrial, minimalist and experimental stretches, and songs about the murder of Pasolini, the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the first Gulf War and talking to the corpse of Che Guevara.

By now Walker was operating in a sphere entirely his own, and though he’d dabble in such mainstream practices as recording songs for film soundtracks and producing Pulp’s 2001 swansong ‘We Love Life’, it was a world he’d only immerse himself in further. Another eleven years passed before ‘The Drift’ in 2006, an even more disturbing and discomfiting work of noise assault – braying donkeys, evil Donald Ducks and so on – which famously involved a percussionist punching a slab of raw pork on ‘Clara’, to best capture the execution of Mussolini.

2012’s ‘Bish Bosch’ completed this trilogy of experimental records, and Walker felt he’d reached his peak on a collaboration with drone rock noiseniks Sunn O))), ‘Soused’ (2014). It certainly saw one of rock and pop’s true enigmas go out on an ideological high, all compromises wiped from his story, his final brushstroke placed. Yes, he had had his vision.