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Scott Walker Changed the Face of Pop Music by Turning His Back on It
Scott Walker, who died at 76 this Monday (Mar. 25), was such an utterly unique and unlikely figure in music history that to characterize him with comparisons to other musicians is utterly absurd. But here goes.
Imagine if One Direction posed as brothers in the mid-'60s, but instead of singing like boyish pop stars, their leader had the classical delivery of a Josh Groban, with the manly melancholy of a Father John Misty. Then imagine if said charismatic leader went solo singing the lusty and morbid songs of a Belgian existentialist -- there is no contemporary equivalent of Jacques Brel -- and that his initially largely young, female audience not only went along with it, but made him bigger than ever.
Then, imagine that Harry-Styles-of-the-Sixties getting his own TV show in which he sang those songs of prostitution and syphilis until his self-composed (and misleadingly titled) fifth solo album, in which he wrote about human suffering with compositions so rich they’d later set a template for the next several decades of particularly imaginative English pop, and alternative rock the world over. Then picture him suddenly falling from the top of the charts to not charting at all, and largely floundering for the next couple of decades through occasionally great but often substandard solo albums and band reunions -- until bouncing back with some of the most extreme experimentation of the next century.
From teen-scream idol to the musical equivalent of Edvard Munch’s The Scream -- that’s Scott Walker.
Seems unlikely, no? The story gets even stranger when you consider that Walker was a Britian-based expat born Noel Scott Engel in small-town Ohio -- yet aside from a pair of Billboard Hot 100 top 20 hits with the Walker Brothers (who all shared the same the same way the Ramones would a decade later), most of his success was limited to the U.K. Those two singles (1965’s “Make It Easy on Yourself” and 1966's “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore”) were soul records rendered with grand British pop orchestration.
"Easy," a Burt Bacharach/Hal Davis composition rejected by Dionne Warwick but a hit for Jerry Butler, is smooth in the parents-pleasing style of Andy Williams, but Walker’s performance, both disciplined and despairing, makes it ache. "Sun," initially a failed early Frankie Valli solo single composed by the Four Seasons’ Bob Gaudio and their producer Bob Crewe, is even more explicitly apocalyptic easy listening. Walker, an Ingmar Bergman admirer who’d make his fandom explicit with “The Seventh Seal” -- the extraordinary opening track from 1969’s Scott 4, which likely scared away all the U.K. moms and dads that briefly enjoyed Walker along with their children -- sings it as if the end of a romance really did mean the end of the world.
Even at this early stage, Walker possessed two qualities required of the greatest pop stars: He had flawless vocal technique, as well as oceans full of emotion. When he went solo and positioned his band’s success as a means to seek free reign for his third distinguishing characteristic -- a restless, uncompromising intelligence -- he joined the ranks of iconoclasts able to bend pop into their own highly idiosyncratic shapes. The list of major English pop and rock acts indebted to Walker’s musical, emotional, and intellectual rigor is long, but at the very least includes Julian Cope, Boy George, Soft Cell, Talk Talk, Morrissey, Blur, Pulp, the Divine Comedy, and Radiohead.
After floundering for years, David Bowie then became the most important figure in U.K. music since The Beatles with a canny synthesis of Walker’s two sides -- the melodramatic pop idol, and the dead-serious artist. When Bowie closed 1976’s prog-soul masterpiece Station to Station with “Wild Is the Wind,” a 1957 soundtrack hit for Johnny Mathis, he may have been inspired by his then-recent meeting with Nina Simone, who also covered the song, but the ravishing results are pure Walker: A product of his cocaine-addicted, Los Angeles-dwelling days, Bowie’s Thin White Duke persona is pretty much a debonair but nightmarish reinvention of Walker. Bowie got the credit for coining the “plastic soul” he launched with 1975’s Young Americans, but Walker – a chiseled-cheeked, blond, Aryan-looking American infatuated with European art but able to plummet the passionate depths of U.S. R&B – pretty much invented it a decade earlier.
Like James Dean, Montgomery Cliff, and Marilyn Monroe, Walker had exceptionally sensitive insides and equally spectacular outsides -- a combination that traumatized him when English fans would swarm around him and the other Walkers with a voraciousness ordinarily reserved for the Beatles. The difference was that Walker didn’t have a Brian Epstein or a George Martin to ground him: He was a foreigner in love with foreign culture -- like George Harrison studying sitar, Walker turned to Gregorian chant, lieder, French art song, and other European classical modes.
Dressed in black behind equally impenetrable sunglasses, Walker became the quintessential musical outsider: masculine, yet sensitive in a way that particularly spoke to the UK’s oncoming wave of LGBTQ ‘80s pop subversives. Belting an obscure US soul oldie in an emphatically European electronic cabaret style, Soft Cell’s enduringly popular rendition of “Tainted Love” likely wouldn’t have happened without him: Singer Marc Almond -- who became England’s most successful and ardent interpreter of Brel’s catalog since Walker -- even replicated his hero's haircut and shades. That influence has transcended gender and generation: There’s plenty of Walker in Annie Lennox and Kate Bush alike, and you can trace his ability to generate warmth amidst icy instrumental textures right down to 21st-century electro-pop purveyors Robyn, Lady Gaga, and SOPHIE.
No slight to anyone either directly or indirectly shaped by his precedent, but not even Bowie has navigated a career path or aesthetic shifts as severe as Walker's: If you like Radiohead, you’ve likely been nudged gently and gradually into the avant-garde to the point that you might not find Jonny Greenwood’s most wayward soundtrack work off-putting. Walker did no such hand-holding: He morphed from 1974’s country-pop We Had It All to 1984’s daunting art-rock Climate of Hunter with only fleeting hints in his Walker Brothers reunion work to suggest where he was headed -- then descended straight into full-on discordancy eleven years later with Tilt.
Followers like Talk Talk certainly took note, but that band did with silence and beauty on Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock what Walker would do with cacophony and intentional ugliness on works like 2006’s The Drift. After releasing a self-titled solo LP of even greater minimalism in 1998, former Talk Talk frontman Mark Hollis walked away from synth-pop and in fact all music forever -- whereas Walker would alternate years of contemplation and family life with antagonistic anti-compositions that captured where he felt civilization (or the lack thereof) was headed, as if publicly compensating for the quiet private times in-between. Claustrophobic, tortured and livid, Walker’s 21st century output conjures modern man’s economic fascism and ecological suicide as articulately as his late ‘60s work captured spiritual unease.
Walker will likely remain the ultimate example of a pop star who repudiated fame in favor of art because his commercial ability was as pronounced as his indifference to it: Both of those aforementioned Walker Brothers singles as well as 1968’s Scott 2 LP went to No. 1 on the U.K.; he had two other top 10 solo albums as well as eight top 40 singles total in that country -- even Tilt and 2014’s Soused, with Seattle’s mega-heavy metal band Sunn O))), grazed the U.K.'s top 30. Well into what would be retirement years for most, Walker renounced the delicacy and refinement he conjured so effortlessly in his 20s, and did so with the same rigor. His legacy will forever remain as boundless as his bravery.