Scott Walker Made the Sharpest Left Turns in Pop Music History

Scott Walker's career went from Tiger Beat to percussionists literally beating slabs of meat.
Scott Walker's career went from Tiger Beat to percussionists literally beating slabs of meat. Jamie Hawkesworth
There are few musicians who went through as radical and profound a transformation as Scott Walker. The singer passed away last Friday at the age of 76, leaving behind an impressive and unpredictable body of work that spans over half a century.

Born Scott Noel Engel in Ohio, the singer-songwriter spent most of his life living in Europe. Forming a pop group with John Maus and Gary Leeds, all three changed their last names to Walker and christened themselves The Walker Brothers. The trio struck pop gold in England and the U.S. off the orchestral majesty of hit songs like "Make It Easy on Yourself" and "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine (Anymore).” Crooning over symphonic pop arrangements that sound like they were lifted straight out of Phil Spector’s brain, The Walker Brothers were as easy on the ears as they were on the eyes. They were certifiable Tiger Beat idols, the One Direction of their day.

But Scott Walker’s time as a teen idol was short. Splitting away from the group, he released a quartet of self-titled albums between 1967 and '69 that would cement his status as a weirdo legend. While his work on the four Scott records retained the ornate arrangements and easy listening smoothness of his earlier work with the Brothers, Walker’s lyrics and choice of song covers became more daring and confrontational.

Walker would cover Tony Bennett and praise Sinatra as one of his greatest inspirations, but he'd also frequently cover Belgian singer Jacques Brel, whose songs about whores and syphilis and mordant worldview was a million miles removed from the Brothers' work. He would craft songs about Ingmar Bergman movies and Joseph Stalin and perform originals like “Amorous Humphrey Plugg,” about a depressed family man finding his only relief in life in the company of prostitutes. Not even Old Blue-Eyes could sell the kind of lines Walker delivered with gravitas and gusto: "I dwarf the rooftops / I hunchback the moon," "I’ve severed my reeking gonads," "Bubonic, blue-blankets, run ragged with church mice."

With his lush backing music and commanding voice, Walker created a kind of uneasy listening where you didn’t realize what kind of fucked up shit you were humming along to until it was too late. He drew a blueprint for subversive lounge singing that decades of performers would build upon, from David Bowie to Nick Cave, The Soft Cell, Destroyer's Dan Bejar, and Jarvis Cocker of Pulp.

Had Walker just stayed in the lane he carved out on Scott through Scott 4, his reputation as an iconoclastic singer-songwriter would be assured. But he went even further out, embracing industrial sounds and the classical avant-garde on 1995’s Tilt. This transformation from lounge singer to left-field composer would carry him through the rest of his career. On albums like 2006’s The Drift, he had musicians punching slabs of meat for percussion. He would top Lou Reed's unlikely alliance with Metallica by dropping an even more unlikely collaborative album with noise titans Sunn O))) in 2014. He even found time to cut an instrumental album and score films such as Brady Corbet's Vox Lux and Leos Carax's Pola X. While Walker was a reclusive figure who rarely gave interviews and abhorred being feted by his fans and critics, he still managed to crank out a lot of compelling work as a “hermit.”

When it comes to radical reinvention, Walker only has one peer: Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis, who died on February 25 of this year. Both men had a similar arc: They found success as pop icons before embracing experimental sounds that confounded their fanbase and got them dropped by their labels. Only a time traveler could have listened to Hollis sing “It’s My Life” in 1984 and known that he would soon trade in his successful synth pop sound to create a trio of unclassifiable masterpieces: 1986's The Colour of Spring, 1988's Spirit of Eden, and 1991's Laughing Stock. Along with Hollis’s self-titled solo album in 1998 (his final record), they form a quartet of gorgeous post-rock music, combining jazz, folk, ambient, and classical textures with occasional stabs of dissonant rock. Those four records are as much of a quantum leap forward for Hollis as Tilt and The Drift were for Walker.

As a singer, Hollis shared latter-day Walker’s talent for impressionistic singing. Both men sang like they were trying to escape their bodies, like singing on their records was a form of astral projection for them. But they differed in important ways. While Walker remained active until his death, Hollis went into retirement after releasing his 1998 self-titled record and never recorded another LP. Walker was a maximalist, using layers of horns, violent percussion, and even the sound of crossing swords on his records. Hollis was, in his own words, a minimalist. "Before you play two notes, learn how to play one note," he once said, "and don't play one note unless you've got a reason to play it.”

This year has already seen the late 20th century’s two most reclusive and radical musical changelings pass within a month of each other. It hearkens back to 2016, when both David Bowie and Prince, two of the most adventurous performers in pop, also died within a few calendar pages of each other. Greatness doesn’t like to leave the stage by itself.
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Ashley Naftule