Scott Walker, mercurial titan of experimental music, has died. 4AD, Walker’s label, confirmed his passing today. No cause of death has yet been revealed. Walker was 76.
Walker had a fascinating and impossible-to-replicate career, starting out as a young heartthrob pop star and moving on into stranger and more avant-garde music, to the point where he was a venerated outsider for the last decades of his life. Walker was born Noel Scott Engel in Hamilton, Ohio, and his father’s work in the oil industry led his family to move around the United States throughout his childhood. As a teenager, he and his mother landed in California, where he began singing and playing guitar, doing occasional session work. In 1961, Walker met the singer and guitarist John Maus, who was performing under the name John Walker. They started playing together in a few different configurations before forming their band the Walker Brothers in 1964.
In the Walker Brothers, Scott started out playing bass and singing backup, and he began using the name Scott Walker, which he’d continue to use throughout his career. In 1965, the Walker Brothers staged a sort of reverse-British Invasion, touring the UK and quickly becoming huge there. They released their first single “Pretty Girls Everywhere” in 1965, and that same year, they also released “Love Her,” on which Scott sang lead. Scott’s dramatic, swooping baritone and almost-absurd good looks led the band to enormous UK success. The Walker Brothers’ 1965 version of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David ballad “Make It Easy On Yourself” got to #1 in the UK, and so did their grand and sweeping 1966 heartbreak anthem “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore.” (Both songs also charted in the top 20 in the US.)
The Walker Brothers broke up in 1967, and Scott immediately went solo. By the end of 1969, he’d already released four landmark solo albums: Scott, Scott 2, Scott 3, and Scott 4. On those four albums, you can trace Walker’s evolution from pop balladeer into something much stranger. On those albums, Walker would sing sexually direct Jacques Brel cabaret songs, translated from French, and he’d also sing his own layered, transgressive songs, which increasingly tackled esoteric subjects. Already producing music for himself and others — something he did as far back as his Walker Brothers days — Walker began to study contemporary classical music and to incorporate some of those discordant sounds into his own music. But at the same time, Walker was also holding down a career as a mainstream balladeer, even hosting a BBC TV series called Scott. But Scott 4, his first album of all-original material, was a commercial failure, so he went back to making increasingly rote albums of standards and country songs.
In 1975, the Walker Brothers reunited, staying together for three more years and making three more albums, with some commercial success. Their final album together was 1978’s Nite Flights, and Walker wrote and sang a third of the album’s songs. His tracks, especially the single “The Electrician,” were darker and heavier than anything he’d done before. But Nite Flights was a commercial failure. After that, the Walker Brothers broke up again, and Scott went silent for a period, as his older records became cult favorites among UK postpunk fans. In 1984, he released Climate Of Hunter, an album that split the difference between contemporary rock and way-out experimentation. The album got Walker dropped from his label. Once again, he spent years out of the public eye, releasing very little new music.
In 1993, Walker and the composer Goran Bregović collaborated on “Man From Reno,” a song for the movie Toxic Affair. He followed that with 1995’s Tilt, a stark and difficult album of operatic wails, impenetrable lyrics, and tingly art-music. Tilt was the album that finally pushed Walker away from pop music for good and transformed him into a full-on avant-garde icon. The album also ended Walker’s long quiet period, and he began recording music for movies, including a track for the Bond film The World Is Not Enough and the score for the Léos Carax film Pola X. He also co-produced Pulp’s final studio album, 2001’s We Love Life.
Throughout the ’00s, Walker released a whole lot of heavy, challenging music, including 2006’s The Drift, the 2007 contemporary-dance soundtrack And Who Shall Go To The Ball? And What Shall Go To The Ball?, and 2012’s Bish Bosch, as well as 2014’s Soused, a full-length collaboration with the drone-metal group Sunn O))). He also sang on Bat For Lashes’ 2009 song “The Big Sleep” and, most recently, scored the 2018 movie Vox Lux.
We’ll never see another figure like Scott Walker — someone who came though the pop-music system, and then disappeared and reappeared several times, his legend only growing with each successive iteration. He made music that was dense and hard to process, but he maintained the mystique, and the personal magnetism, that had helped make him a star in the first place. He also had a magnificent voice. That voice could do anything, and “anything” is pretty much what he did with it. Many, many artists took his influence and ran with it, and he proved to be a tremendous influence on — among many others — Radiohead, David Bowie, Pulp, Boy George, Soft Cell, and Julian Cope, as well as pretty much else making dark and heavy pop music in 2019. Below, listen to some examples of Walker’s music over the years.
So very sad to hear that Scott Walker has passed away, he was a huge influence on Radiohead and myself, showing me how i could use my voice and words. Met him once at Meltdown, such a kind gentle outsider. He will be very missed. https://t.co/v33Ey91hbn
— Thom Yorke (@thomyorke) March 25, 2019
So very sad to hear about Scott Walker…. truly one of the greats.. so unique and a real artist. On my way to work on the first day of recording OK Computer I passed him riding his bike on Chiswick High Street.. and when I got to the studio Thom was holding a copy of Scott 4..
— nigel godrich (@nigelgod) March 25, 2019
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Absolutely saddened shocked by the death of Scott Walker . He gave me so much inspiration so much I owe to him and modelled on him even down to my early S C hair cut and dark glasses . He cemented my love for Brel. He was enigmatic , mysterious and with some of his latter recordings , to me, infuriating. An absolute Musical genius , existential and intellectual and a Star right from the days of the Walker Brothers. So many of his songs will go round in my head forever. And that Voice. We lost Bowie now we’ve lost him. There is surely a crack in the Universe. Thank you Scott.