We celebrate the career of experimental pop pioneer Scott Walker through 15 of his essential songs.
Editor's note: This feature was original published on 28 November 2012. We are re-running it today to celebrate the groundbreaking music of Scott Walker who recently passed away.
Most great artists have occasional disputes with their muses as they negotiate the realities of popular appeal. Few of these struggles equal those of longtime American expatriate Scott Walker, whose oeuvre is effectively a series of ultimatums, breakups, and passionate embraces with a stubborn inspiration that, over the course of more than half a century, has become increasingly determined to keep him on the fringes. Despite his early work garnering a devoted UK fanbase, when it comes to fame in his native United States, he's probably lesser known than the conservative Wisconsin governor with whom he regrettably shares a name.
On December 3rd, 4AD will release Bish Bosch, Walker's 14th solo album and his first since 2006. This leaves an uncharacteristically tiny gap in the timeline of his most recent album releases, with 2006's The Drift and 1995's Tilt each taking about a decade to brew. Walker wasn't always so deliberate, though, and his catalog is perhaps the strangest and least consistent in all of pop (if the term even loosely applies to his late-period work). There's room for transcendent artfulness and unbearable pap, heartbreaking pop ballads and discordant avant-garde compositions, and it covers that range from definitive to stunningly ill-fitting.
In the mid-1960s, Walker scored two number one UK hits with the Walker Brothers, and was once popular enough to host his very own BBC variety show, Scott. By the time he would sing the line "You could easily picture this in the current top ten" (on 2006's "Cossacks Are"), the idea of a Scott Walker song on a singles chart of any kind was an absurdity, a self-aware joke. He'd gone from breaking hearts with orchestral flare to recording songs on which a percussionist punching a side of meat wasn't necessarily the strangest component.
This chronological list isn't necessarily a collection of Walker's best songs (some might argue that Scott 4 is already that, and others would say that the radically different Tilt is as good as Walker gets), but an attempt at capturing the essence of his various career turns and to give you some tips in navigating a catalog full of acquired tastes and outright fumbles.
1. Scott Engel – "The Livin' End" (Meet Scott Engel, 1958)
Born Noel Scott Engel in 1943, Walker wasted no time getting a music career off the ground, appearing on Broadway and issuing singles as "Scotty Engel" before he was 14. After moving to Los Angeles with his mother in 1957, Eddie Fisher took him under his wing, prepping him for success as a pop idol. By his mid-teens, Engel was working as a session bassist and releasing ballads and occasional rave-ups, including "The Livin' End". It's an early entry in his catalog, but there are hints of the deep, sturdy voice that would later define him. There's also a suggestion of an Elvis Presley obsession that makes for some insight into the lyrics of 2006's "Jesse", in which Walker elliptically makes a connection between Presley's feelings for his unborn twin brother and the collapse of the World Trade Center. Penned by Rod McKuen and Henry Mancini (both of whom Walker would return to several times in the early '70s), "The Livin' End" is primarily worth mentioning because, even in a career full of sharp contrasts, Walker would never again sound so upbeat.
2. The Walker Brothers – "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore" (single, 1966)
In 1964, Engel joined John Maus and Gary Leeds to become the Walker Brothers, with Engel adopting "Scott Walker" as his permanent professional name. All Americans, the trio relocated to London the following year, and Walker has lived overseas ever since. Working in a broadly emotional, orchestrated sound not unlike the Righteous Brothers' Phil Spector-era material, the Walker Brothers scored a number of UK hits, including the definitive recording of this Bob Crewe and Bob Gaudio tune (originally recorded by Frankie Valli a year earlier), also the trio's highest-charting U.S. single. Miles away from the teenage tenor of "The Livin' End", Scott's voice had richened into an expressive baritone, all the better to deliver the heavy weather sentiment that follows from the line "Loneliness is a cloak you wear". While Walker's later work is divisive for various reasons, "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore" is virtually indisputable, as timeless a pop recording as ever was.
3. Scott Walker – "Montague Terrace (In Blue)" (Scott, 1967)
Although all of the Walker Brothers' hit singles were written by outside songwriters, by the time the band had broken up in 1967, Scott had contributed some promising album tracks and b-sides. When he struck out on his own, he still relied heavily on a superbly varied taste in cover material ranging from Tim Hardin to Weill/Mann to André Previn, but his own writing was also evolving, becoming darker and more complicated. On the verses of "Montague Terrace (In Blue)", he lays out the squalor of a shabby apartment house in fine detail, a "bloated, belching" man in the room above and a jaded prostitute across the hall. On the chorus, though, he lets loose with that soaring croon, hoping for a brighter future for him and his lover that's vague and likely illusory, but moving nonetheless.
