Remembering Scott Walker: The 30th century man

Get the latest from Beat


Remembering Scott Walker: The 30th century man

Words by James Robertson

The US musician’s broad range of sound went on to influence some of the greats.

When I heard Scott Walker had passed away at the age of 76 this week, my heart sank to my stomach. It was as if as soon as I knew of his death, the weight of every song he ever sang descended on me; the melancholic laments, the triumphant bellows, the eerie croons. Because that was what Scott Walker was: Not a singer. Not even a man. He was a feeling. An intrinsically human feeling that everyone shares.

Born as Noel Scott Engel on Saturday January 9 1943 in Hamilton, Ohio, the future musical icon began his career at a young age. Playing in small-time bands and performing on TV made him something of a teenage idol, but from the beginning, Walker knew he was different. A self-confessed “continental suit-wearing natural enemy of the Californian surfer”, he was a lover of European cinema and the Beat writers of the time. He was at odds with his peers who were seeking commercial success and mainstream stardom.

Scott made his break as part of the Walker Brothers, a boy band whose symphonic pop topped the charts of the mid-1960s. Hits such as ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Any More’ and ‘Make It Easy On Yourself’ put Walker and his fellow ‘brothers’ on the map. But soon artistic differences would see the lead singer exit the group in pursuit of a solo career.

He began his series of four self-titled albums in 1967, the first half of which saw great commercial success, especially in the UK. It was then that Walker became his notoriously reclusive self, as he spent time learning Gregorian chants in an abbey on the Isle of Wight amidst a creative heyday. He increasingly left famous Jacques Brel covers off his albums until his finale, Scott 4, released in 1969 as a wholly independent effort. But after having put his heart and soul into this masterpiece, Walker was emotionally devastated when the album failed to chart, commencing a period of artistic drought.

The ’70s saw Walker release a few solo albums which even he didn’t have the heart to make, leading him to reunite the Walker Brothers. Releasing three new albums to marginal success, it was the third of these that spurred Walker to resume his solo career in a completely new trajectory.

The music he would go on to make from the ’80s onwards descended deeper down the rabbit hole of despair that Walker’s mind inhabited. Described as “barren and unutterably bleak”, albums like 1995’s Tilt and 2006’s The Drift emphasised Walker’s haunting voice as his greatest tool, creating eerie layers of operatic vocals and enveloping strings. Harsh industrial effects and avant-garde experimentation expressed Walker’s incredible and intriguing thoughts, even if it meant punching a piece of meat in the percussive sections. It’s truly the stuff of nightmares, the furthest thing from the teen idol he once was.

Walker even tried his hand as a full-on composer, scoring the arthouse films Pola X and The Childhood of a Leader with a similarly spectral emphasis on deep, inventive orchestration. Collaborating with metal group Sunn 0))) on 2014’s Soused showed that Walker was still willing to work with new people to push his own boundaries so late into his career.

Walker’s legacy has been far-reaching, to say the least. Without his ’60s orchestra pop, we wouldn’t have Alex Turner’s symphonic side-project The Last Shadow Puppets. Without his avant-garde experimentation, we wouldn’t have the Radiohead we know today. Without his solo albums, there would be no-one for a young, up-and-coming David Bowie to take inspiration from. Without Scott Walker, the music world wouldn’t have one of its most brilliant contributors of the 20th and 21st centuries.

What really made Walker such an enthralling vocalist, songwriter and artist was how he managed to inhabit so many facets of the human condition with only his vocals. Whether you’re singing your lungs out to ‘Jackie’ or enclosed in a room listening to ‘Farmer in the City’ by yourself, his enchanting and provocative voice will never leave your mind once you let it in.

Scott Walker’s unique legacy will last through the ages. Who knows, maybe even into the 30th century.