Scott Walker, whose real name was Scott Engel, remains one of the most elusive figures in the history of popular music. The stand-out leader of The Walker Brothers, an American group who moved to England where they found their long-awaited success, Scott Walker started as a teen idol, adored by countless screaming fans, and eventually became one of the most reclusive and experimental performers to have ever existed.
The Walker Brothers were active from 1964-1968 and rose to prominence with their grandiose orchestrations of big band music of the ’50s mixed with some hints of ’60s psychedelic pop. The earlier music Scott Walker released with The Walker Brothers were predominately cover songs, albeit wholly unique as defined by their own distinctive sound. When Walker left his group in 1968, and while the Walker Brothers would later reunite in the mid-70s to release three more records, the blue-eyed singer went on his own spiritual path to find his musical and artistic voice.
Scott Walker was always more interested in British culture and European art. It wasn’t only because of more promise of success in his music career that brought Walker to London from California – he simply identified more with the European way of living. Walker commented about this time, saying, “Everything I was seeing at that time in movies, or reading at the time, probably influenced me. Then, when I got out on my own, I realised I could do all of these things…it was a surprise to me, as well, coming into it as a singer and then as a writer.”
His debut record, simply titled Scott, was released only six months after The Walker Brothers ended but had already marked a very different shift in musical statements for the singer. Before making this record, Walker had discovered the Belgian troubadour and lyrical genius, Jacques Brel. “When I heard Brel, it showed me that it could be done. I’d never anyone else who could write like that – not even Dylan. I thought, ‘That’s for me,’ and recorded them right away before anyone else had done them,” Scott Walker stated when talking about Brel’s influence on the American singer.
That first record featured three Brel songs, as well as his second one, Scott 2. In addition to Brel songs, Walker began writing his own material that was heavily modelled after the Belgian’s style. By Scott 3 and Scott 4, Walker was writing all the material found on his records. Brel’s influence on the pioneering musician cannot be overstated, as Walker himself explained: “Brel was a reflection of the times I was going through – all sorts of dark images, which I associated with Brel. His own interpretations of his own songs, in many ways, were very different from mine. I certainly didn’t want to copy him. My intention was to take the material and try and do something else with it.”
After Scott 4, Walker released a series of failed albums throughout the first half of the ’70s. It was this downturn in success that prompeted him to reunite with The Walker Brothers and release three albums, two of which are really good, No Regrets in 1975, and then Nite Flights in 1978. No Regrets, which signalled the start of a short comeback for The Walker Brothers, while still containing that grandiosity that made them brilliant back in the ’60s, were no longer as pop-oriented but instead had arrangements based in country and rock music.
After Nite Flights came out in 1978 – the title track of which was later covered by David Bowie, a huge fan of Scott’s – Scott Walker disappeared into the shadows of bar corners for the next six years or so. Slightly embarrassed and resentful of the limelight, he sought to remove himself from the glare of the public’s eye. When Walker resurfaced in 1984, he somewhat shocked his eager audience with an entirely new approach to how he would make music from now on. Starting with Climate of Hunter, which would turn out to be the most conventional record of his later releases, Walker’s sound became increasingly sparse and avant-garde.
Tilt (1995), The Drift (2006), Bisch Bosch (2012), Soused (2014), The Childhood of a Leader (2016) would also be extremely disparate, dissident and experimental in their artistic scope. For some of these records, he would even replace real musical instruments and use blocks of wood, slabs of meat or extremely minimal orchestrations that would interrupt long periods of complete silence. The idea behind some of these albums was to show what pop music sounded like to aliens from outer space.
As Scott Walker said himself before he died in 2019: “People have got to understand there are more important things in life than a hit record for me. I think my real fans understand that; ‘fans’ is such a silly word. Most of my public are intelligent and sensitive enough to realise that I do not want adulation. I don’t want to be idolised. I want respect for my privacy and recognition for my work. If I don’t get it, I’ll quit!'”
We delved into Scott Walker’s six most definitive songs that best represent him as the groundbreaking artist that he was.
Scott Walker’s six definitive songs
‘My Death’ – (Scott – 1967)
‘My Death’ is written by Jacques Brel and one of three of Brel songs to be featured on Scott’s debut solo record. Walker recalls the time he discovered Brel, “I discovered Brel cos I was having a drink with Andrew Loog Oldham (manager for The Rolling Stones between 1963 and 1967). Three or four weeks before, I had been dating a German girl from the Playboy Club – who played Brel and kept a bottle of Pernod under her bed. She used to play Brel records, and cos she spoke French, she’d translate them. I thought, ‘this is incredible!’ And bought the lot immediately.”