4. Scott Walker – "Jackie" (Scott 2, 1968)
Walker songs like "Montague Terrace (In Blue)" probably wouldn't exist were it not for Scott Walker's late '60s fascination with Belgian composer Jacques Brel, through whose chansons Walker learned to marry romantic drama to the grimiest of life's realities. Walker was the first performer to record Mort Shuman's English translations of Brel (later featured in Shuman's revue Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris), and he included three Brel songs each on Scott, Scott 2, and Scott 3. Brel's "Jackie" opens Scott 2 with a fanfare befitting the wild aspirations of the narrator -- to drunkenly mingle with café eccentrics and to become a proto-Ice-T, pimping out "authentic queers and phony virgins" while "selling records by the ton". Hilariously, under all of this opulence and debauchery, "Jackie" is about staying grounded -- keeping it real, as it were -- even if it's just for "an hour every day". Walker sells the fantasy with a characteristically commanding vocal and undercuts it with a knowing wink throughout.
5. Scott Walker – "Big Louise" (Scott 3, 1969)
Walker has often been quick to dismiss his past work, but he threw Scott 2 under the bus almost immediately after its release, calling it "the work of a lazy, self-indulgent man". That's a touch overly critical, but with his next move being the even better Scott 3, perhaps it's best to not let the man cut himself any slack. By 1969, he could channel his talent for people-pleasing interpretations of middle-of-the-road ballads into his short-lived TV show and was free to make Scott 3 the vehicle for his artier impulses; aside from the three Brel covers relegated to the end of the album, all of the songs are Walker originals.
With heavy orchestration still a defining element of his music and Walker's croon as out of style as could be in the year of Led Zeppelin and Let It Bleed, parts of Scott 3 could still be mistaken for easy listening. Yet Wally Stott's string arrangements go dissonant where least expected, and songs like "Big Louise" were somewhat innovatively conceived as "miniatures" -- character studies with attention to minute detail and descriptive language. There's nothing mellow about the aging (and -- according to Walker, but not plainly stated in the lyric -- transvestite) Louise's sadness. In relatively few words, Walker embodies the ache of lost youth: "She fills the bags 'neath her eyes / With the moonbeams / And cries 'cause the world's passed her by."
6. Scott Walker – "30 Century Man" (Scott 3, 1969)
Scott 3 doesn't remain in orchestral mode throughout. "30 Century Man", one of Walker's most popular tracks (perhaps due to the Catherine Wheel cover or its appearance on the soundtrack to Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic), is just four chords on an acoustic guitar in one channel and Walker's voice in the other. The lyrical idea behind it is simple, if high-concept, for Walker's '60s work -- what kind of self-importance would drive a man to freeze himself to see the future? Walker mocks the ambition of this immortality seeker by throwing in references to "Saran Wrap" and the ludicrous notion of "shaking hands with Charles de Gaulle", because, naturally, all Great Men will recognize each other as such once they're unthawed.
7. Scott Walker – "The Seventh Seal" (Scott 4, 1969)
While Scott 3 was Walker further exploring the visionary side he'd shown glimpses of on his first two solo albums, the entirely self-penned Scott 4 was him giving full attention to his experimental side. Technically his fifth solo album (a fourth consisted of covers recorded for his TV show), Scott 4 makes no bones about its aspirations to capital-A Art, with a Camus quote on the sleeve, a musical caution against neo-Stalinism, and this song, a straightforward retelling of the Bergman film of the same title. It's an album that dares you to hate it for taking itself so damn seriously. To Walker's immense credit, none of this comes across as pretension. His esoteric interests read as entirely sincere, and the free-wheeling arrangements make this his most musically varied collection of the time, with nods to folk rock, country, and Ennio Morricone's spaghetti western scores. The knight in the "The Seventh Seal", doomed as he is, strides to Death's game of chess with Clint Eastwood cool.
8. Scott Walker – "Duchess" (Scott 4, 1969)
Despite the existentialist and political threads woven throughout Scott 4, Walker could still break your heart with a masterful love song. But where his older songs often gave a clear, intimate picture of a relationship on the rise or collapse, "Duchess" is unmoored yearning. The flashes of detail are so specific as to be meaningless on the whole ("It's your bicycle bells and your Rembrandt swells"), the terms of the relationship ill-defined ("With your shimmering dress / It says no, it says yes"), and even the singer's reliability questionable ("I am lying / She is crying"), but there's unmistakable passion in his plea to "put the love back in me".
