Pop singer who rose to fame in the 1960s and went on to become an enigmatic solo artist
Mon 25 Mar 2019
The career of Scott Walker, who has died aged 76, followed one of the most extraordinary trajectories in popular music. It took him from chart-topping 1960s pop star to reclusive creator of albums such as Tilt (1995), The Drift (2006) and Bish Bosch (2012), which were works of experimental strangeness that dared critics to try to define them. Nonetheless they commanded the respect and even awe of other artists. “He’s been my idol since I was a kid,” said David Bowie, while Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, Brian Eno and Jarvis Cocker were similarly inspired.
Walker, whose later work was more likely to provoke comparisons with Francis Bacon’s paintings than with other musicians, professed himself content to walk his own unique path.“I have long since stopped worrying about fitting in in any way,” he told the Observer’s Sean O’Hagan in 2008. “I’m an outsider for sure. That suits me fine. Solitude is like a drug for me. I crave it.”
The contrast between the almost invisible Walker of his later years and his early pop-star self could not have been greater. As a member of the Walker Brothers – three Americans who came to Britain in search of success – he scored three top 10 albums in the UK between 1965 and 1967, Take It Easy With the Walker Brothers, Portrait and Images.
He will be remembered as the resonant, burnished baritone voice on some of the most dramatic singles of the era. The Burt Bacharach/Hal David composition Make It Easy on Yourself (1965) was their first UK chart-topping single, an orchestrated epic of romantic loss and longing created with the arranger Ivor Raymonde and the producer Johnny Franz, the A&R chief from the group’s label, Philips.
The same team took them back to the top of the UK charts the following year with The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore), another odyssey of heartbreak. The yearning melodies and his blond good looks established Walker as a pin-up, but he never felt comfortable with the frenzy of teen hysteria that accompanied their success. In 1966 he fled to a monastery for a week.
The group’s hot streak tailed off, Walker had begun drinking heavily, and in 1967 they split up. “Initially, it was fantastic, and I learned so much,” he said in 2018. “I got to work with huge orchestras and good budgets. But after a while, the formula … wore itself out.”
Born Noel Scott Engel in the small mid-west town of Hamilton, Ohio, he was the only child of Elizabeth (nee Fortier), a French-Canadian, and her husband, Noel Engel, a geologist who worked in the oil industry, his work prompting the family to move around a lot. His parents divorced when he was six, and Scott and his mother later settled in California. A child actor and performer, his first stage appearance was in a Rodgers and Hammerstein production, Pipe Dream, in New York when he was 10.
He was initially championed by the singer and TV host Eddie Fisher, who featured him on his show, but after he lost interest, Engel abandoned his singing career to become a session bass guitarist. He teamed up with the guitarist John Maus, a former child television star, and in 1964 the Walker Brothers were born, the name coming from Maus’s false identity card which he used in Los Angeles clubs. Joining forces with the drummer Gary Leeds, who had played with PJ Proby in Britain, the trio recorded the Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil song Love Her at RCA Studios in 1965. John was originally the lead singer, but the song suited Scott’s baritone voice and he became the frontman.
Persuaded by Leeds, who had told his band members about swinging London, the Walker Brothers flew to Britain. They landed at a snowy Heathrow Airport, quickly found a management deal, and saw Love Her become a top 20 hit. Walker was to stay in the UK for the rest of his life, taking British citizenship in 1970.
Following the band’s split, Walker’s solo career got off to a flying start with his first album, Scott, a UK No 3, while Scott 2 the following year reached No 1 and Scott 3 (1969) also reached No 3. All of these successfully mixed original Walker compositions (including such superb songs as Montague Terrace (in Blue) and Big Louise) with those by Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel – whose tales of madness, sex and death fascinated Walker – and other writers, such as Bacharach/David and Tim Hardin. But his fortunes changed abruptly when Scott 4 (also 1969), with all the material written by Walker, failed to chart. When rock was being defined by Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, Walker’s orchestrations and semi-operatic baritone felt out of time.
After sales dried up, Walker left Philips. Following a series of experiments with country and western and showbiz tunes on albums such as ’Til the Band Comes In (1970), The Moviegoer (1972) and Any Day Now (1973), Walker reformed the Walker Brothers in 1975, a reunion that gave them a hit single with a cover of Tom Rush’s No Regrets. Their album Nite Flights (1978) failed commercially, prompting the group’s final collapse, but it contained Walker’s song The Electrician, a disturbing piece that pointed the way ahead. David Bowie later covered Walker’s song Nite Flights on his Black Tie White Noise album.
The group’s disintegration ended Walker’s live career, his last appearance being a stumbling performance in cabaret in 1978. Signed to Virgin two years later, the singer saw his early albums elevated to cult status, but it was not until 1984 that he released Climate of Hunter, which dispensed with the lushness of his previous work in favour of an abstract, ambient approach. Several of the tracks did not even have titles, and in the opening song, Rawhide, the opening line was: “This is how you disappear.” The album did not sell well and Walker temporarily forsook the music industry. He worked as a painter and decorator, undertook a fine art course and made a cameo in a Britvic drinks advert.
However, interest in Walker’s career had begun to grow. As early as 1981 Julian Cope had curated the compilation Fire Escape in the Sky: The Godlike Genius of Scott Walker, and Phonogram released Boy Child: The Best of Scott Walker 1967-70 (1990) and No Regrets: The Best of Scott Walker and the Walker Brothers 1965-76 (1992). Encouraged, Walker signed a deal with Fontana and released the single Man From Reno, which featured on the soundtrack of the French language film Toxic Affair in 1993. Two years later he released Tilt, his first album in 11 years. “On the surface, there couldn’t have been a more unlikely transformation,” the Guardian wrote. “Imagine Andy Williams reinventing himself as Stockhausen.” Harsh and industrial, there were traces of music from Bali or Japan, and in Farmer in the City Walker could have been an operatic tenor singing a cantata.
With each new release into the 21st century, Walker pushed boundaries. The Drift (2006) found him experimenting with dissonance and unusual tunings, creating lugubrious soundscapes seemingly intended to evoke some form of purgatory. “It’s just generally big blocks of sound, raw and stark,” he said. Bish Bosch (2012) took the form even further, mixing in everything from Hawaiian folk song to drum loops, heavy metal guitars, a cappella harmonies and a full symphony orchestra in songs that discuss history, philosophy and medical procedures and Attila the Hun’s court jester. For Soused (2014), he paired up with “the shroud-wearing Seattle drone metallers” Sunn 0))), a project that Walker described as “pretty perfect”.
He curated the South Bank Meltdown festival in 2000, the same year he composed two songs for Ute Lemper’s Punishing Kiss (2000). He produced Pulp’s album We Love Life (2002), and in 2003 he received a Q award.
He was commissioned by the South Bank to compose music for the contemporary dance piece And Who Shall Go To The Ball? And What Shall Go To The Ball? (2007), and was commissioned by the Royal Opera House to compose music for Duet For One Voice. Also In 2007 came Stephen Kijak’s documentary, Scott Walker: 30 Century Man. Ten year later he was celebrated at the Proms in The Songs of Scott Walker (1967-70). A selection of his lyrics from six decades, Sundog, was published last year. His most recent musical output was for Brady Corbet’s film Vox Lux, starring Natalie Portman and Jude Law.
He is survived by his partner, Beverly, his daughter, Lee, from his marriage to Mette Teglbjaerg, which ended in divorce, and his granddaughter, Emmi-Lee.
• Scott Walker (Noel Scott Engel), singer and songwriter, born 9 January 1943; died 22 March 2019