Rhymes of Goodbye: Farewell, Scott Walker
- Alex Johnston
- 25 March 2019
A tribute to the late singer-songwriter, one of the most fascinating figures in popular music
Plenty of musicians of Scott Walker's generation enjoyed early success and then slowly declined into mid-career mediocrity, but none of them reconnected with their muse and changed direction as dramatically as he did.
Noel Scott Engel was born in Ohio, and was a child actor and singer before becoming a studio bass player. In the early 60s he teamed up with singer-guitarist John Maus and drummer Gary Leeds to form the Walker Brothers. They moved to London in 1965, and were soon achieving massive hits with other people's songs: songs like 'Make It Easy On Yourself' and the epic 'The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore' earned a deserved place in the hearts of baby-boomers. But as rock began to displace pop, the Walker Brothers sounded outdated.
Scott began to make solo records. 1968's Scott leaned heavily on Jacques Brel covers and established him as a cool, moody, scarf-wearing, arty balladeer, but as Scott 2, Scott 3 and Scott 4 came down the pike and he asserted himself more as a songwriter, his fans began to desert him; Wally Stott's arrangements of songs like 'It's Raining Today' had a dissonant edge which was a long away from the sumptuousness of the Walker Brothers, while those intoxicated by the power and energy of hard rock weren't interested in these quirky baroque-pop masterpieces.
Around 1970 Walker began to doubt himself, and he stopped writing his own material. His mid-70s albums are dispirited country-rock, reaching a nadir around 1974's ironically titled We Had It All. The following year, the Walker Brothers had a late hit with an admittedly gorgeous cover of Tom Rush's 'No Regrets', but it seemed very like a farewell.
Then, in 1978, faced with the impending end of their contract, they made Nite Flights, and Walker went for broke. His contributions to the album were from somewhere unheard-of: the listless country crooner was gone, and a song like 'The Electrician', although arranged for the same instruments as his earlier music, creaked with unearthly dread. In the excellent documentary Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, Brian Eno recalled his shock and excitement on first hearing it.
After 1980, he released a succession of increasingly harsh, haunted albums: 1984's Climate of Hunter was strange enough but 1995's Tilt was truly unnerving, and 2006's The Drift firmly established Walker's late style: stark orchestral backdrops and surreal songs sung in his eerie tenor voice.
Walker spent his last decades making up for lost time, and he never dwelled on the past. He won a Q magazine award in 2003, and after returning to his seat he asked his neighbours what the music was that had been playing a moment earlier. It had been one of his own albums, which he hadn't listened to since its release.
He remained modest, charming and unpretentious, grateful for having had the chance to make the music he wanted to make. He'll be remembered for the widescreen pop majesty of the Walker Brothers, his glittering late 60s solo albums, and the dark, searching, idiosyncratic music of the last part of his career.
Scott Walker's death, aged 76, was announced by his label 4AD. He is survived by his partner Beverley, his daughter Lee, and his granddaughter Emmi-Lee.