Obituary: Scott Walker, singer-songwriter, Sixties pop royalty, influencer of Bowie and Cohen
There was a time when the Walker Brothers reportedly had a bigger fan club than the Beatles. And as a solo artist Scott Walker had his own BBC TV show. But he did not care for the adulation and hysteria and took himself off to a monastery, even tried to take his own life, before pursuing his own path with avant-garde music that never threatened even the lower reaches of the charts he once topped.
While once he lent his rich, emotive baritone to songs of lost love like the No.1 hits The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore and Make it Easy on Yourself and the solo hit Joanna, now he sang very different songs of lost love like Clara, a disturbing 13-minute piece about Mussolini’s mistress, with a percussionist pummelling a slab of pork to simulate the abuse of her corpse strung from a lamppost.
There was always something dark about Scott Walker’s work, whether original compositions or songs by other writers. In 1967, at the height of his fame and celebrity, while other hirsute heartthrobs extolled the joys of romantic love, Walker was recording My Death…
“My death waits like a Bible truth/At the funeral of my youth”. And that was from Walker’s mainstream, commercial period.
But while few listen to Herman’s Hermits or Freddie and the Dreamers these days, the Walker Brothers’ songs continued to find new audiences and impress new critics. Walker himself became a cult figure, influencing a generation of performers, from Leonard Cohen and David Bowie, who said he was his idol, to Radiohead and Goldfrapp.
In 1981 Julian Cope from The Teardrop Explodes was instrumental in the release of a compilation of his early solo songs – Fire Escape in the Sky: The Godlike Genius of Scott Walker. In 2006 Bowie co-produced an acclaimed documentary, Scott Walker: 30 Century Man. And two years ago Walker was the subject of a night at the Proms.
Dubbed the Jack Kerouac of pop, Walker continued to avoid celebrity and publicity, going out in public with a cap pulled low over his eyes. He was recording music primarily for himself, but also for everyone – “It’s just that they haven’t discovered it yet,” he said.
A recluse, a purist and something of an enigma, he also collaborated with Dusty Springfield and other Sixties stars in the mid 1980s – on a TV commercial for Britvic orange juice. “Who knows anything about Scott Walker?” pondered Bowie at the time of the documentary.
Well, we know he was not called Walker, not originally, and none of the people in the Walker Brothers were siblings.
He was born Noel Scott Engel in Hamilton, Ohio, in 1943. His father worked in the oil industry and he had a peripatetic childhood, ending up in California. By the age of ten, he was singing on stage, he made his first recordings in his teens, appeared on television, attended art school and worked as a session musician, playing bass.
In the early 1960s he met singer and guitarist John Maus, who was too young to perform in clubs legally, but had a false ID card in the name John Walker, which is how Engel and Maus ended up performing as the Walker Brothers along with drummer drummer Gary Leeds.
Leeds had recently toured the UK and persuaded them that England was the happening place. Within weeks of arriving they had appeared on Ready Steady Go! and were in the UK Top 20 with a revival of the old Everly Brothers ballad Love Her.
Their second record was the Bacharach and David composition Make It Easy on Yourself, which was about breaking up and reached No.1 in August 1965. Their third single My Ship is Coming In reached No.3 and was seemingly more optimistic, but Walker’s delivery suggested otherwise – “all my dreams never came true… somehow”. Their next single The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore also reached No.1. It was about breaking up.
The Walker Brothers were not only an exceptionally good group, with Scott and John producing powerful harmonies, they also happened to be very good-looking – one publicity shot has them all in dark shirts against a dark background, just three disembodied, fresh-faced, mop-topped heads, like a pop pin-up version of Mount Rushmore.
From the outset Scott Walker struggled with pop stardom. On one occasion he was rescued from his flat after turning on the gas taps. On another he disappeared on the eve of an Australian tour, only to be discovered by the press and fans in a monastery, searching for the meaning of life and studying Gregorian chant.
The group’s time in the charts was brief, basically 1965-67. Scott went solo and recorded his own compositions and translations of the theatrical songs of the Belgian singer Jacques Brel, including My Death.
His first solo album, Scott, reached No. 3 in 1967. Scott 2, topped the charts the following year. Here were big dramatic story songs, with lush orchestral backdrops, that suited his big dramatic voice. But just one year later Scott 4, which consisted entirely of his own compositions, did not even make the bottom of the charts.
The Walker Brothers got back together in the 1970s, were back in the Top Ten with No Regrets in 1975 and released the challenging, but critically well-received album Nite Flights in 1978. It produced the single The Electrician, in which a torturer addresses his victim. It failed to chart, although it supposedly influenced Midge Ure in composing Vienna.
But Walker was never particularly happy in the context of a group and returned to solo work, which seemed more and more esoteric.
The compilation Fire Escape in the Sky led to fresh critical acclaim, renewed interest in his work and a new record deal with Virgin. Climate of Hunter (1984) was reputedly the lowest-selling record in Virgin’s history. It would be another 11 years before his next album.
Walker had settled permanently in England and said he spent his time “in pubs watching guys throw darts”. Finally there was Soused (2014), a collaboration with the drone metal and noise rock duo Sunn O))). Walker regarded it as “pretty perfect”.
He died of cancer and is survived by his partner Beverly, by a daughter from an earlier relationship and by some of the best and weirdest recordings of the past half-century.