On his 50th birthday in 1997, David Bowie was doing a radio interview for the BBC. As congratulatory phone calls poured in, one well-wisher sent his regards through a “crappy old, hand-held tape machine.” As the deep, American accented voice began its message, Bowie cried out “oh no!” with a chuckle. “Hi David!” said the voice, “This is Scott Walker!” As Walker finished his birthday greetings, thanking Bowie for “freeing so many artists” and calling himself as a “beneficiary” of Bowie’s good will, Bowie was dumbstruck. “That’s amazing,” he sighed, “I see God in the window!”
Many who mourned the unexpected death of David Bowie in 2016 didn’t know the tremendous impact Scott Walker had on their fallen idol. If Bowie was a kind of Rock & Roll Jesus, Scott Walker was God the father. Earlier this week, news came down, with almost Nietzschean starkness, that God was dead. At 76, Scott left this world with a complicated legacy. For those who loved his fearlessness, Scott was an unfailing conscientious objector in an industry that rewards conformity. From his auspicious beginnings as a 1960s pop idol, Scott turned his back on fame and became an innovator in the genres of harsh noise, opera, doom metal, and dirge, a move which triggered a mass exodus within his fan base. But for the long list of artists and contrarians who swore by Scott Walker, he was a misunderstood genius who’s greatness outweighed the fickleness of his fans.
Scott Walker was born Noel Scott Engel in Hamilton, Ohio in 1943. In 1959, Walker and his mother moved to Los Angeles, where he slowly developed the soulful baritone that would become his calling card. He moved from band to band, singing and playing bass, until he met his future partner John Maus. Maus was underage and used a fake ID that listed him as “John Walker.” When the two decided to formed their own band, they named it The Walker Brothers, each member taking on Walker as their stage name.
The Walker Brothers made a splash in the U.S. with a string of hits, climaxing on the “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,” a briskly paced, orchestral pop song with a Righteous Brothers feel. Captured in the “wall of sound” production style, the arrangement envelopes Scott’s baritone in clouds of hall reverb, which descends from the heavens like the vox dei. Such awe striking recordings, wrapped in a fluffy, bubblegum package made all the teenagers of the day lose their minds, and The Walker Brothers soon found themselves chased relentlessly by fans and paparazzi. Nowhere did the band’s music make a bigger impact than in the United Kingdom, where their hits regularly topped the charts. Scott, who sipped cocktails in tight fitting suits and loved Bergman and Felini films, had an eminently more Eurocentric manner than the beach bums that populated Los Angeles. With London calling, Walker seized the chance to escape the surfer kingdom and never looked back. For most Americans familiar with Scott Walker, this is where his career ostensibly ends.
But in Europe his output only soared. Scott released a string of solo records called simply Scott 1, Scott 2, Scott 3, and Scott 4. Each one was another step away from teeny bopper land and further into unexplored musical territory. Scott sang original compositions, hauntingly, psychedelic covers of Burt Bacharach, and even a few down home American country rags. But the artist Walker most conspicuously covered was Belgian bard Jacques Brel, who’s hard-nosed cabaret style chanson told tales of pissing sailors, sadomasochistic love affairs, and soldiers with gonorrhea. While a sweat soaked Brel panted and bleated his songs like the last drunk at the bar, Scott cut a figure of stoic composure and coolness. His versions of dozens of Brel hits took the weepy pleadings of a vagabond and turned them into anthems of the gods.
Popular myth usually veers off at this point into a story about Scott at the height of his powers releasing his masterpiece Scott 4 to abysmal record sales and leaving pop music in disgust to join a monastery. Many rumors spread about the famously reclusive pop star, who rarely gave interviews, further stoking his image as an elusive fallen idol. Scott’s output slowed to a halt by the mid-70s, ending on the release of a little noticed reunion record with The Walker Brothers called Nite Flights. Its innovative first four tracks portended a shocking 180 that would characterize the latter half of Scott’s career.
In the 80s, he released Climate of Hunter, which sounded like a Sting solo record without any of the pastiche. In the 90s, he released Tilt, a polarizing concept piece that experimented with oil drums, found sounds, long silences, and jarring lyrics like, “Lemon bloody cola.” Long time Walker devotee Marc Almond of Soft Cell wasn’t impressed, “I hate Tilt, absolutely hate it.” Though many will find Tilt unlistenable, few can deny the breadth and power of its opening track “Farmer in the City,” a heartfelt epitaph for Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini, who was murdered by right wing thugs in his driveway.
When Scott released The Drift in 2005, any accusation that Scott was trying to capitalize on his former glory was dead in the water. The twelve song record was almost an hour and a half long, containing songs made by hammering plywood cubes, punching a thick cut of pork, and inducing a donkey to hee haw along with nightmarish head banging choruses. The record’s dark and elusive lyric style evoked faint, disjointed, and disturbing imagery without revealing its overarching meaning like a Frances Bacon painting. Scott recalled bumping into a man on the metro who’d bought The Drift, expecting something akin to his earlier work. “I’ll never buy another one of your albums again,” said the disillusioned fan. Walker only greeted such backlashes with disaffected humor as he soldiered on to push the limits of sound.
In his final years, Scott released a Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride of a record called Bish Bosch, which told tales of resentful jesters atop flagpoles, haunted jacuzzis, and interjected meditations on American life with reverb drenched farts. Scott’s boldly alienating later work turned him into the dark knight of horror pop, and green lighted the intuitions of every weirdo with a recording interface. Radiohead credits Walker’s influence in everything from “Creep” to OK Computer. Jarvis Cocker was a close friend, and recorded a very unsuccessful, but much beloved Pulp record We Love Life with Scott producing. Walker continued to work with artists like Blur, Ute Lemper, and Bat for Lashes, and produced original scores for films like The Childhood of a Leader, Vox Lux, and Pola X. His final full length was a devastatingly beautiful collaboration with doom icons Sunn O))) called Soused.
76 years is pretty good as life spans go, especially one as rich in color, curiosity, and creativity as Scott Walker’s. And yet, I find myself with this overwhelming feeling that he died too young. Unlike so many of his contemporaries who rose to greater prominence, Scott Walker was only growing more daring as he advanced in years. If he’d lived to be 100, we may have gotten two or three more records out of him, and each would contain a centuries worth of ideas. As Walker’s heavenly voice falls silent this week, we can only imagine what realms we’ll never traverse without Scott’s bold vision and fearless uncompromising spirit to lead us there. We are alone now. God is dead.