Walker flirted with country music throughout the '60s and '70s, starting with a version of Tim Hardin's "The Lady from Baltimore" on Scott that could almost fit on a Flying Burrito Brothers album, and he'd later turn somewhat disastrously to a pop-informed country sound on Stretch (1973) and We Had It All (1974). The country touches on "Duchess", like a prominent pedal steel, seem perfectly integrated into the atmospheric sound he cultivates on Scott 4. It's no surprise that both Neko Case and Mark Lanegan and Greg Dulli (as the Gutter Twins) have recorded faithful versions of it. Now generally acknowledged as Walker's early masterpiece, Scott 4 was a commercial disaster at the time, a key factor in where his career would head next.
9. Scott Walker – "Thanks for Chicago Mr. James" ('Til the Band Comes In, 1970)
Some Walker fans draw a line after Scott 4, marking it as the end of his early essential period before losing his way to drink and uninspired cover albums. Even if The Moviegoer (1972), Any Day Now (1973), Stretch (1973), We Had It All (1974), and the first two Walker Brothers '70s reunion albums are heavy on phoned-in soft rock ballads and country pop, Walker the songwriter still had half an album's worth of creative energy left in him after Scott 4, before disillusionment and flailing attempts at keeping his career afloat knocked him off track. When Walker produced Pulp's We Love Life decades later, he apparently had no problem with Walker fanatic Jarvis Cocker lumping "the second side of 'Til the Band Comes In" with other infamous letdowns on "Bad Cover Version", but note the specificity in that lyric. 'Til the Band Comes In does, indeed, conclude on five label-mandated covers that usher in what Walker would later refer to as his "wilderness years", but the album starts out nicely with a set of collaborations between Walker and manager Ady Semel.
The best is "Thanks for Chicago Mr. James", a short, touching goodbye note from a kept man to his benefactor. The arrangement is considerably more straightforward than most of those on Scott 3 and Scott 4, but this adds a needed sentiment here, granting a prevailing note of easily-grasped genuine love and regret to a relationship that might otherwise be construed as sordid or cheap.
10. The Walker Brothers – "No Regrets" (No Regrets, 1975)
Here's the thing about Scott Walker's so-called "wilderness years" -- as poorly as these releases stack up against the best of the Walker Brothers' '60s material, his early solo work, and the ever-evolving music he's put out since the late '70s, they're not all equally bad. Even when he wasn't songwriting, Walker still possessed one of popular music's most distinctive voices that could, on occasion, elevate even the sappiest material. In 1975, the Walker Brothers reunited for a trio of albums, the last of which would revitalize Scott Walker's career entirely. The first two, No Regrets and Lines, are often viewed primarily as a steady continuation of Walker's solo slump, but they actually represent an upward trend, even yielding some lost gems like a take on Boz Scaggs' "We're All Alone" that easily matches the Scaggs original and Rita Coolidge's hit version. The Tom Rush-composed "No Regrets" was an anomalous, but worthy, UK hit single for this era of the band, a country-tinged, more subdued variation on the stately drama of the Walker Brothers of ten years earlier. Loneliness isn't a cloak here, but armor: "No regrets / No tears goodbye / Don't want you back / We'd only cry again."
11. The Walker Brothers – "The Electrician" (Nite Flights, 1978)
Scott Walker's late '70s return to songwriting amounts to one of the most compelling artistic reinventions in popular music. After nearly a decade of critical pans and commercial failures as a solo artist and with the reunited Walker Brothers, he took the news that label GTO would be going under as the Walker Brothers' opportunity to indulge their whims on an anything-goes final album, with each songwriter contributing his own songs, "White Album"-style. Scott brought in four darkly brilliant songs with untraditional song structures, eerily fragmented lyrics, and a new approach to vocals that's as much moan as croon.
Seemingly inspired by David Bowie's Low and "Heroes", Walker took things farther afield compositionally than his contemporary and mutual fan. Seemingly in friendly response, Bowie would release the very Nite Flights-sounding "Look Back in Anger" on the following year's Lodger and would record a version of "Nite Flights" in 1993. "The Electrician" is the most jarring of Scott's Nite Flights songs, an oblique exploration of political torture and sadism. Beginning and ending with bass-led atmospherics and a double-tracked vocal that oozes queasily, the bridge is an elegant orchestral piece with a lead classical guitar. It wouldn't sound out of place on Scott or Scott 2, but here it works entirely differently, as its atypically euphonious beauty signifies the perverse joy that the "electrician" finds in tending to his victims.
