When he first began making music, Scott Walker — born Noël Scott Engel — seemed like he was destined to be just another teen pop idol. (Indeed, he released his first single, “When is a Boy a Man?,” at the tender age of 13.) As a member of the Walker Brothers, a trio of (unrelated) Americans living in London, he achieved success in the mid ‘60s thanks to heavily arranged ballads like “Love Her” and “Make It Easy on Yourself.”
But internal tensions and Walker’s own musical ambitions led to the Brothers’ dissolution in 1967. This was followed by a string of solo records that found the former Mr. Engel moving away from syrupy, polished pop ballads and towards darker, more avant-garde territory. This movement reached its culmination with 1969’s Scott 4. Inspired by Jacques Brel, Ingmar Bergman, and Albert Camus, the album was a commercial failure, but would grow in influence and stature in later years. (Indeed, it’s now considered one of Walker’s masterpieces.)
Walker was quite reclusive, and would go for years and even decades between albums. After various ventures, including a Walker Brothers reunion in the mid-to-late ‘70s and a brief foray into country music, he released Tilt in 1995. When I first listened to it, I found Tilt maddening and disquieting, but also quite unlike anything else that I’d heard up until then. And in 2006, he released The Drift, a truly bizarre-yet-compelling album filled with dark, strange material, including one song that explored the aftermath of 9/11 via an imagined conversation between Elvis Presley and his stillborn twin Jesse.
Though Walker used increasingly strange compositional techniques — The Drift included the sounds of people walking down stairs, making wooden boxes, and punching slabs of meat — one element remained consistent across both his radio-friendly and avant-garde material: that rich baritone voice of his. Even in his strangest moments, it was impossible to ignore that rich voice, which imbued even surreal lyrics like “I’ll punch a donkey in the streets of Galway” or “Immunity won’t feed on the bodies/Bones closing too soon at the tips” with a strange, otherworldly beauty.
There’s no denying that Scott Walker wasn’t for all tastes, particularly with his final albums. But like the aforementioned Mark Hollis, Walker was willing to throw away the easy life of pop stardom in order to follow his own strange muse, to take risks and push boundaries. Along the way, he inspired numerous other artists and musicians, including David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Jarvis Cocker, Thom Yorke and Radiohead, and David Sylvian, to name but a few. (Following news of Walker’s death, numerous artists have taken to social media to remember him.)