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The life of Scott Walker, an artist who could see the future

Those who are alone tonight, lockdown in pandemic purgatory, with only a cloak of loneliness to provide some degree of comfort if only for a little while — will be very familiar with Scott Walker’s unique brand of melancholy. It is an intellectual sort of melancholy, the writer of Impossible Dream: a biography of the Walker Brothers, Anthony Reynolds, said of Scott Walker, “he is an existentialist kind of singer.”

Scott Walker went from experiencing fame, with proportions akin to that of Beatlemania in the ’60s, with the Walker Brothers — some of their hits included ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore’, ‘Take it Easy on Yourself’, ‘No Regrets’ — to becoming the English version of the Belgian troubadour, Jacques Brel. His first solo effort Scott, released 6 months after The Walker Brothers’ last album, would feature the translated Brel songs, ‘Amsterdam’, ‘Mathilde’, and ‘My Death’, and now you know where David Bowie got the idea to become a newer version of the “English Jacques Brel”.

The early records of The Walker Brothers were magnificent in their own right. Featuring the “wall of sound” that Phil Spector created; one could also make the case they were the first major successful boy band. The Walker Brothers were American and moved to England where the English youth soaked in their American mood, Dusty Springfield-like, huge orchestral arrangements captivated their crowd. At the height of Scott Walker’s career, he walked away from the Walker Brothers in 1967, having stated at the time: “Everyone relied on me, and it just got on top of me. I think I just got irritated with it all”.

That same year, he would release what would kick off a solo career that saw a tumultuous few decades ahead. The following year, in 1968, Walker released his second effort, Scott 2, which would be his last record to feature Spector’s “wall of sound” technique. Scott 2 followed the same formula as his first solo record, featuring a few Jacques Brel songs (‘Jackie’, ‘The Girls and the Dogs’), plus his own compositions. The album charted very well, as did his first.  

Scott 3, would be his last solo album to feature this repeated formula, albeit not doing as well as his first three. By the time he had released Scott 4, which would feature a track listing made up entirely of his own compositions, Walker’s stranglehold on the imaginations and hearts of the British public began to slip. His pop sensibilities began to dissipate into the more avant-garde musings that would take over later in his career after a self-imposed exile. The album’s songs would be largely composed in ¾ time signatures. An Albert Camus quote is featured on the back of the vinyl sleeve, “a man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened”. The opening track, ‘The Seventh Seal,’ is named after Ingmar Bergman’s film, paying homage to Walker’s preference for the European aesthetic over the US’ ongoing hippie counterculture prevalent at the time. This would explain why he decided to move to England early in his career.

Later in his career, Walker explored the territory between sound and noise. With little to no actual musical arrangements, the sound of his avant-garde records was shaved down to the point where actual instruments became sparser and sparser. After his successive and highly influential string of solo albums in the ’60s, the ’70s would prove to be an entirely different story for the innovative musician. Following the commercial failure of Scott 4, Scott Walker lost creative control and became subject to the whims of the record labels.

(Credit: Wikimedia / Fenklup)

After which, by 1974, Walker disappeared from the public’s eye and went into a fuzzy decade of drinking.

In 1984, the singer would return with a new idea of what music should be, Climate of Hunter would kick off his highly divisive and dissociative experimental phase. Brian Eno said of Walker: “[He] was a real and serious artist, a conscious artist, who really thought about the medium he worked in.” Eno was serious with his compliments of Walker too: “He took music to a place where it hasn’t been since.”

Walker was a serial influencer on countless musicians; Jarvis Cocker if Pulp said of him: “He’s like an intrepid explorer or something. Like someone’s who gone to a part of the world, where no one has gone before.”

In 1995, he released Tilt, featuring industrial sounds of metallic cacophony. Listen with caution; tracks like ‘The Cockfighter will make you reimagine your definition of what music can be. His next album The Drift, equally, is an avant-garde album that took 7 years to make, it would become even more shaved, heading further into a musical soundscape void, featuring slabs of meat and blocks of wood. 

With a new millennium ahead, Walker again resurfaced; 2007 would see his most experimental piece of work, And Who Shall Go To The Ball? And What Shall Go To The Ball? of which Walker would say: “Apart from a slow movement given over to solitude, the music is full of edgy and staccato shapes or cuts, reflecting how we cut up the world around us as a consequence of the shape of our bodies. How much of a body does an intelligence need to be potentially socialized in an age of ever-developing AI? This is but one of many questions that informed the approach to the project.”

His last album Soused, released in 2014 (besides some of his soundtracks he would compose and produce after 2014) in collaboration with experimental band Sun O))), was produced by Walker and Peter Walsh. Leading up to this project, Walker stated, “I could get those gaps, you see, between phrases, which I usually fill with silence, but now I had the drones.” The droning sonics would be provided by Sun O))).

Scott Walker passed away in March of 2019. His music and legacy will live on for generations to come, without a doubt. While his more avant-garde records may not be embraced in the present time, but there’s a future where they will be revered as heroic moments of soothsaying success. As artificial intelligence grows and civilisation continues to eat itself, it’s easy to see how Walker’s compositions could soundtrack the dystopian future that looms in the news headlines of our nightmares. The fact is, whether Walker was a pop maestro or an experimental troubadour, he was always laying down a vision of the future.

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