Scott continues, “And I was talking to Andrew about this, and he said, ‘funny you should say that, because there’s a guy in New York – Mort Shuman – who has translated Brel and has got a demo of them and is trying to get a deal for them.”
‘Montague Terrace in Blue’ – (Scott – 1967)
One of the very songs that Scott Walker himself wrote for Scott, the song truly encapsulates a dissident alluring ‘60s pop aesthetic that Walker was fully immersed in at the time. The track is supposedly written about the singer’s trip to two friends of his who were a couple, they lived in a cottage in London’s Montague Terrace. The place got demolished in the ‘70s – it’s an ode to a dream that has long since dissipated.
Even in his own material, it’s obvious how much Jacques Brel’s influence seeped into Walker’s newly found songwriting voice; “His bloated belching figure stomps, he may crash through the ceiling soon, the window sees trees cry from cold, and claw the moon.”
As these lyrics suggest, the song is a detailed description of a seemingly-dilapidated apartment building, focusing in on some interesting figures, all based on the kinds of characters we all come to meet in our lives.
‘Jackie’ – (Scott 2 – 1967)
Following the formula of his preceding record, Scott, Scott 2 saw some considerable UK chart success, it stayed at number one for a week and stayed in the charts for 18 weeks. The single, ‘Jackie’, written by Jacques Brel, was released as a single the previous year in 1967, along with the brilliant B-side, ‘The Plague’. Despite the overall success of the record, ‘Jackie’ caused controversy because of its lyrical content – “Authentic queers and phony virgins” – it was banned by the BBC and various other radio channels.
Scott Walker once almost met Jacques Brel, but couldn’t and commented on this moment: “I had a chance to meet him when I was in Paris one evening. He was doing La Mancha – a show there. I was too nervous to meet him … I thought, ‘I can’t possibly … this is one of my big idols.’ And I didn’t do it.”
However, he did hear from Jacques Brel’s wife that he was a fan and approved of Scott’s versions: “I heard through Brel’s wife that he really liked the versions I’d done.”
‘Big Louise’ – (Scott 3 – 1969)
Often an absolute favourite among Scott Walker aficionados, it is different from his previous two records, as it is about 80 per cent of original material.
Although it didn’t do as well as his first two records, it still reached number three in the UK Album charts for a little while. More than anything else, Scott 3 was more sinister, as is greatly exemplified in this sad and mournful tale of a prostitute, ‘Big Louise’.
Almost immediately after releasing his previous record, Scott 2, he had completely undermined it and called it “the work of a lazy, self-indulgent man.” Therefore, Scott 3 was all about coming with forth no holds barred; it is definitely a distant ancestor of what would become Scott’s later more ethereal and avant-garde work.
‘The Seventh Seal’ – (Scott 4 – 1969)
This is the first album that Scott Walker released under his given name, Scott Engel. “Playing Chess with death” could only be a reference to one thing and that is of course that fateful scene in Ingmar Bergman’s brilliant film of the same name. Scott Walker was a known fan of the Swedish film director. In spite of the grim but mysterious subject of the song, the musical qualities are underpinned by triumphant trumpets and climactic key changes. Similar to Scott Walker’s musical interpretations of the Jacques Brel songs in style, this is however very different, as it is completely original.
Scott 4 performed even poorlier than Scott 3; it was clear that Scott Walker was beginning to fade from the public’s view. What would ensue after Walker’s failed attempt to achieve something too elusive and distant in his mind; a far-away goal he felt he needed to reach towards but never could quite get there, would be a string of MOR albums he continued to release throughout the ‘70s, at the behest of major record label companies. The troubadour and English version of the chanson character that he had created with his first four solo albums, was coming to an end.
‘Nite Flights’ – (Nite Flights – 1978)
This was the third and last album that The Walker Brothers released after reuniting in 1975. The album is made up of three sections of three-four songs, which were all written individually by the members of the band. Scott Walker sang on the first four songs, one of which was the title track.
Allmusic said of the record at the time, “Every once in a while, an album comes along that doesn’t simply surprise you, it takes you down an alleyway, rips off all your clothes, then hares away with your socks on its head, singing selections from South Pacific.”
This album is starkly different from anything that Scott had done solo or with The Walker Brothers. It is a brilliant fusion of ’80s pop music, ’70s rock, and a slight sense of the avant-garde. David Bowie would cover it for his 1993 album, Black Tie White Noise.