12. Scott Walker - "Track Three" (Climate of Hunter, 1984)
Coming six years after Nite Flights, Scott Walker's first and only solo album of the '80s shows him working in a similar vein, but with a more streamlined, rock-oriented touch. While none of the songs on Climate of Hunter register quite as strongly as "The Electrician" or "Nite Flights", they cohere into an extended exploration of the sound, albeit with an era-appropriate gloss that dates it more than most of Walker's solo work. Still, despite a few guitar and sax solos that sound lifted from an '80s film soundtrack, backup vocals by Billy Ocean and guest guitar by Mark Knopfler, and even a legit music video for "Track Three" (Walker left four songs on the album unnamed), you can hear Walker moving toward the fringe.
The songs have the window dressing of the rock music of the time, but there's something off about them. "Track Three" is a distinctive, unusually disorienting rock song, but the conventions of the genre sound crammed in, as if Walker were finding straightforward choruses and guitar solos bothersome necessities to getting his ideas across. On what was to come, he would fully ignore such formal requirements, but Climate of Hunter is an important transitional move, even if the result of that transition would take another decade.
13. Scott Walker – "Farmer in the City" (Tilt, 1995)
Imagine you're a Scott Walker fan in 1995. Aside from an obscure and uncharacteristic single released only in France, you haven't heard any new Scott Walker music in over ten years. The first thing you hear when you put on his new album is a doom-laden drone followed by a newly powerful falsetto, reciting operatically: "Do I hear 21, 21, 21? I'll give you 21, 21, 21..." If Walker's Nite Flights songs and Climate of Hunter were art rock of a sort, Tilt, this is art something else, all of the identifiably "rock" traits having been subsumed into a more expansive aesthetic. This isn't hyperbole -- it's not that Tilt is so thoroughly great that it transcends rock, but rather that large parts of it simply map to non-rock sources like John Adams operas more easily than they do prog, post-punk, post-rock, or the nearest comparison points in rock.
"Farmer in the City" is an ideal opening track, a peek into the shadowy world of Tilt without most of the abrasive noise of the other tracks. Instead, Walker supplies the creepiness through an unsettling delivery and a set of suggestive lyrics partially about the death of filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini. The strings build around just a few central motifs -- a farmhouse, the thresher, those recurring "21"s -- and show that all of those years Walker spent refining his descriptive abilities on songs like "Big Louise" served him well. He uses them on Tilt not to create economically-rendered character sketches and narratives, but to load songs with provocative phrases that grab your attention, but evade easy interpretation.
14. Scott Walker – "Clara" (The Drift, 2006)
Despite another decade-long wait between album releases, The Drift isn't the giant leap from Tilt that Tilt was from Climate of Hunter. Rather than more reinvention, The Drift is Walker refining the Tilt sound into something even more dynamic and bizarre. "Hooks" on the album include the deafening sound of a string section slowly descending, pounding on a wooden crate with a cinder block, and Walker inexplicably squealing "What's up, doc?" like Donald Duck (presumably, Bugs Bunny would have been too predictable). Most infamously, Walker has a percussionist punch a side of meat for one section of "Clara". It's an attention-getting touch, certainly, but the gimmickry of it threatens to draw attention away from "Clara" being one of Walker's most intriguing late-period recordings.
Previously his longest song at nearly 13 minutes (Bish Bosch has one that runs over 20), it concerns the death of Clara Petacci, mistress of Benito Mussolini who chose to be executed with him. Violent imagery abounds ("This is not a cornhusk doll / Dipped in blood in the moonlight"), and the futility of Clara's situation is embodied in a swallow trapped in an attic, but Clara and Benito's relationship is depicted tenderly: "His strange beliefs about the moon / Its influence upon men of affairs... She'll eclipse it with her head / Stroke him until he sleeps / Until he has nothing to do among men of affairs". The Drift is defined partially by its juxtapositions, and few others are as unsettling as hearing Walker grant a hated dictator and his mistress their humanity as the musical textures simultaneously portray frailty and gruesome death.
15. Scott Walker – "Epizootics!" (Bish Bosch, 2012)
The first song released from Bish Bosch, "Epizootics!" suggests that Walker hasn't stopped tweaking his post-Tilt sound. Built on a mutant funk rhythm driven by the low tones of a rare tuba/sax hybrid called the tubax, Walker lets loose with a series of typically disconnected hipster slang as Hugh Burns and James Stevenson whammy bar their guitars out-of-tune in imitation of Hawaiian slack key ("Grandma Mabel was frightened by Hawaiians", Walker sings in the opening line). The song turns on a piercing horn refrain and continually returns to a battering groove banged out on snare that transforms into finger-snapping beat poetry swing. It moves like no other Walker composition, and his strange sense of humor, long hidden in Joycean puns and obscure references, is built directly into the shift and bounce of the music. It's an appropriate tone for an album named partially after Hieronymus Bosch, whose paintings, despite being religiously cautionary, often have the appearance of lightness and the playfully fantastic.