Artist Scott Walker, who inspired everyone from David Bowie to Jarvis Cocker, will be remembered for his songwriting prowess, his distinctive baritone and his dynamic originality.
During his extraordinary 50-year career the enigmatic Scott Walker evolved from a clean-cut teen idol into an avant-garde experimental artist, who relentlessly pushed boundaries with his insightful lyrics and cinematic musical scope.
Walker started life as Noel Scott Engel in small-town Ohio, before moving to California and dabbling in acting and singing while still a child. In the early 1960s he started playing bass for various bands before joining pop trio the Walker Brothers.
After limited success in the US, the Walker Brothers took the unusual step of decamping to London. (Unusual because at the time, America was considered the place to be for musicians and many British bands were heading Stateside).
But Walker, a self-described “natural enemy of the Californian surfer” who loved Swedish arthouse cinema and classical music, was never one to follow the crowd.
At home in Britain
A proud Anglophile and Europhile, he settled happily in London, and later spoke warmly of walking through the city smog and of drinking Black Russians and hanging out at Ronnie Scott’s.
With his band enjoying hits with The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore) and Make It Easy On Yourself, Walker seemed like a natural born pop star who had found his habitat.
But he soon grew unhappy with fame and the relentless pressure to come up with hit after hit. Uncomfortable with conforming to pop’s formulaic approach, Walker quit the group and in 1967 released a solo album, Scott. This kickstarted one of the most creative phases of his career and was followed over the next few years with Scott 2, Scott 3 and Scott 4.
These albums were lush, idiosyncratic mixes of pop ballads, Walker’s own compositions and covers of songs by Belgian star Jacques Brel such as Jackie.
They deftly demonstrated Walker’s ability to elevate the ordinary, humdrum events of daily life into the extraordinary.
In an indication of how influential these albums were, the BBC dedicated a Prom to them in 2017. It took place at the Royal Albert Hall with Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker performing many of Walker’s songs.
Walker Brothers reunion
Following this burst of creativity in the late 1960s and early 1970s Walker faltered; there were retreats to monasteries and remote abbeys to try to re-connect with his creativity, accompanied by lots of booze and a growing reluctance to sing live.
He reunited with the Walker Brothers for a couple of years (1975 to 1978) before returning to focus on his own work. A restless soul, Walker constantly sought inspiration from other sources including classical music, jazz scatting and Russian poetry.
He spent the rest of his life on a creative mission, incorporating new sounds and sentiments into his music with his customary literary flourish and idiosyncratic humour.
Walker enjoyed critical success with many albums including Climate of Hunter, The Drift and Bish Bosch and worked as a producer for many others. A force of dynamic originality, Walker remained hungry to experiment and explore well into his 70s.
Those who claim him as an inspiration include Thom Yorke, Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, Goldfrapp and Richard Hawley.
Despite having what DJ Stuart Maconie calls “one of the greatest voices in pop” Walker was a reluctant singer and refused to sing live for many decades of his career.
Aside from one futile attempt at singing lessons when he was with the Walker Brothers, he had no formal training.
Instead he taught himself about breath control and phrasing by listening to Frank Sinatra, whom he admired greatly.
In a 2017 radio interview Walker told Jarvis Cocker: “There are very few singers that I like. More and more I listen to instrumentals.
“I have more of a musician’s mentality than I do a singer’s mentality.”
Scott Walker died this week at the age of 76.
Main image: Courtesy PA Image.