❉ Ange Chan looks back on the unpredictable career of Scott Walker, who died today.
“I make records for myself, because I’m interested in seeing where they’re going to go.” – Scott Walker
They weren’t British, they weren’t brothers, and their real names weren’t Walker. They were in fact Californians Scott Engel, John Maus, and Gary Leeds; and in their heyday were highly successful music stars in the UK, at the height of the 1960s British Invasion.
The Walker Brothers were formed when Scott Engel and John Maus were playing together in Hollywood, and drummer Gary Leeds suggested they form a trio and try to make it big in England. This they did, surprisingly quickly thanks to being on the playlist of pirate radio stations such as Radio Luxembourg. They subsequently hit the top of the British charts with Make It Easy on Yourself in 1965.
Their follow up single, The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore sustained their success the following year, and the group also had British hits with My Ship Is Coming In, (Baby) You Don’t Have to Tell Me, and Another Tear Falls amongst others. For a few months they experienced their fans’ frenzied adulation, almost on the same scale of fellow hit parade botherers, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles.
However their British success was not replicated in their native America, which was possibly not helped by the fact that they rarely performed there! In fact the only chart success that The Walker Brothers enjoyed in their native country was Make It Easy on Yourself and The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore which both entered the Top 20.
While the Walker Brothers looked the part with their shaggy hairstyles, they were far more pop than rock. However they didn’t actually play on the majority of their records. With producer Johnny Franz and veteran British arrangers like Ivor Raymonde (who also worked with the legendary Dusty Springfield) and Reg Guest, they excelled at orchestrated ballads that were a specific attempt to emulate the success of another brother act who weren’t brothers; The Righteous Brothers.
However The Walker Brothers were in a different league from the saccharine soulfulness of their counterparts. Lead singer Scott Walker had a deep crooning tone which etched your soul with pure raw emotion. While their biggest hits were covers of songs by American pop songwriting teams like Bacharach and David, and Mann-Weil, Scott found he could write dark brooding originals in a more personal, less overblown style.
In the intensely competitive and pop commercial days of 1967, the Walker Brothers’ brand of pop suddenly become yesterday’s news, and the group disbanded in the face of their diminishing success.
Scott however, was starting to enjoy an increasingly successful solo career and he produced four Top Ten British solo albums in the late 1960s. In turn this attracted a sizable cult following of Scott’s solo music with his own brand of brooding, insular songs and ornate orchestral arrangements.
Influenced by the chanson style of grit and glamour, especially by chanson star Belgian Jacques Brel, Scott began to cover a significant amount of Brel’s work bringing tales of hardship, gritty determination and impassioned love affairs to a new audience.
The collection Scott Walker sings Jacques Brel is a coming together of two kindred spirits and is one of my personal favourite albums.
Scott’s solo work was moving towards an increasingly avant-garde style on his on late 1969 albums Scott 3 and Scott 4. Due to the niche nature of his new darker style, the antithesis of typical pop standards of the era, his solo work did not sell particularly well. This lead Scott to the decision to briefly reunite with The Walker Brothers once more in the mid-1970s, which produced a final British hit No Regrets, which some would argue is their best known song and certainly one of their greatest hits.
With the imminent demise of their record deal, the Walker Brothers collaborated on an album of original material that was in stark contrast to the material produced in their earlier albums. The resulting album, Nite Flights was released in 1978 with each of the ‘Brothers’ writing and singing their own compositions. The opening four songs were Scott’s, the final four John’s, while the middle pair were by Gary. Scott’s four songs, Nite Flights, The Electrician, Shut Out, and Fat Mama Kick were Scott’s first original compositions since Til The Band Comes In and represented his first steps away from the middle of the road image and sound he had cultivated since the commercial failure of Scott 4. The sombrely dark and discomforting sound of Scott’s songs, particularly The Electrician was to prove a forerunner for the direction of his future solo work.
In 1984, Scott released his first solo album in ten years, Climate of Hunter. The album furthered his unnerving approach which he had established on Nite Flights. While based loosely within the field of 1980s rock music it had a fragmented and surreal approach. It was met with critical praise from the music press, however sales were low. Plans to tour at that time were made, but never came to fruition.
A second solo album for Virgin was rumoured to be in the pipeline but was abandoned after early sessions. Soon afterwards, Scott was dropped by the label. Subsequently, he spent a hiatus away from the music industry in the late 1980s and he didn’t return to the public’s attention until the early 1990s, when his solo work and Walker Brothers albums were critically reappraised once more. During this period Walker’s first four studio albums were issued on CD for the first time, and a Walker Brothers compilation album was also released which reached number 4 in the UK Album Chart.
Scott’s own solo return to active work was gradual and cautious, featuring in a number of collaborations, commercials, and soundtracks. Having now signed to Fontana Records, Scott began work on a new album.
In the meantime David Bowie (who was hugely influenced by Scott), covered the song Nite Flights on his Black Tie White Noise album, which also contained the Walker-inspired You’ve Been Around.
In 1995 Tilt was released and continued to develop and expand the working methods explored on his earlier work on Climate of Hunter. Described as barren and unutterably bleak… the wind that buffets the gothic cathedrals of everyone’s favourite nightmares, it was more consciously avant-garde than its predecessor with Scott now revealed as a fully-fledged modernist composer.
Although Scott was backed by a full orchestra again, this time he was also accompanied by innovative percussive arrangements and industrial effects; and while the album’s opening track, Farmer in the City was a melodic piece, on which Scott exercised his deeply rich baritone hues, in complete contrast the remaining pieces were bleak and severely avant-garde.
Walker continued to sporadically release solo material until his death and was last signed to 4AD. As a record producer or guest performer, he worked with a number of artists including Pulp, Bat for Lashes and significantly influenced iconic artistes such as David Bowie, Marc Almond, and Midge Ure who all recorded cover versions of Scott’s work.
Scott Walker has a most significant place in pop music history, as a song writer, a performer and an influencer of the highest calibre. His death today is sorely felt throughout the world, but his legacy remains immortal for all time. He will continue to influence others in the music industry for generations to come, and he will always be the brightest and the most fragmented star in the sky. Rest well, you incredible man. You are missed.
Ange Chan 25/3/19
❉ A regular contributor to We Are Cult, Ange Chan is a poet and novelist. Her latest collection of poetry, Songs of Sorrow and Heartbreak, was published in October 2017. Her third novel Champagne Flutes and Pixie Boots is currently a ‘work in progress’.