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.
Walker’s catalog is perhaps the strangest and least consistent in all of pop music (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). It’s 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 1970s), “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 US 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. In 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 1960s 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 voice 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 not to 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 1960s 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.
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