Scott Walker's Iconoclastic Career in Music, Told Through 10 of His Best Songs

Gems/Redferns
Scott Walker photographed in 1973.

Scott Walker, who died on Monday (Mar. 25) at age 76, began as a pop star in the mid-'60s with The Walker Brothers, and then solo later in the decade, merging his Sinatra-inspired vocal stylings with attempts at pop versions of classical “lieder.” After a period of easy-listening records in the early 1970s (sung by an uneasy man), Walker made a hard swerve into the avant-garde.

There he’d remain for the last four decades of his life, creating one of the more uncompromising catalogs in pop music. As one of his fans, David Bowie, said in 1995 of Walker: “He’s true to himself, whereas other artists are traitors to themselves."

Here’s a look at Scott Walker's singular career through 10 of his songs.

The Walker Brothers, "The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore" (1966) 

One of '60s pop’s great fabrications, The Walker Brothers weren’t brothers, weren’t really named Walker (Scott was born Noel Scott Engel), and didn’t play on their records. But in Britain, they were hitmakers whose fanbase rivalled The Beatles for a time. Along with “Make It Easy On Yourself” (a U.K. No. 1 hit that reached No. 16 on the Billboard Hot 100), their high-water mark was “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,” another U.K. chart-topper and a Hot 100 No. 13 in the U.S. Originally sung by Frankie Valli, in Walker’s doomy baritone “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine” became a colossal piece of despair: a breakup as the heat death of the world.

The Walker Brothers, "Archangel" (1966)

Encouraged to write compositions for publishing royalties, Walker put the song “Archangel" on the B-side of The Walker Brothers' single “Deadlier Than the Male.” With an organ part recorded in a Leicester Square cinema house, "Archangel" marks the sudden arrival, full-fledged, of the Walker of the Scott albums: singing of angels, death and domestic ennui over towering orchestration.

Scott Walker, "My Death" (1967) 

Going solo in 1967, Walker soon undermined his teen idol image by raiding the songbook of Belgian composer Jacques Brel, performing on variety TV shows the likes of “Jackie,” whose lyrics included mention of “authentic queers and phony virgins.” His interpretation of Brel’s “My Death,” on the first of his Scott albums, was a dark camp conception of death, illustrating it as an old roue at a resort, or walking around in a magician’s gown.

Scott Walker, "It’s Raining Today" (1969)

The Scott albums were crafted by brilliant arrangers working for the Philips label at the time, particularly Angela Morley. Take her string arrangement for “It’s Raining Today,” an eerie semi-tonal quivering that persists through the track, a collective disturbance set against Walker’s somber, more conventional pop phrasings. It’s as if Frank Sinatra’s been dubbed onto a recording of Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.

Scott Walker, "The Seventh Seal" (1969) 

Walker often viewed his work in the context of film, once comparing his singing to the direction of French realist Robert Bresson. He’d cut an album of film themes (1972's The Moviegoer) and would score a number of them, including 1999's Pola X and his final released work, 2018's Vox Lux. “The Seventh Seal,” which led off 1969’s Scott 4, has Walker recounting the plot of Ingmar Bergman’s film of the same name over an arrangement that’s in turn a jumbled film soundtrack: “Western movie” guitar and trumpet, strings, bells, tambourine, and what sounds like a choir of monks for backing vocals.

The Walker Brothers, "The Electrician" (1978)

After years of making albums of beautifully-sung covers -- a period he later described as working to pay the bills -- Walker reunited with his old band. The Walker Brothers’ Nite Flights (1978), which had the first Walker compositions on record since 1970, would be the great hinge of his career. Under the influence of Bowie’s “Heroes,” which he brought into the studio as a guidebook, Walker crafted a bleak, jittery disco for the title track and “Shut Out.” And on “The Electrician,” he set his lyric in a torture chamber in some grubby fascist regime, while singing it as a passionate love song. There are hard cuts between the arrangements of lush strings and Spanish guitar, and a dark-of-night doomscape that invokes Morley’s work on “It’s Raining Today." Walker doesn’t reconcile these worlds, but inhabits both.

Scott Walker, "Track Three" (1984)

The 1984 set Climate of Hunter, with its fretless basslines and guest appearances by contemporary stars Mark Knopfler and Billy Ocean, counters its slickness with Walker’s increasingly hermetic lyrics -- see “Rawhide,” a “round ‘em up” song of Cro-Magnon herders that opens with erratically struck cowbell. Half of the LP tracks lack titles: “Track Three,” issued as the single, finds Ocean doubling Walker’s vocals on lines like “rock of cast-offs, bury me!” Ray Russell had to cut his guitar solo without knowing Walker’s top melody, as Walker considered that to be a secret.

Scott Walker, "The Cockfighter" (1995)

With 1995's Tilt, Walker entered his late period, wherein any compromise with a prospective audience had disappeared -- Tilt is a recording of one person painstakingly recreating what they hear in their head. (“I wanted to make a nowhere record,” Walker said at the time). “The Cockfighter” opens with Walker singing over what sounds like mice gnawing though newspaper. He moves onward through shifting landscapes of industrial noise, parade-ground snare drum fills, maimed-sounding guitar fills and fire alarm horns. Vaguely referencing the trials of Adolf Eichmann and Queen Caroline, some of his lines double as seductions and torture instructions, a la “The Electrician” (“turn on your side, move your touch to the hip”).

Scott Walker, "Psoriatic" (2006)

The Drift, from 2006, is Walker’s art rock slasher film, whose beats at times come from percussionists punching sides of beef. The listener is continually on edge, waiting for the blow to come -- on “The Escape,” it’s an utterly terrifying Donald Duck impression. Yet there’s also a quiet sense of humor: Take how in “Psoriatic,” Walker nabs the chorus hook of Arthur Fields’ nearly century-old popular recording “Ja Da (Ja Da Ja Da Jing Jing)” for some nightmarish scenario involving infected (?) blankets and shell games -- one percussive line is the heavily-amplified sound of a thimble run against a block of wood. 

Scott Walker and Sunn O))), "Herod 2014" (2014)

By his later years, Walker had become an inspiration for younger artists, from Pulp to the Seattle noise ensemble Sunn O))). A confirmed modernist, Walker declined to sing his old hits on stage (or to sing anything on stage, for that matter), instead keeping his eye on the new. Soused, his 2014 album with Sunn O))), hinted at a new development in his style, a move towards more full collaborations with other artists. On “Herod 2014,” Sunn O))) shift the backdrops as Walker sings of, possibly, hiding babies from the soldiers of King Herod, but there are also stretches of uncanny beauty. Walker noted it at the time, telling The Quietus: “When people read that we were going to do this record I think what they expected was a lot of drones… some screaming buried in the background. But I think the great surprise of it is that it is as it is now.” Walker’s artistic life was one of moving towards the next great surprise.

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